Mirror on the wall, who's the best actor of them all?

I have something to confess that I've not even told my mother. I like to stand in front of my bathroom mirror, shampoo bottle held triumphantly aloft, and thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for my Oscar. Odd, really, considering I'm not even in the film industry.

I admit this proclivity of mine prior to the 72nd Academy Awards Sunday with nary a dint of shame because I know I'm not the only one out there doing this. I'm not just referring to the actual nominees themselves, who even now are fervently practicing their "I really wan't expecting to win" speeches like it's their first Spielberg movie audition. No, people beyond the celluloid world love this award because Hollywood allows us to imagine being someone other than the person we see in our bathroom mirrors.

Partly it's our fascination with stardom. The Oscar show's producers know it, too. It's the reason winners of, say, the Sound Effects Editing category are cut off precisely 30 seconds into their speeches by the orchestra welling up, a helpful hint that they've overshot the attention span of remote-tapping TV viewers. No, we'd rather see plucky little Italian Roberto Benigni surfing chairs on a wave of applause as he makes his way to the stage. Or Gwyneth Paltrow thanking everyone in the phone book while her mascara runs. Or Jack Palance doing one-arm push-ups. Here, for once, are the celebs unscripted; an opportunity to unravel their mystery.

And partly it's the glamour. We're lured - either by awe or curiosity - to the latest take on what passes for a tux and the sequined gowns shimmering their way up the red carpet into the pavilion. We also marvel that the occasional actress can parade with impunity clothing that would get any other woman arrested on charges of public indecency. (Sure, there are fashion police - but barbs by Joan Rivers never stopped Cher from wearing outfits resembling cast-offs from Queen Amidala in "The Phantom Menace.")

There's the drama of a great contest: Don't we always love the chance to root for a favorite player and team? The most suspense-filled line on TV isn't "Is that your final answer?" It's "and the Oscar goes to ...," as the TV screen subdivides into five segments, each with a tight angle close-up of a nominee, catching every nanotwitch of people pursing their lips in readiness to smile. And boy, when people lose at the Oscars, it's like it's the single most happy moment of their lives. There ought to be an Oscar for "Best Performance in a Losing Role."

When, upon winning her Oscar, Sally Field famously exclaimed, "you like me - you really like me," we knew how she felt. Watching the winners is a chance for those of us who never won so much as a spelling bee to vicariously experience the adulation of gliding into the spotlight. Many of us crave a moment's glory for the work we do, and the Oscar epitomizes the "No. 1" success our culture values so much.

But mostly we watch the Academy Awards because the cinema unites us across age, class, and race barriers like no other art form, in a shared emotional experience. At its best, the darkened "forgetting room" allows us to temporarily step outside ourselves to experience something that powerfully touches us by playing off our aspirations and core values - love, honor, courage, beauty, and right versus wrong. It's a phenomenal medium, and the awards are our opportunity to celebrate this, our favorite cultural pastime.

As for my Oscar hopes? I'm starting to relinquish my dream of winning one, (I'm adapting my finely honed speech to fit a Pulitzer Prize instead), but those of you who covet an Oscar would do well to learn of actress Jean Harlow's solution to the problem. She named her dog "Oscar" so that she could say she had one.

*Stephen Humphries - who grew up watching the Oscars in places such as South Africa and England - is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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