This year’s annual Academy Awards show aired tonight. Except for the few in the world — less than six thousand — who are actual members of the Academy, the event seems to have come out of nowhere. During a time of rushed chaos and crisis geopolitically, and an unnerving uneasiness economically domestically. “Now” certainly didn’t “feel” like the right time for narcissistic glitz and glamor. For lack of a better word there’s just too strong an air of uncertainty in the wind as of late.
And it’s not necessarily new. The last few years the Oscars faced a similar fate; the affair is meant to be the poshest and most glamorous extravaganza of the year — one that all Americans of any race religion class or financial bracket can attend, at least virtually, and ostensibly enjoy (as long as they’re able to pay $150 to $250 a month for cable or satelite TV that is), but due to various unfortunate factors prevailing in the hearts and minds of most Americans, word was last year (and the year before) that the Academy was going to deliberately tone down the event in order to be feel more inline with the theme of the day in society. For the last few years that theme has been either war abroad or economic woes at home, or both. This year was no different.
Though America has slowly extricated itself from the full on mass assault kind of wars it had been participating in in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes by American soldiers on countries like Pakistan and Yemen continue to escalate. At a rate that the rest of the world finds alarming frightening and intimidating. Which they should. But so should we. For if only one thing is certain about this current president’s love of targeted assassinations it’s that it’s only a matter of time before other countries gain access to the same type of weaponry. And with what’s good for the goose being good for the gander, the U.S. doesn’t have long to wait till it too is a target of “justified” drone strikes.
In addition the world in general is on red alert due to troubles in Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Ukraine, and of course Iran, Israel and Palestine. Uncertainty says it best. Granted, most Americans don’t know why troubles in these hotbeds are threatening to us here at home, but that doesn’t help disarm the general tension in the air. For those in the know, the world of today seems like anything but a good day to throw a lavish party to self congratulate oneself for creating entertainment. In fact it feels like the exact opposite of what the world needs now. But unlike a Billy Crystal, Alec Baldwin or even Steve Martin, Ellen Degeneris added a rare and much needed low-key sincerity and authenticity to the affair, a dash of “ah shucks” modesty that is rare to see at such A-lister events.
Then again one would be remiss to not note that there was a genuine lack of A-listers at this year’s Oscars. Unlike in past years Clooney, Affleck, Damon, Denzel, Whalberg, Eastwood, Beaty, Nicholson, and Redford were all absent. As were notables Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz (and husband Benicio Del Toro). The front rows usually reserved for these luminaries, was instead filled with Hollywood’s younger up and comers. Ellen’s constant walks down off the stage and into the aisles seemingly roaming aimlessly amongst the seats of the celebs had a genuine effect of humbling the crowd of nervous self-important contenders. She kept appearing to be attempting to remind every one that “hey we’re all just regular folk here, no matter how royal we feel or believe ourselves to be.” It helped.
So too did some of the acceptance speeches. The first of the evening, Jared Leto’s, was especially noteworthy. Granted, to bring things into perspective they’re accepting awards that they themselves invented to give to themselves, not for life-saving inventions, non-profits or businesses, but for play-acting. So the holier than thou self-importance that’s bestowed upon the affair by the media is more about the money making potential for all involved (the network, the studios, the advertisers, the media who cover the event and the celebs themselves) than anything tangibly transformative for the human race. Some seem to get that. Some don’t, clutching their golden statue as if they had just cured polio and won a Nobel prize for it. Leto gave a shout out to our brothers and sisters struggling in Venezuela and Ukraine AND to all those who have died or are still suffering from HIV and AIDS. Cate Blanchett also gave a memorable speech. But the award for Best Acceptance Speech surely will be bestowed to Matthew McConaughey in times to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if YouTube is already logging millions of views for it. Humble yet strangely arrogant at the same time, moving and interesting, but most of all just very cool.
The anti-slavery cause was also given a boost due to a few wins for the the film 12 Years a Slave, where it was noted that tens of millions of people still live in what we would traditionally consider slave-like conditions. A shocking and hard to believe statistic for our modern times. Brad Pitt once again proved that he is more than just a handsome face by funding and producing yet another important film for the ages.
The sad and surprising sudden deaths of Philip Seymore Hoffman and James Gandolfini lent a touch of palpable sadness to the room, reminding us as death does so well how fragile and precious life is. As did the reminder of the loss of Shirley Temple. Her image also summoned recollections of a world long past, one that was more innocent and trusting than today’s.
The show wasn’t without its weird moments, which came mostly courtesy of Beverly Hills plastic surgeons — this strange brood of myopic hustlers who advise celebs that pulling their face so tight that they look like aliens will make them appear younger. John Travolta, Kim Novak and Goldie Hawn each looked respectively and incredibly Martian-like and frightening. A seemingly random appearance of Judy Garland’s children, Liza Minnelli included, all of whom are old enough to be our grandparents reminded us how old this world of Hollywood has become, especially juxtaposed with the images of a young Garland as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz danced on the big screen. The singer known simply as “Pink” sang beautifully a rendition of “Somewhere over the rainbow”, but if anything it acted as a slightly disturbing reminder of how hard and tough-skinned our society has become; a standard of young doe-eyed Judy Garland was now being performed by a woman covered in tattoos and piercings with the body of a WWE wrestler.
Highlights included a stellar acoustic performance by U2, looking older plumper and moving more slowly but still sounding great ; Bill Murray’s too-cool for school off-script ad libbing where he took advantage of a stage appearance to shout out “we forgot someone: the great Harold Ramis of Caddy Shack, Ghost Busters and Ground Hog Day”; and of course there was Ellen’s now infamous Samsung Galaxy plug where she tries to take a selfie with a handful of otherwise overly self conscious Hollywood celebs — a photo that allegedly crashed Twitter’s servers for a few seconds by getting over a million retweets; this was followed by an even stranger but charming pizza ordering stunt. The entire show, Ellen seemed intent on keeping the evening low key and real — at least as real as something like that can be. After all, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about here, a world that is anything but real.
But somehow it worked. Yes we knew that as the evening of glitz glamor and over-priced films, jewelry and slave-labor made wardrobes dragged on that people were running for their lives, being imprisoned or being killed in places like Venezuela and Ukraine, Afghanistan and Syria, Libya and Palestine. But that’s one of the reasons why we love Hollywood and the movies so much. For those of us who can afford it, they help us to forget, even if for just a moment or two. And forgetting is a good thing sometimes. It helps us keep our perspective and our sanity when the rest of the world seems to be losing theirs. They also act as brilliant mirrors of ourselves, reflections of society as a whole. If there was any one meme we could take away from the films that garnered attention at last night’s gala, it was that our society is in a reflective mood, with self discovery and improvement at the forefront of our collective consciousness. In that there is hope.