Hello, Oscar, my old friend

On Feb. 13, I did something usually done only during bona fide natural disasters: I got up at 5:30 a.m. and turned on the television. There wasn't an earthquake, a flash flood or a fire in my neighborhood, at least none that I knew of. I got up for the Academy Award nominations. Not just because it's part of my job, but because I simply had to. My name is Ken, and I'm an Oscarholic.

I'm going public with my addiction in full knowledge that serious critics are supposed to sniff at the Oscars, to pull long faces and groan knowingly about the laughable films nominated, the works of genius unaccountably left off the list, the lack of what some consider refined taste. I know about this carping because I've done a fair share of it myself, and, worse yet, I have no intention of stopping.

Still, I would feel awfully bereft without these awards, like an old and close friend had unexpectedly died, and this pregnant period between the Oscar nominations and the awards proper seems like a good time to examine how I got hooked and why the habit has proved so difficult to break.

The first person I knew who cared deeply about the Oscars was not either of my parents (best categorized as indifferent), but my Aunt Sarah. The televised evening was special to her, something in the nature of a family reunion. "All my friends," she'd say with satisfaction as the program unfolded and the stars appeared. "All my friends."

Aside from my aunt's devotion, what made the biggest impression on me was the Oscars' longevity. They are not as old as film itself, but they are venerable enough (the current edition is an impressive 73rd) that the first awards, given for the 1927-28 span, included one category, title writing, that Al Jolson and friends were in the process of making obsolete. If something as questionable and inconsequential as the Golden Globes has gained status in part by being around for a while, think of how much more so that is for the Oscars.

If I thought about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences any further as a child, which is doubtful, I probably imagined, as Billy Crystal once said he did, that it was housed in some Greek temple-style building up on a hill and made up of serious, toga-wearing individuals who thought long and deeply about the art of cinema.

That kind of idealization is how a child tends to think about his elders, and in a sense I look on the Oscars as the parental figures in my moviegoing life. They were there at the beginning, I'm always interested in what they have to say, they're the entity I'm always curious to define my own taste and judgments against. I like it when the Oscars loosen up a bit, but it's also somehow comforting to know that it's not in the cards for this award to get too trendy too fast.

But if the Oscar choices aren't necessarily as rarefied as those of critics' groups or individual reviewers (though this year was somewhat of an exception), these picks look more impressive when compared with what finishes on top of the box office chart on any given weekend. Maybe the academy didn't nominate "Wonder Boys" or "Almost Famous" for best picture, but it stayed away from "What Women Want" and "Miss Congeniality" as well, and you're not going to find many nominations for "The Wedding Planner" next time around no matter how high its theatrical take goes.

The academy choices not only represent the taste of a particular group of people, they more and more form a kind of middle ground, and arguably an invaluable bridge, between the high and low cultural extremes that are the rule elsewhere.

The Academy Awards fascinate for other reasons as well. To get the obvious out of the way first, despite the ostentatious indifference of Woody Allen, Marlon Brando and others, these awards are intriguing because they are important. Not Human Rights Watch important, but certainly without peer in the context of a film culture that extends to the distant corners of the world.

One only had to witness, for instance, the complete joy a couldn't-be-less-Hollywood filmmaker like Andrzej Wajda displayed last year on receiving an honorary Oscar and hear that the statuette will go on permanent public display in his native Poland next to Lech Walesa's Nobel Peace Prize to understand that this award can do much more than simply revive dying films and stagnant careers.

Unlike many other prestigious cultural awards, the Oscars also function as a sporting event, something amusing to speculate, make prognostications and tell stories about.

Even more entertaining is the way every year's event is dramatic in its own right. Not just in terms of what happens onstage -- Jack Palance doing one-armed push-ups, Barbra Streisand saying "Hello, gorgeous," Brando sending Sasheen Littlefeather -- but in how the potential nominees invariably manage to arrange themselves into a potent story line. In years past, we wondered if "Saving Private Ryan" had the stamina to outlast the late kick of "Shakespeare in Love." This year, we're curious about how well Steven Soderbergh will be able to compete against himself. There's always something, and it's almost always involving.

Paradoxically, however, perhaps what's most continually interesting about the Oscars is that there's always something to get outraged about, whether it be an unjustly neglected film or an unduly celebrated one. This year, it's the documentary group's exclusion of three of last year's most honored documentaries ("The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg," "Dark Days," "Paragraph 175") from its short list of possible nominees. The academy is far from infallible, but if it were, it would probably be a whole lot less interesting.