That's Entertainment?

Illustration by Calef Brown

IF YOU SPOT A PAIR OF ALUMINUM CRUTCHES bicycle-chained to a parking meter along the Walk of Fame, chances are John Peterson, the familiar one-legged street icon, is not far away performing his Sisyphean chore of polishing the expanding galaxy of celebrity stars along Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Peterson will tell you he prefers working Vine these days because of all the troublesome foot traffic that has grown up around the new Hollywood and Highland shopping mall.

You won't see him in the background of any Academy Awards pre-show coverage, however, because the area around the Kodak Theater is getting the kind of sweeping security precautions worthy of a presidential visit. And not, it turns out, merely on March 24, the Sunday the Oscars are handed out. Already an alley linking Orange Drive to the shopping center is a no-go zone, and with each Sunday successive closures are gradually banning pedestrian and motor traffic from a wide radius around the theater. The shutdowns will extend to Highland Avenue, Hawthorne Boulevard, Orange Drive and the length of Hollywood Boulevard from La Brea Avenue to Cahuenga Boulevard; some of these shutdowns will continue well into the day after the Oscars.

Not only that, according to an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences press release, but "all obstacles (parking meters, light standards, street furniture and newspaper stands) will be removed." And don't bother trying to get off the Red Line subway here on O Day -- the train won't stop at the Highland station. The new mall will close for the event, of course, and Sunday-shift employees will lose a day's work -- despite some rumors to the contrary, however, they did not get first crack at the 400 bleacher seats across from the Kodak red carpet. When asked about word that the FBI was involved in the background checks for these seats, an AMPAS spokeswoman replied, "I believe that may have been part of the process." The spokeswoman said she couldn't comment on reports that police sharpshooters will be positioned on surrounding rooftops and said that the Oscars' security organization would routinely refuse to answer as well.

"When all is said and done, this is a television production," she continued. "Streets need to be closed for loading in, and this affects both security and public safety -- we're not really doing much different because of 9-11."

Except, maybe, for the FBI checks and possible snipers nobody will discuss. Let's face it, while you can make a case for regarding any public venue, from a golf course to a football stadium, as a potential terrorist bull's-eye, the Oscars would hardly seem to fit Osama bin Laden's idea of a military or industrial target. It's basically a big private party thrown by and for the movie industry with TV providing a knothole through which the starstruck public can glimpse the glamour. The notion that the Academy Awards ceremony could figure on an al Qaeda hit list alongside the World Trade Center, Pentagon or an American embassy is merely further embarrassing evidence of Hollywood's unique blend of paranoia and self-importance.

But it also reminds us of something that has filled conversations in L.A. and New York following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon -- how important it was for people in the latter city to have been home when the attack occurred and how guilty and "left out" Angelenos have felt in the aftermath of September 11, as though not only was Los Angeles thought unworthy of an attack, but that our irrelevance was also a sign of our town's decadence. Even as American soldiers are beginning to die in Afghanistan and the Academy surrounds its ceremony at the Kodak with barricades and street closures, Hollywood seems to be subconsciously drawing attention to itself by saying, "Here we are!"


The campaign was bitter, the vote contested, and the result seemed to drag on forever. We're not speaking of this week's battle to choose a president for Zimbabwe, or even for the United States 16 months ago, but the election of the new leader of the Screen Actors Guild. That winner is now unequivocally Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie and defeated Rhoda's Valerie Harper for the presidency. We are told that an unprecedented 41 percent of SAG's membership (most of which lives in California) voted in last week's second election (the first, held last November, was nullified due to irregularities), a figure that compares favorably with the 35 percent of the California electorate that participated in the state's March 5 primary.

Union elections do not usually excite much public interest, but, possibly as further evidence that our democracy is transforming itself into a celebrity-based entertainment republic, the SAG contest rated an unprecedented amount of ink. A Lexis-Nexis search for "major stories" published in 1997 about that year's SAG election shows a total of three articles. The next election -- 1999's heated tussle between incumbent Richard Masur and William Daniels -- rated 34 features, almost all of which, like 1997's, appeared in industry trades. The Gilbert-Harper matchup, however, generated 76 articles in 2001 (the year of the first election) and already 77 since the beginning of this year -- many of them in mainstream publications.

There were reasons for the SAG elections' being contentious. In general, they have to do with the legacy of outgoing president Daniels and his faction, to which Harper belongs and which is perceived to be socially conservative yet radical when it comes to contract negotiations -- the group specifically charged that Gilbert is soft on policy toward talent agencies. This is not, however, the kind of hot-button stuff that excites the public, who perhaps viewed the match as a personality contest or a judgment of which was the better '70s TV show -- Little House on the Prairie or Rhoda. Or it just may be that Americans eager to watch a good program looked upon the election as a solid drama with strong performers. Who can tell, it may even move us to vote again in our own elections -- you know, those ones that decide the kind of government we have.

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