The Academy Awards are supposed to honor people for outstanding acting, writing, and directing in the movies. But the real acting contest begins when the awards are announced. Each victor proceeds to the podium, beams or trembles, and delivers a speech. The task of the speech is to flatter yourself while pretending not to. How? Let this year's winners demonstrate. (Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, and others who managed to give self-serving speeches without even being nominated are excluded from this competition.) The envelopes, please.
Best Self-Directing: This award goes to the performer who does the best job of promoting himself by handing out apparent compliments to others. The strategy is to praise and thank people only insofar as they adorn the narrative of your life. Brian Grazer, a winner for Best Picture, deserves a nomination for his use of the phrase "to me." "The story and the subject were personal and important to me," he told the academy. "I want to thank Universal Pictures, two very important and special people to me …" That's what makes certain things and people special in Hollywood: They're about you.
Halle Berry, the winner for Best Actress in a Leading Role, gets a nod for this bouquet to her manager: "You loved me when I've been up. But more importantly, you've loved me when I've been down." Up or down, one thing is constant: The important thing about you is me. Berry didn't mention her mother or husband till she had finished thanking her manager.
Jennifer Connelly, the winner for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, gets a nod for her emphasis on self-improvement: "By some beautiful twist of fate, I've landed in this vocation that demands that I feel and helps me to learn. No film has moved or taught me more than A Beautiful Mind." The beauty of this approach is that you deflect credit for having become a successful and wonderful person, knowing that the credit is just a backdrop for your success and wonderfulness. "Thanks to all the artists who have inspired me, and the list is too long," Connelly told the academy, skipping the list. The names weren't essential. The essential words were "inspired" and "me."
And the winner is … Ron Howard, the Best Directing honoree, for this tribute: "Before my mom passed away, about 18 months ago, she predicted that this was going to happen for me on this film. Well, she also made that prediction on every movie that I've directed since 1983. Now you know a little bit about my mom." Actually, all we learned about Howard's mom from these three sentences (which was all he said about her) is that she thought highly of him. But enough about me—let's talk about what my mom said about me.
Most Flattering Picture: This award goes to the entertainer who most effectively glorifies his profession while pretending to emphasize some larger mission or virtue. Connelly gets a nomination in this category for her praise of acting as a "vocation that demands that I feel and helps me to learn." Howard gets a nod for extolling his actors' "creative courage," a neologism designed to make people feel brave about working in show business. Pietro Scalia, the winner for Best Film Editing, earns a nomination for boasting: "Editors are like alchemists; we play with magic."
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the winner for Best Documentary Feature, nearly takes the Most Flattering Picture award for his magnificent line, "If we are doing documentaries, that [is] because we do believe that as storyteller we can help dreams come true." The genius of this line is that it spotlights the storyteller in the guise of spotlighting the story. But the Oscar goes to Ray McKinnon, the man behind The Accountant (Best Short Film, Live Action), for accepting "this wonderful honor in a category that still allows for a person who is just burning to make a movie to load the camera in the back of his daddy's old truck and gather up some talented dreamers and do it." McKinnon's next movie should be The Self-Romanticizing Filmmaker.
Best Accolade Makeup: This honor goes to the actor who projects the most tenderness, spirituality, or erudition by using flowery prose to describe others. Denzel Washington, the winner for Best Actor in a Leading Role, gets a mention in this category for calling everyone in his life "beautiful," including his agent. Connelly earns a nod for exalting Alicia Nash, the heroine of A Beautiful Mind, as "a true champion of love," though points are deducted for tackiness since Connelly played Nash and used her Oscar speech to proclaim her own belief in love.
Berry nearly takes the prize for her tributes to her manager ("the only father I've ever known") and her director ("you gently guided me to very scary places") but loses points for slight ickiness. The Oscar goes to Grazer, whose literary excess ("the profound Russell Crowe," "the sublime Jennifer Connelly") led him to declare Howard a uniquely "evolving filmmaker" and to thank his writer for creating a "difficult" script.
Best Ego-Costume Design: This award goes to the performer who most effectively flatters himself in the guise of self-deprecation. Grazer gets an acknowledgment in this category for bragging about his new career by belittling his old one: "I started out in the business as a writer. Not a very good writer … I found that my calling was to tell stories as a producer." Washington earns a nod for implying his greatness in the form of a negative: "I said I wanted to be the best actor in the world. All the students in the classroom looked at me like I was a nut." But the Oscar goes to Howard for this brilliant bank shot: "I am not a good enough actor anymore to be able to stand up here and make you believe that I haven't imagined this moment in my mind over the years."
Best Deity in a Supporting Role: This is a new category at the Oscars. It used to be confined to Christian athletes, but the rise of nondenominational, self-centered spirituality has made it a hot competition in Hollywood as well. The object is to praise God for making you better than other people. Third place in this contest goes to Grazer for calling his defeat of four other movies in the Best Picture category "a miracle." Second place goes to Washington for opening his acceptance speech with the words, "God is good, God is great." But the Oscar goes to Berry for thanking the academy "for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing may flow."
Best Actor in a Movement-Leading Role: This honor goes to the entertainer who most effectively uses his Oscar to claim the status of icon, voice, and redeemer of a group or cause. Blacks are this year's group, and Washington's classy salute to Sidney Poitier was no match for Berry's la race c'est moi performance. "This moment is so much bigger than me," she effused. "This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It's for the women who stand behind me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox, and it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."
Berry's speech achieved the crucial purpose of all bigger-than-me speeches: to enlarge one's significance by sharing it. But credit Berry for generosity. Alluding to the fact that the academy had taken 74 years to recognize a black woman, she refused to end her speech on time: "Wait a minute, I got to take 74 years here. I got to take this time. I got to thank my lawyer, Neil Meyer, for making this deal …" After 74 years, the least the academy could do for black women was to allow a plug for Neil Meyer. Give that lady an Oscar.