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When we went to brunch on Sunday morning, the card checker was wearing one of those flocked plastic top hats you can buy at party supply stores. The tables were spread with white cloths anchored by vases of roses, and the little paper cards taped to the sneeze guard announced entrée names riddled with cedillas: Chicken Français! Tomato Provençal! Harvard University Dining Services rarely affects this level of sophistication when juniors’ parents aren’t in attendance; clearly, something was afoot.
An announcement on HUDS’ table tent (“Weekly Slice for March 10, 2003”) offered an explanation: “RED CARPET BRUNCH,” the tent proclaimed in HUDS’ signature hyperbolic prose. “Sunday, March 16. Come work the red carpet and cast your ballot for this year’s Oscars. Take a walk among the stars and enjoy a feast fit for a diva who has just captured the coveted golden statue. Catch up on some films past and present, and be sure to enter your guesses for this year’s winners. Your predictions may win you some classic movie memorabilia. Thank you to the Academy…”
While I doubted very much that any diva who had just captured a golden statue would be eating Chicken Français à la HUDS, and while it was difficult to see how outfitting the kitchen staff with plastic top hats would catch us up on any film other than 1935’s Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire spectacular “Top Hat” (which garnered four Oscar nominations but not a single win), I found HUDS’ efforts touchingly quixotic. How deeply invested in the Academy Awards could any Harvard student be? The awards’ very existence is based on the un-Harvard notion that someone else knows better than we do.
Despite this apparent incompatibility, a number of furrow-browed students frowning with concentration were filling purple slips of paper with their guesses for this year’s winners. Were Harvard students more interested in the Academy Awards than I had supposed? Curiosity piqued, I dashed to the House library’s magazine rack and discovered an Oscars edition of Entertainment Weekly so well-perused that the cover had almost come off. I groaned. Even at this bastion of independent thought, we had succumbed to the siren’s song of politicking, vamping and bad dresses (and worse jokes) that is the Academy Awards.
My objection to the Oscars is not with the ceremony; in fact, I harbor a certain affection for the constellations of borrowed jewelry and for the tragically misguided hairstyle and wardrobe decisions the evening engenders. No, my objection is to the idea that civilian judgments about movies can be so easily validated or dismissed by the Academy’s awarding of little golden statuettes. Yes, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are better versed in—well—the arts and sciences of the motion picture than we are, but we all know “The Hours” will be the same movie with or without the Academy’s imprimatur.
I was reminded of my objection to the Oscars while listening to National Public Radio (NPR) one morning last week. I heard a report from Linda Wertheimer, who’d been dispatched to St. Charles, Missouri to gauge public opinion about the impending war. To NPR’s coastal audiences, I suppose this qualified as an exotic sort of anthropology; the opinions of St. Charles residents certainly sounded foreign compared to those you hear in Cambridge. Several of the residents of St. Charles told Linda Wertheimer that they didn’t oppose the war in Iraq. They supposed, they said, that President George W. Bush knew something about Iraq that he couldn’t tell Americans. Otherwise, why would he push so hard for the war?
My Cambridge-honed inclination was to tell them exactly why President Bush was pushing so hard for the war. But as I listened groggily, my cynicism was checked by the part of me envied the St. Charles residents’ faith in the President and the ease with which they deferred to his opinion. Wouldn’t it be easier to stop worrying about the war, about the Iraqi civilians, about our plummeting international popularity? Wouldn’t it be easier to surrender my own opinions on the conflict for a perfect Midwestern deference to the president?
And then I remembered how I felt about the Oscars. The students filling out their Oscar predictions Sunday, the card checker’s bobbing plastic top hat presiding over them, guessing the candidates whom they found most deserving—knowing full well that the Academy does not always choose the most deserving candidates. Our admiration for the men and women of the Academy does not make us think they are infallible (this is a body, after all, that nominated “The Hours” for nine awards); we don’t hesitate to make our own decisions first and scrutinize the Academy’s later—even if we ultimately, for whatever reason, revere their opinions.
Our respect for our government should not diminish our skepticism about the war. I don’t mean to trivialize the war in Iraq, but I do mean to suggest that it is not enough to defer to the President. We have as much right to form our own opinions about war in Iraq as we have to decide which of this year’s movies was really best picture.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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