Oscar and Me

Because the Oscars are coming up, I dug out of the archives this story I wrote for the Washington Post about ten years ago, about when I borrowed my friend’s Oscar statuette. Enjoy.

Oscar and Me

Some time ago, I needed an Oscar — (Why? Does it matter? If you thought you could legally get hold of an Academy Award, wouldn’t you? Now, then) — and as it happened, I knew where to find one. My friend Pam Wallace had picked one up for writing a little film called “Witness.” I asked if I might borrow it. Sure, she said; she trusts me, and besides, she knows where I live.

Hours later, the Oscar was mine, wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into the trunk of my car. I’d hit the brakes, there’d be a soft thunk as the Oscar hit its head on the tire jack. It would be the first of many indignities that Oscar would suffer in his three days with me. As you might imagine, having an Oscar, even for just three days, is an educational experience. Here’s what I learned.

1. Oscars Are Heavy. An Oscar weighs about 8 1/2 pounds, about as much as a newborn baby, and people react to both much the same way — they hold them gently with both hands, stare at them lovingly and pray they don’t accidentally drop them. The side effect of this weight is that one gets physically tired of handling an Oscar; hold one too long and your arm cramps. A friend of mine once said to me, “Man, if I had an Oscar, I’d wear it around my neck.” This is inadvisable. In addition to Oscar being the ugliest neckwear since disco medallions, your neck would develop such a crick.

You’d think the heft of the Oscar would underscore the solid Midwestern craftsmanship that goes into making the things (they’re made in Chicago by R.S. Owens & Co.), but the fact of the matter is…

2. Oscars Are Kind of Flimsy. Flick the base with your finger, and it resonates with a static-like buzz reminiscent of an AM transistor radio. This is truly disappointing; you’d think the most coveted trophy in the world would have a sturdier base. In fact, up until 1945, it was made out of Belgian marble. I suppose they thought that after the ravages of war, taking marble from the Belgians would seem kind of mean. De-marbleized, today’s Oscars are notably top-heavy, which I expect leads to a lot of unintentional drops and falls. Pam’s Oscar, in fact, has a chip gouged out of its forehead from such a calamity. You can peer right in and see what passes for Oscar’s brains. Which leads to the next Oscar discovery…

3. Oscars Aren’t Golden All the Way Through. It’s something of a shock to examine Oscar’s insides and find they are made of the same britannia metal (90 percent tin, 10 percent antimony) that goes into making flatware. Your fork is Oscar’s cousin. In a way it’s entirely appropriate to have the symbol of Hollywood be base metal innards covered with a thin golden coating. But, you know, whatever. An Oscar is still an Oscar. In a world where the vast majority of humanity couldn’t tell the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and the Best of Show ribbon given to hogs at a county fair (the difference: Best of Show winners get stud fees), the Oscar is immediately recognized, admired and coveted. How recognized? How coveted? Consider the following…

4. Everyone Has an Oscar Acceptance Speech. Every single person I handed the Oscar to did the same thing: Placed the Oscar at a tilt — one hand mid-statue, the other cradling the bottom of the base — looked to the middle distance (where the television cameras would be) and said, “I’d like to thank the academy for this award…” It’s positively Pavlovian.

This makes sense. The only time most of us actually see an Oscar is when someone’s just won it. There’s no other context. You don’t see them in people’s yards, like lawn gnomes. They aren’t photographed visiting the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. They’re not in a book titled “Where’s Oscar?”

Oscars exist solely to be followed by a speech. Not to make one would be to violate the fundamental laws of the universe. The Academy Award that people see themselves winning is a personality test in itself. The vain “win” Best Actor or Best Actress; the control freaks, Best Director; the frustrated intellectuals, Best Screenplay. Passive-aggressives choose supporting actor categories. No one ever pretends to be the producer; no one knows what producers do. No one ever pretends to win the minor categories either, like sound effects editing or art direction. Everyone knows that after 30 seconds, these people are cut off by the orchestra conductor.

Everyone wants an Oscar, but what do you do when you get one? For everything it represents (fame, fortune, a real chance that you will get to date someone like Gwyneth Paltrow), ultimately the Oscar itself is nothing more than an art deco tchotchke. Perhaps this is the cause of the final Oscar discovery…

5. People Who Have Oscars Are Far Less Impressed With Them Than People Who Don’t. Hollywood is rife with stories of Oscar winners using their statuettes as doorstops, to prop up tables or to smash bugs (or budding screenwriters) crawling around their desks. Jodie Foster was told by her local video store staff that if she won the Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs” and brought it in for them to look at, she’d get a free rental. She did, and did, and did. Even my friend Pam treats her Oscar with something less than total reverence. When it’s not being borrowed by goofball pals, it’s covered by a gorilla puppet her son made in elementary school.

You could argue this is a sort of protective false humility, since the only thing Hollywood likes less than someone without an Oscar is someone who wins one and gloats (henceforth to be known as “James Cameron Syndrome”). There’s something to this, but there’s also just the fact that even the extraordinary becomes boring after a while. I stand testament to this — the first day I had the Oscar in the house, I stared at it like a graven image. The second day I got used to it. The third day I was using it as a paperweight. Which precipitated the following exchange between me and my wife:

Wife: Where’d you put the phone bill?

Me: I dunno. Did you check under the Oscar?

God, I loved saying that.

61 thoughts on “Oscar and Me

  1. Wow, great insight into the world of oscars. Now I have a ton of trivial information to share with my friends about a little golden man. Hopefully one goes home with James Cameron for Avatar and science fiction will have it’s first best picture.
    P.S. I didn’t know you were a Freeman with a halflife, until I saw that picture with the headcrab. I need to find one of those.

  2. Actually, screw the Oscar. I’m going to steal your line about the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and Best In Show at a hog show at the county fair. I can paraphrase that 40 different ways and use it at book talks.

  3. “4. Everyone Has an Oscar Acceptance Speech. Every single person I handed the Oscar to did the same thing: Placed the Oscar at a tilt — one hand mid-statue, the other cradling the bottom of the base — looked to the middle distance (where the television cameras would be) and said, “I’d like to thank the academy for this award…” It’s positively Pavlovian.”

    If it were me, I’d have gone with: “You love me! You really love me!”.

  4. What was your sample size for #4?

    Actually, I have a small dream to work for the IT department on a Pixar film or some other company that does computerized special effects (like for Avatar) and be in the credits for movies. Alas, I currently live in the wrong part of the country for that at the moment.

  5. While working for the Wonderful and Benevolent TSA (I have to say that, it’s in the contract) I saw an Oscar come through the X-ray machine. It was the Best Screenplay Oscar for Rain Man. That thing was gray. Not a fleck of gold to be seen anywhere(we opened the guys bag, because it’s a big dense thing that the x-rays couldn’t penetrate). I held it and DID NOT fell the slightest inclination to give an acceptance speech.
    Still felt pretty effing cool to hold though.

  6. I would never be remotely tempted to give a speech just because I was holding an Oscar.

    However, if I were somehow forced to give such a speech, I would be accepting either Best Film or Best Screenplay. For your enlightenment.

    That said, I would prefer a Hugo, hands down. if you find yourseld with any more “spares”*death glare*, John, keep me in mind. mmkay?

  7. “I dunno. Did you check under the Oscar?”

    Oh, man. I laughed at this so very hard and loud. Now I’ve got to find a way to get my hands on one just so I can say something similar. Too good.

  8. @Edward: I cannot read this blog in public, I have learned. That’s going under my “favorite quotes” on facebook.

    (And it takes a lot to even get me to login to my FB.)

  9. Can’t say as I’d mind winning an Oscar for Art Direction. Maybe someday…

    I’m one of those SF geeks who feel about your Hugos like most feel about Oscars. The fact that one has a headcrab impaled on it only exponentiates the awesome.

    Also IIRC, you said the Hugo has a really nice pedestal under it. Rocket wins!

  10. Ahh, Oscars. I grew up in a town where one was displayed for years in a Hardware Store. One owned and operated by one Alex Stewart, father of Jimmy. I assume that most people there got used to it, and it didn’t inspire speechifying. The store is no longer there, sadly. Neither is Oscar. But I did know a cousin of Jimmy Stewart. This is why it is worth your time to volunteer in nursing homes. The stories in there are incredible.

  11. My Oscar acceptance speech has been “Uh, thanks.. I guess?” ever since Titanic won Best Picture and disillusionment set in.

  12. Did you check under the Oscar? It’s eleven thirty at night and I’m trying to not wake up anyone with my giggling.

    That Oscar is kind of like Flat Stanley (I hope you know who Flat Stanley is). We once taped Flat Stanley to the front of our truck and took a trip with him still there. The amount of bugs were incredible.

    My friend stored his Emmys on the mantel (sp?) in his family room. There were no puppets on them. There were occasional army men around them though from the three boys that happened to reside in the house.

  13. They’re not in a book titled “Where’s Oscar?”

    But they should be. Such a book should be made, where you have to find the hidden statuette on every page. Except it would be hard to hide something that shiny…

  14. I read this thinking ‘oh hey, all this is *just* like the Hugo’, and then got to the comments to see that you were way ahead of me there. The difference I suspect is that if you have an Oscar, nearly everyone who comes to your house goes ‘wow, that’s an Oscar’, whereas with a Hugo, only a very few do. Plus if I had an Oscar in the house, I’d worry that the chap who delivers the groceries might half-inch it, whereas I have no serious worries about the Hugos. They almost always have other awards, toys or other clutter hanging on them too, and I find them very useful for anchoring the ends of the Christmas garland.

    Jeff @12: Hugo bases vary each year. Many are awesome, but some are awesomely awful. Pictures are at http://batwrangler.com/Hugos/

  15. Are you sure the chip in the head was there before you borrowed it…because you did admit it rattled around in your trunk and that you repetedly hit the poor guy on the head with your tire jack?

  16. I promised my friends years ago that if I ever were to win an Oscar my entire speech will be “In your face, Tom Hanks!”

  17. I wonder what an Oscar Insurance policy costs. It’s got be outrageous, because the insurance company would have to make a move and win you another oscar.

  18. I’m pretty sure that if your statuette is damaged in some way, that you can notify the Academy, which will repair it (the manufacturer makes a couple of spares each year, as I understand it).

  19. Hugos, however, have a point, which will make them more effective projectile weapons when the Zombie Apocalypse comes.

  20. At Charles Sheffield’s memorial service in 2002, one of the mourners recounted that Charles frequently referred to winning the Hugos and Nebulas as the literary equivalent of winning the Special Olympics.

    “However,” this person [if my rusty memory serves, Roger MacBride Allan] continued, “he took great and justifiable pride in his Hugo and Nebula awards which he respectfully displayed in his home.”

    JJB

  21. A few years back I threw an Oscar party for friends. They all had to dress up. We had appetizers, watched the red carpet, filled in voting cards to pick the films we wanted to win.

    At the end of the evening, however, I gave each guest a chocolate Oscar to take home. Yup, ordered a chocolate mold off ebay, melted and poured the (Callebaut) chocolate myself, joined the halves, and then brushed them with edible gold dust.

    Best Oscar ever.

  22. Oh my. Oscar… lawn gnomes.
    I would like to thank you for that image. It has filled me with unexpected merriment this fine morning. :)

  23. One of my college professors had an Oscar (for Documentary Short Subject), and he was working on another documentary about living with one, and the expectations put upon one for winning. Part of his plan was to be filmed going about his daily routine, in a tux, carrying the Oscar with him. I wonder if he ever got around to making that…

  24. My Oscar speech (in some alternate dimension) will be “So, I guess the secret’s out. Mom, Dad, I dropped out of medical school a couple of years ago. Yeah. Sorry you had to find out about it this way”.

    And my speech would definitely be for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. I feel that my dramatic stylings are better suited for character actor rather than leading man work (translation: I’m slightly less attractive than Paul Giamatti’s armpit).

  25. 4. Everyone Has an Oscar Acceptance Speech.

    I totally blame Bugs Bunny. Maybe it marks me as old, but the running gag of Bugs trying to get an Oscar is planted deep in my psyche.

  26. A few years ago I was entrusted to transport an Oscar and an Emmy. Yeah, I made speeches while holding one in each hand. I simply could not help myself.

  27. There was a neighbor of ours – the son of a good friend of my Mom’s – who won two Silver medals in backstroke at the Montreal Olympics. He brought them around to the neighborhood pool and had a similar view of them. Everyone adult treated them very reverently, but he let the kids wear them around their necks like they were nothing at all. Somewhere I think I have a picture of me with both of them on me.

  28. I shared a Harvey Award a few years back (along with my boss) for my run as managing editor of The Comics Journal. The first thing I did when I found out was to go online and apologize to the guy who should’ve won.

  29. Man, If I ever won a Hugo, I’d build a altar to it and scrafice many virgins to it! (Just kidding!) I don’t think their are that many virgins left to scrafice!! Seriously, I’d rather win a Hugo than an Oscar :)

  30. I am reminded of Julia Phillips’ “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” in which her entire career and wealth were based on winning the Best Picture Oscar (for The Sting), but she kept it in a corner of her daughter’s bedroom or some such place.

  31. Whenever I hear actors say things like they use to smash bugs or it sits above their toilet I find myself wondering if it’s actually true. Maybe they don’t want to say, “Hell, yeah, I won an Oscar and you didn’t!” But if they have so little respect for it why go out of the way to pick roles that help you get them or market yourself to win one. False humility is stupid.

    Maybe it’s because I’ll never win something like an Oscar or an Emmy or a Hugo, but if I did it would be prominently displayed and screaming, “Look at me, bitches, neener neener!”

    Hey, maybe it’s just me.

  32. @42: I assume they’re very happy to have won the award, but treat the trophy itself with a bit less reverence. I assume lots of Nobel Prizes are stashed unceremoniously on bookshelves, too.

  33. When Bob Dylan won an Oscar for the song he contributed to “Wonder Boys,” he kept it on top of his guitar amp during the next leg of the Endless Tour. It usually had his sweaty towel draped over it.

  34. A friend of mine has an Emmy from when he worked on the Olympics for NBC. It sits on a bookshelf in his living room. I saw it when I was at his house for dinner and went nuts about it (it’s cool just to know someone who is BEST at something). He tried to be cool but I know he was glad I noticed.

  35. You didn’t mention what I consider the most salient fact about actually holding an Oscar. I once, through great luck, had occasion to heft in my very hands (gloved, as then required by the Selznick family) the Best Picture Oscar for Gone With the Wind. The first thing I felt was an absolutely irresistible urge to grasp it by the legs and hold it over my head.

  36. I was just curious, your description of your 3-dayss with the Oscar sounds like something out of the Sopranos… or a police report

    Suspect Scalzi described how Mr. Oscar was wrapped in a towel and transported in the trunk of his car where he was repeatedly struck in the head with a tire jack: “…Oscar was mine” he said; “wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into the trunk of my car. I’d hit the brakes, there’d be a soft thunk as the Oscar hit its head on the tire jack”

    Although Scalzi denied having caused Mr. Oscar’s injuries he was able to accurately describe wounds inflicted upon the victim: “[Oscar] has a chip gouged out of its forehead from such a calamity. You can peer right in and see what passes for Oscar’s brains.” Later in his statement he said; “…It’s something of a shock to examine Oscar’s insides.”

    The department psychologist considers it significant that Suspect Scalzi repetedly refers to the victim, Mr. Oscar, as “it” or as an inanimate object “the Oscar” vs. “Mr. Oscar”. She tells us that sort disassociation and objectifying the victim, would be classic behavior pattern for a sociapathic killer.

  37. I once had the pleasure of holding an Oscar for Best Makeup at a lecture.

    Yes, the Pavlovian response kicked in. Grab by the feet, support by the base, and “I’d like to thank the academy…”

    I passed it to the next person, who promptly repeated the action. It went around the room, and virtually all succumbed to the urge.

    I did notice how cheaply made it was. I’ve seen better bowling trophies–the mold lines were obvious and crude, and the gold was wearing off.

  38. I deserve an Oscar for doing everyone the favor of staying out of films. It was really hard, but somebody had to do it. I just need somebody to nominate me…

  39. You write that “Oscars Aren’t Golden All the Way Through. It’s something of a shock to examine Oscar’s insides and find they are made of the same britannia metal (90 percent tin, 10 percent antimony) that goes into making flatware. ”

    The same is true of one of the advertising industry’s top awards, the One Show Pencil. The Gold Pencil is brass-coated lead, and the Silver Pencil is aluminum. (Which says something symbolic about advertising.)

  40. If you’re going to schlep around an Oscar, the Oscar for Witness is a fine one to have in your trunk.

  41. My parents have a gold or platinum record (can’t remember which) for some random country recording on the family room wall. My stepdad worked at a distribution company for a while and they gave them out, I think, as cheesy workplace rewards. This one was old enough to be an LP and a cassette, so all the people who see it find hilarious except for the little children who find it confusing. Everyone finds it hilarious when they learn that none of us have listened to the recording in question.

    I think nearly every single person I know would accept for best screenplay, which just goes to show what a sorry lot we are.

  42. “You don’t see them in people’s yards, like lawn gnomes. They aren’t photographed visiting the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. They’re not in a book titled “Where’s Oscar?””

    There’s a pictorial blog/book in that. Oscar, treated like the Travelocity gnome, turning up in the oddest of places around the world. Sorta like the gnome from “Amelie”. Or “Where in the world is Matt?” (the dancing guy).

  43. #45 Jim Ellison: I have a friend who has an Oscar *and* an Emmy (or two), and while he’s proud of those achievements, he’d rather show off his collection of WWII memorabilia… and after a few minutes of gaping at the statues, my wife and I concurred in that preference. He’s got a museum’s worth of aviator jackets and other pilot paraphernalia in that little house of his.

  44. I have a brother with an Emmy and his is on his mantle. My other brother is now to the point in the heirarchy of the art department in the film business that he’s one of those that could get an Oscar, but SF films don’t get art nominations these days.

    While I don’t have a chance of such an award, I do have a number of flags and patches flown in space. My biggest treasures are coins with metal from the ISS, from Mir, and from a Shuttle. I use them as card protectors when playing poker.

  45. At an Oscar party many years I won an Oscar for for getting the most correct answers about Hollywwod history with questions gleaned from Trivial Pursuit. Later i dropped acid and left the statue on top of a gravel pile at a roadside construction site because it just seemed like the right thing to do….and I was on acid.

  46. I am reminded of Julia Phillips’ “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” in which her entire career and wealth were based on winning the Best Picture Oscar (for The Sting), but she kept it in a corner of her daughter’s bedroom or some such place.

    I thought stories like that were a spectacularly passive-aggressive humble-brag, but I interviewed Richard Taylor once and he made the observation that, in the end, winning an Oscar is nice but after you’ve gotten the after-show hangover out of your system you’ve got to go home and get back to work in a highly competitive industry where you’re only as good as your last hit.

  47. I remember an english comedian and his mock Oscar speech. (“I’d like to thank my beekeeper, my furniture maker and my lumberjack…”) It makes me daydream about a confusing speech of my own.”II’d like to thank my llama wrangler, my shaman, Chauncey, and my five sister wives, and of course, the man who helped me write the screenplay, Love in the midst of the zombie llama attack, Sir John Scalzi.”
    Always give credit where credit is due,

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