As soon as James Franco and Anne Hathaway take the stage for tonight’s 83rd annual Academy Awards, I’ll be hanging on every quip, feasting on every shot of a gorgeous celebrity, and waiting in anticipation for another class of films to be crowned. I’ve watched every telecast for the last 27 years, which is more than some people, less than others. But tonight will be the first Oscar show for someone else, maybe some kid who saw How to Train Your Dragon six times in the theater or some young girl who discovered Johnny Depp on the screen with this year’s Alice in Wonderland. I make this assumption because my first Oscar baptism was dominated by films I hadn’t seen, and that I wouldn’t see for years. In 1984, the clear front-runner was Terms of Endearment, with The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies, and The Big Chill hoping for an upset. I tuned in, hoping that War Games and Return of the Jedi would sweep the slate somehow — maybe with some write-in putsch or something.
Johnny Carson hosted that night for the last time, and he made everyone laugh with a joke about his recent divorce: “My personal life has been exactly like this year’s Academy Awards,” he said. “It started off with Terms of Endearment. I thought I had The Right Stuff, but it cost a lot to Dresser. Then came The Big Chill, and the past month, I’ve been begging for Tender Mercies.” I had no clue what he was talking about.
Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to be Matthew Broderick’s or Yoda’s year — the two hit films went a combined 0-for-7 — I found myself pulling for The Right Stuff over Endearment. Mind you, I hadn’t seen either, but the clips of The Right Stuff seemed so much more appealing to a 10-year old boy: optimistic, muscular, with men walking in slow-motion years before Michael Bay copyrighted that technique! Terms of Endearment seemed like something my mother talked about on the phone with her sisters. A bunch of technical awards made The Right Stuff seem like it had a chance in the major categories, so I was crushed when Michael Gore’s score for Endearment became the soundtrack of the evening, after Shirley MacLaine, Jack Nicholson, and James L. Brooks turned the contest into a rout. I refused to watch the Oscar-winning film for more than decade in protest (and I nearly allowed my childish bitterness towards Brooks to ruin my ultimate love for Broadcast News).
The show lasted three hours and 42 minutes, but I didn’t miss a moment. I remember being confused when Linda Hunt won Best Supporting Actress for playing a man in The Year of Living Dangerously, totally perplexed by Twiggy, who helped present the award for Best Costume, and struck momentarily speechless by Dolly Parton. It was a great night for me that helped spark one of the great loves of my life. (To be clear, I’m referring to movies, not Dolly.)
I can say that I’ve actually seen the films competing for tonight’s awards, and though the element of suspense has been deflated by the long Oscar season, I’ll be watching to hear the jokes, see the gowns — and just maybe, some long shot will finally have the right stuff.
Do you remember watching your first Oscar telecast? What still stands out in your mind?