Oscar's evil influence

I've had an epiphany about the Oscars. It's not just that the whole awards season circus makes me uncomfortable. That's been true since I was nearly crushed to death at Vanity Fair's Oscar party in 1999.

My epiphany has nothing to do with celebrity overkill, or red carpet ostentation, or dirty-tricks campaigning or the academy's maddeningly middle-of-the-road sensibilities -- all of which strike me as reasons to revel in the whole gloriously flawed spectacle as much as run away from it.

What I've realized is more serious: that awards season, now in full swing between Thursday's Academy Award nominations and Sunday's Screen Actors Guild awards, is killing my love of the movies.

The reason is something I'm calling the " 'Chicago' syndrome." "Chicago," in this case, is the movie musical starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere, which carried off six Oscars, including best picture, in 2003.

At the time, I was not impressed. In fact, I was furious. I'd seen "The Pianist," Roman Polanski's stunning, highly personalized story of survival in World War II Poland, and became convinced that granting top honors to any other film would be a travesty -- especially at a time when the United States had just invaded Iraq and the horrors of war were on everyone's minds.

For weeks, I refused to see "Chicago." A few days before the Oscars, out of professional obligation, I popped a screener copy into my DVD player and sincerely hoped I'd be able to hate it with a passion.

I watched maybe 30 minutes. I remember being forced to acknowledge that it had a certain visual flair, but I also found a way to rationalize that as part of the film's problem. In one piece I wrote, I tossed it off as "an exuberant piece of all-American flim-flam." In my report on the awards themselves, I sneered, again, that this was the academy's "bid for musical escapism in the midst of the invasion."

How wrong can a guy be? Six years later, my children have become huge fans of musical theater. So we rent "Chicago," I pop it in the DVD and ... I'm transfixed for the entire 113-minute running time. A day later, I'm transfixed all over again. It dawns on me that this film is pure genius. I don't have enough superlatives for it -- the music, the performances, the breathtakingly inventive staging, the editing. I even find it deliciously topical, as only a film steeped in decadence and celebrity obsession can be.

What's the lesson of this drastic turnaround? It may be less than gracious to blame my lousy judgment on anyone but myself, but I'm going to do it anyway: I blame the Oscars.

If it hadn't been for the insane competitiveness of the awards and the ridiculously overblown symbolism of the grand prize itself, I would never have reduced "Chicago" and "The Pianist" to such an absurd either/or proposition. The truth is, they are both brilliant, in their very different ways, and we shouldn't have to choose one over the other.

Oscar, though, doesn't allow us to think that way. The Oscars are a beauty contest, and in a beauty contest there can be only one belle of the ball. Oscar is also a bit of a tyrant, cramming the year-end distribution schedule, spreading fear and loathing through the offices of movie studio executives, and drowning the rest of us in marketing hype when all we really want to liven up our holidays is a reliably good movie or two to watch.

For me, it's a big turnoff. This year, I already hate "The Reader," "Revolutionary Road" and "The Wrestler," even though I have seen none of them. Every time I read a review suggesting one of them is a phony or an Oscar contender with no meat on its bones, I cheer to myself. Loudly.

I suspect "Slumdog Millionaire," which I have seen, might be a favorite for best picture because it is a thrillingly modern twist on the sort of rags-to-riches fable that always consoles us in economic hard times. But I can also foresee a furious groundswell led by anti-Proposition 8 activists on behalf of "Milk," a film whose politics seem to extend quite a bit further than what it actually shows on screen.

Am I going to end up hating one or both of these films? Probably. Am I proud of that? Not remotely.

The "Chicago" syndrome suggests that if we really want to know which film was the best of 2008, we should wait at least five years for the hype to die down. But Oscar, of course, doesn't have that kind of time. The little gold guy is impatient, and ruthless, and would lick his lips -- if only he had any -- at the prospect of the world's most talented filmmakers ripping out each other's throats.

Me, I'm inclined to duck for cover and wait until 2013. I have my "Chicago" DVD to keep me company in the meantime.

Andrew Gumbel is a Los Angeles-based British journalist and the author of "Steal This Vote: Dirty Elections and the Rotten History of Democracy in America."