“The best part about going to the Oscars is telling people you’re going to the Oscars. Even my mom, who’s been my date for the last two years, she says that the best part is telling her hairstylist in Pennsylvania that she’s going to the Oscars.” My friend Mary Howard, who works for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is making her third trip to the Oscars this year. “The second best part is the moment you walk in you’re handed a glass of, like, Cristal champagne. A lot of people are drunk.”

I’ve been to the Academy Awards ceremony precisely once. And by “been,” I mean I’ve stood outside, beyond the security cordon, neck craned for a starry glimpse. And by “ceremony,” I mean the bejeweled, self-congratulatory apex of the Hollywood fame mountain. From a distance, I’ve loved, and been frustrated by, the Oscars forever. I’ve known film-school friends nominated for their work, and I’ve written about the Academy’s odder choices and the ripple effects that one bad win can have over decades. However, ever since that moment of false intimacy at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, I’ve wondered what the Oscars really mean.

Mary’s Oscar day starts at 10:30 a.m. with hair and makeup. “I do my mom’s makeup, and I do my own hair,” she says, “and we try to arrive early. I walk not the fancy red carpet, but the side red carpet. It’s basically the same as the red carpet except it’s full of people saying ‘keep it moving.’”

The highlight of the day for commoners and celebrities alike, she explains, is watching the arrivals. “When everyone was arriving, Téa Leoni was standing next to me on this little overhang pointing out celebrities just like the rest of us.” Mary admits her most significant celebrity encounter was John Williams, the movie-score maestro himself.

“John Williams once told me that I was nice. Nobody’s opinion matters anymore but his. Next time someone calls me a bitch, it doesn’t matter, because John Williams thinks I’m nice.”

When the show begins, Mary sits in the second-to-last row of the Dolby Theatre, where the steepness of the auditorium puts the feet of those sitting behind her squarely at her head. “There’s a free bar up until 15 minutes before the show, so when people get drunk you can get kicked in the head.”

Provided your head doesn’t get kicked in, I think there’s value in this back-of-the-theatre view. Ambition is found in the cheap seats, and maybe a measure of perspective accompanies distance. Or, provided you’re nattily black-tied, there’s similar value in working as a seat-filler, as Mary’s dad did last year, and seeing, even for the length of a commercial break, what it might be like to one day have a VIP seat for yourself. Maybe there’s a necessary measure of motivation to earn this proximity and maybe, just maybe, winning isn’t everything.

Now, I’m not falling back on the old, “it’s an honor just to be nominated” garbage or admitting that streakers always steal the show. I’m not surrendering to a Sally Field popularity-check or acknowledging the common slight that “nobody remembers who won last year,” referenced by Kevin Costner in his acceptance speech for “Dances with Wolves.” But I’m convinced that the Academy Awards are most valuable for the work they inspire. That statuette of a naked golden man isn’t really for the person holding it on stage, no matter how many Jack Palance pushups the winner does to show us he has earned it. The Oscar at its best is a down payment, a shiny anchor tossed into the future to hold firm the filmmakers and artists watching, way back in the Dolby rafters or at home in Michigan, who will one day shape the cinematic world.

“When the show’s over, if you’re lucky, all of a sudden you’re walking next to winners with their Oscars and you congratulate them,” Mary says. “Their families will be all in the balcony, and they’ll come back up to show them their Oscar. The people who win the shorts, the live action and animated shorts, they’re the future. They are the ones that are most inspired and affected by winning an Oscar.”

We live in a world obsessed with instant fame and celebrity, which, like the Oscars, can seem easy and glamorous. On television we see the first few rows of seats, populated by the biggest stars, and maybe Mary’s dad, but we’re offered little more than a passing pan over the balconies. The hope of those in the balconies — where people like Mary can see the long-view of the Academy, where short-film winners can see the path ahead and down — keeps me watching. To them, to all those who do their own hair and makeup, who are exiled to cash bars and foot/head seats, who walk the “side red carpet” and are presciently told to keep moving, I say keep going — keep striving, keep working, keep dreaming and keep drafting that acceptance speech for the night you cast out the anchor.

Joseph Horton can be reached at jbhorton@umich.edu.

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