Barrymores, Oscars, Pulitzers, Nobels...
A hunger for recognition
Our contributor Steve Cohen is concerned because the Philadelphia theater community’s annual Barrymore Awards ceremony came off as a “bush-league show” (last year) or was held in a dining room where the drinkers at the bar drowned out the presenters on stage (this year). I’m concerned that Steve is concerned.
“We’re dealing with history and tradition, with setting a tone that will attract new audiences to see other plays in the future,” Steve wrote recently in BSR (click here). “That’s why the quality of the Barrymore ceremony matters.”
The quality of the Barrymore presentation should indeed matter greatly to the Theatre Alliance of Philadelphia, which sponsors these awards. It should matter to the actors, directors and producers who compete for these awards. It should matter to the publicists who promote these awards. But why should it matter to you, or to me, or to a critic like Steve Cohen?
If Jimmy Rollins wins, what then?
Let’s get back to basics for a moment. The Barrymore Awards, like all awards, are not works of art or substance. They’re a combination of popularity contest and promotional gimmick. Of Mice and Men, as presented by the Walnut Street Theatre, will not be improved for having won a Barrymore. The Phillies’ recent baseball season will end no differently if Jimmy Rollins does or does not win the Most Valuable Player award. The vaccine for cervical cancer, recently discovered by my high school classmate Douglas Lowy, will be no more nor less valuable to women who take it should Doug win the Nobel Prize for Medicine.
Sally Field had it right when she accepted her 1984 Academy Award for best actress: “You like me.” That is what most awards are about, nothing more nor less.
The Pulitzer scandals
At their best, awards provide recognition to those who are deserving but overlooked. (If you're the son of God from Galilee but nobody believes you, nothing can quite make your day like winning the Templeton Prize for for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities.) But in most cases, awards go to those candidates with the strongest PR support.
At their worst…. Well, consider the National Book Awards. Some 280,000 books are now published in this country every year. A judge would have to read 800 books a day to render a fair decision. How many judges do you suppose have read even a hundred, or even a dozen?
Or consider journalism’s venerated Pulitzer Prize. Janet Cooke of the Washington Post won one in 1981 for a story she concocted out of whole cloth. Tom Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times won a Pulitzer in 1970 for spot-news reporting that was subsequently shown to be flat-out wrong. Walter Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer in 1932 for a series of articles about the Soviet Union that somehow neglected to mention (and even may have deliberately concealed) that year’s awesome famine in the Ukraine.
Don’t misunderstand: Some Pulitzer winners are examples I would emulate. But plenty would have a hard time getting posted in Broad Street Review.
A feel-good evening
Say this for the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards: At least they’re not announced at some glitzy gala. They’re simply announced, period. The Barrymore Awards ceremony, like all awards ceremonies, is a promotional event designed to publicize a promotional gimmick. It’s an exercise in public manipulation. But the burden of Steve Cohen’s complaint, it seems, is not that the Barrymore Awards ceremony tries to manipulate the public, but that it does its manipulation so dismally.
If the theater community (or the real estate community, or the auto dealers' community, or the tobacco community) wants to engage in a self-congratulatory evening that makes its members feel good about themselves, that's fine with me. But why is it the business of journalists or critics or the theaters’ paying customers to assist in this exercise?
The majority’s opinion of a given show, book, ballplayer or movie actor may be of some passing interest, even to me. But life is short. Instead of following the crowd, I’d rather listen to one good critic whose insights I respect. "One man with courage,” said Andrew Jackson, “makes a majority."
Now, there’s an idea for an award— the Andrew Jacksons for Courageous Individual Judgment. I might even attend the ceremony, especially if I can get complimentary press tickets and the drinks are free.
To read a response, click here.