Oh, Oscar, You’re Making Us Blush : Sure, the Academy Awards Are Great for Star Gazing, but Secretly We All Wait for Those Special Moments

<i> Leo Braudy, author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History" (Oxford, 1986), is Leo S. Bing professor of English at USC</i>

S A LONGTIME observer of fame and celebrity, and one who hasn’t missed a TV Oscar show since 1953, I’m gleefully looking forward to Monday night. Not to dope out the winners (who but the nominees really cares?), but to savor that secret pleasure known to every seasoned Oscar watcher: embarrassment.

Everyone can think of their favorite embarrassing moments from the Academy Awards, and I certainly don’t mean the great work passed over or not even nominated. That’s much too rarefied a complaint; it belongs to the ages and the history books. What I’m talking about are those cringing, crawling embarrassments--which I usually share in the company of chortling friends--that make the whole show worth watching.

Being pleasurably embarrassed when larger-than-life people stumble or even fall on their faces comes from the same tangle of feelings about the celebrated and famous that spawns gossip. The ancient mythographers knew what they were doing when they made Hercules stupid and Zeus a ferocious chaser of every woman in sight, Hera a nag and Aphrodite vindictive. Star worship has an inescapable element of jealousy, especially now, when the star, no matter how glamorous, is supposed to be as human as you and I. Adulation has its complement in revenge. And the most common form of revenge against celebrities in our society is gossip about their private lives.


What a joy then to see Sally Field, twice winner of an Oscar for best actress, blurt out something (“You like me, you like me!”) that would cause the rest of us to be thrown out of Therapy 1 for naivete. What a delight to discover that the newest teen-age idol can’t even pronounce a straightforward Anglo-Saxon name, let alone something more exotic, without getting his tongue hopelessly tangled in his gleaming teeth. How deliciously it makes me want to crawl under the couch to see how some subversive has paired up the award presenters: tall black man with short blond woman, two people involved in similar sexual scandals in the past year, common inability to speak English, hostile political positions, both ex-lovers of the emcee--or some other quickly obvious subtext. I love the legend of Greer Garson’s hourlong 1943 acceptance speech, but I wouldn’t want to have heard it. I did see the 1956 Award for Best Motion Picture Story (for “The Brave One”) go to “Robert Rich,” who later turned out to be the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo.

The pleasures have been many, and here are only a few of the favorites I’ve collected from friends and acquaintances who, like me, have spent a lot of time on Oscar night hiding behind pillows or running blushing from the room: Jerry Lewis in 1959 frantically trying to fill 20 minutes of air time (the only occasion that the Oscars actually went under schedule); Bette Davis’

nd-I’m-going-to-fin-ish-what-I-have-to-say-even-if-my-mike-gets-turned-off routine of last year; Paddy Chayevsky, after Vanessa Redgrave’s “Zionist hoodlums” comments, venting his rage and then forgetting to mention the nominees for best writer in 1978; Frank Sinatra reading a disclaimer in an effort to recover from Bert Schneider’s anti-Vietnam War remarks in 1975; Shirley Temple’s 1984 tribute to tap-dancer Bill Robinson (“He taught me black was really beautiful”); Goldie Hawn giggling like a helpless fan over George C. Scott; Robert Duvall’s uncontainable laughter at the juxtaposition of Shelley Winters and the movie “Fat City”; Shirley MacLaine’s “I deserve this” for “Terms of Endearment”; Jane Fonda’s secret hand gesture to Cory Aquino; Marlon Brando’s 1973 emissary, Sacheen Littlefeather, collecting his award in full American Indian costume; Woody Allen’s usual non-appearances, and Edy Williams, Jack Valenti or Zsa Zsa Gabor doing almost anything. In fact, probably the only unembarrassing thing that ever happened on the Oscars was the streaker of 1974, unless, like many, you thought it was all a put-up job and every presenter had a gag line ready just in case it happened while they were on stage.

EMBARRASSMENT has always been a crucial part of Oscar’s reign, although the more soberly inclined might call it irony. When Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and several of their friends got together to found the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the bottom line was to make Hollywood respectable: “to further the welfare and protect the honor and good repute of the profession,” as the charter said.

It was 1927. The Fatty Arbuckle scandal of a few years before, along with the mysterious deaths of William Desmond Taylor and Thomas H. Ince, was still fresh in the public mind. Will Hays had been brought in from President Harding’s Cabinet to trim the moral excesses and keep out any union organizers the studios didn’t like. (Labor unrest had been resolved for a time by the signing of the Studio Basic Agreement by the craft unions, but directors, writers and actors were still unorganized, and New York Equity had been breathing heavily on the sidelines.) In this “new Hollywood,” the founding of the Academy was to supply at least the atmosphere of elite professionalism, urging the industry in the direction of artistic and technical excellence--as the Academy would define it.

In that era of “Babbitt,” not long after the founding of the 4-H, Kiwanis, Rotary and other service clubs, high-minded self-promotion was the way to ensure respectability. Almost immediately, then, the select members of the Academy (36 at first) began to present public awards to themselves. It was a practice that was beginning to sweep the country, and Hollywood as usual was in the cultural prow: Virtue as its own reward was not a sentiment the media usually thought to be applicable to itself. (The Pulitzer Prizes had arrived on the publicity and list-making scene not many years before.)

As with other events in the history of the film business, the three fates presiding over the birth of the Academy Awards were self-congratulation, the urge to respectability and an assertion of “artistic” standards. What the country at large viewed as, at worst, a collection of entertainers not fit to be buried in hallowed ground and, at best, as an industry selling no product that could be put in a box or a bag was from now on to be a profession.

Until the rise of television, though, the ceremonies were small potatoes in the greater world. They were carried on local L.A. radio for the first time in 1930, and the secrecy of the sealed envelope entered in 1941 after the Los Angeles Times had leaked the news of the “Gone With the Wind” sweep the year before. But it didn’t go network until 1945, a tribute perhaps to all those Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable pinups in GI footlockers. In a fit of belt-tightening, the studios pulled out their support in 1948, but in 1953 NBC put it on television, and the Awards became a real draw--part extravaganza and part freak show, harking back to the vaudeville roots of Hollywood itself. Essentially, it played to the ticket-buying audience’s belief that it was watching a free show. It also proved virtually second by second that the screen gods and goddesses, as well as those lesser but still exalted beings who put them through their paces, were still “folks” like us, and, without someone to write their lines and get their shoes on the right feet, often a lot dumber.

Don’t get me wrong. My humane self stands up and salutes when Jane Fonda, say, tries to bring some personal note into the tedious proceedings by delivering her acceptance speech in sign language, or by yelling, “Dad, me and the grandkids’ll be right over!” The only trouble is that some other self has at that moment covered my face with the nearest napkin or bag of Fritos. It’s the same bunch of contradictions all “let’s put on a show” musicals bring out: The backstage mocks the on-stage; schlumpy reality is more interesting than surface gloss. Cher’s costumes wouldn’t need to be half so outrageous and wonderful if she had the kind of glamour-girl body that could do without them.

SO I WORRY ABOUT what’s happened to the Oscars in the last few years. The show has gotten too slick: The obviously doped or dopey have been gradually reined in, by the producers if not by the Zeitgeist ; and there must now be compulsory behind-the-scene drills in how to pronounce the names of foreign cinematographers--all so that some suffocating good taste will preside.

This prissy self-consciousness started about the time that Bob Hope retired as emcee (at least we have no more yearly jokes about how he didn’t get an award). After some experimentation with Johnny Carson, the show settled down to a multi-host format, democratically mixing male and female, movie and TV performers. So began the era of the clips researcher and the allocation of a good chunk of Oscar time to nostalgic trips into the greatness of the past. Respectability reigned once again, and somewhere in heaven Louis B. Mayer and Douglas Fairbanks were smiling.

But, as all we true lovers of Hollywood know deep in our hearts, Oscar never looks so silly as when he tries to be serious. Although I’m slightly worried, I look forward to the time-honored generic embarrassment of lavish dance productions for awful songs with choreography, as if the people who made those movie musicals so perfectly had decided to take everything off the cutting-room floor and pile it onto the home screen. And of course we must have the pompous archaisms of the Jean Hersholt and Irving G. Thalberg awards, which only make you wonder (if you’re not out in the kitchen microwaving pizza) whether more politicking goes into being called a great humanitarian or a great producer.

What else? You name it: the unfunny or offensive jokes; the hapless stabs at topical political references; the dramatic performers trying to pretend they can sing and dance; the composers who sing their own songs in unappealing voices; the arch references to scandals; the ritual attacks on the National Enquirer (certainly not People), and finally, covering all the proceedings with a gooey oil, that show business sentiment that I identify with the way Joey Bishop used to sound in his talk show appearances years ago. Dutifully, every winner will pull a few Bishops about wonderful friends and co-workers, love like a brother/sister, couldn’t have done without, love feast, good vibes or whatever the up-to-date version is of the show business message: “This is a special world, and don’t you out there in TV land wish you were a part of it?”

With such grand traditions, there’s enough potential to keep any embarrassment buff in delightful anticipation. Maybe there won’t be any truly great embarrassing moments this year. There are no overriding political issues, Reagan’s on his way out, “The Feminine Mystique” is 25 years old. But no matter who writes them, Writers Guild member or moonlighting producer, there will be endless bad jokes about the primaries and Oliver North and the sexual problems of TV evangelists--all of Hollywood’s rivals for the public spotlight. And then there will be the awards themselves: Will Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction” become the first horror movie star to win an Oscar for best performance since Fredric March picked one up for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1932? What about “Broadcast News,” that intricate mea culpa whose main theme seems to be that acting is always immoral, especially on TV--how many of its stars will climb the stage? And why so many first-time nominees this year? Is Oscar now playing host for a New Talent Show?

Some in the home audience may need to rouse their interest by mimeographing the nominations and setting up pools. But I’m perfectly happy to sit eagerly on my couch, with a scarf or sweater handy to cover my head, waiting for those precious moments--pioneered by and exploitable only on live television--when the swank and glitter abruptly part to reveal the essential teen-ager at a 4-H Club awards dinner. Now, that’s entertainment!