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.