After the reality check of Sept. 11 and its sobering aftermath, many people looked at the glitterati of Hollywood and said, "Can you explain why any of us ever thought YOU were so important?"
Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to have mulled this question over, and this year it gave us the We're Justifying Our Existence Oscars on Sunday night.
I never questioned the Oscars before, but this year just the fact of them made me uneasy. Year round, we as a nation are already supposed to live vicariously through this rather rank stable of prefab actors, who live lives of ridiculous luxury and ease. We are exposed to their nightly hobnobbing, their sex lives, their hobbies, their alcoholism. We cannot escape.
"Okay, that was entertaining," I thought, after seeing many of the nominated films. There were some fine, solid performances, but exactly how much are we supposed to adore good actors? On Sunday night, these capable but already tremendously overcelebrated, over-rewarded people had their annual Imelda Marcos shoe-orgy of gratuitous overcelebration, gilding the gilded lily made of gold, again. We watched as people already morbidly overstuffed with congratulations vomited up all previous congratulations to make room for these, the best and biggest congratulations of all.
It is the gargantuan, ass-kissing brainwash of the year, and We, the People With Televisions, are supposed to watch and enjoy it.
The Academy sensed this attitude was lurking like a murky cloud of spiritual unease over Middle Earth, and it is my (admittedly hostile) perception that they said to themselves, "Well, the Oscars are already screwed this year, so let's honor our Negroes! It's been a while. Call Whoopi."
It comes around every five years or so. When the Oscar Winner's alumni circle starts to look like the meeting table in Judgment at Nuremberg, the Academy devotes a year to not looking like racist, Aryan-celebrity, eugenics-worshipping crackers, and either gives an Oscar for the best dribbling retard performance, or slathers the African-Americans with trophies to make up for the previous insulting, five- to-seven-year stretch when barely anybody of color was recognized at all, for anything.
Look, I'm very glad when we finally honor our African-American artists. I just wish it happened a little more regularly, instead of in one token Big Gulp: "See! We do too give them awards. Lots of them!" Let's stop treating our citizens of color like they are a separate people from us. If Sept. 11 showed us anything, it's that we're all Americans together, and our black friends are just as excellent at being overprivileged celebrities as anybody else.
I must also warn the world about Tom Cruise. I feel he is an utterly terrifying Superior Life Form, with the power to melt heads and braid spines. His eyes are as hard, shiny and brutally penetrating as diamond drill-bits. The new braces on his teeth suggest that he is erasing all that remained of his tiny imperfections, and he is now metamorphosing into Ultra Super Perfection Man 3000. I fear his intense, mind-beating politeness, his titanium imperviousness to human weakness, his barking power-laugh.
"Movies make a little bit of magic touch our lives," he commanded us to acknowledge, with steely resolve and Mach-5 mega-humorlessness.
People in the audience started laughing, until they realized that Tom was Not Being Funny At All. He was chosen to frankly address the post-Sept. 11 whither-the-Oscars conundrum head-on. "Should we celebrate the magic the movies bring? Now?" Tom asked, his eyes boring into the eyes of the TV multitudes and implanting rays of total domination. "Dare I say it?" He flashed a smirk with his robotically flawless teeth. "More than EVER," he hissed, laying on his most Extreme Scientological Unction. He had been commanded by the Elders to Obi-Wan-Kenobi-ize the audience into rebelieving in the importance of the obscenely superfluous Oscars. Cruise is becoming the Scary Flaming Eye from The Lord of the Rings, and I fear that nobody can stop him.
The red carpet outside the theater looked a bit like the depths of Mordor. Today's actresses are so thin their shoulders look like arthritic knuckles. Jon Voight's face-lift looked like it had a Ziploc seam for easy reopening. Ryan O'Neal looks like he's spent the last couple of decades packing rich, chocolatey nougat into his neck. And J-Lo's time is up. The Anita Bryant hairdo only confirms that her primary support and advice is coming from the most snark-infested homosexuals in the showbiz style-world. J-Lo is J-L'Over. You can't have a big ass and sarcastic hair, not in that town.
Whoopi's hosting, unfortunately, sucked real hard. She phoned in her performance, like, from a cellphone from a parking garage in Guam. Her material was just awful, which was mainly surprising because the lines written for the presenters were, for the first time ever, actually pretty clever. Whoopi seemed to be resorting to Refreshing African-American Earthiness as opposed to actual humor, which I suppose the Academy thought was fitting for these, the Oscars of Defensiveness.
Owen Wilson and Ben Stiller were funny in their shtick together, presenting the award for Best Costume Design. I do not want to love Owen Wilson, but I am enslaved. He's a bad-ass genius. I read The Royal Tenenbaums script, and I have to say, it ruled so hard it made my stomach hurt from spleen and jealousy. It was better than the film. He and Wes Anderson should've gotten the best original screenplay Oscar, instead of Gosford Park. Tenenbaums was daringly original; Gosford was a highbrow formulaic retread. Boo.
Halle Berry made history, not so much for being the first African-American woman to win an Oscar in the best actress category, but for freaking horribly, uncontrollably out and making the worst, most hysterically rambling, discomfiting and liquefied acceptance speech in Oscar's 74-year history -- and I thought Julia Roberts was going to hold that title for a long time. I know it was a big deal for Halle, who claimed her award for All Black Women Everywhere Ever, but her acceptance tantrum had such an alarming cringe factor, I had to leave the room. When they tried to pry her off the stage, she made that screeching Bilbo Baggins, monster addiction-face when he wants the Ring. It was a heavy, strange, grand-mal meltdown. America squirmed.
Even though I felt like it was a self-conscious gesture on the part of the Academy ("We'll top off the Overdue Apotheosis of Sidney Poitier by throwing Denzel the Best Actor award we didn't give him when we totally ignored Malcolm X, eh? Whaddaya say?"), still, I am always glad to see Denzel accepting awards. What's not to love about Denzel? Not much: The man could not peel Julia Roberts off of himself, backstage. She was practically climbing into his tux. His wife better kick Julia's skinny, home-wreckin' heinie.
There were no surprises in the best supporting actress category; Jennifer Connelly proved, once again, that that statuette always goes to the new babe. It must have to do with Hollywood's need to manufacture a new face to do magazine covers or endorse Japanese soap or something. Something smells collusion-esque and Sony-riffic to me, about the supporting actress ruse -- it's just so predictable.
Connelly's speech was cute, the way she read it with her face lowered the whole time, reading off a bunch of papers. It was evocative of a shy fourth-grader doing an oral presentation on the solar system.
I was glad Randy Newman finally got the award for best song; with his 16 nominations and zero wins, he was the Susan Lucci of the Oscars. But he had to win: Enya is the music I imagine when I am standing in a meadow in a white dress, closing my eyes and rapturously rubbing soft, quilted, two-ply toilet tissue against my cheeks. Sting, that perfectly unblemished, perfectly superior and theologically self-actualized & uuml;bermensch, is essentially becoming the musical Tom Cruise.
Little Ronnie Howard took best director and best film for A Beautiful Mind. Sigh.
Ron Howard is a completely adequate and, I feel, aggressively non-genius director. His choices are deeply, unapologetically pedestrian. He possesses lots of clunky homegrown skill and absolutely no lightning bolts of wild inspiration, which is why that script was a brilliant choice for him. John Nash (and, by extension, Russell Crowe) makes up for all the primal soul-fire that Ron Howard, the kindly proto-honky, utterly lacks. A Beautiful Mind was a good film. Not a brilliant film. If Peter Jackson had directed it, it might have been a revelation.
But Ronnie is nothing if not the original Company Boy. He has been tenured into the marrow of the system; he is Hollywood's dearest, most faithful mediocre son, and they gave him the party they've been tacitly promising him since 1978.
So that was it. The Hobbits and the Africans were simultaneously lauded and robbed, and the Academy tried to hypnotize us into passive acceptance by acting earthy. They seemed to be saying: See? We're just regular folks.
Yeah, they're regular all right, those famous multimillionaires who never go to the post office or the DMV or sort receipts for taxes or fly coach or pay to see movies or get older or worry about the rent or medical insurance or college tuitions. They're just like you and me, only with everything, and they don't want us around while they're having it, but we're allowed to watch them have it, once a year, on TV. So we'd better enjoy it. Or they'll sic Tom Cruise on us again, and, God help us, we don't want that.
Cintra Wilson is the author of A Massive
Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease and other Cultural Revelations. This commentary first appeared on Salon.com.