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I'd Like To Rankle The Academy

By James Keast

It's stupid. It's flagrantly self-interested. It's superficial and vain. It's irrelevant, guided more by politics and the advancing age of its voting membership than by the quality of the films. But the Academy Awards telecast is also March Madness for those of us who never hear the word "buff" without "film" preceding it. And regardless of how unjust its nominations, and how intense its attendant controversies, Oscar Night is all about the quick quip, the catty commentary, the opportunity for about a billion people to play cranky muppets Statler and Waldorf. It's our chance to judge and belittle our social and economic betters -- the stars -- dispensing our own Golden Dudes of shame for crimes of fashion. When else can we self-righteously comment on someone else's butt while sitting gleefully on our own?

The most glorious thing about the Academy Awards -- Hollywood's own home game -- is that it's really no fun to play alone. Unlike the movies it purports to celebrate (when all Hollywood ever honors is itself) the Oscars are an interactive experience. Like the parade of overpaid egomaniacs that glitter and swish past us on screen, we need an audience.

Oscar parties are an excellent opportunity to increase one's own social standing, but not without its pitfalls. Endless chatter, talking through important awards, or demonstrating a blatant disregard or ignorance of the proceedings will have you labeled an uncultured philistine before Joan Rivers can ask "and who are you wearing?" A few easy reminders will have you doing your Sally Field impression before the night is through.

Unlike most social occasions, arriving early to an Oscar party is recommended, for several reasons, not the least of which is couch positioning. The pre-Oscar carpet walk is a good time to establish some opening forays into fashion critique before the Merlot goes straight to your head. The supporting acting awards are given first; pay attention, so when that attractive late arrival asks, you'll have the lowdown, and don't forget dress and acceptance speech.

Having a head for geeky facts may be great for Jeopardy -- another interactive TV show that appears to call for an audience, but doesn't, believe me -- but is tricky territory on Oscar night. Knowing that Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench's nominations represent the first time that two people have been nominated for playing the same character (Queen Elizabeth) in different films in the same year may make you an interesting conversationalist. Knowing that Charles Laughton, Robert Shaw and Richard Burton were all nominated for playing Henry VIII, in different films, makes you a geek, and no one will go home with you.

In terms of this year's Oscar race, a few choice facts will serve you even better than sitting through a couple of hours of (pick one) nominated WWII movies. Forget Jim Carrey's snub for a Best Actor nod, it's old news. The astute observer will point out that he might get his this time next year for Man On the Moon, playing eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman -- after all, Oscar loves biopics even more than war flicks. That The Truman Show deserved a Best Picture nod is obvious, but where's the nomination for cinematography? After all, if that wasn't remarkable photography, really, what was? Poor Joseph Fiennes could also use a little Oscar night love -- has there ever been a more anonymous, more ignored, more loved by Breakup Girl, actor to appear in two of the year's Best Picture nominees?

For the first time in recent memory, Oscar night looks like the awards themselves might actually be interesting as well. After all, watching how many people Roberto Benigni will kiss if (when) he wins will be much more fun than watching Jim Cameron's head swell to three times its normal size.

Ready, Statler? Only four more days.

James Keast is a Toronto-based writer and editor who spends too much time in the dark.

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