Ordinary Iraqis who still had access to U.S. media last week must have been entertained by watching us debate the truly burning questions of "Showdown With Iraq." Would the Oscars go on? Would they go on with or without red carpet, bleachers, paparazzi and after-parties? With or without Sir Peter O'Toole? Though the Los Angeles Times mustered enough grace to run its advance coverage at the bottom of the front page, below the war coverage proper, day after day it jumped to page-long dissertations at the back and in the Calendar section, culminating in Sunday's orgy of think pieces, spilling enough ink on the Oscars run-up to fill the Silver Lake reservoir.
As for the show's producers, having declared early on in the week that it would be "self-serving" to go on with the show while battles raged, they elected to serve themselves anyway. With all due piety, of course. Red carpet and bleachers were nixed. ABC proudly announced there would be no pre-Oscar hoopla, and that the network would cut in on the show with war coverage. (In the event, Peter Jennings' strenuously somber face showed up only twice, offering brief canned summaries of the day's events.) When push came to shove, however, the pre-show interviewees ended up tripping across something that looked uncannily like a red carpet. Anti-war protesters were shooed away by police in overkill riot gear, and the Kodak Theater was pronounced the safest building in the country.
And the tamest. Burdened by all that advance breast-beating, the show itself proved to be a singularly bloodless creature, though hardly free of glitz, as host Steve Martin noted in a brief burst of biting wit ("That'll show 'em!" he yelled, casting an eye around the opulent auditorium) before settling into defanged jokiness for the duration. One felt for him: Tact is death to comedy, and it was pretty clear he'd been warned off dangerous territory even a projected joke threatening to cut off Saddam Hussein's television connection (just before Best Picture was announced) never saw the light of day. As to the stars, they were well-behaved, if a touch schizophrenic about the dress code. As promised, the uniform was black, but it was far from basic. Nicole Kidman's multistrapped gown appeared inspired by someone's bondage fantasy. Susan Sarandon was ravishingly sexy in an off-the-shoulder number. And both Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones, in their much-touted dance number from Chicago, spilled copious bosom out of their décolletages.
When it came to political statements, the code ranged from pomposity Dustin Hoffman, apparently under the impression that the circumstances called for extreme gravitas, made his introductions in slow motion to self-censorship. Sarandon herself ventured no more than a serene peace sign, while most of her colleagues served up palpably sincere but namby-pamby twitterings about how much they loved peace. (Not even Schwarzenegger would quarrel with that.) Michael Moore's outburst against our glorious commander in chief and his "fictitious" administration had at least the virtue of specificity. If nothing else, it was a moment of Hollywood truth, for the loud catcalls that greeted Moore (and, more alarmingly, a midspeech blackout ordered up by producer Gil Cates), as well as the flak he reportedly got backstage in no uncertain expletives, ought to dispel any notion that the industry is a dictatorship of Reds and limo liberals. Then again, it may just be it's Moore's monster ego that raises hackles no one, after all, heckled the adorable Pedro Almodóvar when he announced himself embarrassed by his government's support of Bush. Nor did anyone seem to object to the terminally cute Gael García Bernal, star of the shamefully neglected Y Tu Mamá También, when he invoked dyed-in-the-wool Marxist Frida Kahlo to condemn the war.
At the Oscars Moore repeated, almost word for word, the speech he had made the day before at the Independent Feature Project Spirit Awards, where both his words and his movie were greeted with rapture. Once a funky little outfit catering to really independent film and now a baby cousin to the Oscars with a splashy annual event at the beach, the IFP event was a much jollier affair than the Oscars in part because the organization expressed, in public at least, no jitters about whether to cancel itself, freeing both members and guests to have a good time, wear what they pleased (one man sported camouflage and a hat proclaiming "THE FUTURE IS STUPID") and say what they wanted about the war.
What they had to say Moore notwithstanding was hardly more bracing than what went down the next day at the Oscars. Ditto the voting. The IFP's swelling membership votes much more middle-of-the-road than its nominating committees, which was why Far From Heaven, a lovely picture yet by far the most conventional movie Todd Haynes has made, cleaned up with five awards. And though there was one intriguing upset the young African-American first-timer Derek Luke won Best Actor for Antwone Fisher it made me wince to see the John Cassavetes Award, of all things, go to the pallid, if beautifully shot, Personal Velocity. And when Nia Vardalos snagged Best Debut Performance for her big fat vapid Greek movie (over the enchanting young Raven Goodwin of Lovely & Amazing, for starters), I broke down and wept into my beef tenderloin.
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The only overlap between Oscar and Spirit Award winners was Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, which I despite the reservations of so many of my critic friends, and though I'd rather have seen the award go to Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's searing Daughter From Danang thought a deft deconstruction of the battle over gun control, and not in the least unfair to Charlton Heston. Far From Heaven won no Academy Awards, which, as had been widely predicted, were swept (in a small way) by Chicago. To those of us made nervous by scantily clad people bursting into song and dance every five minutes, Chicago's Best Picture nod was disappointing (though the three teenagers in the house where I was watching the show could barely contain their joy, outstripped only by Eminem's surprise win, for Best Song). True, the competition for the Big One wasn't all that stiff. The Pianist would have been an honorable choice, though I'm convinced that the movie will more likely endure as a significant moment in the autobiography of Roman Polanski than as a landmark of world cinema. But why the gasp of surprise when Polanski scored Best Director, when he'd already been granted very public absolution by his victim in the statutory-rape scandal, and when Holocaust movies have a history of success with the Academy? Case in point: No matter how good Aki Kaurismaki's Man Without a Past is, the Finnish director didn't stand a chance for Best Foreign Film against Germany's Nowhere in Africa, a perfectly presentable though hardly distinguished drama about Jewish refugees in Kenya.
For my money, though, the scandal of the evening was Ronald Harwood's Best Adapted Screenplay win with his script a declamatory piece of wood for The Pianist. If the Academy wanted to reward a Brit, they'd have done better to honor David Hare's nimble rendition of Michael Cunningham's nigh-on pathologically interior novel The Hours. I'd also have been perfectly satisfied with the Kaufman brothers for Adaptation, or the Weitz brothers and Peter Hedges for the neglected About a Boy. Almodóvar's win for Best Original Screenplay, on the other hand, was spot on, though what Spain thought it was doing by not entering the sublime Talk to Her for Best Foreign Film is anybody's guess.
While it would have been nice to see Julianne Moore get her due for at least one of her fragile '50s housewives (Far From Heaven, not The Hours), my first choice for Best Actress was Diane Lane, for her incandescently wayward wife in Adrian Lyne's otherwise dopey Unfaithful. Kidman was an okay choice, though her acceptance speech seemed bent on proving the adage that actors should be seen and not heard offscreen. Kathy Bates had Best Supporting Actress stolen out from under her by Catherine Zeta-Jones, and though Chris Cooper was great in Adaptation, I'd have gone with Christopher Walken by a hair. I wouldn't have chosen Adrien Brody over Jack Nicholson for Best Actor, but it has to be said that the evening's only real treat (other than my perennial sentimental favorite, the clip sequence of those who died over the past year) was seeing Brody, a charmingly coltish presence in an otherwise elderly evening, plant one down the throat of an astonished Halle Berry. There's a man who knows how to make love, not war.