Apples vs. Oranges

There are contests that are obviously contests: a race, for instance, or a wrestling match. It needn’t be athletic or violent: a chess match is definitely a competition, or a poker game. But there are popular "contests" which seem to lack any sign of true competition except in name. I’m thinking of the Oscars, since that award ceremony was last night. I didn’t watch it, but the paper this morning was full of it.

Does an actor hired to play a role think of himself as a competitor? Probably not, unless, a year or so later, the picture has been successful, and his performance acclaimed. In that case, he may find himself competing with other actors for the prize — a statuette called Oscar. But what a funny competition! Is he pitted against other actors playing the same role? Are they all being judged for their renditions of Willy Loman, or Hamlet? Are comparisons made on the basis of voice and inflection, movement, portrayal of various emotions? Are there, in a manner of speaking, "compulsory figures?" Not at all. An actor who played a corrupt politician may find himself "competing" with one who tap-danced his way through Ruritania, and both are opposed by a third who depicted a detective in a space colony fifty years into the future. The decision of the judges would seem nothing more than their agreement as to which performance they enjoyed the most. That’s OK, but why should their judgment be given any particular significance?

And isn’t it ironic that in the land of political correctness, there are separate awards for actors and actresses? (I thought that most modern female movie stars referred to themselves as actors.) For what possible reason can there be a distinction between best male actor, and best female actor? Do the judges distinguish between best male director and best female director (if there are such things are female directors)? Admittedly, does anybody care?

Hollywood is not the only place that makes a contest out of what can hardly be regarded in that light. There are music competitions, as well. For example, a certain pianist, in a certain year, may be the winner of the So-and-So piano competition. In the contest, he played pieces by Bartok and Mozart, while his closest rival performed works of Rachmaninoff and Schubert. Who played better? That’s like asking if my cooking is better than yours based on a comparison of my mashed potatoes, and your turkey chili.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what happens in the cooking "contests" that are a current rage on TV. Your ragout is compared to his lamp shank, to decide who is the better cook! The "judges" in these competitions decide, objectively (?!) on the basis of what tastes good to them, as well as on the appearance of the food. Of course, they also see and chat with the competing cooks, so the personality of the chef must play a role, which it shouldn’t, if the food alone is to be judged. Similarly, in the piano competitions, the appealing stage presence of one competitor may give him an edge over a less attractive musician. Ideally, the musicians should perform anonymously, behind a curtain. Similarly, the food tasters ought to taste the food blindfolded, and not know who prepared it: the likeable talkative chef, or the sullen, taciturn one.

But that would be to take the whole thing much too seriously, although the sponsors of these events would have us believe that they are serious indeed. I anticipate the day when the ultimate competition will take place: the best chef’s trout almandine vs. the best pianist’s Chopin Etudes, vs. the best actor’s Godfather. I’m not sure what you’d call the winner, or what sort of prize he’d be awarded, but something will occur to me. Of course, it would be televised, and all the beautiful people would come. It’s important!! Isn’t it?

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.