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Culture

Live from Hollywood

4 March 2018
'Awards' by Sharon Huang Liang

It is the age of ranking and comparison, of contests and awards. This is not a new age, yet summer always feels like the dawn of a new one. With awards season—sorry—Awards Season™ combining a wealth of ceremonies into one gelatinous, ill-defined period, it very much is the start of something. And it’s something we can’t help but get swept up by. Every Awards Season™, actors and producers and directors clamour for the coveted BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG Award and Academy Award. With so many tiny statuettes to win, there’s barely any time left for all the other awards we’re so overjoyed to notice in the fourth slot of the nightly news broadcast: the Grammys, the Australian of the Year, the various Words of the Year.

To live through summer is to behold an almighty reckoning, and when that season closes and the dust has settled—the better dust settling first, of course, after its due recognition as Dust of the Week—we will find some things judged better than others.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

As someone who’s partial to Oscars-related discourse, I think the answer is obvious: it is a lot of fun. Tribalism is always more fun when it’s about an unimportant industry award, and there are few better ways to lose friends than over conflicting Oscar opinions.

Not only are the awards fun, but the pageantry is a world separate from ours—an unreality, a world detached and jettisoned into the abyss: a miasma of tuxedos and gowns, carpets of various colours, ‘glitz and glam’, campaigns and For Your Considerations. It’s a form of escapism: here are the stars; here are their perfect lives; how we wish we could replicate that, and how we know that we’ll never have lives so fulfilling. Then, as the sweltering, memory-obscuring heat of summer fades, replaced with the autumnal reality of leaves falling and dying, we must return to our own world. And so it will go. What fun that was!

But, no, this is all wrong. It’s the answer you’d expect, but who relies on award ceremonies for escapism, when you can find the exact same thing at the movies, or on the television? The magic of the screen lets us inject that escapism directly, feeling every inch of the needle as it pushes into our veins and into our eyes. Awards Season™ is a wholly inefficient method of escaping our own lives, so—what makes us do this to ourselves?

We could instead theorise, perhaps, that there’s something intrinsic to the human spirit that compels us to watch people compete. After all, there are contests every day, in multiple arenas. In a matter of weeks, the XXI Commonwealth Games will astound us with the skills of the world’s best and most athletic, and we will remember the winners. Elections will sweep the southern states, and potentially nation-wide, and we will remember the victors. School captains will be crowned. Pizza places will receive Silver Medals in Service. Employees of the Month everywhere will enjoy free in-house meals.

It’s inherent—that must explain it. It is simply human nature to compete: we love to compete ourselves, and get an echoing rush from watching others do the same. Vicarious or no, they’re all the same endorphins, rattling around the hollow brain.

But there must be more to it than that. Competition is a symptom, not the cause itself. Human nature for nature’s sake can’t explain it all. It doesn’t explain the lure of the Awards Season™ abyss. No, that miasma of tuxedos and gowns, carpets of various colours, ‘glitz and glam’, campaigns and For Your Considerations—

Really, it’s all pieces of the same whole. Isn’t it? It’s all pieces of the human experience. It’s our identity, our settings, our politics and our lifestyles performed—for us!—by the stars who so often entertain us on the silver screen. They fight and claw and undermine for awards so that they too might be recognised, be lauded, be known. It is exactly what we do every single day, in the lowly slums of ordinary life. There is in Awards Season™ an undeniable symmetry between our reality and its unreality.

And this symmetry isn’t limited to victory only. The annual spectacle of the Academy Awards, for one, is a yearly exercise in crushing defeat. For months, nominees of every stripe glad hand voters, attend luncheons, host talks, deliver the same four lines, appear in carefully staged photo ops, tolerate interviews with trade magazines and trendsetters, all in pursuit of a tiny statuette. Then, in front of an audience numbering through the hundreds of millions, watching on every inhabited continent, most of them lose. Their faces, when they learn their fate, become the public record.

It’s not an experience we’ll ever have. But it is an emotion we will keenly feel. Statistically, the majority of avid viewers will be disappointed—aggrieved, even—that this could happen to their favourite stars. And this tragedy will occur, in lounge rooms everywhere on earth, over and over and over again.

It’s symmetry, in victory and defeat. It’s life, in victory and defeat. To watch Awards Season™—sorry,correction—awards season play out is to feel like these stars have glitzed up and glammed up to replicate our own psycho-dramas, our own lives, but in excess and luxury.

And they’re not doing it on purpose, of course. No actress holds the Midwest in mind as she reads her prepared speech down the 4K camera. It’s not because they want to give us a show—they certainly don’t yearn for our sweet summer’s love—but because this is their show too, writ large. It is a show of distinct, symmetrical humanity.

This symmetry is not perfect. Most of these stars have their barrels of movie royalties and individually curated Wikipedia pages. Their careers will continue, despite what happens this season, and they will be back next year. Their lives bear little relation to ours. We are consumers and they make products. We transact a professional relationship.

But if we look especially carefully, and pay just the right amount of attention, we will see our lives reflected back: our highs replicated in the tiny smiles and tears of the winners gripping those tiny statuettes with shaking hands, and our lows recreated in the tiny frowns of the defeated in the audience, clutching their bottles of wine and diamond-encrusted flasks.

We claw and bite and tear at the skin. We find the same muscle beneath.

So, sure, we like a contest. We like some fun. But we’re not searching for escapism. We’re searching for life, lived large. The magnified lives we vicariously experience on the small screen, as big names receive tiny statuettes, might be enough to satisfy our ravenous hunger.

It might not be, but it might.


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