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Pageant Soldiers: The Oscar's Pathetic Skirmish in the Culture Wars

Terry Sawyer

The Oscars are not terribly important nor terribly influential on the cultural matters such as racism and homophobia that it addressed in this year's films.

PopMatters Film and TV Features Editor

The most interesting aspect of this year's Oscar ceremony was that it had generated such a frenzied political backdrop before it even aired. Hollywood has become a frequent focal point in conservatives' efforts to leave no aspect of society unscorched in the culture wars. This year with queers, racism, and The Red Scare all covered by the nominees, you could understand why the pageant seemed like a list of the Right's targets. Ann Coulter fumed in a pre-Oscar column at the "political correctness" of the nominations, and that none of the films had great box office draws. She also licked herself proudly for having seen none of the films. It seems for some people, even ignorance is an achievement.

Neither of Coulter's arguments is particularly sensible, mind you. If conservatives rigorously defend the high art concept of the Western Canon, why should liberals have only the Kelly Clarkson of cinema left to them? Furthermore, if having heavy messages preempts a film's merit, I would like to remind disgruntled Red-Staters that their most recent two salvos in filmmaking involved a movie about 'evil Jews' slow mo murdering The Christ in The Passion of the Christ, and a Burger King tie-in with a talking CGI animal warrior leadenly symbolizing Jesus in The Chronicles of Narnia.

The Oscars seemed hunkered down in the trenches as the salvos of canned cable outrage flew. Some, like George Clooney, stood tall and defied his detractors by proclaiming himself "Proud to be out of touch", while positioning Hollywood as the historical defender of the downtrodden. Yeah, give or take. Oscar host Jon Stewart (of the fictitious news program, The Daly Show) took smirking swings at the current democratizing war by wondering aloud if tearing down the Oscar statue, like the PR-staged Saddam statue toppling in Iraq, would bring democracy to the Academy. There was mention of Hollywood's employment of disaster-struck New Orleanians and the evening seemed filled with gratitude to all the pedestrian technical people who make movie magic possible. The message: We treat our proletariats well.

But why bother conveying such a message? It's not as if a real dialogue about the matters such people represent is actually taking place. Of all people the actors should recognize when they're in the presence of political theater, as they are when The National Review huffs and puffs about the nominees. There's no space to powerfully couch a meaningful response in an awards ceremony. With speeches that unravel like hellishly listy wedding toasts and Solid Gold interpretive dance numbers, it's not the time to stake out ground in an ideological chess match.

For every cultural 'rebellion', or standing up for rights in Hollywood, there is an equal but opposite concession to the status quo. While this year's nominated films seemed to celebrate message movies that didn't move that many popcorn buckets, the presenters seemed like Oscar's way of saying, "We, the Academy, will not shut the door on the people who consistently put out the utter shit that most of you adore." Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Lopez, Sandra Bullock and the animated leads from Chicken Little all presented statuettes for artistic excellence. Is that like putting hookers in front of churches to increase attendance? It was as if the show's creators needed to remind everyone how much they loved the by-the-numbers banality of Miss Congeniality even if they would rather die than see a movie with homos in it.

It's show business after all, and when they weren't trotting out Middle America's favorite box office ponies, Academy presenters reminded us that nothing replaces the experience of seeing a movie in a theater rather than a DVD. Presumably these dire reminders of what we're supposed to love best got written in to ward off those that want to see a closing of the gap between theatrical and DVD release dates, a shrinking that would strike financial pain in Hollywood's diamond-encrusted heart.

By far the most taxing performance of the evening was Ben Stiller, my generation's answer to Bob Hope. Pretending to be a green screen, he performed a gougingly unfunny sketch that was the evening's equivalent of the armpit farting noise. He pulls laughter like teeth, a tittering that's more empathetic embarrassment than joy. Why isn't he more despised?

By far the most truly screwed of the night were the musical guests, who surely at some point smelled the conspiracy afoot. Dolly Parton performed on a strip-mined stage with no band in the center. She stood tiny and besieged amongst the martial Roman columns, backdropped by disco star lights that would also morph into orange embers mimicking a crackling campfire. For the stage design surrounding her, it was nice to see the new Albert Speer/Elton John collaboration: a pre-fab orgy room soon to debut at Home Depot. Sadly, they misted in the rest of Parton's song on a Muzak track that stood like a flat pane of glass in front of her voice. Perhaps they should have given her a Fisher Price karaoke machine, which she could have strapped to the front of her white pant suit. I might sound like I'm getting all black helicopter here, but there was something fishy about what they did to poor Dolly, like they really wanted her to perform the song while doing the ironing in a trailer with a ciggie dangling from her lip.

With the number of failed actors-turned-musicians (e.g., Bruce Willis, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Eddie Murphy), there is a longstanding mutual envy society between rock 'n' roll and Hollywood, and that covetousness could be seen in the way the musicians got so cheaply framed. Perhaps even among the two most culturally anointed careers, there exists a bitter "grass is greener" jealousy that keeps Madonna returning time and time again to get panned for trying to straddle both houses on Mount Olympus.

It turns out that Dolly lucked out with the razed performance platform. When Kathleen Bird York arrived for her unintentional tribute to Debbie Boone, "In the Deep", she was surrounded by an imposing flock of dancing mimes that reenacted the film's emotions and scenes in overwrought cursive movement, like the girls in junior high who would make the finger curtain of fire during any song that contained the word, "fire".

The song itself is wretched beyond belief, a piano bar throwaway mired in the kind of washing Enya ambience that you expect to shop to at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Only the song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" managed to escape The Academy's stage-antic devouring of the music, but only because Three-6 Mafia managed to ignore the fact that their mock-up of a "crunk begotten" ghetto house party was attended by people doing the tango in aluminum foil dresses. Three-6 Mafia played over the dancing cringles and outshone all that gleam.

As you may have heard, this is the year of 'the gay' though we did lose to perennial crowd favorite, racism. We were this year's ugly and retarded in terms of the Academy's love for actors who bravely put on the mask of the marginal. The Academy loves these back-handed portraits of humanization, because it loves nothing so much as applauding its own slumming charity. If an actor can make the outlanders seem attractive surely that actor is the alchemist who turns tin to gold. Charlize Theron allowed herself to become fat and ugly to play a role. What courage!

This year Heath Ledger braved the questioning eyebrows and the idiotic Entertainment Tonight queries asking him to describe the sensation of making out with doe-eyed Gyllenhall. The appropriate response is to casually and repeatedly remind everyone that you're "NOT GAY!" even though you're presumably cool with it if other people want to be like that. You must also assure viewers that your privates did not move or moisten during said making out. Sadly, with Johnny Knoxville playing a Special Olympian in The Ringer this year, it appears like the mentally challenged are almost surely terminally out of fashion.

Did Brokeback Mountain get nominated to make the controversial point that gay people are people, too? Perhaps, and it certainly deserves a round of golf fan clapping for that effort. But it's certainly also fair to mention that Hollywood's asinine excesses and penchant for glistening cliché still leave most of the hard work of making social change possible to the shabbily dressed and impoverished. You know, the ones working behind the stage.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the relative genius of Stewart's gingerly prodding host style. His impish irreverence and the way that he calmly surfaces the things you're not supposed to say, made the evening's limping clip ever slightly more bearable. For example, when he pranced out faux moral outrage to introduce a segment of Western clips that managed to bring out the hidden homo in John Wayne and Charlton Heston, you could almost imagine the next day's paroxysms of repression-related fury all over the AM radio band. Stewart wonderfully deflates a broad spectrum of bullshit, and nothing is sacred from his straight-faced satire.

Still, he was far more muted than usual on the Oscars than on his program, and many of his laughs withered in an audience not too keen to laugh at themselves on a night built around their cultic grandiosity. Making him the subject of critical scrutiny simply exposes the way that The Oscars have tried to carnival bark in viewers by highlighting the peripheral aspects of the program. You should watch The Oscars because Jon Stewart might make you laugh or some up-and-coming starlet might wear a gown that's backless all the way to her ass crack. Those are the fireworks you hope for while you otherwise sit through those fumbled, too lengthy thank you speeches that finally sputter away under the deluge of the "shut the fuck up" string section.

It's all a game of bait and switch. Missionaries bring food to regions of famine and Hollywood gives us America's funniest Jew and the possibility of a frank reaction shot from the star-studded crowd. If only, the promise of surprise could be granted. I waited in vain to see Judi Dench mouth "Oh, kiss my varicosed ass" as goshing sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon sunbeamed her way to the stage. I just needed something, anything, to shake up the suffocating cotillion atmosphere.

The real problem with the Academy awards is that it's a dated marketing device that seeks to sprinkle some fairy dust on the people we see as merely the rich, the lucky, and to a lucky few, the fuckable. The entire of idea of these people who transfix us with their embodiment of our unfulfilled desires honoring themselves harkens back to a time when we were merely content to catch glimpses of their jewels and gowns.

Even the celebrities themselves have buried the history and structure of the award, acting as if the statuette is really a scepter and that soon they will be led to the balcony where they can promise to feed the people with even better performances next year. In short, The Oscars is just a glittering Oroborous, perpetuating the mythology of the celebrity caste by anointing the best practitioners of "the craft" each year.

These days we have more instantly gratifying and prurient sources of that magic drug of celebrity. Sex tapes, reality television, the proliferation of cable and the everyman narcissism of the blogosphere shred our attention with pleasures so moment-to-moment that the patient adoration the Oscars requires seems as quaint as butter churns. The ire of right-wing punditry over this year's nominations may have fanned some cultural-political life back into this old-fashioned, polite ritual, but it still seems like some altar sacrifice of our time and energy given to people already rendered nearly dimensionless in the bleaching glare of the spotlight.

The Oscars are not terribly important nor terribly influential on the cultural matters such as racism and homophobia that it addressed in this year's films. The Oscars is just a diversion too steeped into its own lofty sense of tradition to actually divert our attention to anything of true importance.

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