Peter Bart: Oscar Season Comes With Heavy Doses Of “Spitegeist”

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This week’s whirl of parties celebrating awards season constitutes “an over-caffeinated exercise in suppressed schadenfreude,” an analyst friend confided to me. In coming days scores of runners-up will be called upon to celebrate the triumphs of a tiny group of winners. The reality: Most of us will take greatest pleasure (albeit guilty pleasure) in the failure of others — an exercise in “malevolent joy,” explains British social historian Tiffany Watt Smith, who has written a new book about it.

I know what she means because I have pleaded guilty (from time to time). In my former life, working at studios, when I lost a “hot project” to a rival I found myself rooting for its failure. Last week, had I produced Bumblebee, I would have hoped for weak numbers for Aquaman (they were great.)

According to Watt Smith, social media has greatly increased the appetite for what she calls Spitegeist, an online manifestation of schadenfreude. “There an element of unkindness that can tip into sadism when gloating over another’s work, preserved forever in ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ in the digital aspic,” she points out (her book, Schadenfreude, is subtitled The Joy of Another’s Misfortune).

When Michael Ovitz in 1995 retained Ron Meyer to negotiate his exit from CAA to become president of Universal, but learned instead that Meyer had taken the job, he told anyone who would listen that he hoped Meyer would fail miserably. Instead, Meyer succeeded and Ovitz went on to fail as president of Disney.

Schadenfreude manifests itself in many ways. Watt Smith notes that we feel “a twinge of satisfaction” when we learn of the early deaths of fitness fanatics. When “moral activists” come undone in their own sexual scandals we commonly indulge in a form of gloating.

Oscars Moonlight
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All this is exacerbated in the world of show business because we live in a universe dominated by the word “no.” Even the top stars and star filmmakers must deal with a form of rejection during award season – consider the fate of La La Land last year when Moonlight stole the Oscar at the midnight hour.

The key to surviving rejection is to cultivate not Spitegeist but resilience, Hollywood veterans attest, and there’s a growing body of science to support that thesis. A neuroscientist named Huda Akil recently reported on a study analyzing a family of brain molecules that endow us with resilience. A growth factor, BDNF, can enhance resilience in humans, and yet another, FGF2, when given to stressed-out animals, can help them bounce back faster. “Active resilience happens when people who are vulnerable find resources to cope with stress and bounce back in a way that leaves them stronger,” says Akil, whose work was reported in the New York Times.

Clearly some doses of BDNF, not to mention FGF2, should be made readily available to those attending the awards events during the coming weeks. There’s nothing like a boost in resilience, combined with a martini, to fend off an attack of schadenfreude.

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