I was one of the millions drooling over the designer gowns, cringing at Billy Crystal’s lame jokes, happy to see Octavia Spencer win Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Help, and holding out for Hugo to go home with the Best Picture prize at last night’s Academy Awards.
Sitting through the three-hour telecast, watching the winners and losers and following the online banter, it struck me how much there is for freelance writers to learn from this annual ritual.
And I’m not just talking about how tough it is to win the prize for best adapted screenplay when your competition is Alexander Payne and George Clooney.
Here are some of my takeaways for writers from the 2012 Academy Awards:
1. Experience counts, age doesn’t. Meryl Streep won her third Oscar at age 62 for playing ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Christopher Plummer won an Academy Award for best supporting actor, a first for the 82-year-old actor, for playing a widower who comes out after his wife dies in Beginners. What do they have in common? They’ve both been working at their craft for decades. That dedication helped them overcome the movie business’ bias for all things young. Streep’s win came just weeks after Vogue put her on its January cover, making her the magazine’s oldest known cover girl. Two decades ago when Streep turned 40 and was offered three roles playing witches, she told her husband, “It’s over,” the actress told Vogue. Obviously not.
The takeaway for writers: yes, there are a lot of younger writers out there who might be more knowledgeable about certain aspects of the freelance business. But if you’ve been at it for a long time, you’ve got the upper hand when it comes to interviewing, reporting and writing. Play that up when you’re pitching stories or talking to prospective clients.
2. What’s old is new again. If you would have told somebody a year ago that a silent movie would win an Academy Award they would have called you nuts. A silent film hasn’t been tapped as the best movie of the year since the first Oscars were handed out 84 years ago. Yet last night, The Artist walked away with the grand prize as well as awards for best director, actor, costume design and original score.
The takeaway for writers: everything old is new again. Don’t be afraid to pursue projects that have historical roots. Look at some of the bestselling non-fiction books of the past couple years – The Devil the White City was set in 1893. The central figure in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks died in 1951. The main action in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption takes place close to 70 years ago. In Portland, one of this year’s most-shared stories is the five-part Oregonian series The War Bride, which traces the disappearance of an Icelandic war bride who moved here during WWII.
3. Dazzle them, but not at the expense of the basics. The special effects during Sunday’s night’s Oscar telecast were as good as ever, including Crystal’s trademark film montage opener, which saw him making cameo appearances in several of this year’s nominated movies such as The Descendants and The Adventures of Tin Tin. But on Twitter, all anybody could talk about was the show’s poor audio quality – including tinny feedback from microphones.
The takeaway for writers: your work can include all the razzle dazzle you can muster, but fail to get basics like spelling and grammar right and that’s the only thing people (and editors) will notice.
4. Don’t be sleazy. Jennifer Lopez usually looks great. But the ultra-low cut V of her shimmering off-white evening gown had tongues wagging all over Twitter that she’d had an inadvertent wardrobe malfunction (The Los Angeles Times did the tough work of reviewing footage of JLo on stage and states that in fact there was no nip slip). Was it must-see TV? Yes. Was it classy? No.
The takeaway for writers: JLo’s manufactured-for-TV moment is the equivalent of link bait. While some web content specialists may resort to inserting keywords related to the day’s top news into headlines – even when they have nothing to do with the subject – for a big traffic bump, show a little more class. It’s possible to use SEO to promote your work online without having to resort to sleazy tricks.
5. If you find a good thing, stick with it. In her acceptance speech, Streep thanked hair and makeup artist J. Roy Helland, who won an Oscar for his work on The Iron Lady, and has partnered with Streep for 37 years. “We’re so old and we’re so happening!” The (Vancouver) Sun reported Streep shouting as the two winners met outside the press room. As The Grindstone commentator Lindsay Cross put it in this blog post, “I guess it shows how a good working partnership can always enhance the final product.” Amen to that.
The takeaway for writers: When you find a good thing, hang onto it, whether it’s a editor who’s sympatico with your ideas, a website that loves your blog or publisher who challenges you to perform at your best. Too often writers act like moths, flitting from one bright light to the next in search of work, when they could accomplish a lot more – and feel happier about it – by sticking with a few tried and true outlets and colleagues.
What did you learn from this year’s Academy Awards?