A FEW HOURS OF RESPITE AT THE OSCARS

Times Staff Writer

There were times it appeared that this year's Oscars would be upstaged by war, street protests or a glamour deficiency, but in the end, Sunday night's 75th Academy Awards were a thoroughly Hollywood production, full of light humor, high emotion and a certain shock value, including a best director win for Roman Polanski.

The ceremony, held under heavy security at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, began without its paparazzi-studded red carpet amid a muted war wariness, made even more somber by a string of unsettling battlefield dispatches earlier in the day.

By the night's end, though, it had turned into an only-in-Hollywood counterpoint to four days of war.

Polanski, who fled the country a quarter-century ago rather than face sentencing for statutory rape, was warmly applauded as his film, "The Pianist," garnered not only honors for him but also for its screenplay and leading man, Adrien Brody, who won the award for best actor. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore was greeted with a standing ovation that quickly turned to boos when he delivered the night's lone political diatribe. Host Steve Martin was working with his writers to fine-tune the monologue right up to show time, dropping a Saddam Hussein joke but keeping a wry reference to current events when he said he had universal support to host the show, with the exception of France and Germany. But even the war could not derail "Chicago," the musical tale of Jazz Age murder, celebrity and justice that, as expected, won best picture. Adapted from the Bob Fosse stage hit, "Chicago" picked up five other Oscars, as well, including a best supporting actress trophy for Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was the first best picture win for a musical in 34 years.

The tenor of the evening was reflected not merely in the way Oscar winners talked about the war in Iraq, but also the way they talked about their art. There were far fewer scripted remarks and obligatory thank-you lists and noticeably more heartfelt pauses.

"Why do you come to the Academy Awards when the world is in such turmoil?" asked Nicole Kidman -- who had told friends she was considering not coming -- as she accepted the best actress Oscar for her role in "The Hours." "Because art is important and because you believe in what you do, and you want to honor that and it is a tradition that needs to be upheld."

Sunday's awards were noticeably lacking much of the celebrity self-indulgence that has long delighted some fans and infuriated others. The flamboyance of war allusions, not evening gowns, became Topic A.

Most of these moments were graceful. There was Chris Cooper, accepting the best supporting actor Oscar for his work in "Adaptation" by concluding, "In light of all the troubles in this world, I wish us all peace." Or Brody, his voice cracking with emotion as he mentioned a friend on military duty in Kuwait. Or Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, introducing the best song nomination for "Frida" by saying, "If Frida [Kahlo] were alive, she'd be on our side, against war."

And then there was documentary filmmaker Moore, a devout leftist and cultural provocateur, whose pro-gun-control "Bowling for Columbine" won for best documentary.

Moore called his fellow documentary nominees to join him onstage, announced that they supported nonfiction and then assailed "fictitious elections that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons.... We are against this war, Mister Bush! Shame on you, Mr Bush! Shame on you!" The boos drowned out most of the cheers as Moore went on.

The mood of the evening reflected four days of nonstop war bulletins, including reports on the fate of the U.S. soldiers killed or held as prisoners of war by the Iraqi military. ABC twice broke in with brief scheduled summaries of the day's events.

Yet many times Sunday night, the Oscars also appeared to provide a tonic for a nation eager to laugh or root communally -- most often at host Martin's jokes about everything from Jennifer Lopez's love life to Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose in "The Hours" to his introduction of one of America's "finest black actors -- Mickey Mouse." After Moore left the stage, Martin broke the tension by joking, "The Teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."

The show also delivered a series of surprises. Polanski's win was one of a number of upsets, including the first-ever award for a Spanish-language screenplay, Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her," and a win for best song for rapper Eminem, who was a no-show.

The arrival of the celebrities at the Kodak Theatre, which usually brims with the anticipation and chatter of a high school prom, felt more like the minutes before a polite Sunday morning church service.

The red carpet that normally would stretch like the sea from the intersection of Hollywood and Highland into the theater was truncated to the length of a couple of basketball courts. The normal gridlock of milling and mingling stars evaporated; some walked briskly inside, others stopped to pose for a picture.

The hundreds of photographers jostling for a better angle of entering celebrities were reduced to a dozen. The slew of reporters who shouted overlapping, often fawning questions was limited to another dozen, positioned behind the photographers and threatened with eviction if they spoke to the entering celebs. Joan Rivers' E! Channel special was moved to the other side of Hollywood Boulevard, as were the fans. Stripped of their normal bleacher seats, the faithful peered through a chain-link fence covered with black translucent plastic.

Many big names, such as Nicolas Cage, Jack Nicholson, Brody, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and Daniel Day-Lewis, bypassed the main entrance, using a more secure passage made available for Sunday's ceremonies.

Despite predictions that many female stars would leave their finery at home and stick to black, many sported light-colored ethereal confections of gauze and sparkles. Sean Connery was festooned with a cascade of ruffles around his neck.

Decisions about what to wear, what to say and what to feel weighed heavily on many of those who attended.

Actress Sally Kirkland thought about abandoning an elaborate pink Oleg Cassini dress for black, "but then I said, 'No.' This is a celebration of art and glamour and I was going to celebrate it.... Maybe shows like this will be a little relief for a moment from everything going on."

Danish director Martin Strange-Hansen, who with Mie Andreasen won the Oscar for best live-action short film, wrestled with whether to make a statement from the podium criticizing his government's support of the war. In the end, he held his tongue. "Look at the category I'm in. Look who I am. If I say something, what does it mean in the end?" said Strange-Hansen, 32, cradling his Oscar backstage. "It means nothing.... Look, this is a great moment, not just for me but for people in the arts. We're in sad times, but we also need good times."

Producer Sam Goldwyn Jr. said he missed the collage of humanity outside the theater. "It's always so wonderful and beautiful. The show really is a circus. We're show folk. We pretend sometimes that this is about higher art, and maybe sometimes it is, but it's really also about everyone looking to see everyone else's dress."

The outbreak of war created a tone far different from last month's Grammy ceremonies in New York, where the looming war was barely acknowledged from the stage; some artists then said backstage that they were asked to keep political statements out of the mix, a claim that Grammy officials denied. Conservative talk-show hosts have denounced Hollywood stars as unpatriotic dilettantes for political activism, and the Dixie Chicks, the bestselling female group in the album era of pop, have seen radio stations freeze them out for a member's comments about the president.

Before the ceremonies began Sunday, hundreds of antiwar protesters gathered near the theater, forming largely peaceful crowds that were met by a phalanx of riot gear-clad Los Angeles Police Department officers. Several tuxedoed members of the foreign press made their way past the police barricades to interview demonstrators. (Some pro-war demonstrators showed up earlier with a large black-and-white sign that proclaimed: "What Would John Wayne Do?")

An attempt by dozens of protesters -- trying to make good on a vow made earlier in the week to shut down the Oscars -- failed to get close. The protesters ran up Sunset Boulevard in the direction of the theater, but they were quickly turned back by police who converged on the street in high numbers, sirens blaring.

Protesters took their cue from their surroundings. Some hoisted placards with faux movie posters: "Apocalypse No!" "I See Dead People." "The Sick Sense." As stars passed by in their limousines some rolled down the windows to flash the peace sign or popped up from sun roofs to snap pictures of the demonstrators. From the sidewalk, the non-typical Oscar bystanders pleaded with the limo passengers to take a stand. "Speak out! Speak out!" they chanted.

By 6 p.m., after the ceremony had begun, police officers ordered the crowd to disperse as required by their permit and threatened arrests. The jail bus was positioned nearby. Ten people were arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly and assault on police officers.

Security was so much tighter than usual that to enter the pre-show Oscar cocktail party, a credentialed ticket-holder was required to show his ticket and photo ID four times. (The gold-embossed ticket itself set off the metal detectors.) People with cell phones were asked to activate them to prove they were truly phones. Backstage, undercover police officers in black tie kept watch. Above ground, the Hollywood-Highland subway stop was shut down.

In the end, one star -- Brody -- managed to combine the old Oscar glitz and the new battle-weary sensitivity. Accepting his award for "The Pianist," he first planted an cinematic kiss on presenter Halle Berry, then brought the audience to an emotional ovation by saying, "My experiences in making this film made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanization of people at times of war.... Whomever you believe in, if it's God or Allah, may he watch over you."

*

Times staff writers Rachel Abramowitz, Megan Garvey, Booth Moore, Gayle Pollard-Terry and Bob Baker contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°