Act your age? Not tonight.

When the sun sets tonight in Hollywood, Calif., and the Oscars have all been handed out, there will be a couple of actresses who will be happier than they have been in a very long time. Why? They will finally be able to eat.

Let’s face it, a lot of those women have been starving themselves for days so they can be squeezed into their gowns. Someday I would love to be a fly on the wall at an after-party because I imagine some people are seriously scarfing down the Spago pizza. It can’t be pretty.

I really enjoy the Academy Awards and not simply because none of the women are wearing underwear. (Remember Helen Mirren when she won for “The Queen?” Commando. She said so herself.) Certainly I will be perched in front of a television set tonight watching the Academy Award festivities. I have my favorite movies from 2008. I know which ones I wish had been nominated. And I am fascinated by our cultural response to the ceremony. It’s not just that we care who wins. We care what the winners (and losers) wear and we savor their acceptance speeches: Just how many agents, producers and directors will the recipient be allowed to thank before the conductor starts the music and the cement lid is unceremoniously dropped on the septic tank of verbal gibberish?

But as a novelist I am also a little bemused during the proceedings. One of my very favorite actors is Tom Hanks. When he gave his acceptance speech for winning Best Actor for 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” he thanked “an army of people” and “the ensemble of actors.” He thanked his wife and his director. Who did he not thank? Winston Groom, the guy who wrote the novel in the first place.

The reality, of course, is that not a whole lot of us will bother to turn on Book TV to watch the publishing equivalent of the Oscars, the National Book Awards ceremony held in Manhattan every November. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which have more validity than others. To wit: Books aren’t motion pictures, which means there aren’t a great many clips or videos to watch. Few books gross millions (and millions) of dollars, and the arts are not exempt from a cultural belief that clout is inextricably linked to fiscal return. And, finally, most people watch more movies than they read books.

Then, of course, there are the somewhat less important reasons why we are more fixated on the Oscars: Most actors and actresses are a lot better looking than most writers (and, at least tonight, they are a lot less likely to wear underwear). Moreover, the categories in the National Book Awards are pretty dull by comparison. We have things like Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry. Young People’s Literature. What we need are more awards like Best Serial Killer. Most Interesting Tattoo on a Supporting Character. Best Use of a Natural Disaster to Propel a Plot Forward.

This year’s Academy Awards don’t have a lot of slam-dunk, surefire winners, but there are a few. The late Heath Ledger will win Best Supporting Actor for his turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” The Best Animated Feature Film will go to “Wall-E.” And for Best Use of Transvideo Monitors in Spherical and Anamorphic Cinematography, expect the Oscar to be handed to … who cares. Not a lot of us get excited about the Scientific and Technical Awards, except for the nominees, their families, and the town car companies that love the idea that those statues are given out on a second day, thus doubling their business. Still, I think more people focus on the Academy’s technical awards than on the National Book Awards.

One possible solution to this inequity? Next November when the book prizes are awarded, I think the nominees should have A-List actors and actresses on hand to accept them. And no one should even think of wearing underwear.

In the meantime, enjoy tonight’s awards — and root hard for the orchestra.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on February 22, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian
Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of eighteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Guest Room. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Act your age? Not tonight.

  1. Elisabeth Hyde says:

    Other National Book Award Categories: Best Use of Dickensian Coincidence, Best Verbal Pyrotechnics, Best Minimalism …
    And I think Philip Seymour Hoffman looked kind of like a writer just pulled from his desk, don’t you?
    (PS: yes, I’m the author of The Abortionist’s Daughter, and a huge belated thanks for giving me such a nice comment!)

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