Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
On June 10, 1875 the first Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association was organization was founded in the Thirteenth Ward in Salt Lake City. The purpose of this organization according to Brigham Young was to teach men to develop their gifts, stand up, speak, and bear testimony. In that spirit, I thought we would take a look at a young man trying to do the same thing in the 1985 classic, The Award.
The Award is a 44-minute film based on a short story of the same name by Jack Weyland published in the New Era in November of 1979. The film is not an “official” church film. It was conceived, planned and produced by the Cypress California Stake in Southern California. I’ve been in stakes that do an annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. I’ve been in stakes that do an annual crèche exhibit. This stake made a movie.
The Award follows the antics of a core group of victorious high school football players surrounded with all the tropes of 80’s jock masculinity. In the locker room after the big game we meet Craig, the quarterback and Kevin, the only Latter-day saint on the team. Kevin politely declines repeated overtures to go out drinking—giving us a picture of the type of young man he is. The various close ups give us a fine example of the cinematic tradition of casting 20-somethings as teens (although some were in fact teenagers).
The next day the teammates eat lunch together—sure to pick on a nerd on the way—and begin discussing which girls at school are the ugliest. After sorting through several young women they settle on Mary Beth and dub her the “Miss America” of ugly. The group exercises their thug-like brain cells to create an award to recognize her ugliness. They pool their money to buy a corsage. Kevin is drafted to create a card with a degrading poem and to get it to Mary Beth because Kevin’s girlfriend Colleen knows her.
Kevin tells Colleen of the plan as if it’s the most hilarious thing on the planet. He is shocked when Colleen does not approve. She feels as the only Latter-day saint on the team he should set an example. Kevin refuses to “preach at” his team mates. Colleen refuses to go out with him if he continues with his plan.
Later Kevin is in his room working on the card and poem for the award. In the background we see Charlene Wells being crowned Miss America 1985. I’m not sure why this is in the film, other than to show a prominent member of the church win an actual award.
Kevin repeatedly tries to win over Colleen to his HI-larious plan of calling a girl ugly. He fights with her on the phone egged on by his team mates and refuses to bend (unless it’s under the enormous weight of peer pressure). On Sunday he repeatedly tries to catch Colleen’s eye during the opening hymn but was treated only to a verse of death gaze. He ends up at Colleen’s house and is invited to dinner and sits across from…wait for it…Mary Beth! He is convinced this is part of a plot to get him to feel bad about something he should be feeling bad about. During a heated conversation while they get the warmed dinner rolls he still doesn’t get it. Colleen is fully exasperated:
“KEVIN! I wish I was a guy so I could slug you!”
Ummm. You can, Colleen. Go ahead.
During dinner Colleen’s father (a treat throughout the film) gets to know Mary Beth, and we learn that she helps children with special needs every day after school and on the weekends. This fact begins to change Kevin’s perception of Mary Beth. He proposes a quick kitchen conference with Colleen. He agrees there should be no award, but I’m not sure he really ever says it was a horrid idea in the first place, and I’m pretty sure it was mainly to repair his relationship with Colleen. What if she didn’t help kids? What if she rescued lab rats? Would it still be okay to call her ugly?
Colleen decides that there should be an award, but it should recognize Mary Beth for her work with the children. She wrote the card to say that a group of athletes thought that what she was doing was great and they wanted to give her their Extra Mile award. The corsage is procured and attached to the locker. We see Colleen helping Mary Beth on with the corsage while Kevin looks on and appears touched. During lunch the team is both shocked and amused to see her actually wearing the corsage. How DARE she revel in her ugliness. Cower in the corner. COWER!
The next morning the jig is up, as the principal comments on Mary Beth’s gratitude during morning announcements. Kevin lingers in class to avoid the inevitable confrontation with his teammates. He attempts to defend his actions, invoking the children. The team is not impressed and “knew we shouldn’t have let a Mormon do this!” The principal suspects it was the football team and goes to talk to some of the team members. He adds another layer (and probably violates both HIPAA and FERPA—which weren’t a thing then) and tells them that the award really helped Mary Beth as she has been going through dialysis on a regular basis.
Craig has a change of heart and goes to talk to Mary Beth. His co-conspirators can’t believe he is actually SPEAKING to her. The audacity! Perhaps emboldened by the power of her corsage, Mary Beth asks Craig and the team to dress in their uniforms and come to play sports with the kids she works with. Despite some disagreements the team ends up doing it and we wrap up the film with a transformed Craig. They talk about how on the surface Mary Beth is an OBVIOUS loser but turned out to be “okay.”
“What if it’s not a coincidence?” Craig says. “What if everyone is special in some way. What if the thing that makes them special is just hard to spot?”
He wants to give The Award once a month. Music swells to a lovely final anthem.
Life is for those who live / Love is for those who give
If you haven’t learned to give by now / It’s time to change yourself.
The Award does not fail to entertain. The cavalcade of lunkhead jocks, earnest friends and goofy parents simultaneously channel The Breakfast Club, DeGrassi Jr. High and an After School Special. It’s not hard to believe that with a few tweaks this scenario could play out in any high school or middle school today. This overall vibe and believable premise combine to focus on the power of building people up. It’s easy to find surface flaws, but we all deserve to seen for those harder-to-find things that make us special. It reminds us that we all look at outward appearances but “the lord looketh on the heart.” The Award may not win any, but it’s worth a watch for the discussions it could start within a family or group.
Thoughts, Musings and Trivia
- Donna Dick, the Cypress California Stake cultural arts specialist conceived of and shepherded the project—let’s talk about magnifying a calling!
- Many professionals volunteered time to get the film produced.
- The film turned out so well that Group W Cable of Buena Park promised to air it on its 15 community networks and a city councilman not of our faith hoped to give it “as much exposure as [he could].” Other religions also asked for permission to use the film.
- Although not an “official” church film, it was featured in the New Era. It seems similar to me as telling members not to write letters to General Authorities only to have them quoted in General Conference.
- Sharlene Wells won Miss America the year after the Vanessa Williams scandal. Many people thought judges purposely went with Miss Utah in a direct response to the scandal.