When it comes to meaningless, magnificent obsessions, it's tough to beat the Academy Awards.
Perfectly positioned between the end of that other magnificent, meaningless obsession — football — and the promise of warmer weather, the Oscars allow us to ride out the remaining days of chilled hibernation by culminating a year-long journey through the American spirit.
The Academy Awards have a touch of everything that makes the United States the great nation it is today — competition, cultural divides, media saturation, the rewarding of the already fortunate, class warfare, illogical voting rules, millions spent on campaigns, pretense, the inalienable right to ridicule the artistic taste of the guy in the cubicle next to you, overindulgence, extravagance, hubris, envy, jealousy, insincerity, clothes that have no other purpose, and the communal waste of four hours seated in front of an HD television listening to stale jokes, wooden presenter banter, droning acceptance speeches, the half-hearted smiles and golf-clap applause of "gracious" losers and ill-conceived musical numbers in an extravaganza presided over by a guy who made a movie about a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed teddy bear ... all the while getting up close and personal with articificially enhanced narcissists who truly shouldn't be seen through high- resolution imaging.
God Bless America, and pass the popcorn!
The Oscars answer the great American question — Who's going to win? — and set off arguments that last for decades.
Let's take, for instance, 1996. Out of "Dead Man Walking," "Leaving Las Vegas," "The Usual Suspects," "Casino" and "The Bridges of Madison County," which would you have selected as Best Picture?
Well, it's a trick question, of course — since none of them were nominated in the category eventually won by ... by ... lemme check ... oh yeah ... "Braveheart."
It was years such as that which led the academy to the practice of opening the Best Picture contest up to between five and 10 films.
And that decision, ultimately, has played a key role in what is likely to be the Best Picture outcome tonight.
"Argo" has won the top prize from the Producers, Directors, Writers and Screen Actors guilds ... in other words, the people who vote for the Oscars. If it fails to win the top prize tonight, it will be the biggest upset in this category since stunned presenter Jack Nicholson opened the envelope and said "Crash" instead of "Brokeback Mountain."
And "Argo" owes some of its awards season success to Ben Affleck being shut out of the Best Director category. This, in Oscar lexicon, was a "major snub" that has in turn brought the voting membership together in support for his film.
But, wait just a golly-gosh-darned minute! There are nine Best Picture nominees, and only the standard five for Best Director. That means four would have been left out, anyway. Besides, why is Affleck a major snub while Kathryn Bigelow, Tom Hopper and Quentin Tarantino are in the same boat?
Nevermind, for Affleck became the story and with the help of a Warner Bros. campaign estimated at $10 million, it appears that "Argo" will reap the ultimate reward. Although, to paraphrase Duane Thomas, if this is the ultimate prize, why are they giving out the same thing next year?
This sort of thing is what makes the build-up to the Academy Awards better than the eventual payoff, and you can find examples all through the ceremony.
For instance, the Dame Judi Dench Effect will be in clear view tonight. She's not nominated this year, but the truism that now bears her name can be seen in the Best Supporting Actress category.
At the 1998 Oscars, Dench was favored to win Best Actress for her role in the sterling "Mrs. Brown," but lost to Helen Hunt in the wretched "As Good As It Gets." The next year, the Academy made good on the gaffe by giving Dench the Best Supporting Actress award for "Shakespeare in Love" ... a film she appeared in for roughly eight minutes.
This year, Anne Hathaway likely will win Supporting Actress for "Les Miserables," despite relatively scant screen time, in part because she should have been honored as Best Actress in 2009 for "Rachel Getting Married" — losing out to Kate Winslet in "The Reader" ... whose performance had been considered as a supporting role by the Screen Actos Guild.
Hathaway's win would deny the Oscar to ... are you ready? ... Helen Hunt, whose work in "The Sessions" was truly award-worthy. But it's the circle of life, and Dench, Hathaway, Hunt and Winslet will all have their Oscars — if not for the roles for which they were deserved.
The other acting race to watch tonight is Best Actor. Daniel Day-Lewis has won every award along the way, and should win for playing the title role in "Lincoln."
The seemingly certain win by Day-Lewis will give him three Best Actor awards, the first performer to achieve that distinction — breaking a tie with Spencer Tracy, Frederich March, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson (who also has a supporting Oscar) and Sean Penn.
The possible reluctance to elevate Day-Lewis to singular stature, plus his recent win (2008 for "There Will Be Blood"), could leave the door open for an upset victory by Hugh Jackman ("Les Miserables").
Remember, these things don't have to make sense ... they just have to make good television. Or really, really, really bad television. Either works for the magnificently obsessed.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin, who walked out of the theater midway through "Silver Linings Playbook" (so what does he know?), can be reached at email@example.com.