Ask any reporter and they'll tell you that covering the Oscars is hardly ever a glamorous business. One of my earliest recollections of the event was in the early ‘80s, shouting “Elizabeth! Elizabeth!” at the top of my lungs to get the attention of the late Elizabeth Taylor. She was walking through the lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel for a post-Oscars ball and I was there for the BBC with TV film critic, Barry Norman. It was my job to ‘wrangle talent’ − that is, to cajole the big name stars and Oscar winners to come to talk on camera for a few moments. I spent most of the night on my knees screaming out to stars because there wasn’t enough space for me to stand up next to Barry behind the velvet rope.
Looking back, what I remember most from that night was how small the media presence was by today’s standards. The lobby of the Beverly Hilton Hotel was a key venue where journalists could talk to the winners as they arrived from the ceremony for the Governor’s Ball. There were perhaps 10 TV crews in total. Today it is complete media madness. Every kind of publication you can think of has a stake in covering the event, from old fashioned print behemoths to a wealth of new social media enterprises.
Being a reporter on the red carpet is a very peculiar assignment. I’ve done it countless times. Every journalist is there, dressed up in their Oscars finery in the afternoon sun, ungracefully squashed like nervous sardines into a tiny moat along a hedge next to the red carpet. The hedge is unnaturally green − it could be part of a Technicolor fantasy. The carpet is vibrantly red, devoid of imperfections, and when you look up you see a parade of the world’s biggest movie stars only a few feet from you. It’s intoxicating. As a TV reporter it gets even stranger because we often have technical problems. Sometimes when you cross live to the BBC in London, there is so much distortion in your earpiece that the presenter sounds like Donald Duck speaking through a dozen sheets of tracing paper. It’s in the midst of this weird Disney experience you suddenly ‘go live’ and have to interview a star. So what do you ask?
When I look to my colleagues for guidance I’m not inspired. They’re all very accomplished operators, they’re nicely coiffed and they always look happy. But their questions are often inane. A favourite is: “Who are you wearing?” The media coverage is now fundamentally unquestioning. Many of us on the red carpet work for TV news outlets but we often end up more in the role of cheerleaders for a movie or a star. The air is thick with gushy superlatives. Everyone has a clear role in this televised spectacle − even on the red carpet. The fans are selected weeks in advance and placed on the morning of the ceremony inside viewing stands. Their job is to scream whenever a movie stars passes to add to the excitement. The stars are there to look beautiful and glamorous – and to sell fashion. The reporters are also part of the selling process. Doing the red carpet is actually rewarding − and it is of course a real privilege to be right where all the action is. But there’s no doubt we are all part of an orchestrated tease to help sell the Oscars.
Food for thought
While the media presence at the awards has multiplied this hasn’t been the case with the audience for the Academy Awards ceremony. Over the last decade domestic viewership has hovered around the 40 million mark without increasing substantially. As with many of the great cornerstones of American culture, like the challenged automobile industry and once-mighty TV networks, the Oscars occupy a less vital space in the popular imagination. This is especially true for young people who aren’t fans of appointment viewing, leading Academy Awards detractors to charge that the Oscars are no longer relevant.
I don’t agree. When you look at the films the Academy has nominated this year nearly all shine a light on some of the darker or more troubling aspects of life, with much of the focus on America’s ills. Twelve Years a Slave focuses on slavery − a shameful chapter in US history, American Hustle shows a land populated by con artists and crooked politicians and The Wolf of Wall Street condemns greed in the 1990s. Her gets us to question the value of human intimacy in our technology obsessed world − and Philomena prompts us to ponder forgiveness in the face of injustice. I would argue that the Oscars, through some brilliant cinema, encourage us to think about some of life’s more significant realities.
It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of all the Oscars hoopla in actually promoting Hollywood − but it’s an event that certainly animates audiences around the world. It helps American films maintain their currency and may well make it easier for studios to make headway in new or resistant markets. This is probably true even though many of the Oscar winning films may not be strictly studio films − their triumphs just add some sparkle to the way in which Hollywood is perceived.
But the Oscars also represent considerable soft power. They peddle American values to a huge global audience. They celebrate excellence, the triumph of the individual and the notion that if you dream of something it can happen. They also stand for progressive inclusion. It’s not insignificant that the ceremony is being hosted for the second time by Ellen DeGeneres, a gay woman − a reality that probably doesn’t sit well in some of the countries where the telecast is beamed.
At a time when America’s international reputation has been sullied by revelations over its surveillance activities, as well as aspects of its foreign policy, the Oscars is too important a public relations tool to be abandoned. It is for this reason − as well as because of its vital importance to Hollywood and movie-lovers everywhere − that the Academy Awards won’t be disappearing anytime soon.