There are few sadder things in the entertainment world than watching artists go into contortions over the value of awards. Consider Sally Field. She won an Oscar for Norma Rae and said, “What does the Academy Award mean? I don’t think it means much of anything”—until she decided, five years later, that it meant a hell of a lot, that it meant they (her peers) liked her, really liked her, her effusions echoing in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and turning her into an instant punch line, her neediness too naked for an audience of nervous exhibitionists. Next month, Field has a chance to remove the stigma of that night, but only if the Academy really, really, really likes her. God knows, it would make for a Hollywood ending: Actress falls from grace and then, three decades later, pleads for prestige part, packs on pounds to play it (the ultimate sacrifice for a female performer), and is triumphantly welcomed back into the fold. But voters might well favor Anne Hathaway, who in the role of a martyred waif flaunted her own lack of vanity by allowing herself to be shot in tight close-up looking like a plucked chicken while daring to sing a song (live, sans Auto-Tune) that belonged pretty definitively to another martyr, Susan Boyle—a woman whose own transformation from misshapen figure of fun to radiant angel in the space of a few bars of music would alter the face of televised competition. So many stories of humiliation and exaltation in the annals of awards shows!
Needless to say, all this has little to do with anything in Lincoln or Les Misérables and everything to do with the lives and longings of people we don’t know and never will but enjoy living vicariously through—or else mocking along with fellow sadists. Or both. You never know what the next awards show will bring.
These days, Oscar season is practically 365 days a year, but there is still plenty of time for other prizes, from the Golden Globes to the Emmys, Grammys, and even the featherbrained People’s and Critics’ Choice awards. Once you could be an indie maverick—but indie movies now have their own competitions, one of which takes place on the eve of the Academy Awards, allowing winners to console each other over Oscar snubs. Film festivals in cities large and small inject suspense with jury and audience prizes. By the time a winner stands at the Oscars podium, he or she might have given the same acceptance speech a dozen times. And it’s not just movies that have been transformed by competition. Can you imagine an Ed Sullivan–like variety show nowadays without a contest in which one performer is ultimately declared the tiptop X-factored idol?
Yes, to some degree, it has always been so. In ancient Greece, playwrights competed. Artists and composers competed for patrons. All works of art compete in the collective memory, with time the ultimate arbiter. Shakespeare lives, Henleyrood not so much. (I made up Henleyrood—he stands for the ones you’ve never heard of.)
But it has gotten way out of hand.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an artist whose every moment is colored by the prospect of winning or failing to win an award. “Failing to win” is, needless to say, the equivalent of “losing,” although what exactly is “lost” is hard to pinpoint. But something is. At the Oscars three years ago, Steve Martin joked that Meryl Streep was the most-nominated actress ever and had, therefore, “the most losses.” Hilarious! But I’ll bet for an instant Streep was stung.
For most artists, winning promises to be the only antidote to that insistent inner voice that says, “You are not worthy.” Last week, Hathaway told the Golden Globes audience, “Thank you for this lovely blunt object that I will forevermore use as a weapon against self-doubt.” That makes her sound like a cheap date, but my guess is that “forevermore” was short-lived, that by the time she woke up the self-doubt was back. The Hollywood Foreign Press is a one-night stand. The Oscar is the lasting relationship. It’s what goes in the first line of your obituary. And it can’t be taken away like Lance Armstrong’s medals. (If the Academy had laws against doping, most of the profession would be disqualified.) (Unless you got a note from your doctor.) (Which everyone could, because who can live with the anxiety of awards?)
You can’t discount the hike in salary that comes with an Oscar, or the prospect of better parts. But those are secondary. The image that burns itself into one’s imagination is the famous photo on the preceding page of Faye Dunaway by her poolside, gazing at her golden statuette on the morning after her win for Network. No post-coital mood could be as sweet—or as solipsistic, or as lonely.
In his book Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession, Francesco Duina writes, “Victory, especially when major, affords the possibility of a broader feeling of relaxation. The winner is entitled to a sense of overall peace, completeness, even stillness … He has acquired … the most cherished possession of all: the freedom to be.” Dunaway’s career would plummet—it’s an open question whether the reason was Hollywood’s aversion to aging actresses or her allegedly nightmarish temperament—but that moment by the pool is suspended in time, calling out to every performer, every artist. The ones who can resist are the lucky ones. As Gail Sheehy wrote, “Would that there were an award for people who come to understand the concept of enough. When you have self-respect, you have enough.” As if. Duina recalls how Michael Jordan, right after winning his fifth championship, before “the sweat had dried,” flashed the number six. Enough is for losers.
It’s important to say that my problem with our awards addiction is not because I think the Academy and its ilk choose badly. I do think that—and it’s crucial to counter the Oscars with chants of “Alfred Hitchcock!” and other passed-over greats. But even if the prizes went to the right people, if you could stick a piece of litmus paper in the waters of Mount Parnassus and watch it turn blue and say, objectively, “We have a winner,” the competition would still warp our imaginations.
On a less abstract plane, awards talk dominated the reaction to every big movie that opened in November or December—a stunning six out of nine Best Picture nominees. Les Misérables got a standing o at its first public screening and lo, there was a new front-runner. Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated for Best Director—the ultimate proof that torture doesn’t work. Ben Affleck went in 30 seconds from golden boy to looooooser—until his win (and reception) at the Golden Globes restored a measure of dignity. There’s nothing more pathetic than a film trotted out in December to qualify for a nomination that doesn’t materialize: No matter how worthy, the media consigns it to oblivion. As the big night approaches, new figures come to the fore, like Harvey Weinstein with his genius for Oscar campaigning, borne, I’ve heard said, of assimilating the tastes of his middle-class Jewish parents. We watch helplessly as inexplicable favorites—The King’s Speech, The Artist—march inexorably toward the finish line.
Okay, I’ll admit it: Awards prognostications are fun and, not incidentally, generate high ratings and Internet hits. In this culture, who wouldn’t love to sit by a pool like Faye Dunaway, our drive to win stilled long enough to be able to be. As a fantasy, though, it’s both limited and limiting. Art teaches us to make the kind of imaginative leaps that free us from addictions to things like prize winning. Awards pull us back down to Earth. Like all bad habits, they’re a millstone.
*This article originally appeared in the January 28, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.