I was nine years old when I first watched the Academy Awards, the first time I really understood what they were and rooted for a movie to win. It was April 15th, 1971 and I remember being allowed to stay up late to see whether or not my favorite movie that year — Airport — would win. It’s a fuzzy memory, watered down by time and the similarity of multiple memories of ceremonies past, but I do remember noting a certain look on my mother’s face whenever I expressed my hopes for a Best Picture win. It’s a knowing look a parent gives when they want to be encouraging in the face of a child’s lack of understanding. Of course I hadn’t seen any of the other nominees — why should that matter?
By most accounts, 1970 was a good year for movies. Nominees for Best Picture that year were Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, M*A*S*H, and the winner, Patton. The Best Documentary winner that year was Woodstock, and the Beatles walked away with a Best Song Score for their cinematic epitaph Let It Be. If I had to pick a winner from that group today, having since seen them, I would have had a hard time choosing between Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H. Neither Love Story nor Airport have held up as well over time, but that’s always the gamble when picking the “best” of anything in a given year.
It wasn’t like I would have seen any of the other films that year. I only went to Airport because my aunt was in town and wanted to do something. Or maybe it was the teen girl upstairs who occasionally watched us kids while our parents went out. Whatever the reason, I had seen my first real grown-up movie in a theatre (as opposed to “adult” movies with their triple-x connotations) and as far as I was concerned it was the best movie I’d ever seen.
I don’t know if I’ve missed and Oscar night since, though having seen that many I can’t be sure how many were truly memorable.
I grew up in LA and Hollywood is a company town. I quite literally had MGM movie lots just over the wall in my backyard. MGM took out full-page ads i the back of my high school yearbook. The Oscars were a big deal but only because Hollywood made sure they were a big deal, a tradition that continues to this day across the country. If you know which film had the highest grosses on any given opening weekend — or better still, went to a movie because it was opening weekend — then you have participated in one of the longest running and most successful marketing strategies of the last 50 years. Hollywood might seem perpetually on the brink of collapse, but you’ll ever see a studio in line for a government bail-out. It’s one factory that just keeps humming along.
But my adult self, looking back and from the perspective as a writer with an interest in younger readers, feels a little sad that we don’t have a similar national excitement over books. A few years earlier, in 1968, I would have been in a better position to choose a title from the ALA Newbery list: The Black Pearl, The Egypt Game, The Fearsome Inn, Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, and the “winner,” From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (a good year for Konigsburg with two titles in the running. My first choice would have been The Black Pearl, but I would have been fine with The Mixed Up Files. I would have been 100% behind the 1970 winner, Sounder, a book my teacher read to us in class. I fact, while most of my serious moviegoing didn’t take place until my late teens, and my knowledge of Oscar nominated films was minimal prior to that, I was well-versed in books — for adults and for kids — and could have been as equally excited by an awards show treated with the panache of the Academy Awards. In adult books, 1970 saw the publication of 84 Charing Cross Road, Hard Times, Deliverance, Ringworld, QB VII, The Paper Chase, Islands in the Stream (posthumously), and Master and Commander. What fun it would have been to root among those titles!
I know, what bizarro planet am I living on, thinking we would celebrate books and authors the way we elevate and celebrate movies and actors?
For just a moment though, lets imagine that world. Folks are rushing around getting food and drinks ready for their Book Award party. Some are even doing themselves up in the costumes of their favorite characters. Celebrity authors are hosting — that is, authors who are celebrities, as opposed to those who are wielding their fame in other areas to get books deals — and there are dramatic readings and reenactments of key passages from this years’ nominees. This year (finally!) they have a Graphic Novel category, there’s a separate special category for audio poetry, and rumor has it that Apple has bought ad space right in the middle of the broadcast to launch their new, smaller tablet that will make one-handed reading easier than on any other e-reader. The ads on TV and in newspapers have been pretty intense, but no more so that the friendly arguments taking place in people’s homes across the country as everyone chooses their favorite books. Buyers in bookstores have already hedged their bets and pre-ordered some titles they expect to win, but are otherwise glued to their seats tonight with phone in hand ready to place orders for winners. Pre-paid orders for winning titles will turn the day after the ceremony into the second biggest sales day in most stores fiscal year, right after Black Friday in November. Office betting pools will be won, lesser-known authors will gain new-found clout, full-page ads will fete the winners in the newspapers…
Sadly, there really is nothing like Oscar night… for books.