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Hollywood Goes to War — Not!

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I want to write about an exciting evening at the Oscars — about how "Chicago" became the first musical since 1969 to win Best Picture, and how Nicole Kidman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, as predicted, got to nuzzle the Actress statuettes to their respectively slim and ample bosoms. I want to celebrate a night of surprises, with dark horses galloping past favorites toward the finish line on the Kodak Theatre stage: "The Pianist" for Adrien Brody (the first man under 30 to win Best Actor) and Roman Polanski (at 69, the oldest to win Best Director), plus richly deserved prizes to Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" (the first foreign-language film to win for Animated Feature) and Pedro Almodˇvar's "Talk to Her" (the first foreign language to take Best Original Screenplay since "A Man and a Woman in 1967). But this is a time of charnel conflict, so the newshawk in me (news dove, really) is obliged to look at the bigger picture of the 75th award ceremony of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I have to ask: What if they gave a war and everyone looked ... faaaaaabulous?

If you saw the weekend scare headlines in USA Today, you may have fretted that the Academy Awards might cancel itself because of the U.S.-Brit invasion of Iraq. You needn't have. Eighty-six the Oscars? Not with half of haut Hollywood — the elite Democratic Guard — ready to make an antiwar speech, and the rest of Tinseltown ready to extend a hand and congratulate itself with the whole world watching. The film community was ready to give hundreds of millions of viewers a break from all-war-all-the-time TV, and a few winning films the chance to splash a statuette on tens of millions of DVD boxes. And damn the cost in agita and outrageous cell-phone bills. "This has been one of the most difficult Oscar weeks I have ever experienced," Carlos Souza, p.r. maven for the couturier Valentino, told the New York Times.

Never mind that a few other people — British airmen trying to dodge American missiles, members of the 101st Airborne hoping to survive a night's sleep and countless Iraqi grunts and civilians — experienced an Oscar week so taxing that they didn't live to see the ceremony. Have some sympathy, please, for a tailor's publicist facing the wartime challenge of getting Jennifer Lopez into one of his client's gowns. And, Lo, she looked ravishing in a vintage off-the-shoulder Grecian-style number (that was once worn by Jacqueline Kennedy) with flowered brocade edging I last saw on my Aunt Margaret's bedspread.

So there's a war going on; that didn't stop the movie industry from throwing its annual I-love-me,-no,-I-love-me-more bash 15 times during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Only assassination can postpone the Oscars: Martin Luther King in 1968, the attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981. Otherwise, the show must go on, especially when it's usually the year's highest-rated entertainment program (though the 2002 blast was the lowest-rated in the Academy's 50-year TV history, and overnight stats suggest that last night's rating was even worse).

The stars feel their patriotic mission is to fight for their right to partay; their sacred covenant is to amuse the rest of us with their radiant egotism. As any actor will tell you: "It's not that I'm criminally self-absorbed. I just pretend to be — for the little people out there in the dark." And if you were to say that having Oscar as usual is a bit like dancing in the ballroom of the Titanic, Hollywood would reply, "You give us a $2.2 billion worldwide gross and 11 Oscars, and we'll fox-trot till the cold wet dawn."


SURPRISE PARTY

In the spirit of wartime amity, I will dispense with the Mr. Blackwell segment of a post-Oscar article — except to say that Brody got lucky twice last night, kissing the "unbelievably hot" Halle Berry after arriving onstage to pick up his Oscar, and that if Julia Roberts loses any more weight and keeps wearing severe gowns, she will soon look like Sarah Jessica Parker's taller twin. I also award Steve Martin, the evening's host, a silver star (make that diamond; it's the 75th) for some "A" material in the opening monologue, and for deflecting both the solemnity of the occasion and the political passions simmering in the crowd. The ever-cool star was a lion tamer with the whip of irony.

And now, on to the evening of upsets. As with underdog Butler, a 47-46 winner this weekend (and did the NCAA tournament get even half the flak the Academy did for putting on its show?), low numbers won in Oscar pools this year. AMPAS members reversed longstanding traditions. The Directors Guild (a 91% accurate predictor of Oscar gold) had picked Rob Marshall as their man; Polanski won. The Screen Actors Guild chose Daniel Day-Lewis and Renee Zellweger as statuette sure shots. As for "Gangs of New York," you might not have picked it for Best Film vote, but you also didn't guess that the Martin Scorsese picture would win exactly as many Oscars as "Jackass: The Movie" — zero. (And I know a couple of people who think "Jackass" wuz robbed.) "Far from Heaven," another critics' favorite and the winner of five Independent Spirit awards the night before, also was shut out. The savants at goldderby.com averaged only about 50% in their picks of the top eight awards.

Your faithful crystal-ball gazer was even more myopic. I ran a humiliating three for 11 in major categories as I picked them on the day of the nominations — no, please don't look. I even lost an impromptu bet, as the evening began, on how long Martin would wait on this pained occasion before cracking a joke. Correct answer: about 15 seconds. "I am really glad they cut back on the glitz," the he said, glancing back at the lavish stage set. "That'll send 'em a message."

For FOOFs (Friends of Old Films) like Yours Truly, the 75th anniversary class portrait of dozens of Oscar-winning actors was pleasant, poignant, sometimes prurient. Since the excuse for these reunions is to see how the waxworks look decades after their eminence (Kirk Douglas: chiseled; Jennifer Jones: scary; Ernest Borgnine: exactly the same as 50 years ago, when he was the thug in "From Here to Eternity"), I wondered why the producers bothered to include recent winners. Where were Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Lisa "She's Everywhere Else" Minnelli? And could Joan Fontaine call a truce with her sister Olivia de Havilland and appear just this once on the same stage? At least Liz and Liza missed only a photo op. Last night three men won Oscars and still couldn't be there: Eminem (best song, from "8 Mile") because he's a shy person, Conrad Hall (cinematography, "Road to Perdition") because he is dead, and Polanski because there is an outstanding warrant for his arrest.

Polanski, once described by Kenneth Tynan as "the five foot Pole you wouldn't want to touch with a ten-foot pole," was charged with drugging and sodomizing 13-year-old Samantha Gailery 26 years ago this month in the jacuzzi of Jack Nicholson's house. (The transcript of Gaillery's 1977 deposition can be read on thesmokinggun.com.) He fled the country when a plea bargain he'd negotiated was in jeopardy of being overturned. But Hollywood loves to forgive old reprobates; it is a way of congratulating them and its own sense of liberality. In 1972 Oscar welcomed back Charles Chaplin, another distinguished foreigner who liked his girls young. It happens that "The Pianist" was a perfect comeback film: a Holocaust film that (like "Schindler's List") is about a Jew outliving Hitler with the help of the goyim; and a semi-autobiography of Polanski, himself a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, and after all these years eligible to be considered not a cunning predator but a wily victim. It's also a good movie in Hollywood epic style: a precise, conventional melodrama that teems with acute observations on the behavior of besieged people in ever more extreme circumstances. Last night, when Polanski's name was announced, cheers could be heard. Scorsese rose in acclaim. A camera caught Nicholson, applauding robustly. Whatever jokes might have occurred to Martin and his writers' entourage, he kept them private.


MOORE AND MOST

The evening also pulsed with more suspense than in most of the nominated films: Would some winner or presenter make a hero or a fool of himself with a bold declaration of George Bush's Iraq 'n roll war? The task fell to someone eager to shoulder it: Michael Moore, producer-director of "Bowling for Columbine," a docu-tragicomedy that just about predicted a bogus U.S. war post-9/11. One of the few leftists to park his ample carcass atop the non-fiction best seller list for months on end, Moore was spoiling for this fight. On Thursday, he had posted an open letter to "Governor" Bush that decried his "lying and conniving." Saturday, at the Independent Spirit Awards, he had given a dry run of his Oscar speech, to much cheering.

But the crowd wasn't as friendly last night, after "Columbine" won the Best Documentary prize and Moore strode on-stage in the company of the other filmmakers nominated in that category. Moore said they were all there as a show of solidarity for non-fiction in "fictitious times." He said: "We live in the time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man who's sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts." Some members of the audience stood to applaud, but they weren't seen on camera. What was heard was a caseful of boos. The orchestra began playing its get-outta-here music and Moore declaimed, "We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!" The standing microphone sank into a hole in the floor as Moore harangued on. After a commercial break, Martin quipped, "It was so sweet backstage, you should have seen it. The Teamsters were helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo." This was Martin's way of easing the tension and signaling, to the audiences in the theater and at home: We now return you to your regularly scheduled fatuity.

Friend Poniewozik takes issue with, aim at, Moore in an essay you can read here. I'll just say that I can't denounce Moore for not persuading fence-sitters at home because I don't think he was trying to — as if any American could be swayed now by evidence less stark than body bags. The Left's prime prankster was engaging in classic browbeatery, in the bullying, exaggerated, often funny right-wing-talk-radio tradition. I wonder why the Left must always be modulated, so sweetly whisperingly NPR, when the Right has made its voice heard by shouting. And if you didn't care for Moore's hectoring as political discourse, think of it as a tonic or toxic dose of Reality TV. Tonight on "Fear Factor": contestants vie to endure a Michael Moore diatribe for five enervating minutes!

Other Oscar speakers touched on the war more tangentially. A few, like Brody and Susan Sarandon, wore jewelry designer Henry Dunay's Bird of Peace ribbon; it's trŔs Hollywood to blend fashion and statement. Academy President Frank Pierson expressed the hope: "Let's have peace soon, and let us live without war." These Americans were joined by Spain's Almodˇvar, who pleaded for peace and "international legality," and by Kidman, the Australian who played English novelist Virginia Woolf in "The Hours": she proclaimed the crucial place of art in times of war. Chip by chip, nationality by nationality, you could hear the showbiz contingent of the Coalition of the Willing cracking asunder. I applaud the eloquence, poignance and sheer brass of these statements, especially since I agree with them. (Just for the sake of contrarianism, I would like to have heard someone, in that overwhelmingly liberal house, speak up for Dubya Dubya Three.)

But the truth is that Hollywood loves a good war, or a bad one, almost as much as Wall Street did last week. For one thing, the outbreak of war means that, 10 or 20 years down the road, someone will make an honest film denouncing it. ("All Quiet on the Western Front" came a dozen years after WWI ended, "Patton" 25 years after WWII, "MASH" 17 years after Korea and "Platoon" more than a decade after the last U.S. helicopter escaped Saigon.) For another, war gives members of the industrial-entertainment complex — a business designed to offer diversion from the little murders of daily life — to take the world seriously. And that's a spectacle only slightly goofier than movie stars taking themselves seriously. END