Saturday March 11, 2006
On the sidewalk stood hordes of the righteous, some leaning forward like wind-bent grasses, the better to deliver their imprecations against gays and fags to the open windows of the limos - the windows open by order of the security people - creeping toward the Kodak Theater for the 78th Academy Awards. Others held up sturdy, professionally crafted signs expressing the same hatred.
The red carpet in front of the theatre was larger than the Red Sea. Inside, we climbed grand staircases designed for showing off dresses. The circular levels filled with men in black, the women mostly in pale, frothy gowns. Sequins, diamonds, glass beads, trade beads sparkled like the interior of a salt mine. More exquisite dresses appeared every moment, some made from six yards of taffeta, and many with sweeping trains that demanded vigilance from strolling attendees lest they step on a mermaid's tail. There was one man in a kilt - there is always one at award ceremonies - perhaps a professional roving Scot hired to give colour to the otherwise monotone showing of clustered males. Larry McMurtry defied the dress code by wearing his usual jeans and cowboy boots.
The people connected with Brokeback Mountain, including me, hoped that, having been nominated for eight Academy awards, it would get Best Picture as it had at the funny, lively Independent Spirit awards the day before. (If you are looking for smart judging based on merit, skip the Academy Awards next year and pay attention to the Independent Spirit choices.) We should have known conservative heffalump academy voters would have rather different ideas of what was stirring contemporary culture. Roughly 6,000 film industry voters, most in the Los Angeles area, many living cloistered lives behind wrought-iron gates or in deluxe rest-homes, out of touch not only with the shifting larger culture and the yeasty ferment that is America these days, but also out of touch with their own segregated city, decide which films are good. And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver.
After a good deal of standing around admiring dresses and sucking up champagne, people obeyed the stentorian countdown commands to get in their seats as "the show" was about to begin. There were orders to clap and the audience obediently clapped. From the first there was an atmosphere of insufferable self-importance emanating from "the show" which, as the audience was reminded several times, was televised and being watched by billions of people all over the world. Those lucky watchers could get up any time they wished and do something worthwhile, like go to the bathroom. As in everything related to public extravaganzas, a certain soda pop figured prominently. There were montages, artfully meshed clips of films of yesteryear, live acts by Famous Talent, smart-ass jokes by Jon Stewart who was witty and quick, too witty, too quick, too eastern perhaps for the somewhat dim LA crowd. Both beautiful and household-name movie stars announced various prizes. None of the acting awards came Brokeback's way, you betcha. The prize, as expected, went to Philip Seymour Hoff-man for his brilliant portrayal of Capote, but in the months preceding the awards thing, there has been little discussion of acting styles and various approaches to character development by this year's nominees. Hollywood loves mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin' image of a once-living celeb. But which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page? I don't know. The subject never comes up. Cheers to David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix and Hoffman, but what about actors who start in the dark?
Everyone thanked their dear old mums, scout troop leaders, kids and consorts. More commercials, more quick wit, more clapping, beads of sweat, Stewart maybe wondering what evil star had lighted his way to this labour. Despite the technical expertise and flawlessly sleek set evocative of 1930s musicals, despite Dolly Parton whooping it up and Itzhak Perlman blending all the theme music into a single performance (he represented "culchah"), there was a kind of provincial flavour to the proceedings reminiscent of a small-town talent-show night. Clapping wildly for bad stuff enhances this. There came an atrocious act from Hustle and Flow, Three 6 Mafia's violent rendition of "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp", a favourite with the audience who knew what it knew and liked. This was a big winner, a bushel of the magic gold-coated gelded godlings going to the rap group.
The hours sped by on wings of boiler plate. Brokeback's first award was to Argentinean Gustavo Santaolalla for the film's plangent and evocative score. Later came the expected award for screenplay adaptation to Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry, and only a short time later the director's award to Ang Lee. And that was it, three awards, putting it on equal footing with King Kong. When Jack Nicholson said best picture went to Crash, there was a gasp of shock, and then applause from many - the choice was a hit with the home team since the film is set in Los Angeles. It was a safe pick of "controversial film" for the heffalumps.
After three-and-a-half hours of butt-numbing sitting we stumbled away, down the magnificent staircases, and across the red carpet. In the distance men were shouting out limousine numbers, "406 . . . 27 . . . 921 . . . 62" and it seemed someone should yell "Bingo!" It was now dark, or as dark as it gets in the City of Angels. As we waited for our number to be called we could see the enormous lighted marquee across the street announcing that the "2006 Academy Award for Best Picture had gone to Crash". The red carpet now had taken on a different hue, a purple tinge.
The source of the colour was not far away. Down the street, spreading its baleful light everywhere, hung a gigantic, vertical, electric-blue neon sign spelling out S C I E N T O L O G Y.
"Seven oh six," bawled the limo announcer's voice. Bingo.
For those who call this little piece a Sour Grapes Rant, play it as it lays.