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Awards-show addiction: no 12-step program

Mary F. Pols
Contra Costa Times (MCT)

A woman I know recorded the Critics' Choice Awards, saving them as a treat to get her through the otherwise uncelestial Golden Globes weekend. I'm tempted to mock her for using a marginal event as a crutch for awards-ceremony withdrawal. But I can't, because I did something more pathetic. The morning after the non-Globes, I played high-fashion paper dolls with Julie Christie, Cate Blanchett and Marion Cotillard.

Lest you assume I'm well connected, it was a virtual game. There I was on Jezebel.com, a gossip site that promises "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion. Without Airbrushing," clicking like a fool through a series of images of dresses the Globe winners could have worn, had they had a red carpet to flounce down. Talk about desperate.

Before the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike resulted in the Globes evolving into a press conference run by pretty robots, I would have said no one NEEDS an awards show. I'd have laughed off the significance of a 2008 without an Academy Awards, just the way University of California Berkeley linguistics professor Robin Lakoff did, initially, when I brought it up.

"Nothing terrible will happen I'm sure," Lakoff told me. "People will manage to live without it, but it will be just a little more depressing. It's not that we're addicted to these things."

Then she paused to reconsider.

"But maybe we ARE," she added. "So what do you do without your drug?"

You play virtual paper dolls! You compensate with events like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, which haven't been canceled and promise every awards-junkie's true fix, the red carpet (the show airs Jan. 27 on TNT/TBS). You pray the WGA strike ends before Feb. 24, the day the Oscar ceremony is scheduled.

If you're Mills College film studies professor Ken Burke, who usually watches the Oscars with a tight group of friends who can be counted on not to interrupt, you dread the thought of another press conference.

"Let me say right away that watching NBC's substitute version of (the Golden Globes) was just barely better than passing a kidney stone," said Burke, fresh from a trip to the emergency room. "And I speak from experience of both in the last 12 hours. I just found their banter and chatter appalling."

Agreed. That's not to say that awards ceremonies themselves are not filled with bad banter and scripted chatter. The irony of the writers' strike putting the kibosh on the various ceremonies is that the pre-written material for all of them, including the Emmys, the Grammys and the Tonys, tends to be the kind of cringe-worthy stuff you'd expect your dorkiest uncle to have come up with, not a well-paid Hollywood professional.

But it is always the few naturalistic moments that make it all worthwhile. As Americans, we love a competition. Even more enticing is the prospect of getting a peek at the private life of a star couple ("Go ahead, you make more money than I do," Ryan Phillippe said to then-wife Reese Witherspoon at the 2003 Oscars as the co-presenters debated who would open the envelope, giving the world a preview of their eventual split).

Or we might see a tough guy (Russell Crowe, I'm talking to you) getting misty over dead relatives. The stars are relaxed and mingling - and at the Globes, often tipsy. For a change, they're off script. Maybe even having wardrobe malfunctions. Like real people.

"You can see who looks ridiculous, so there is a little Schadenfreud in it," UC's Lakoff said. "When you've watched, it makes you feel like a member of society."

The ceremonies provide "safe" topics of conversation, Lakoff said, unlike politics or the economy.

"If you go to a party and someone says, `What do you think of Obama and Hillary,' you can get into a fight. But if someone says, `What did you think of so-and-so's dress,' even if you disagree, it's not a real world disagreement, it's a fantasy."

It's also a fantasy with widespread appeal. Maybe you don't like movies but you like Oscar host Jon Stewart. Or fashion. Or stars with cleavage. There are a lot of factors pulling us into the movie awards. Conversely, it's a lot easier to start feeling disconnected from popular music, which is far more affected by trends than the movie business, and skip the Grammys (scheduled for Feb. 10, and apparently to be picketed by the WGA).

Human beings like closure and order; there's a reason we invented a calendar to keep our years tidy. As a place mark on that calendar, the ceremony "gives me a chance to put the whole year's worth of material into perspective," Mills College's Burke says.

We also have the desire for ritual. Shannon Jackson, chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, refers to the Oscar ceremony and its ilk as "ritual functions." "It's a form of ritual, a collective transformation in a shared space," she says. "And ritual always implies repetition, which implies that you are counting on it; you can anticipate it. It's a sense of the collective commitment to be in a shared space, even if it is the mediated space of television."

A strike, Jackson says, is an anti-ritual performance. "It's an action about non-action, withdrawing a service in order to provoke us to reflect on what our treasured social rituals might be taking for granted," she says. "As disheartening as it might be for some of us not to get our Oscar fix, it is also differently heartening to see that all of the glitz and side industries of celebrity cannot function when the writers aren't on board."

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