When you ask Google why the Academy Awards are called the Oscars, you get the Internet’s rarest answer: Who knows? Some people say Bette Davis is responsible; according to the story, she named her 1936 award (for playing an alcoholic actress in Dangerous) after her first husband, bandleader Harmon Oscar Nelson. The only trouble with this is that Walt Disney had reputedly referred to his statuette as Oscar two years earlier, when he won the award for best cartoon short.
The story that seems most plausible to me — it’s also the one I like best — is that the name was bestowed by Margaret Herrick, who was executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from the early 1940s until her retirement in 1971. Ms. Herrick was only a librarian in 1931, when she commented that the statuette reminded her of her Uncle Oscar.
Ah, Uncle Oscar. Either that sounds just about right or your Uncle Stevie is crazy. And your Uncle Stevie is not crazy.
Every year when Uncle-time rolls around, it occurs to me that people who only like going to the movies love the Oscars, but people who really love the movies only like the Oscars. As a guy who feels disappointed if he doesn’t see at least 80 movies a year, I put myself in the second group. I can appreciate a gorgeous woman in a gorgeous dress, but I couldn’t care less about the fashionista breakdown of who wore what and how well it worked. To me, shots of beautiful people hobnobbing in their seats are no more thrilling than TV close-ups of athletes sitting on the bench during a boring part of the ball game, and a red carpet is just something you walk on to get out of the rain.
Besides, I haven’t really had a dog in this fight since The Green Mile was nominated for Best Picture and my pal Frank Darabont got a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay back in 2000. On Academy Awards night I get my snacks — usually something lo-cal, like barbecue-flavored pork rinds — and watch until I get sleepy. I usually end up reading about who got the big Uncles online the next day — not to mention whatever nonsense they spouted. It really is nonsense, by and large, but that’s all right. Because it doesn’t matter. Neither do the awards themselves, except perhaps to the recipients and certainly to the bean counters, who know that a few gold Uncles at the Academy Awards can mean a lot more Benjamins at the box office. That the awards should have a carelessly bestowed (not to mention endearingly goofy) nickname seems fitting to me.
What matters are the movies themselves: the really good ones, the really interesting ones (which often means the ones that are nominated but don’t win). Most films are neither good nor interesting. I think we know this. Occasionally one so exceptionally bad shows up — I’m thinking of Gigli and the perfectly awful Freddy Got Fingered — that we marvel over it. For such history-making cinematic excreta we have the Razzies. But most movies — stuff like Michael Mann’s forgettable Public Enemies — are just mediocre. No Uncles for them. No Razzies, either.
The thing is, movies are a collaborative art, and creative people often don’t play well with others. Harmony is rare. When it occurs, I feel a sublime gratification, and it’s this — the hope of this — that keeps bringing me back. You don’t need a gussied-up TV special to tell you that Jeff Bridges is great in Crazy Heart, and whatever Bridges might say if he wins is pretty much irrelevant, because he left it all up there on the screen, and happened — O lucky man — to be surrounded by just the right people to help him do it.
One final Uncle Oscar item to put on your calendar for next year: If you don’t know about Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, you’re missing the hands-down best value on basic cable. The colors are vibrant, the sound is crisp, and the wide-screen films are properly letterboxed. The black-and-white movies are even better, the prints looking as fresh and clean as the day they were struck. This year TCM showed a mind-boggling 360 Oscar winners and nominees, ranging from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang to Alien. All commercial-free. No pretty ladies in pretty dresses, but that’s okay; I pick the movies themselves over Uncle Oscar every time.