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Attention deficit

Culture | Hollywood shows its wartime insecurities during a low-rated Academy Awards event

Issue: "Army of compassion," April 5, 2003

The 2003 Academy Awards were the lowest rated of any Oscar telecast since 1974, the year such data first became available. So, for those who tuned out in favor of war coverage, or simply turned off expecting the ceremony to degenerate into an anti-America rally, here's a rundown of the evening's events:

Politics The biggest question of the evening was not who would win the major awards, but which presenters or winners would use their platform to speak out against Operation Iraqi Freedom. As it turned out, the evening was a mixed bag. Host Steve Martin was both funny and respectful, mostly avoiding the topic and closing the evening with: "To our young men and women overseas, we hope you enjoyed the show. It's for you." Several others simply made generic appeals for peace.

The most simultaneously obnoxious and heartening event of the evening came when Michael Moore accepted his Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. He pulled the rest of his category's nominees onstage with him and immediately launched into a tirade against President Bush:

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"They're here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fictition of duct tape, or the fictition of orange alerts. We are against this war, Mr. Bush! Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you! And any time you've got the pope and Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up!"

On the way backstage, Mr. Moore repeated the last line to reporters, afraid that it may have been drowned out by the chorus of boos that began midway through his rant. Once backstage, Mr. Moore tried to downplay the boos: "Hollywood voted for this award and stood up when it was announced. Don't report that there was a split decision in the hall because five loud people booed."

During Mr. Moore's speech, the camera panned the floor-level audience (the stars), and saw most of them sitting unmoved, neither clapping nor booing. Some looked vaguely amused, others apprehensive. A day later, probably after reviewing the tape and seeing that clearly more than five people booed him, Mr. Moore tried to backpedal: "The people that seemed to disagree with it all seemed to be in one section -up in the balcony."

This last quote exposes Mr. Moore's true mindset. For all his working-class bravado, what he really cares about is the approval of the liberal elite sitting at the floor level, not the rabble in the balcony. But, probably to Mr. Moore's dismay, on Oscar night it wasn't even clear that he had the elite.

Relevance in a time of war The secondary theme of the evening was relevance. For all of its pomp and circumstance, Hollywood is an incredibly insecure place. And, just as it did after 9/11, the industry seemed to need to redefine its reason for being. Best Actress Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, for example, gave a gracious but rambling acceptance speech that exposed her misgivings about even attending the event, but finally concluded that attendance was important because "art is important."

Hollywood players seem to have a hard time justifying their own excesses when the rest of the population is not living vicariously through them. When the country's attention is turned, en masse, to something else, the Hollywood lifestyle seems petty, immature, and immaterial. It's not so much their "art" that needs justification-it's the industry's culture itself.

Winners and losers Finally, what about the awards themselves? More than most years, the Oscar race seemed to be directly connected to the expensive publicity campaigns of a few studios. If you're not in Hollywood, it's easy to think this isn't true. But take a look at the full-page, full-color ads for Chicago that appeared six or seven times per issue in the industry magazine Weekly Variety over the past few weeks, and you'll begin to suspect otherwise.

On the other hand, Chicago was as deserving as any of the Best PictureÐnominated films, aside from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which "towers" above the rest. The creativity behind Chicago gave audiences a visceral thrill, despite the musical's mostly unpleasant story, and it's easy to see why it generated so much momentum going into the awards.

Despite the varied technical achievements of heavily nominated films such as The Hours, Frida, and Adaptation, none stands out as among the films that were really worth seeing last year. That list (see box) was almost entirely ignored by the Academy.

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