Why do the others even try?
The Oscars telecast Sunday night was another reminder that no matter how crass, boring, protracted, and predictable it may be, it’s still the one awards show that ranks above all others.
The Grammys, Emmys, Tonys, Country Music Awards can slather themselves in production numbers, televised red carpet preludes, and fawning postludes — they may even have more talent on stage — yet they’ll still always be known as, respectively, the Oscars of music, TV, Broadway, regional Southern-fried kitsch.
None holds a candle to the Oscars for self-congratulation, self-reference, self-reverence. None draws the same audience or the same slavering news coverage. None gets noticed in a column like this one. No organization seems as expert as the motion picture academy at drawing attention to itself and its awards, or feeding a very obliging press.
Is the show too long, its host too crass, too callow, too unfunny? No matter; millions will still tune in, and devour the pre-Oscar coverage and the post-Oscar celebrating by the winners and whining by the losers. And hundreds of millions will tune in the next year to see if it’s still too long and too crass.
It’s not unusual for one example in a field to be the touchstone by which all others are weighed. China’s Three Gorges Dam may be more powerful than Hoover Dam (by a lot), but it will always be the Hoover Dam of China. Big-government technological efforts will always be their era’s moon landing. Duke Ellington will be the Mozart of jazz (and Thelonious Monk, perhaps, the Ellington of bebop); Stephen Hawking the Einstein of modern cosmology; Stephenie Meyer the Tolstoy of adolescent romantic vampire fiction (or if you prefer, the Anne Rice of Anne Rice ripoffs).
What makes a standard-setter? It helps if you arrive just as your category is being created. The Oscars were new when movies were new (1929); and the first Oscar telecast was in 1953, as TV viewership was exploding. The Grammy didn’t even exist until 1958, and its ceremony wasn’t broadcast live until 1971.
Today’s debate over whether Seth MacFarlane was the worst Oscars host ever — the David Letterman of 2013? The James Franco? — is also a reminder that there are also plenty of touchstone pieces of Oscar history itself.
There will always be one host against whom all others are measured (Bob Hope) and one iconic lame joke (1968: “Welcome to the Academy Awards, or as it's known in my house, Passover.”) One staged faux surprise moment (1974’s streaker) and pre-scripted spontaneous applause line (David Niven: “Isn’t is fascinating that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”)
Movie history provides many such touchstones. There’s "Citizen Kane," one "Godfather" (out of three), one James Bond (Connery). Anne Hathaway can never be more than our time’s Katharine Hepburn, if that. But the movies are constantly reinventing themselves: Some toddler of today may grow up to be the Anne Hathaway of 2040.
But it’s probably safe to assume that among awards shows, there will only be one Oscars. Only one show, for example, that can summon the First Lady to announce the biggest award of its night. Think of it as the Pulitzer Prize of awards shows.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears regularly in Sunday's and Wednesday's newspaper. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.
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