A somewhat unexpected Twitter record was set during Sunday’s Academy Awards. In the midst of all the usual fanfare of the evening, host Ellen DeGeneres took a brief moment to whip out her smart phone and take a selfie with a very famous chunk of the audience crowded around her. After tweeting it, the picture set a world record, receiving over 1 million re-tweets in under an hour. For a short time, the surge in traffic actually managed to temporarily crash Twitter’s servers.
This leaves many pondering what the big deal was. Is this just one of many PR gimmicks associated with the Oscars, or is there more going on here? What exists within the confines of this little photo that motivated millions of people to want to engage with it? For that matter, what place does a cheesy Hollywood award show have in today’s cultural landscape of political disillusionment, media distrust, and social satire?
The easy argument is that of celebrity. Oscar viewers are obsessed with the famous and Twitter is the latest superficial vessel for us to feel closer to the famous. People love to watch the Oscars because it grants them a few brief hours to lay eyes upon some of the most successful and attractive actors in the business. A photo of everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to Kevin Spacey gaily gawking into a cell phone like college kids at a party is satisfying to witness, mainly because it reinforces the myth that these are people that we know. They’re just pleasing the proletariat.
There is, perhaps, a more optimistic view. One could attribute the Twitter response from the Oscar audience to something astonishingly authentic. The Oscar guests and nominees aren’t merely a bunch of celebrities. Many of them indeed are some of the most successful actors, directors, and producers that Hollywood has to offer. In an age where mass media is king, this charges them with the responsibility of telling many of the most important stories of our time. And they have met that charge with some astonishing films.
To name a few, this year involved reminding us of the all-too-often smoothed over history of slavery’s brutality (12 years a slave), embodying the early neglect of HIV patients, due in part to homophobia during the 1980’s (Dallas Buyer’s Club), and demonstrating the importance of personal identity in an era of tough economic times and superficial norms (American Hustle). These, along with many other stories of equal weight, are what the Oscars are about. They recognize some, not all, but some, of the best creative endeavors in film in a given year. That evokes a scene that isn’t only star-studded, but also highly sentimental.
We want to participate in that sentimentality. Watching a famous person’s hands tremble upon winning an award, seeing a sound editor thank their spouse with tears in their eyes, or tweeting an image of actors having a laugh brings us entertainment and a sense of connection to others, just like the movies do. The sight of actors leaping out of their seats to be in a cell phone picture insinuates that filmmakers want a connection with their audience just like the audience wants a connection with their films.
There’s no good argument against the fact that the Oscars can at times appear more than a bit vanilla. Its format with a velvet red carpet and glitzy stars announcing their clothing brands can seem tacky, out of date, and at times quite corporate. But when one peels back those layers of superficiality, something meaningful never fails to appear. Whether that is embodied by an acceptance speech, or an impromptu Twitter pic, we like to be reminded that film matters. That art matters. That dreams matter. That we matter. Perhaps saying that is just as corny as taking a selfie and posting it on Twitter. But maybe that should be okay. Just like every Oscar season, the magic is as real or fake as you want it to be. That is where its power lies.