The Contest

... and we're off!

Competition is as American as reality TV.  And like reality TV, as opposed to reality, which we’re all trying to avoid as much as possible these days, it’s everywhere.

The Oscar nominations were announced this week and I can remember as a boy, before there was buffering and such a thing as an internet feed, a time when there was a shiny, unexpected anticipation as to what great slight and/or inclusion might transpire in those categories of five.  Now we have:

  • Up to 10 best pictures nominees (nine this year despite know-it-all media hounds swearing it’d be only six, or seven at most)
  • Handicapping on all four major networks and most cable stations as opposed to just Vegas bookies, bitter industry people and know-it-all relatives
  • And general awards weariness because the Oscars are the last in a gaggle of trophy races run by SAG, the producers, the writers, the Hollywood Foreign Press, every major city where there is a film critic and every ethnic group that reproduces a human being.
Of course,  the Razzies (those statuettes for the worst films of the year) haven’t yet been announced so there is still something to look forward to – especially when there is the potential that an actress with the sense of humor of Halle Berry will show up and accept the award live for her bad performance as she did in 2004 for “Catwoman.”  (Note:  I actually didn’t think she was that bad in the movie.  I mean, have you seen Keira Knightley in “A Dangerous Method” this year?)
  • "I'd like to thank my new kitchen. I did this for you!"

But I digress.

The Oscars are probably our international baseline of competition.  Or is it sports?  No – the Oscars because I’m not much of a sports fan and therefore don’t want to write about it.  Okay, fine – Tebow, Manning, Brady, blah, blah, blah, football –- now can we go on?

As I was saying – Oscars are the baseline – and even include sports because I actually thought one of the best films this year was “Moneyball” – the sports movie for non-sports fans.  And it received six Oscar nominations, two of which were for Brad Pitt, one of our true cultural prom kings/class presidents/and all around Mr. Popularity Renaissance Guys of the day.  Plus he’s “married” to our beautiful but sort of dangerously naughty senior class vamptress and all around perpetual queen of our never-ending fantasy prom, Angelina Jolie.

Voted "Best at existing" 40 years and running

Yes, as they say and I’ve said – the entertainment business is high school with money.  But I digress.  Again.

Anyway, with the Oscars as the baseline, then it shouldn’t be surprising that pretty much all competitions have become entertainment and vice -versa.

Tune in one of the 32,123 Republican debates, Okay, take the fun one on CNN in South Carolina.

Last week, you were treated to very expensive logos that popped off the screen with the words GINGRICH, ON THE RISE (what a scary thought, literally), ROMNEY, THE FRONTRUNNER (well, that was a week ago), PAUL, THE INSURGENT (Uh, okay); and SANTORUM, RENEWED MOMENTUM (the least catchy but somehow that seems fitting too).  This was all behind sound effects usually reserved for an ESPN boxing match.  You sort of half expected them to emerge in brightly colored satin boxing trunks while praying (even if you are an atheist) , please, if there is any taste left in the world, that they don’t.  Or perhaps like a line up of thoroughbred race horses,  with hooves, a bridle and a number on their backs – and praying (atheist or not), if there is any justice in the world, that they actually will.  Sadly, that didn’t happen either.

It’s all a hybrid of hype, but what is being hyped?  By all accounts – both politics and the Oscars are having a mundane year.  Is that all it is — the overall mundaness of the movies and the candidates?   Or do we simply not really care about any one competition when everything feels like it’s a contest?

The contests of today try to remind us of the public spectacle of the Roman times in the Coliseum when warriors would fight to the death.  As for the competitors of today – when you think about it – do any of them really lose?  The political candidates become lobbyists, consultants, book writers with huge advances or continue in government with upper middle class pensions and life long health benefits.  As for Oscar nominees – their price goes way up and so do the deals, meetings and offers.

In the end, as is often the case in times like these, there seem to be no real losers.  Except us.  The (or their) audience.  But of course, we’re not onstage.  We’re just paying, in more ways than one, and hoping to experience something through all of this that amounts to a real win.

Getting Dirty

Watching the sheer number of “A” list celebrities appearing on this year’s Golden Globe Awards could give you a crick in the neck.  Or, if you thought about it, could be a pain in the neck.  But for totally different reasons.

First, the crick:  It became a bit dizzying keeping track as celebrities rushed, walked, ambled and stumbled their way across the stage of the Beverly Hilton Hotel this past Sunday.  Johnny Depp, Brad and Angie, George Clooney, Steven Spielberg, Meryl (Streep) and Glenn (Close), both present and competing for awards just like they did in the eighties, Martin Scorsese and Seth Rogen (no, there isn’t a reason to pair them except that I thought it would be fun and the one and only time you ever see them mentioned together), Madonna (who is no longer part of a pair but is now a director), Jane Fonda and Aaron Sorkin (the latter two, who will be working together on his upcoming HBO series “The Newsroom,” where she plays a sort of female Ted Turner) and so on and so forth.

Pia "That Girl?" Zadora, 1981

An impressive turnout for any awards show, much less one that is probably best known for honoring Pia Zadora (who?) as its 1981 Star of the Year for her memorable performance in “Butterfly,” a film which had not yet been released at the time the award was given but would become memorable, yet not for exactly the reasons that kind of award would indicate.

Evidenced here:

As the story goes, Pia’s multimillionaire (the 1981 version of a 2012 billionaire) husband at the time, Meshulam Riklis, wooed the Hollywood Foreign Press with free trips to his Riveria Hotel in Las Vegas and other perks and parties and that the award to his much younger wife was payback time.  Hey, whatever works, is fair game.  I mean, that’s show biz, right?

Well, exactly.  The biz fosters people doing all sorts of odd things. A studio chief once told me that the esteemed and classy screenwriter Eleanor Perry  desperately wanted a writing assignment in the seventies after she divorced her filmmaker husband Frank Perry and actually begged (his words) him to give her the assignment to write what would eventually become another Zadora vehicle, the adaptation of the campy pump novel, “Lonely Lady,” about a young pretty female writer’s rise through the dregs of Hollywood to screenwriting stardom. But unlike the heroine in the book, Ms. Perry never did get the assignment.  Knowing Ms. Perry’s intellect and dedication to meaningful characterizations, said studio chief vehemently refused the respected writer’s plea for the job, telling her, “Oh, Eleanor, you know that I can’t.  You’ll want to put all of that integrity into it.”  To which Ms. Perry, replied:  “No, there will be absolutely no integrity, I promise!”

The point being, to quote someone’s grandmother, “If you want to play with pigs, you have to roll around in the mud.”

It's exfoliating!

Not that everyone in Hollywood is a pig.  Far from it.  I would say that the majority of people are smart, fairly okay, and, actually, pretty cool.  But all of us, from time to time, do roll around in the mud with the rest of the livestock, as most living things must do.  Our mud is often prettier looking than pig slop, but mud it is, nevertheless.

Crude?  Snide?  Bitter? Cynical?  Sadly dismaying?  Not really.  Just truthful.  (And here’s where the neck pain comes in).  All of the aforementioned talent are at the top of their game – they can pretty much name their price and their property – and yet, they are choosing to appear live and in person and on television to pick up an award given by a very, very small organization of entertainment reviewers, many of whom work only part-time for their publications and who, as any of us who have worked in entertainment publicity know, can easily be persuaded to nominate a star from any decently reviewed high profile movie that comes out that year.  In other words, all is not kosher in Denmark.

Of course, this doesn’t make the stars that participate in this shell game any less talented.  In fact, it might make them more so.  Because aside from their creativity, they have recognized and mastered the art of both show and biz.  Show being the creative art – the acting, writing, producing, singing dancing, etc.  Biz being the, well, job creator part – or self creation, as it goes out here.  If at some point you’re not willing to “dig in” – which could likely involve some mud rolling, or persuade lots of people to get dirty with or for you – you will likely not be in the game.  (And this is where the pain the neck continues).  For stars, digging in means not only a smart agent, but “acting” nice to people if they won’t warrant it, and these days, doing publicity and marketing for your movies and  ass  hand kissing for your movies in the unlikeliest of places.  No one sits it out anymore.  Even Harrison Ford shows up at the Globes.  Woody Allen does press tours.  In fact, it’s hard to even think of a star under 30 that doesn’t do some sort of media because, well, given the competitive marketplace and our 24/7 global existence, that is just not an option these days.  And press doesn’t mean the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.  It means strange awards banquets, Access Hollywood, ill-gotten lobbied for or even bought spots at film festivals in and out of competition, maybe even an over the top chat show in England or Australia where you have to get dunked in water or have confetti thrown in your face. Or an American low-budget cable access show… in pajamas.

Ralph Fiennes and Holly Hunter in pajamas? Click the picture, and then explain this to me.

As for Ricky Gervais, (uh, yes, him too) he’s not the above-it-all Globes master of ceremonies you thought he was.  How could he be?   For the last three years he has sort of lent a patina of hipness to the proceedings, turning the corniness of the event on its ear and actually giving the attendees a sense of being “in on the joke” because, well, if Gervais is doing it, it’s not really mud-rolling and self-promotion, it’s sort of court jesterish.  And it means young, hip people are watching.  And it’ll be sort of fun because liquor is served and audiences are hoping more than one person will be tipsy and say something unrehearsed in the sound byte, pre-planned, post-digested world we live in.

"I can't explain the tux either"

Nice try.  Sort of.  And not all wrong.  Except for the fact that Ricky’s by no means above it all.  How could he be when he’s the main fixture of the program?  Because if indeed Ricky Gervais thinks the awards are a joke and has as much disdain for the validity of the Hollywood Foreign Press and the system of its award giving as we think, WHY IS HE HOSTING?  It can’t be the money unless he’s a spendaholic (and that tuxedo would suggest he isn’t).  Perhaps he’s having a very long post-modern moment where you embrace that which you find distasteful in an attempt at the kind of ultimate irony comics like Andy Kaufman were famous for.  Well, that would account for doing it for one year.  But for three in a row?  Not a chance.  Once is irony.  Twice is habit.  Three times – definitely mud rolling.  He’s mixing it up.  Staying relevant.  Plying his craft.  A famous actor once told me about choosing a role:  “It’s not that hard.  You look at what’s offered and take the best one.”  Best, of course, doesn’t always mean quality.  Sometimes it’s the best paying.  Sometimes it’s the best exposure.  Or the best strategy at the time for your career.  Or the best part, meaning a smaller but juicer role in a smaller or bigger vehicle.  (Think Jack Nicholson in the first “Batman” and add $10 million dollars).

Anyone who has had a career or wants a career must know that if you are or are to be among the lucky 1% that get to work in your chosen field, every day is not a romp in the hay.  Some days, more than one might think, involve a toss in the dirt, a poke in the knickers, a roll in the mud.  And you must be willing to get dirty.  Sully yourself.  Play with the little people.  Or get lots of help doing it.  Even if you are creating your own job.

It’s a badge of honor.  It keeps you human.  What’s inhuman is pretending that you’re not doing it.  That somehow, you’re above or beyond it all (Hi Ricky).  That’s worse than mud rolling.  It’s lying.  And it sets a bad example for everyone coming after you, nipping at your heels.  Because it means you’ve gone from mere pig to full swine.