March 23, 2001
The Greatest Show on Earth
Oscar night, the best seat in the house isn't in the house.
When I was in
college, I went to a taping of David Letterman's Late Show in
the Ed Sullivan Theatre. I was struck by how little the audience
could see of the action on stage -- cameras, booms, staffers, and cue
cards blocked most of the view. But it made sense, because the
Late Show is a TV show, and as such, the business of producing
the program for millions of home viewers is more important than
making the house audience happy. Watching rehearsals for the Academy
Awards at L.A.'s Shrine Auditorium this week, I realized the
situation at The Oscars is much the same; the ornate auditorium is
transformed into just another TV studio, where the attendees are
secondary to the nearly 50 million Americans estimated to be
watching at home.
This is obvious the moment you enter the house. A huge platform
dominates the center of the orchestra section. It supports three
cameras (with three operators), a 25-foot boom camera (and its
operator), and a huge TelePrompter. This monstrosity obstructs part
of the stage for everyone unfortunate enough to be seated beyond the
15th row. There's another giant boom camera in the right rear of the
orchestra section and two more swooping down from the
where-Lincoln-was-shot boxes on both sides. Another one occupies real
estate in the middle of the balcony section. Every time any of these
crane-like cameras moved -- even in the barely full house -- I winced
and waited for it to smack someone in the head.
In addition to the fixed cameras, there are roving cameras carried on
the shoulders of dozens of crewmembers. Some of these Steadicam
operators roam up and down the aisles, zooming in on audience members
for those all-important reaction shots, and some wander the front of
the house and stage, waiting for the winnersto bound onstage. The
images make for great TV but frustrate attendees. In the front of the
balcony, there's another clutch of equipment -- projectors and lights
and more monitors -- which do a nice job of impeding the view from
there. On top off all this, dozens of klieg lights are aimed at the
audience: They dim when there's action onstage and brighten when
there might be a juicy reaction shot. You try watching Sting
perform his Oscar-nominated "My Funny Friend and Me" while blinding
lights shining into your eyes are switched on and off, over and over.
It ain't pleasant for people in the house, but no matter -- it makes
for good TV.
TV equipment isn't the only thing blocking the audience view; so do
the plethora of oversize Oscar statues. Hollywood has developed a
weird fetishization of the golden man -- an almost Stalinistic
reverence for his image. You see the first one even before you arrive
at the Shrine: It looms 25 feet tall across the street from the
auditorium. Four more of those monoliths stand sentry in front, and
inside, another sits on center stage. At the far left and right of
the stage are giant Oscar cutouts (which, naturally, block some side
views), and at the rear of the balcony, two more statues --
mercifully, human-size -- bask in spotlit glory. You can barely see
these two from the stage, but they'll surely show up on the
television show. It's all about the television show.
Indeed, the Oscars are so much about the television show that on
Sunday night, 229 members of the television press will be on the red
carpet doing their own shows on the show. According to the Academy,
1,477 members of the press, representing 241 organizations, will have
credentials for the big night. I know these numbers because they were
on the fact sheet that was handed to me at the Academy Awards Press
Office, which distributes "exterior access credentials" that allow
any member of the press who wanders by to enter the Shrine Auditorium
grounds (but not the building) on the days leading up to Oscar night,
in the hopes that they will file
"excitement-is-building-about-the-show" stories. By providing these
credentials, the Academy seems to be encouraging the proletariat
segment of the press -- myself included -- to do stories on people
doing stories about a TV show. It just gets more and more meta.
Sitting in the dark at the back of the auditorium, I decided the
Academy Awards are about fetishism. But of what? Celebrity?
Television? Or a golden man with fantastic pecs? Watch Sunday night
and try to figure it out. From your couch, at least, the view should
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