One observes the liturgy of the Academy Awards for the gaffs and grandiosity. From the heavens above Hollywood, these miraculous moments fall like tiny healing drops of holy water. Everyone has their list of cherished epiphanies: Sally Fields fawning to the congregation of tuxedoed and ball-gowned egos that “you really like me”; Matthew McConaughey anointing himself his own hero; Gwyneth Paltrow blessing her dog. In these staged confessions the saintly halos glow most vibrantly. Revelations of realism amidst the rampant fakery convince us to keep on tithing to the priests of the sacred screen.
In stealing glimpses of gods incarnate in all their foolishness and self-regard we imagine that we too might be saved, or at least given our snatch of immortality like that apportioned to the busload of unsuspecting Tinseltown pilgrims ushered into the Kodak Theatre at the half-way-point of the service. These dumbstruck supplicants kissed the living saints’ cheeks, hands, and feet and posed for selfies with the immortals in the first and holiest row. By virtue of his apostolic status, Denzel Washington even performed a flash wedding amongst the common-folk worshippers.
Without the uplifting sight of such numinous acts played out in real time any self-respecting moviegoer would probably foreswear the so-called ceremony, especially since the Church of the Movies feeds its faithful flock a lethal diet of super heroes, animated fables, and same-old serials. It was appropriate that the cultish rites took place this year just before Lent. For my penance I’m making the ultimate sacrifice and giving up The Lego Batman Movie. I doubt the picture will notice: it’s already taken in more $200 million on its collection plate.
In this 500th year of the Reformation—back in 1517 Luther cried foul at the Medici pope’s remodel job on St. Peter’s, a renovation project that almost rivals the work done on Will Smith’s 25,000 square-foot Malibu bishop’s palace—it might seem to many that the time is right for even the faithful to renounce the movies and find other gods to pray and pay to.
Its legates bringing back reports of the upset below, the cinematic curia goes through periodic exercises of moral cleansing. The latest form of spiritual renewal has taken the form of #OscarsSoWhite. Thus Moonlight garnered its share of holy statues and Viola Davis won the Best Supporting Actress. With the relic in her hands, she spoke magnificently in tongues, conjuring images of graveyards and the Last Judgment. Her appearance at the Kodak far surpassed the performance in Fences for which she was given the award in the first place.
Back in 2013, during the Enlightened Obama Era, the benefice of Academy President was deeded for the first time to an African American, Cheryl Boone Isaacs. She is the third woman to occupy the post in its ninety-year history. Moderately skilled in the arts of pious rhetoric, Boone Isaacs likes now, in the Age of Trump, to claim that “[cinematic] art has no borders.” Striving to strike a high moral tone, such pronouncements call to mind instead Hollywood’s crusade against trade barriers, virulently fought against by the American Movie Industry in order to secure safe passage for products such as The Batman Lego Movie. Roaming the globe unfettered, such fodder is, like so many metric tons of genetically-modified American corn, free to wipe out foreign farmers and filmmakers. Yet the point behind Boone Isaac’s sanctimony was also made on Sunday, though not by her: the five foreign films nominated this year, and made with a tiny fraction of the 80 million dollars it took to mount The Lego Batman Movie, were surely better than almost all their American counterparts. This much can at least be said of the three of five I’ve seen so far.
The lack of any real Latino and Hispanic American presence at the Awards, except at the catering and clean-up, has not yet occasioned televised two-minute homilies. The best that could be mustered at last Sunday’s conclave was Lin-Manuel Miranda doing his Oscar-nominated song “How Far I’ll Go” from the animated Moana, the singer with roots on the Caribbean Island of Puerto Rico turning a blind eye to the film’s eye-poppingly racist depiction of Pacific Islanders. The requisite piety on immigration was delivered by the talented, politically aware Mexican (though not Mexican-American) actor Gael Garciá Bernal. He works around the world, including currently in the United States in the Amazon original series Mozart in the Jungle, and lives in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. “As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being,” intoned Garcá Bernal, “I’m against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” Migrant worker indeed! It’s this kind of arrogant homily that brings the Princes of Hollywood to their feet and the far-flung faithful to their knees.
Yet all the talk of diversity on the big screen merely distracts attention from Hollywood’s real covert war. It is waged against the elderly, and especially older women, as even a cursory comparison the median age for the recipients of best actor and best actress awards reveals.
The musical contests staged at this year’s Oscar’s convocation combined in sometimes dissonant polyphony the stubborn themes of race and age. Host Jimmy Kimmel lanced the hypocrisy of it in his opening monologue: “I want to say thank you to President Trump. I mean remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? It has been an amazing year for movies. Black people saved NASA and white people saved jazz. That’s what you call progress.” Lancing Hollywood’s opportunistic take on race gave a real sting to the joke, which elicited pained laughter from the Kodak crowd.
But folded into the issue of race and music, was the cult of youth. Two out of the five nominees for best song came were composed by thirty-one-year-old Justin Hurwitz for his college friend Damien Chazelle’s movie musical La La Land. Hurwitz’s “City of Stars” and “Audition,” essentially his-and-hers versions of the same song, ogled each other from across the nominee list. Both were given a combined and full-throated performance not by the voices from the movie (Ryan Gosling’s and Emma Stone’s) but by the film’s main, if fleeting, black presence, John Legend. Ironically, Legend’s own song from La La Land, “Start a Fire” (Hurwitz was also given a credit, the last in a list of four collaborators) was far better than the tepid twinned odes to the self that were nominated: “City of Stars / Are you shining just for me?” In Hollywood, the answer to that question is always yes.
Perhaps it was thought that having an African-American singer take a unisex approach to Hurwitz’s diptych on Oscar night would blunt nagging issues of race. It did quite the opposite in raising the question of why Legend wasn’t given the title role in the first place? He can’t act, you say? Well, Gosling can’t sing! In the end, the odds smiled on Hurwitz and he took the Oscars both for best song and soundtrack. Pretending to be deaf, dumb and blind to color, his sonic mirror told Hollywood it was the loveliest and perpetually youngest beauty of them all, and he was duly rewarded for it.
The fear of aging and death was most manifest at the end of the evening when, in the fiftieth anniversary year of their youthful onscreen crime spree, Bonnie and Clyde, were made to bungle the presentation of Best Picture. Through her surgically prepared death mask, even more expertly prepared than her co-presenter Warren Beatty’s, Faye Dunaway announced the winner as La La Land. The unseen orchestra (released this year from its remote dungeon down Hollywood Boulevard to take up residence in the actual pit of the Kodak Theatre) even broke into the saccharine strains of “City of Stars” to welcome the soon-to-be disappointed and immediately dethroned false-winners. The Muses had at least taken a sliver of revenge against Hurwitz’s Hollywood hymn mussing the laurel wreath so that it sat on his head at a slightly mocking slant.
In the end it was not Southern lawmen that finished off the renegade pair of Bonnie and Clyde and their portrayers, Beatty and Dunaway, but the accountants of Price Waterhouse Cooper. After this mortal embarrassment I was sure that the infamously perfectionist Beatty would have to be wheeled off the stage on a gurney, and that even if he made it to the wings he would not live to see the quickly-approaching California sunrise. The Grand Man’s survival proved that in Hollywood even an aged onscreen gangster can still make the after-party on the way to his own resurrection.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)