With the 86th Academy Awards scheduled for March 3, the writer explains why the madness around the event will never abate.

Last Monday, New York magazine’s website featured an article that was titled ‘And the Oscars Will Be Presented By’, and went on to say, “In alphabetical order: Amy Adams, Kristen Bell, Jessica Biel, Jim Carrey, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper, Penélope Cruz, Benedict Cumberbatch...” For a second, I thought the piece was a joke, a satire on how the minutest of minutiae has become chum in the waters to Oscar fanatics, whose feeding frenzy, clearly, knows no bounds. But no. This was serious. Under the piece, one reader fumed, “No Robert Downey Jr.? No Denzel? No Clooney? Tom Cruise apparently remains in hiding, as does Johnny Depp, after various flops in 2013.” Another wondered, “Why the hell is Jessica Biel here?” A sympathiser chimed in, “I know, right? What did she do to even warrant an invitation?” In the days leading up to the 86th Academy Awards, we’re supposed to be afflicted by Oscar madness. But sometimes, it seems to be just... madness.

The hottest category, this year, appears to be Best Actor, with long-time bridesmaid Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) reportedly catching up on early front runner Matthew McConaughey, who proved his Oscar-worthiness by dropping some 20 kg for his role in Dallas Buyers Club. The correlation between losing weight and gaining an Academy Award has become such unassailable truth that the Facebook page for Quickflix NZ — “the only place New Zealanders can instantly watch hundreds of movies and TV shows online for one low monthly fee” — posed this question on August 29, 2013: Matthew McConaughey lost 20 kilos for DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. Will he be rewarded with an Oscar for his efforts? Fair enough. Only, the film didn’t open in New Zealand until February 20, 2014. Further proof that Oscar speculation is now a yearlong sport was offered by a column in Singapore’s The Straits Times, which said, “So does DiCaprio deserve his long-awaited Oscar? In my opinion... no. As much as he deserves it, and I am sure he eventually will, I think I would be disappointed if he finally won his Oscar with this role.” And when were these sage musings published? June 10, 2013.

It’s no different in India, where, in the weeks before the awards, our English-language scribes turn into tea-leaf readers, issuing predictions about the various categories: who should win, who will win, whose non-nomination was the most egregious oversight (Tom Hanks! Robert Redford!), and whether the recent sexual-abuse allegations against Woody Allen will cost his heroine Cate Blanchett the Best Actress award for Blue Jasmine. We seem to have a fidgety relationship with the Academy Awards. On the one hand, we claim that they don’t mean anything, that we don’t need anyone else’s approval. (Mahesh Bhatt usually comes up with the best quips about the Oscars, from dismissing them as “marketing tools that fetch money” to scolding Aamir Khan, circa Lagaan, that lobbying for an Oscar in this manner was akin to “grovelling before the white man.”) And yet, when the little-seen The Good Road was chosen over The Lunchbox for consideration in the Best Foreign Film category, Twitter practically crashed from outrage overload.

If only to deflate the ridiculous amounts of attention showered on what is essentially a well-lit and polite evening of back-scratching — and to remember that awards in art don’t really mean anything — we might imagine what an old-timer might do when presented a voting ballot. John Wayne would probably spit out his tobacco and say, “Jeezuz! Another bunch of pansies, starving and suffering for their aaht. In my day, we went to the set, spoke our lines and went home for a beer. Should I pick this DiCaprio chap? Haven’t seen his film — I mean, there are so many. Who has the time? What about McConaughey? I liked him in that — um, Sahara. Now that was a movie. A lost Civil War battleship. West African deserts. That Penélope Cruz kid as a scientist. You went in and had fun. Where’s the fun in Dallas Buyers Club? Another goddamn AIDS movie, with those goddamn gays. But at least, it didn’t make me drop off like Nebraska, which barely moved. If I wanted to see an old man for two hours, I’d stare at the mirror, goddammit.”

This isn’t just idle imagination. According to the findings of a Los Angeles Times investigation into the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this is pretty much the situation. All this frenzy over who will win is predicated on the votes of actors who mostly grew up with Wayne’s films. As Andrew O’Hehir wrote in Salon.com, “The Oscars are being decided by 5,765 voting members (itself a smaller number than usually reported) who are 94 per cent white. The membership is also 77 per cent male and 86 per cent over the age of 50. At the risk of stating the obvious, this is drastically unrepresentative of the United States population as a whole...”

So why do we still care about this annual ritual, conducted by wizened high priests? Why do the Academy Awards remain the planet’s most unignorable film event? We don’t have to look much further than the fact that it has to do with Hollywood, the film capital of the world, certainly, but more pertinently, the marketing capital of the world. Has any industry in the history of mankind peddled its product with the evangelical zeal this small stretch of California has, turning its stars into gods and its movies into a collective mythology?

The Oscars themselves have been similarly enshrined. In 65 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards, the author Robert Osborne describes the very first awards night: “After a dinner of Filet of Sole Sauté au Buerre, Half Broiled Chicken on Toast, New String Beans and Long Branch Potatoes, preceded by Consomme Celestine, Academy President Douglas Fairbanks explained to the gathering how the awards selections had been made.” Read that sentence again and breathe in its solemn, ceremonial air. This is how legends are nurtured — even the mention of soup sounds like a sermon. For dessert, there was the tart acknowledgement of the futility of these awards. “It is a bit like asking, ‘Does this man play checkers better than that man plays chess?’”

Many years later, in a special note for the book, four-time Best Actress winner Katharine Hepburn said it better, speaking mostly for herself and her industry, but a little for us too. “However maddening, infuriating, embarrassing and seemingly artificial these occasions are. However drummed up. The truth of the matter is still pure. The Academy Awards are in all good faith. An attempt to honor a person or a product of our industry. And they have maintained in essence a purity, a simple — well, truth. This year by our vote you are the best. Well, there must be something to it. It’s gone on for sixty years. It must be healthy. One can quibble. How does anyone know which performance? Which picture? It’s an Art... Well, hell — let’s face it. How does anyone know anything? It’s our track meet. It’s painful but it’s thrilling.”

See you at the bleachers.