The Oscars: The Cadillac of Celebrity Paratexts

Curator's Note

Celebrities are the sum of their parts: all of the ways that they appear in public, every film or television show in which the star appears, everything that is said about them, every picture that is taken and made available for public consumption. Together, these bits of information, pictoral evidence, and gossip form the celebrity's image, i.e. what he/she "means" or signifies within the realm of popular culture.

Award shows provide a primary means of celebrity image-making.  Through dress choices, red carpet interviews, reactions to jokes at their expense, and acceptance speeches, the Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, and Oscars all add texture and prestige to a celebrity's image.  

Except when they don't.  A well-chosen gown, hairstyle, or significant other can land a celebrity on "Best Dressed" lists, but the poorly chosen ones are the ones we remember, from Bjork's infamous swan dress (image inflection: she's weird) to Gwyneth Paltrow's ill-fitting pink ballerina dress (image inflection: she's fragile and loves Ben Affleck.  At least at the moment).  An acceptance speech at the Oscar's can even turn into the defining moment of a star's image -- Sally Field's "They Like Me, They Really Like Me," for example, or Halle Berry's tearful acceptance for Monster's Ball.  

This past year, the Oscars helped add texture to a star image that many people thought they knew well, namely, that of Natalie Portman.  The first real "damage" occured when she won the Golden Globe for Best Actress and gave a weepy, sacchrine speech about her "Love," recent fiancé, and choreographer for Black Swan, Benajamin Millepied.  The sentiments were repeated at The Oscars, where her pregnant belly and thankfulness for "the role of her life" (that of a mother) challenged her existing image, which had been characterized by her profanity-laced appearance in a viral SNL video, quirky boyfriends, attendance at Harvard, and her history as a precocious child actor.  

The two acceptance speeches fanned the flames of existing gossip concerning Portman and Millepied's relationship: he had svengalied her; she was under his spell, he was a total creep, etc. Which is all to say that an appearance at the Oscars has tremendous power -- an award may increase a star's value within the industry, but the "performance" at the awards ceremony itself can forever alter what the star "means" to his or her audience.


Okay, that Golden Globes speech did indeed put me over the edge--it was a terrible and kinda gross speech (where she explicitly referenced the sex that produced the pronounced baby bump).  So, yes, her image kinda went up in flames for me in that moment, only made worse here.  This leads to all kinds of questions for me, though--how nice that I have you to ask about them.  :)

The other, perhaps more hurtful if less visible, scandal related to Portman arose after the giddiness of the Oscars died down, when the dancer that stood in for her questioned the amount of dancing Portman performed on screen.  Did the Oscar speech set her up for this sort of critique (she didn't really deserve it)?  Do awards also turn actors into punching bags as we (media, fan haters, bloggers) try to cut the enlarged egos of stars back down to size?

What about when the reading of the star is split?  You mentioned Gwyneth's dress, and I agree that it was just awful.  But not everyone read it that way.  Some thought she looked so sweet and young and fresh and whatever other adjective you can pull from a Summer's Eve commercial.  How do the competing discourses interact to build that star's image?

This kind of discussion, although valuable, always raises a certain amount of sympathy within me for the stars scrutinized first by the media, then by the fans, and ultimately by those who study these reactions.  But your post brings up an excellent point, Anne, and one that is often taken for granted.  While the media certainly helps shape our perceptions of celebrities outside of the silver screen - poparazzi anyone? - and while wardrobes are picked over endlessly, few acknowledge the powerful influence an actor or actress's "performance" at an awards ceremony can have over the popular conception of that person.

This also brings up the loaded concept of authenticity, something that is vital to the legitimacy of these awards but which is always nonetheless precarious at best. How authentic are these awards when the dresses are painstakingly brooded over, every word and gesture of the attendees are analyzed, speeches are considered as performance, and it's almost a given that a "pity prize" will go out yearly to an older and revered performer who has yet to claim his or her trophy? This again harkens back to the tension between authentic recognition and televised entertainment. However, if part of authenticity is the errors we make in judgment, in the sometimes stupid things we say when we're in love or on the spot, then we can start to make a case that the Oscars are authentic even as they remain manufactured and orchestrated, are imperfectly awkward even as they affect a dignified air. 

Do we watch award ceremonies to see performers be recognized or humiliated? Do we watch them to see performers at their best - or worst? And as Karen suggests, is this judgment ultimately up to how these "performances" are read?

Annie, your post has me imagining an Ien Ang-style study of Oscars viewers. Perhaps some ethnographic research exists? What I love about your post and Karen's comment is that they focus on Portman and other female celebrities. To what extent is the kind of Oscars-viewing a gendered reception experience? How deeply are the responses of female viewers tied up in levels of alternating identifications with female celebrities? Perhaps this is too obvious to mention, and I know I'm playing the male/straight dolt here, but...

I'd be hard-pressed to recall a dress that Gwyneth Paltrow has ever worn and vaguely recall that Natalie Portman was pregnant and effusive on the Golden Globes. It reminds me that what I love about The Oscars is not the show itself. It's the responses of those watching the show with me, particularly in terms of the show's complicated layers of gendered significations.


The gendered reception of the Oscars is *huge* -- I always refer to it as my "Female Superbowl" and make the same sort of spectacle for it that others (men and women, but mostly men) do for important sporting events.  There simply is no other event that brings together so many subjects of gossip and glamour in one place, and if you've ever seen a group of women (and fashion-inclined men) watching the red carpet, you know the sort of reaction this spectacle encourages.  (Oh my GOD, LOOK AT HER DRESS, etc. etc.)  

But the reception is always negotiated, as you point out.  I don't listen to the announcers on the red carpet; I (and the people with whom I'm watching) make our commentary.  Same goes for the ceremony itself: its meaning is as much how audiences reacted to it at home as what actually happened on stage.  

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