The Nation's Pulse

Hollywood’s Dual Lusts

Blaise Pascal warned us against them -- and once again the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has ignored him.

By 2.2.06

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The great 17th century thinker Blaise Pascal warned of the twin evils of "megalomania" -- the lust for power -- and "erotomania" -- the lust for, well, lust. I came to the mathematician/theologian's thought some 30 years ago by way of the great 20th century writer Malcolm Muggeridge, whose explications of Pascal and other Christian minds probably haven't much shelf life in Hollywood these days.

Was I the only one thinking about Pascal when Hollywood announced this year's Oscar nominations? If you were as well, maybe we should start a club. In any case, here's a rough, perhaps Pascalian take:

Think of Washington, D.C., as the capital, not only of this vast country, but also of megalomania. The characterization doesn't exactly tax the imagination. It's a given that newly elected county supervisors in the hinterlands dream of how to decorate the White House residence. And now, in the 21st century, even Indian tribes have adapted to Washington's power-driven ways.

Then think of Hollywood as the capital of erotomania, defined more broadly as a spiraling pursuit of the flesh, the material, the glitzy. It doesn't take a sour-faced Mrs. Grundy to recognize that the red-carpet obsession at filmdom's various awards ceremonies has this as its object.

Exhibit A was that E! interviewer at the Golden Globes who groped one starlet's breast and asked another about her intimate anatomy. It all seemed so blithely acceptable, presumably because the interviewer's open sexual orientation made his impertinence laughably unlikely to produce titillation within himself.

So if it's gay it's OK? Tell that to the trainer in the sexual harassment class.

Titillation, rather, was the interviewer's gift to the TV audience, which in return gives solid ratings to these awards shows. No, these shows haven't really proliferated, having been around for years, but each has grown in stature and coverage in an endless round of self-congratulation.

HOLLYWOOD IS NOTHING IF NOT self-congratulatory, that trait being its most overpowering moral hazard. It's evident enough that many who produce celluloid fantasy think of themselves, as Shelley did of poets, as the world's unacknowledged legislators. This year Hollywood stands emboldened to take on Washington itself.

Actor George Clooney, whose two movies this year betray political ignorance of both the 1950s and the current era, made it clear when, accepting a Golden Globe, he began his remarks thanking Jack Abramoff. Meaning: Republicans, happy day, are about to lose big owing to their closeness to the disgraced lobbyist.

And just what items would be on Hollywood's political agenda? The usuals, of course: a withdrawal from Iraq, tightened environmental regulations, alternative energy sources and transportation modes. At the top this year, as indicated by the industry's favorite films: mainstreaming the homosexual life.

It's an open secret that actors who've played against their own orientation, from Tom Hanks and Hillary Swank to Felicity Huffman, get extra points in the Oscar sweepstakes. And if the husky Phillip Seymour Hoffman can turn himself into Truman Capote, why, he's reached a thespian marker.

All the chatter, of course, is about Brokeback Mountain, described by the Associated Press as a "cowboy love story." Whoa! It happens the two male characters are sheepherders. Anyone knowledgeable of Wyoming history (nobody involved in the movie, safe to say, asked Dick Cheney) will know not to make that mistake. Call a cowboy a sheepherder, or vice versa, and let's just say saloon brawls have been known to happen.

Actually worse: Bloody range wars were waged over whether cattle or sheep should graze the prairies. Compound that errant storyline -- even if it was the great western writer Larry McMurtry who turned Annie Proulx's short story into the screenplay -- with gay pup tent frolics, and you've bollixed up two subcultural identities in order to celebrate another.

I remember sheepherders. I spent part of my kindergarten year in Casper, Wyoming (where Lynne and Dick Cheney, coincidentally, were finishing high school). Sheepherders didn't even look like cowboys; many of them were of Basque origin. Their funny little hard-topped, half-size Conestogas sat desolately on some of the most unimaginably barren territory, nothing like the scenic landscapes I've seen on the Brokeback trailers. Of course, I was too young to imagine any canoodling going on inside. Almost certainly, there was none of the Brokeback sort.

I hasten to confess that I've not seen Brokeback. I also, sometimes, judge books by their covers. Why else do publishers spend big bucks on designing dust jackets? I might see it, sometime after the dust has settled, but I'm only now getting around to the DVD of Steve McQueen's classic, The Great Escape. Right now Brokeback bids for my attention to make A Statement, and I know enough about that to comment. If I'm wrong, tell me.

That's not enough for Dallas columnist Mark Davis, who describes himself as a conservative who liked Brokeback, his privilege. Writes Davis for anyone offended by the film: "It's...a...movie." Well, sure, but did Davis similarly devalue the impact of The Passion of the Christ or for that matter of To Kill a Mockingbird? We're dealing with a category of film designed to convey impact, religious, political, social.

I learn from the LA Weekly that I'm in the company of many Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members, social liberals all, who just can't bring themselves to a Brokeback screening. Writer Nikke Finke has a point: "For a community that takes pride in progressive values, it's shameful that Hollywood's homophobia may be on a par with Pat Robertson's."

I'm not encumbered by their hypocrisy. Not that there's anything wrong with advancing tolerance, which appeals to America's better angels. But the unsubtle preachiness; the easy willingness to foresake traditional marriage for the two characters' lovelorn impulses (the movie purports to show the "complexity" of the extra-marital dilemma); the appropriation of iconic American masculinity for an unlikely socio-political agenda -- all call into question Hollywood's depth when it comes to authentic love. Such depth demands harder choices.

Since at least the Marlene Dietrich era, the movies have limned various aspects of same-sex attraction. But the signals were subtle, and smart audiences -- doubtless more tolerant than current, politically correct chroniclers insist -- accepted them. In recent years the studios have made the point with a searing branding iron. All the subtlety, you might say, of a political campaign.

But of course, Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and who knows who else, no doubt required by their studio handlers, concealed their sexual identities. Liberace, on the other hand, neither felt impelled to conceal his or announce it; we just knew. If the closeted stars had followed suit, what would have been the worst that could have happened to their careers? Or am I being an insensitive lout?

THE QUESTION IS RAISED: If homosexuality is, as its advocates insist, normative but hidden, and Hollywood now offers vehicles for openness and honesty, why aren't homosexuals cast in these roles? Surely someone across the great divide, some gay diversity activist, is wondering what I'm wondering?

Is it so important that actors keep making those Oscar-winning points by playing against type? Is that the whole point, like Samuel Johnson's dog walking on two feet? Will and Grace's talented Sean Hayes seems to me to be playing a gay caricature, much as queer-baiters have always done. Why is that not offensive? Surely the program, clever as it is, feeds prurience as much as it liberates?

Brokeback serves as a climactic device, squared and cubed, by which Hollywood can congratulate itself for its tolerance, simple as that. Steven Spielberg's Munich, another nominated film, works as a conveyance of moral relativism and historical revisionism. Meanwhile, Chronicles of Narnia, the cinematic treatment of C. S. Lewis's popular work of moral imagination, gets only a few nods for technical craftsmanship. The asymmetrical honors tell us what we need to know about Hollywood.

Lewis, Pascal's 20th century intellectual heir, also in his vast writings warned of those twin seductions, megalomania and erotomania, each now with a gleaming capital on an opposite coast. No wonder the Academy is uncomfortable with him.

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About the Author

K.E. Grubbs Jr. is director of the National Journalism Center and editor of TheReporter.us