The bombs started raining on Baghdad two days before the stars were scheduled to reign at last year's 75th annual Academy Awards. Much hair tugging (or, at least, hair extensions tugging) followed.
Would the show go on? Should it? Was it right for America to flaunt its riches before the world while imposing its might on Iraq and sending its soldiers into harm's way?
As you may recall -- this was, after all, 11 months ago, though it somehow feels of another era -- the opinions differed wildly and vigorously. As the New York Daily News' Jack Mathews asked rhetorically, "Do we really want to show off one of the most superficial symbols of Western culture, even a sedate version, while our troops are barreling toward Baghdad?"
That argument didn't prevail. The somewhat muted show aired as scheduled; documentarian Michael Moore drew catcalls for the evening's most political speech; Adrien Brody planted a long wet one on Halle Berry; and another chapter of Oscar history was written.
What a difference almost a year makes.Troops remain in Iraq; the Oscars are back to their old glitzy ways.
Still, this year no one is questioning the appropriateness of Hollywood celebrating itself with another lavish, self-loving televised spectacle while American soldiers dodge suicide bombers in Iraq and the folks at home try to remember which color-coded anxiety level they should be feeling at any given moment.
Last year's show played as if it felt a vague need to apologize for itself, from the cancellation of the stars' red-carpet fashion procession to the glee-challenged acceptance speeches. This year the grandstands for celebrity gawking loom high over Hollywood Boulevard and aren't coming down -- and the show's organizers are promising ultrabright star power and super-duper sets.
"This is who we are," said Aggie Kobrin, an Orange County-based human resources consultant, just after viewing the Oscar statuettes on display in the mall attached to the Kodak Theatre, where the Academy Awards will be presented Sunday. She was glad the glam factor was returning to the Oscars "because it's America. It's what's expected."
In other words, the world situation may be uncertain -- it may always be uncertain -- but Oscar now knows what he sees when he looks in the mirror. And he likes it. "This year there has been a conscious effort from the beginning -- from the selection of the poster back in November to the theme that producer Joe Roth decided on -- to make it a happier occasion again," said Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. "He wants it to be an awards show that is heavy on comedy, not only from selecting Billy Crystal as host. Throughout the evening he's got comic performances and comic approaches to various aspects of the show that I think will make this one a little different from some of the others we've done."
Bringing in heavy hitters
Producer Roth, who runs Revolution Studios (which made "Daddy Day Care" and his own "America's Sweethearts," among others), also aims to juice the mood while reversing the show's steadily shrinking ratings by filling the presenter ranks with Hollywood's biggest names: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, last year's winners Nicole Kidman and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and even Oprah Winfrey.
"I think certainly there's going to be a striking contrast to last year in mood and look," Davis said.
The post-show parties, which also canceled their red carpets last year, are returning with a vengeance. Think you won't be able to find the star-studded Vanity Fair bash at Morton's in West Hollywood? Hint: Look for the magazine's name spelled out in a topiary that's 10 feet high and 30 feet long.
Countless TV shows, magazines and other media will be providing breathless coverage of every such aspect of Oscar-related activity, particularly as it relates to celebrities. Widespread interest in the superficial -- as you may have noticed -- didn't actually disappear when the U.S. began waging its wars on terror and Iraq, despite much punditry predicting the contrary. That Janet Jackson's breast passed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the most-searched Internet topic ever must be considered a brutally revealing milestone.
Davis admitted to mixed feelings over the ever-growing frenzy around the Oscars' periphery. "Obviously our focus is on the art of the motion picture, and once we get everybody in the hall, that's what the evening is all about," the academy executive director said. "We kind of wish the world would focus a little more on that aspect of things, but we know that most of the coverage in the two days following the show will be who wore what and things that have nothing to do with the movies as an art form."
Yet Richard Walter, chairman of UCLA Film School's screenwriting program, argued that what the Oscars are selling is far from trivial. "They are continuing to extol the American ethos, the American dream," Walter said. "That dream is that in a free and democratic society, if you're willing to become educated and work hard, you can succeed. Not one of [the winners] was born into this."
Winning the Oscar -- becoming the most celebrated of celebrities -- may be the highest accolade our culture offers. Who hasn't imagined stepping up to that podium and collecting that golden guy?
The fantasy dangled by the Oscars is disconnected from the real world, which is why things become awkward when the real world crashes the party. You don't dream of taking the stage and trying to place your Oscar win in the context of soldiers getting blown up.
Crossing the line
Given that Moore had just received a standing ovation for winning the documentary Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine," you've got to figure that the boos that interrupted his speech sprung less from ideological differences than the sense that a crucial line of decorum had been broached.
Veteran British film critic David Thomson is vexed by the Oscars' apolitical self-image. "What is most irking in the academy's attitude to its own place in the world is the assertion that there's nothing anyone can do about things political, so enjoy the show and go to see movies," he wrote last week in the national British newspaper Independent. "Of course, after 100 years of film-going, we do have the beginnings of a case that `difficulties' in the world at large can be connected to a culture that steadily believes in bringing dreams to life, worshipping beautiful people and knowing as little as possible about `foreign affairs.'"
Roth has said that despite the ABC-imposed five-second delay on the telecast, no political statements will be edited. Damien Bona, co-author of "Inside Oscar" and author of "Inside Oscar 2," said this year's winners may be particularly likely to get topical.
"The fact that it is a presidential election year will, I think, lead people to make political statements more than in an average year -- especially since the California primary is two days later there, so it's on everybody's mind," Bona said. "I do think it'll be interesting if Tim Robbins wins given that he and Susan Sarandon were disinvited from the Baseball Hall of Fame [after speaking out against the Iraq war]. If anyone had the right to gloat about being right about the war, he does. And Sean Penn with his trips to Iraq, he certainly has laid the groundwork for speaking on the subject this year."
Best song nominee Michael McKean ("A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow," from "A Mighty Wind") said for him the issue is that the movies and politics tend to have little to do with each other.
"I think I compartmentalize pretty easily," McKean said, wearing the Global Vision for Peace pin he had just received at an event promoting "Artists for the U.N." "It's not really about politics. Listen, my wife [Annette O'Toole] and I are nominated for the first time. There's nothing political about what we do in this particular case. We'd be different in a different situation."
To Davis, Oscar's message is straightforward: On with the show.
"I don't mean that all the problems in the world have been solved by any means, but I think it's OK for people to celebrate this art form," Davis said. "And if they have fun doing it, all the better."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times