The Unbearable Triteness of Oscar

Michael Cieply, a Los Angeles journalist, writes regularly on the film industry

Last Sunday, a collection of studio chiefs and other industry heavies met with representatives of the White House to deliberate a weighty question: How can the film community assist the nation in its time of crisis? Hollywood, by all accounts, was eager to help. But the closest they came to actual action was promising to rush first-run movies to the men and women at the front.

Here’s a more ambitious suggestion. Cancel the Oscars. Just this once. And replace it with something much better.

At first blush, almost no one will feel comfortable with the idea of retreating from our national March ritual. The Oscars have been thrice postponed--by floods in 1938, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 1968 and the 1981 attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life--but never actually abandoned in their 74-year history. Moviedom’s natural reaction is to go on with the show, currently scheduled for March 24 at the newly built Kodak Theatre in Hollywood.

In a guest column for Variety, Frank Pierson, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently promised to do exactly that. “The world will see an American tradition continue,” wrote Pierson. “If we give in to fear ... the terrorists have won the war.”

If the issue were simply one of security, Pierson would be right--though none but a fool would underestimate the hideous difficulty of protecting an event that concentrates so much potential energy in one place. In “normal” circumstances, Oscar security is a nightmare. This time around, the task will be compounded by both the threat of terrorism and by a new setting, a 3,300-seat auditorium smack on the corner of Hollywood and Highland, in the middle of a brand-new shopping mall and a restless tourist district, and right on top of a Metro station.


But the argument for canceling has nothing to do with fear or homeland defense. On the contrary, to scratch the 74th Academy Awards ceremony could actually become a remarkable act of courage--if it were replaced, just once, by a celebration not of the year’s winners, but of the very best things film has shown us in its 100 years of existence.

The movie industry can’t help us through a national crisis with modern-day propaganda licks. Nor can it accomplish much by sending actors and actresses to the podium to deliver, as did the Emmy crowd, self-effacing declarations about the unimportance of their craft. We expect something more from this vast cultural engine. If the West and its culture are under attack, the Academy should tax its resources for some way (I won’t presume to do the staging for these master showmen) to deliver a grand reminder of the power and often-forgotten greatness within that culture. Make us feel how good we can be. Since we have no common spiritual heritage to bind us, let’s use film to light a path out of this morass.

Since Sept. 11, of course, the film industry has been something of a helpless giant, unable to connect with the surge of mixed emotions that have suddenly, and perhaps permanently, reoriented its audience. Stuck with a roster of costly pictures that have been two years or more in the making, the studios can do little but delay their riskier fare--when, exactly, will we be ready to laugh at Chris Rock chasing nuclear-armed Arab terrorists through Manhattan in Disney’s “Bad Company”?

It isn’t that movies haven’t played well since the World Trade Center fell. By and large, the box office has held up nicely, and at least one new film, Disney’s “Monsters, Inc.,” has proved to be a genuine blockbuster while “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” out this weekend, will undoubtedly hit big. But more than a few in Hollywood are bothered by a feeling that their craft--which ostensibly drives our popular culture--is weirdly divorced from the flow of events, both because of the long lead times required by the filmmaking process, and the industry’s strong tendency to shy away from relevance in favor of empty fantasies and sensations. Studio films have become nothing but sporting events. With occasional exceptions--say, the upcoming “Black Hawk Down,” about the U.S. Army’s catastrophic 1993 misadventure in Mogadishu--they have about as much bearing on real life as a Laker game.

For the Academy, a fraternity of Hollywood’s most accomplished artists, however, our unsought encounter with history offers a rare opportunity to provide that rarest of all commodities in the film business--genuine leadership.

To cancel out of respect for the dead would capture, for one powerful moment, the attention of a distracted world. Pierson might tell the inquiring media that he’s asked the Academy’s branches--actors, directors, writers, cinematographers and the rest--to think deeply about the implications of Sept. 11. Should there be changes, large or small, in their work going forward? Have they been too quick, in the past, to settle for the trivial or trade on cheap sensation? Having seen real heroism in action, can they do it justice in film? Could their choices be better? Their stories more human, more complex or more emotionally relevant? Having been attacked, as we are told, for our culture, can we do more to create a culture worth dying for?

On March 24, the show would point the way to that kind of filmmaking. Instead of an empty recitation of “bests,” the evening’s producers should reach deep into the archives for reminders of what film has been, and can still be--a humanizing, civilizing, binding force in a world suddenly threatening to atomize itself. For myself, I would like to see again the moment in “Lawrence of Arabia” that pits Eastern fatalism--"It is written,” says the Arab warrior--against Western openness: “Nothing is written,” counters Lawrence. Or, given the current mood in New York, how about a slice of Woody Allen’s grand tribute to the city, “Manhattan”? (I personally favor his bittersweet litany of reasons for living in spite of it all.) Let’s glimpse again the courage of Oskar Schindler, risking his life to save people not of his own faith, and the sheer, dogged persistence of those shell-shocked young Americans rising from their foxholes at the end of “Platoon.” The very best movies have lifted us far above the ordinary; let’s use March 24 to draw strength, solace and purpose from that work once again.

Some, of course, will find this a silly proposition. But the alternative is to proceed with an awards season that feels worse than silly at a time when a bright red line has been drawn through the middle of our national life. So, let’s give it up, in a big way, in order to make it better the next time around.

Granted, to scratch might cost the Academy dearly in the short term: It would be a gamble to see whether sponsors would be willing to pony up at the same level for a very different show, and roughly 95% of the Academy’s annual budget comes from the approximately $46 million it takes in from the Oscars. And this year’s contenders would go home without their shot at the gold.

But a proper cancellation might be worth the price, if it gets us past the flag-waving, and puts us back in touch with the awesome depths of our own national culture.