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At Oscars, expect the worst

Middling films, blah actors, crass telecast to assault viewers

How did Argo, a pleasant, insubstantial, history-amending political thriller that was greeted upon its release with, at most, mild critical and popular enthusiasm, manage to barrel through awards season racking up one prize after another: the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, the Critics’ Choice award, the Golden Globe and numerous critics’ group prizes?

I’m in the middle of a fascinating book, James English’s Economy of Prestige, about awards culture. One of its key insights is that, in an age increasingly devoid of universally accepted markers of value (the gold watch at retirement), cultural prizes – ordered in a tacitly accepted hierarchy at which the Oscar sits near the top, overshadowed only, perhaps, by the Nobel – have become our chief means of distributing prestige. The Oscars are so symbolically powerful, in fact, that there’s no way of getting outside their gravitational field – even grumbling about the awards’ venality, snarking about them on Twitter, or declaring that you’re skipping them entirely is a way of staking out your position vis-à-vis this yearly rite and shoring up its presence in the collective imagination.

This book has changed my attitude toward the upcoming ceremony and given me a fresh burst of energy for what tends to be a draining time of the year for film critics. But if you approach the Academy Awards not as something to accept or reject, to snub or to live-tweet, but rather as a kind of annual public ritual where beliefs about art, money, power, sex, race and justice collide in unexpected and complex ways (resulting in, for example, Argo somehow winning Best Picture), the idea of writing on the awards suddenly gets a lot more exciting.

Which will come in handy, because tonight’s ceremony threatens to be one of the most actively assaultive on viewers’ sensibilities in years (since, perhaps, Rob Lowe danced with Snow White in an ill-starred 1989 production number). Seth McFarlane – a man whose puerile smugness I find so intolerable I could barely endure that 15-minute announcement of the nominees back in January – will be our host for all 500 hours.

Poor Russell Crowe, fresh from the laughingstock pillory after his lackluster vocal performance in Les Misérables is slated to sing in “a celebration of movie musicals” with Jennifer Hudson and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I’d love to see my favorite Hollywood composer Alexandre Desplat win Best Score (even if he did get nominated for the bound-to-be-over-recognized Argo rather than the unlikely-to-be-recognized-at-all Zero Dark Thirty). And it would be the highlight of my night if Emmanuelle Riva upset Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress of course, of course, J-Law 4eva, but she’ll have an infinity of other chances. And Emmanuelle Riva, in addition to having given a towering performance in Amour, is a cinema legend and a passionate, committed artist and the oldest-ever nominee in the category and the night of the show is her 86th birthday. For the love of God! To deny her the gift of a simple golden statue, and us of the gracious speech she would give through an interpreter, would essentially be to rob one’s own grandmother on Christmas morning.

So, I’ll be over here rooting for the French people.

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