Years ago, media guru Tony Schwartz posed a simple but interesting question. “When a horse walks across the TV screen in ‘Bonanza,’” he asked, “is it acting?”
Unlike humans (and cats), a horse doesn’t know the camera is rolling. A horse doesn’t have to pretend that it’s not aware of being filmed, but an actor does. And that is the greatest hurdle screen actors have to jump — acting as if they don’t know there’s a giant camera 2 feet away.
They also have to act as if they don’t know there are 40 people milling around behind the camera — grips, gaffers, boom operators, lead men, buyers, makeup artists, script supervisors, producers, sound engineers, set dressers, doubles, stuntmen, costume designers, camera operators, the production designer, the director of photography, the director and other actors.
In fact, all these crew members are acting, too. They are acting as if they are not in a silly business. The actors’ words come out in an eerie, unnatural silence. There is no music or ambient noise — all that will be added later. On the set, it all seems so fake, so phony. It is the very opposite of reality. Reality is noisy and uncontrolled. Filming is anything but. It is often tedious and boring.
A horse isn’t thinking, “What will my face look like when it’s 20 feet tall on a movie screen? My pores will be the size of bowling balls.” A horse isn’t thinking, “Boy, is my 10-year-old going to laugh when she sees this.” But a horse doesn’t expect to get an Oscar for acting like a horse, either. A carrot will do just fine, thank you very much.
And this is why watching the Academy Awards is always so unsatisfactory. Whereas a horse — and the nominated performers — seem oblivious to the cameras, the ceremony itself is supremely aware of them.
The producers of the show have everything exactly backward; the entire enterprise is designed to fail. They’ll waste tons of time on horrible, inane, overproduced musical numbers that no one wants to see, which doesn’t leave any time for the winners’ acceptance speeches, which most people would like to see.
Even people who haven’t seen any of the nominated movies — even people who haven’t been to the movies at all this year — will watch the Academy Awards. The only people tuning in to see a chorus line dance to the theme song of “Argo” are the people who wrote it.
The producers’ solution to boring acceptance speeches that run too long? Start up the orchestra. Their solution to fascinating, revealing, compelling acceptance speeches that run too long? Start up the orchestra. Instead of using judgment and a hook, they use a stopwatch.
I can easily sit through the award for “best short film no one except the immediate family has ever seen.” What’s hard to take is the parade of last year’s winners awkwardly reading lame jokes off the teleprompter that they seem to have never seen before. They make the shepherds in the third-grade Christmas pageant look positively professional. It’s amazing how nervous and uncomfortable most of these actors look on live TV. If you saw them on the Oscars before you saw them in a movie, you’d wonder what they did for a living.
Each year the producers do something to get “the youngsters” to tune in. Why? When Dame Judi Dench shows up wearing a nose stud and a tattoo, that doesn’t mean the kids will suddenly tune in. It means the rest of us will tune out. Teenagers want to see “Lincoln” and “Life of Pi” like they want their parents to come with them on a date.
I do love the movies, but I watch the Academy Awards ceremonies for the unique thrill of seeing 15 minutes of good television crammed into three hours.
Contact Jim Mullen at JimMullenBooks.com.