Somewhere toward the end of the marathon 74th annual Academy Awards fest, someone screamed orgasmically from an upper balcony of the Kodak Theater, the lavish new venue that brought Oscar back to Hollywood. "Just wipe yourself off when you're through," responded the quick ceremonial mistress Whoopi Goldberg.
A perfect Oscarnight moment, perhaps: The telecast's designated comedian (or comedienne, though Whoopi'd reject that one) pushes raciness a smidgen, then tries to recover decorum by apologizing for her lapse. But since the sitcoms have been pushing and pushing for years now, who much cared?
And as the ceremonies came to their own climax, the usual forced highmindedness and self-congratulations now spent, viewers might have been inclined to take Whoopi's advice. Wiping themselves off, the television audience probably wondered why they endured the record four hours and twenty-three minutes in the first place.
Escape, of course. Escape from politics, war and all the other anxieties that beset us. If it's not exactly the spiritual fulfillment of high culture, then trivia will do. The post-Sept. 11 cliché is that trivia (along with irony and whatever else) is dead. But of course it's not. Trivia matters, even when gussied up as seriousness.
Naturally the headline is that black actors and actresses finally were vindicated. Conspiracy theorists will hold that the message went out to Academy voters that this had to happen, what with mounting pressure to quota-ize motion picture casts. Best Actor: Denzel Washington; Best Actress Halle Berry. And that honorary Oscar (why now, why in 2002?) to the iconic Sidney Poitier.
I, for one, don't mind. They amply deserved the awards. Washington's maniacally corrupted L.A. narc in "Training Day" took his finely crafted talent to new depths. (I do hope his newest movie, if not his role, can be stuffed down the memory hole. "John Q" is the most morally irresponsible movie of the last year, which isn't saying much.) The always scrumptious Halle Berry proved herself as well, though it's disquieting to think her wild sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton -- surely new territory for a Best Actress -- was all in a day's work. If that was only acting, I might even pay for it... And "Monster's Ball" is an exquisitely redemptive movie.
One could even empathize with Berry's emotional acceptance speech, especially the tribute to Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Angela Bassett, et al. The moment really was packed with meaning for "women of color"; there's no denying it. Whether African-American Night at the Oscars really does knock down doors remains to be seen. Doubtless the first through the door will be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, invigorated and emboldened to demand more from film producers.
Still, I'm glad it happened, if only to get on with post-racialist movie-making, a sensibility that hit real life before it hit the Silver Screen. Rather like lancing a boil.
And who couldn't be awed by Sidney Poitier, whose eloquence on the Kodak stage called to mind American liberalism at its best, before its descent into madness? So why can't we make movies like "Lillies of the Field" anymore? That's when nuns' habits concealed nothing but grace and Godliness. Poitier's amazing presence also prompted the thought that too many stars -- e.g., the luminescent Jennifer Connelly, in her Best Supporting Actress acceptance, and Tom Cruise, in his weird effort to open the show by solemnizing Sept. 11 -- cannot deliver a decent public speech.
Speaking of madness, this was the night for "A Beautiful Mind." Never mind that "Mind" got John Nash's mathematical contributions wrong, even trying inappositely to correct Adam Smith. And never mind all the mud-slinging about Nash's delusionary anti-Semitism and pederasty, which only illustrates the coincidence of such tendencies with insanity. The Academy, apparently desperate to show it didn't need its own version of campaign finance reform, voted against transparent efforts to sink the film. The Best Picture nod could even be seen as a vote against Matt Drudge, who brought up all the Nash sleaze in the first place.
The best picture, really, was the masterful "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings," the Tolkein adaptation that deserved far more than its handful of statuettes for technical merit. This, truly, is a work that calls us to courage at an hour when we need it most.
But Ron Howard, everyone's nominee for Nicest Guy in Hollywood, took away the Best Director prize. An acclamation vote, this. I can't help thinking it's really for "Apollo 13," "Cocoon," "Long Ago and Far Away," and any number of other overlooked Howard-directed treasures.
Somehow Russell Crowe, engagingly trying to work the Brandovian Baddest Guy in Hollywood mojo, came up short. A gifted actor who throws his heart into his work, and doubtless more likable than he lets on, Crowe apparently figured that a mumbled Aussie accent would sound West Virginian, and that walking without swinging his arms made him look, well, mentally off. Didn't work. Nor did his T-shirted hunkiness, which doesn't quite work in either a Princeton or an MIT classroom.
When Princess Julia Roberts and Prince Mel Gibson threw their support to Denzel Washington, the conspiracy fires were fanned. It was over for poor Russell. We wait for Gibson's splendid "We Were Soldiers" to be eligible next year -- Gibson, of course, whose pursuit of gravitas competes with the sneaking suspicion, as he grows older, that he was separated at birth from Soupy Sales. (OK, have you ever seen them in the same room together?)
Almost forgot another Whoopi moment: when she draped a scarf around Oscar's (already invisible) privates. Attorney General John Ashcroft, she joshed, advised her to do that. Ya know what? Ashcroft deserved that one. For once, Whoopi was right.
All in all, the Oscarcast projected a welcome post-Sept. 11 sobriety. Woody Allen's tribute to New York City made us forgive all. Likewise Kevin Spacey's call for a moment of silence for the fallen American heroes. Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy ridiculously showing up in a documentary to inform us that 1975's abominable "Hearts and Minds" actually stopped the Vietnam war reminded us of how bad it once was, and how far we've come. And Best Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, a Brit winning for "Gosford Park, " actually invoked God's blessing on America, thereby helping to alleviate the pain caused by the idiotic anti-Americanism tossed around by director Robert Altman.
We can all go wipe ourselves off now.
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