History is made at night—or sometimes late, late in the Los Angeles afternoon.
Oscar Grouch had no particular love for the Academy Awards and thought them more entertaining than the Super Bowl only because of the bitchy wisecracks they might inspire. Like millions of other dutiful watchers, he found Oscar Night a tedious orgy of self-congratulation, a pagan ritual in which the world’s most desired women were compelled to run the gauntlet of Joan Rivers and her daughter, and the word “magic” was invoked as robotically as religious fundamentalists cite their supreme pooh-bah. And yet the 74th—or was it the 774th?—Academy Award ceremony gave the promise of a fascinating subtext. For the first time in decades, this would be a wartime Oscar presentation. It was no coincidence that Fox chose to counter-program Independence Day.
Hollywood had been drafted to boost morale and demonstrate solidarity. And as it had back in the Pleistocene with Stage Door Canteen, Hollywood would respond. The night’s script was most expertly foreshadowed by Halle Berry’s warm-up interview with Barbara Walters and the strategic decision to award a special Oscar to Sidney Poitier, as well as the elevation to common knowledge that Randy Newman had failed to secure an Academy Award after 15 fruitless nominations. America was just; underdogs would have their day.
For veteran watchers like Oscar Grouch, the pattern was set early when Jennifer Connelly garnered Best Supporting Actress for her inspirational role in the inspirational panderfest A Beautiful Mind. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, a well-publicized whispering campaign that had clouded the nation’s mind with disinformation, this paean to true love’s victory over mental illness was not to be denied—although it seemed that star Russell Crowe’s equally well-publicized boorishness might pave the way for Denzel Washington and a triumph of the new American credo of inclusiveness.
The evening held few surprises. Oscar Grouch was admittedly startled when Woody Allen materialized on the stage of the Kodak Theater for his first-ever Oscar appearance. Transporting the audience crammed into this garish candy box back to the Bitter End circa 1963, Allen vented a stand-up shpritz that came only a few millimeters away from killing—at least the crowd with whom Oscar Grouch was watching. (Indeed, these viewers particularly appreciated the Woodman’s joke about a Harvard professor, being actually settled in the living room of a glamorous Harvard professor.)
Some sophisticates imagined that Robert Altman or even David Lynch might be named Best Director. But how could they be, Oscar Grouch knew, with a talent like Ron Howard in the house? Lynch, who was squeezed into a seat as far as possible from the aisle, barely rated a close-up. Altman’s numerous reaction shots showed him turning increasingly sour, particularly after his British screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, gave an acceptance speech for which the appropriate award was not a gold statuette but an honorary green card. Meanwhile, with Moulin Rouge picking up the sissy awards like costume and art direction, Lord of the Rings taking the techno-nerd prizes for cinematography and special effects, and Black Hawk Down receiving a few manly love pats for its contribution to the new bellicosity, Oscar Grouch was only surprised to see Jim Broadbent dodge the bullet of historical inevitability to win Best Supporting Actor for Iris (thus blocking a Miramax shutout and perhaps forestalling another night of the long knives in the Miramax publicity department).
Oscar Grouch’s know-it-all prediction of a Berry-Washington coronation had led his host to dub him a cynic. But he knew that even though Berry might be a few stinkers short of the position Julia Roberts occupied when she was elevated to Actress in 2001, her fetchingly symmetrical features and her histrionic sex scene in Monster’s Ball would create the conditions for an irrefutable juggernaut. The Best Actor award had clearly been Crowe’s to lose. Judging from the actor’s glower and the occult signs he seemed to be flashing his mates by the time Poitier’s gracious acceptance had ended, the Australian suspected he’d lost it.
The replay event of the evening, Berry’s speech was both a career performance and an Oscar classic. The duration of her tears washed away the phony blubber of Gwyneth Paltrow’s faked orgasm. For one moment as she climbed awkwardly onstage, the dumbfounded Berry seemed to wonder whether the chiffon Venus-on-the-half-shell creation she had chosen to wear was the wrong outfit for this world-historic moment—the first African American woman anointed Best Actress and the first African American to win a top Oscar since Poitier beat three British actors and Paul Newman to win Best Actor for 1963. (That ceremony, only four months after the world-rocking JFK assassination, was dominated by the antics of Sammy Davis Jr.)
A movieland pasionaria, Berry invoked martyred Dorothy Dandridge and misused Lena Horne, among other ancestors. As she regained her soul-sister composure, Oscar Grouch watched the four bested actresses doing the emotional calculus during this lengthy acceptance, realizing that Berry embodied a larger destiny than her own. He accorded a supporting nod to Renee Zellweger’s glistening face. By the time Berry had thanked everyone except her baby-sitter and accountant, she left Poitier’s heir, Denzel Washington, no one to acknowledge except the hitherto underleveraged God. (Oscar Grouch knew that Washington would feel no need to invoke those pre-Poitier actors—Canada Lee, James Edwards, and particularly Paul Robeson—whose careers had come undone in the politics of the Cold War.)
Thus, Hollywood celebrated its own beautiful mind. Would this evening make up for decades of demeaning stereotypes and ongoing marginalization? Not the least interesting aspect of the event was watching it filter through the enigmatic consciousness of the self-named Whoopi Goldberg. Oscar Grouch was blown away by Whoopi’s improvised (?) riff on the segregated endorsement clips—her pointing out that while only African American actors were shown to celebrate Poitier, so the montage devoted to the evening’s other honorary recipient, Robert Redford, was uniformly white. (Her favorite Redford vehicle, she wickedly declared, was Out of Africa.) Indeed, Oscar Grouch realized that—despite the award to a documentary that decried racial profiling—he didn’t see even a single person of color among the throngs of techies, designers, producers, and miscellaneous hobbits who had trooped up to the stage to claim their awards. What’s more, the clips chosen to glorify Hollywood’s past gave evidence of the idiotic pride the industry continues to take in Gone With the Wind.
As the humiliated Russell Crowe was perhaps looking to seek solace among the lap dancers of Hollywood Boulevard, weary Oscar Grouch staggered out into the eight-blocks-from-ground-zero darkness. At the very least, the movie industry orchestrated a successful drama with undeniable social content. Was the whole world really watching? Fellowes had ended his thank-yous with a fervent “God Bless America.” Oscar Grouch wanted to add “Hooray for Hollywood.” The image makers fulfilled their mandate. No one could deny that the movie industry had contrived a night to drive a stake through the Taliban’s heart.
La Dolce Musto by Michael Musto
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