Thirty years ago today I was a few days shy of my eleventh birthday, and I was a burgeoning cinephile. I loved Star Wars and Close Encounters, of course, but I went to see every movie I could, including grownup ones with my parents like Coal Miner’s Daughter (which I saw twice at the long-gone Trans-Lux 85th Street Theatre, two blocks from our home in Manhattan), The Elephant Man (at Loew’s Orpheum), and the wholly inappropriate Dressed to Kill (at 72nd Street Playhouse; afterward my mother said, “Please don’t tell any of your friends we took you to see this.”) My favorite was probably Hair. But to my ten-year-old self, there was no such thing as a bad movie.
I had also recently learned that there was something called the Academy Awards, and that you could see them on TV. March 30, 1981, was a Monday, the last day of my fifth-grade spring break. That night I was going to watch the Oscars for the first time. I was ecstatic. That afternoon I was home with my friend Kingman, and we were watching my parents’ black-and-white TV when the news of the assassination attempt came on. The slo-mo images of Reagan waving, grimacing, and being pushed into his limo have stayed with me, but Kingman and I were unfazed. (Maybe that had something to do with the horror movies we had begun seeing, like The Fog. I remember staying up late around this time to watch Psycho on TV. Alone.)
There was a rule about TV in my house. My parents allowed me and my brother to watch TV only on weekends and during school breaks. That evening, when we tuned in to watch the Oscars, an announcer said that the ceremony would be postponed for one day out of respect for our hospitalized president.
I was devastated.
I sobbed. My parents were sympathetic but baffled—what on earth was wrong? I choked out that tomorrow night was a school night and I wouldn’t be allowed to watch the Oscars. I think I kept crying even after they assured me they'd make a one-time exception.
The only thing I remember about the ceremony is Reagan’s videotaped greeting. Looking now at the nominees and winners, I see it was a standard occasion of predictability and egregious misjudgment: Robert Redford, for example, winning best director (for Ordinary People) over David Lynch, Roman Polanski, and Martin Scorsese. Robert De Niro won his Raging Bull Best Actor award that night and delivered an awkward acceptance speech while Scorsese and his wife at the time, Isabella Rossellini, anxiously and giddily looked on. Among the winners I probably recognized only Timothy Hutton and Sissy Spacek.
How soon did I learn, I wonder, that John Hinckley Jr.’s nutty act was inspired by his own cinematic obsession?
These days I do my best not to watch the Oscars. But nothing tells me how much the movies already meant to me back then as my heaving, inconsolable sobs.