And the Oscar™ for Shameless Self-Congratulation Goes to...

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Halle Berry accepts her Oscar for best actress

Because it's boring and predictable to kvetch about how boring and predictable the Oscars ceremony is, let it be said that there were several good things about the broadcast last night. Namely, the things that did not look like they were part of an Oscars broadcast.

There was the inspired idea of having Errol Morris, probably America's best documentarian, shoot the "what do the movies mean to you?" clips that opened the ceremony; if it was yet another example of the ritual tongue-bathing Hollywood administers itself every year, it was at least dry-witted and unsentimental in Morris' typical style. There was the multi-screen device the producers used before the Film Editing Oscar, which actually gave us an idea what film editors do. And there was the inspired idea of having people like David Mamet and Buck Henry write introductions to some of the awards — the fewer clunky jokes misread off the TelePrompTer, the better. (Sorry, Bruce Vilanch, but the statute of limitations on Anna Nicole Smith gags expired about five years ago.)

Perhaps best was the gut-busting Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson taped intro to the Costume Design award, with Stiller, dressed as a dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, radiating his patented passive-aggressive anger ("I look like a freakin' ZZ Top troll boy"). It was such a good piece, in fact, that it could have come from the MTV Movie Awards, which the Academy could still learn a thing or a hundred from.

For instance: Don't take every opportunity to kiss your own butt, even at risk of exploiting a tragedy. Tom Cruise began the evening with the somber, mandatory post-Sept.-11 apology for holding a celebration. After the events of 9/11, the former Mr. Kidman asked, wasn't an acting awards show frivolous? "Should we celebrate the joy and magic the movies bring?" Shockingly, the answer was yes. "Dare I say it? More than ever. A small scene, a gesture, even a glance between characters can cross lines, break through barriers, melt prejudice or just plain make us laugh."

Sheesh. It's a neat bit of contortionism, to be able to flagellate yourself and pat yourself on the back at the same time. The ridiculous thing about this now-ritual apology/self-congratulation is the notion that, at every awards show since the tragic events, we've suddenly been forced to rediscover why the Oscars, the Grammys, the TV Guide Awards or whatever really are important.

Of course the Oscars are a waste of time — God bless them! — they were always a waste of time. They're a meaningless celebration of spoiled rich people, their self-entitlement, their vulgarity, sanctimony and vanity. (Later, Kevin Spacey introduced the annual In Memoriam roll of clips of dead movie personalities by asking for a few seconds of silence for the victims of Sept. 11; apparently that was considered a roughly equal trade.) They're pretty much the sort of thing that caused the Taliban to outlaw all those TV sets. But that's what makes them American; that's why we tune in loyally by the millions to get drunk and laugh at them. That's what makes them great.

If Cruise had said that — now that would have been a speech. But you take your pleasures where you can get them. There was Woody Allen, introducing a more tasteful post-Sept.-11 tribute to movies shot in New York and looking awfully youthful (maybe because he didn't have his tongue down the throat of an actress fifty years younger than him). There was the thankfully short amount of time Whoopi Goldberg actually spent onstage. There were those only-at-Oscar weirdnesses, like the brightly colored mime/harlequins prancing backstage, near Donald Sutherland and Glenn Close doing play-by-play from that wood-paneled Oscars sports-anchor desk.

There was, above all, one of those transcendent Oscar moments that rolls history, grace and egotism all into one as only Hollywood can. A sobbing Halle Berry, the first African-American woman ever to win Best Actress, gave a moving speech, accepting the Oscar on behalf of Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Viveca Fox and "every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened." Then, running down the usual list of thank-yous and being pressured to wrap up, she said, "74 years here, I've got to take this time!" — as if she were making up for three-quarters of a century of inequity by thanking her lawyer and her agent.

Of course, Berry's hardly the only one who knows how to run on. "Last year, I was rather loquishious," said Julia Roberts, the Best Actor presenter, coining a word to remind us of her hyperventilating acceptance speech last year. Opening the envelope and seeing Denzel Washington's name, Roberts gushed, "I love my life!" before announcing the winner. Because, you know, when we see the first black man since Sidney Poiter four decades ago win the award, the first thing we think is: "Yeah, equal opportunity, blah blah blah — but more important, how does this make Julia Roberts feel about her life?"

Which brings us to the last point, finally, finally, finally: it is boring and predictable to say it, but the Oscar broadcast ended at 12:51 a.m., Eastern time, 4 hours and 21 minutes after it began. A little less loquishious next year, please?