In 1953, for the first time ever, an Academy Awards host didn’t just address the audience of celebrities in front of him. After first speaking to his own visible crowd, master of ceremonies Bob Hope adjusted his tone, acknowledging a mass abstraction of Normal Viewers nationwide with the question, “Isn’t it exciting to know that a lot of these glamorous stars are going to be in your homes tonight? All over America, housewives are turning to their husbands and saying, ‘Put on your shirt, Joan Crawford is coming.'” Suddenly, the celebration must not have been just one of achievement, nor just a back-patting spectacle that celebrities performed merely for one another. Abruptly, the “ceremony” became what we know it as: the apotheosis of celebrity as performance for the non-celebrity, of intrigue by differentiation, widening the chasm between “celebrity” and “everyone else” that leads to the deification of talented artists in pretty suits and dresses.
The Oscars (and other imitation award shows) as a TV ritual thereby became a ceremony that existed on two performative levels: in 1953, they were still a spectacle for the recipients of awards, as they always had been. But you can imagine a whole theater full of people who, due to the invisible presence of 34 million pairs of eyes, all of a sudden had to perform their respective mystiques, wearing “themselves” like the extravagant outfits they’d likewise donned.
Are the Oscars, then, beguiling viewing (despite being swollen and often very boring) because they display America’s promise for people with dreams? Or are they, rather, so widely watched because they present a spectacle of the rarity of that dream, making an entertainment — through the juxtaposed experiences of what’s going on in that theater and what’s going on beyond the TV screens — of the polarity of class in America?
[The bus stunt] was a magnified display of the oddity at the core of televised Academy Awards culture: in order for it to be a spectacle at all, there has to be a great divide between the “normal” viewer and the glammed-up celebrity.
The domestic fetishism of the ’50s was greatly aided by television: a window into the outer world from within the societally approved comforts of the middle class nuclear family home. Watching the Oscars may have seemed like an act of aspirational spectatorship that confirmed the potential of the ’50s-amplified myth of the American dream. But in 2017, the ceremony’s appeal now rests in the antithesis of that idea. It is a celebration of immobility.
The Oscars this year were refreshingly less white than in the past (God, that historical “best actresses” montage was a sea of blonde), and not every part of the ceremony is overshadowed by or determined by sticky notions of class: the actual act of acknowledging achievements in cinema, and celebrating art, is the fundamentally wonderful aspect of the evening, particularly when said art is Moonlight. But I’d say the overarching appeal of the spectacle component — the flourishes like the red carpet preshow and the comic interludes, that, while supplemental, make up so much of what the Oscars are fundamentally about — is still largely predicated on class immobility.
Jimmy Kimmel was, on Sunday night, by and large one of the Oscars’ most fatiguingly innocuous hosts: reviving old and unfunny beef with Matt Damon; showering candies wrapped in pretty white parachutes on attendees; getting as safely political as you can by calling for “unity” and drawing on Donald Trump’s penchant for tweeting at odd hours — the one bit of marginal edginess displayed, but for the fact that Kimmel’s tweeting at the celebrity President felt just as reminiscent of late night viral stunts as it felt political.
But midway through the ceremony, Kimmel did something strange: he surprised a Hollywood bus full of jeans- and sweatpant-wearing tourists by ushering them right into the middle of the Oscars ceremony and then gauging their reactions. It was a magnified display of the oddity at the core of televised Academy Awards culture: in order for it to be a spectacle at all, there has to be a great divide between the “normal” viewer and the glammed-up celebrity.
The strangest part of the segment was how the Oscar newcomers were marched onto the stage, and down into the audience, in a line, pressed in a row below the stage, facing the celebrity audience, as though in a police lineup or auction. They were angled to make the disparity in their dress as visible as possible. The entire purpose of the segment was presumably to telegraph the anticipated shock, starstruckness, and “I won the lottery” gratitude of the unsuspecting (but probably somewhat suspecting) participants. Keith Urban, seated in the front row, snapped a photo of the tourists, as they simultaneously snapped photos of the celebrities.
“Let me give you a little tour,” said Kimmel. “This is Nicole Kidman,” he added, as a man from Chicago named Gary kissed her hand. Denzel Washington then performed a rote wedding ceremony for Gary and his fiancé. The standing tourists bent to shake the hands of the still-seated celebrities. Kimmel made a big deal of an Asian woman named Yulree’s name. “Everybody go ahead and rub the Oscar…Touch Mahershala’s Oscar,” he chimed. The whole thing was set up to look like an alien encounter. The very core of the “bit” was a watchable reaction to the disparity at the heart of the Oscars’ watchability.
Today, various publications reported that “Gary From Chicago” was actually released from prison days prior to the ceremony, after having spent 22 years in jail; the New York Times explains that his incarceration was allegedly due to the three-strike law (part of Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which led to mass incarceration of the country’s poor and predominantly black populations) after stealing a bottle of perfume; others quickly reported that his name brings up an attempted rape charge. The New York Times quotes his public defender, who stated that the case was from 1975, when he was a teen:
For those of you who missed it — I spent years working on Gary’s case. He got a life sentence for stealing perfume in 1997, and we finally won release this year. He got out on Friday, and was sightseeing with his lovely fiancé Vicky. If you watched the Oscars, you know the rest.
Regardless of the crime, the idea of a man who’d just been released from prison being thrust into the center of the Oscars — and thereby thrust into cutesifying viral symbolism on social media — highlights the odd ways these spectacles hinge on the imbalance of America’s social makeup, and especially on lines of race and class.
This wasn’t Kimmel’s first accidentally and uncomfortably elucidating display of class disparity at the Oscars. The Chicago Tribune describes a half-pre-recorded red carpet bit he performed a few years ago:
Kimmel walked onto the red carpet in casual clothes and stopped to chat with pre-show host Lara Spencer, complaining about the everyday people who sit at home sending out harsh comments about celeb fashion choices… Kimmel then stepped through the screen and came through the flat screen TV in the home of a rotund man and woman watching the show from their couch and eating cheese puffs. He read some nasty comments from them and called them out, criticizing their own downscale outfits. “You’ve got orange fingers, you’re wearing a pink Juicy jumpsuit,” Kimmel said to the woman. “Hello! Is this the Real Housewives of 7-11?”…The bit ended with Kimmel climbing back through the flat screen TV and onto the red carpet, where he assured Spencer that he had delivered the message and that he would never be so hard on celebs.
In a more seamless bit with a similarly class-based subtext, at the 2014 Oscars, Ellen Degeneres ordered pizza delivery in the middle of the show. The joke, of course, also played off the alienness of the sweat-shirted delivery uniform in a sea of chiffons and sequins and precious stones, a magical special effect that came at the mere price of a large pizza. The shock of Pizza v. Oscar finery is obviously still class-based, but the shock existed in the realm of symbols, rather than being cast starkly onto individuals. The Degeneres bit was perhaps slightly more aware of its humor of dichotomy, because it kept the spotlight largely on celebrity reactions. The humor, such as it was, lay in “This is how celebrities engage in a normal person transaction” like eating pizza and tipping (Harvey Weinstein tipped $200) — rather than “this is how celebrities react to a normal person, and vice versa” — and the sudden appearance of such a transaction in the height of glamorized performativity.
Paradoxically, celebrities often represent the American dream’s possibility, while also exemplifying its rarity, due to the very thing that makes celebrity: exclusivity.
The red carpet pre-show ceremony — a parade of beautiful ostentation projected into the homes of millions — is often teeming with questions from reporters indicative of a similar awe at the rarity of class mobility. For recently discovered actors, red carpet reporters often ask questions like, “What would you have thought two years ago, seeing yourself here today?” drawing on the shock value of a meteoric climb. At the 2013 Oscars, Captain Philips co-star Barkhad Abdi was met with comments like, “Not long ago, you were driving a limo to make a living — you just rolled up in a limo to the Oscars!” People love these stories of these leaps, because the gap in opportunity — particularly for, say, a working class Somalian refugee — itself is so immense. (And often — as articles about how Abdi made $65,000 for the film, and then following the Oscars was left struggling to get by, pointed out — these perceived leaps aren’t as quick as the fairy tale narrative might lead you to believe.)
Many of the actors at the Oscars give legitimately inspiring speeches; many do not come from privileged backgrounds (though many do.) But the very reason their fame bears such weight as to make for a bit where displaying them in front of a group of “normal” people would seem shocking is because that theater — that opportunity — is so small. Deities can only be seen as such by virtue of their perceived singularity. Donald Trump, for instance, could only ever, as a wholly inexperienced non-politician, become President because he was a white celebrity deified by his notorious ultra-richness; and the only way he could insidiously distance himself from “Hollywood elites,” and become the perceived hero of the “silent [white] majority,” is because he’s rendered himself, through his immense privilege and celebrity, so iconic as to transcend all logic.
Celebrity in the United States is in part such an intrinsic part of our culture because ours is one that sells capitalist dreams of success that are, for many, nothing more than dreams. Paradoxically, celebrities often represent the American dream’s possibility, while also exemplifying its rarity, due to the very thing that makes celebrity: exclusivity. A bit like Kimmel’s could only exist in a culture where celebrity and “normal person” are so removed that doing nothing but putting them in front of each other might be perceived as interesting.