I've been watching the Oscars, America's annual glamfest, ever since I was a pup. I know it was a supposedly simpler time, but when I was first introduced to what, in those days, was not the red, but the black and white carpet, I recognized few of the stars and and was lucky to have seen one or two of the nominees for Best Picture.

For some reason, those things didn't matter. Even at so great a distance, I could still revel vicariously in the conspicuous displays of showbiz bonhomie. It didn't hurt that I got to stay up late. And Bob Hope. Bob Hope, with his constant carping about never having won anything, was great. They're still trying to figure out how to replace him.

As I got older and a little more jaded, I still dug the Oscars -- it felt like a front row seat at the world's coolest convention, or employee appreciation night.

Maybe it's a throwback to my staying-up-late youth, but I've never understood the people who complain every year about the show running late. Nor, for that matter, about the long-winded acceptance speeches. This is what it's all about. The self-serving litanies of agents' and bankers' names are obnoxious, of course, but hey, it's a free country and self-absorbed celebrity maunderings are the price we pay for the occasional, genuinely moving speech an artist makes. Indeed, one of the spontaneous pleasures of the Oscars are those rare incidents where, through how he or she reacts to the news that an Oscar is coming their way, a star is revealed as -- yes! -- an artist at heart.

I guess what I'm suggesting here is that I've never bought into the idea that the Oscar ceremony is first and foremost a TV event. That's because it has seemed to me that the greatest Oscar moments are the unguarded bits -- those moments that TV producers try hard to scrub out of the picture.

So I'm approaching this year's event with more than a little trepidation. Oscar ratings were the worst they've been in years in 2008. They weren't so hot the year before that. The production team responsible for producing this year's shindig has promised a new look and, more, a new experience. An experience, incidentally, that sounds a lot like the recent Screen Actor's Guild Awards, where everyone sat at supper club style tables and, after a fashion established by yet another awards show, the Golden Globes, were encouraged to quaff from an endless supply of champagne in the hopes that someone might do something "colorful."

We're not even being told who will be presenting awards this year, although last year's major honorees are bound to be involved -- as they always have been. Tradition demands it. Maybe.

Every year we're presented with a new set, a different approach to hosting, and handing over the statuary. People argue over the music and dance numbers as if there's any way for them to look anything but ridiculous. Nothing ever really works.

Unless, of course, the show happens to be a smorgasbord of stars, in which case everything turns out great.

Unfortunately, the number of actual stars available seems to be ever-diminishing. It's a melancholy fact that more and more Oscar viewers now say that the part of the show that moves them most is the obit passage, where images are shown of all those moviemakers who have died in the past year. This is where the Oscars seems like a cross between a family reunion and a wake.

This year they'll show us Paul Newman. I hope they take their sweet time.


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