The time was early 1977, and I was interviewing actor Burgess Meredith over lunch when his telephone call arrived. Returning to our table with a broad smile, the star of movies like "Of Mice and Men" and TV shows like "Batman" shared the news: He'd just received his second Academy Award nomination for his appearance in "Rocky" as Sylvester Stallone's crusty boxing coach.
"And you know what?" he quickly added, "I think they should leave it at that. They've made their choices for five top performances. What's the point of narrowing it down to one?"
Many would agree. The process is bound to involve choices between cinematic apples and oranges - equally enticing, but appealing to different parts of the palate. This year, for instance, how could any sensible contest pit Tom Cruise's ferocious sensuality in "Magnolia" against Haley Joel Osment's fragile innocence in "The Sixth Sense"?
More moviegoers would disagree with Meredith's point, though. In the 72 years since it began, the annual competition sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has become an institution in itself, more widely viewed and heatedly debated than many of the movies it's designed to celebrate.
Detractors call it a mere popularity contest measuring glitz and glamour more accurately than artistic merit. But supporters say the contest has become an indispensable aspect of the show-biz scene, where lines between flashiness and aesthetics aren't hewn very deeply.
Above and beyond such disputes, there's no denying that Oscar night is one of the great party occasions in any given year - and decrying the silliness of particular victories, defeats, and last-minute surprises is at least half the fun.
It's unlikely that Meredith's common-sense proposal will ever be enacted into Hollywood law. Indeed, award ceremonies have multiplied over the years, and their growth shows little sign of slowing. The entertainment trade paper Variety counts no fewer than 332 such events in 1999, an increase of about 25 percent over the 1997 figure.
High-profile races like the Oscars and Golden Globes draw the most attention, but a recent Associated Press account notes that more-specialized contests are also proliferating. Some, like the Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild awards, capitalize on early excitement over the Oscars while offering advance indications of how The Big One might transpire. Others cater to specific audiences - the Genesis Awards, for example, honor film contributions to animal welfare - while still others, like the 20-year-old Golden Raspberry Awards, serve curmudgeonly interests by spotlighting the worst instead of the best.
Beyond the question of which prizes carry the most clout - and give the largest boost at the box office - some observers ask whether awards have a beneficial impact on the motion-picture world, or whether they further trivialize an already celebrity-oriented and money-driven industry.
One skeptic is Richard Pea, a film professor at Columbia University and program director of Lincoln Center's influential New York Film Festival, which differs from many filmfests in that it's never given a prize in its 37-year history.
"We have competition at so many levels of our society," Mr. Pea says, "that I wish we could spare ourselves this when we're dealing with works of art. Also, the criteria that come into play with art are so arbitrary and subjective. Two different filmmakers might use different means of treating a subject, and both be 'correct' in their results. How can you say which is better?"
Pea appreciates the fun many viewers find in the Academy Awards race; he recognizes that an Oscar for an adventurous or offbeat director - as Woody Allen was considered to be before his "Annie Hall" triumph - can broaden Hollywood's horizons. But he detects a problem in more "serious" categories like best documentary and foreign-language film.
"The academy often doesn't represent an interesting point of view on what's really going on in those fields," Pea notes. "There must be some way the nominees in these areas can be made to represent international film at its best, instead of being the hodgepodge you usually have."
A contrasting view comes from Peter Brunette, movie critic for www.film.com and a George Mason University film professor. "Awards are wonderful," he says, "because they focus attention. There's too much out there - too many movies, too many festivals. When a prize is given, it means somebody is taking a stand. Some group has put together its collective wisdom, however failed or faulty that may be, to consider a group of films and tell us which it thinks are best."
Dr. Brunette doesn't mind the idea of works competing with each other because "art has always been about competition. People like Rembrandt and Shakespeare are the ones who 'won the contest,' so to speak. Film has a powerful history of being tied up with commercial aspects ... and even in the so-called higher arts, every work has a historical and cultural connection with its time. There's nothing transcendental about these things, so it's perfectly legitimate to take considerations like awards and prizes into account."
Most movie fans are also Oscar fans, so they're likely to stand with Brunette in this debate. This may be yet another sign of how deeply competition is ingrained in contemporary life, but at a time when many moviegoers follow weekly box-office figures as if they were sports statistics, award races bear just so much responsibility. In any case, it's doubtful that Hollywood would suddenly brim with artistic integrity if such events miraculously vanished.
This said, it's worth maintaining an attitude of healthy skepticism toward movie-world horse races for at least two reasons. One is that they're hardly ever the pure tests of "artistic merit" or even "entertainment value" that they claim to be. Even a supporter like Brunette notes that industry and festival prizes must be taken with a large grain of salt, since "political pressures may have entered the decision, friendships might have been involved, certain countries might have been favored."
Such considerations are especially keen with regard to the Oscar race, where -as filmmaker Josh Freed demonstrated in "The Envelope Please," his widely seen 1996 documentary - studios and distributors wage expensive public-relations campaigns designed to sway the votes of academy members.
This year's race has been particularly marked by political considerations, moreover, with nominees like "The Hurricane" and "The Insider" favored by some for their sociocultural messages but scorned by others for their alleged twisting of real-life incidents.
The other reason for skepticism is that movies are an art - sometimes actually, always potentially - and scrambling for prizes is hardly conducive to the dignity and seriousness that the best films strive to attain.
Oscar night will surely be with us for the foreseeable future, and it will continue to bring many laughs and sighs to viewers around the world. But the year's most truly artistic achievements may never be mentioned, since they were produced and exhibited too far outside the Hollywood system. The actual nominees are skewed toward what the industry likes best about itself, not what's best for our social and cultural welfare.
So wise viewers may watch the Oscars this Sunday night - but they'll fix their eyes beyond the prize.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society