For all the narcissism, self-promotion and just plain old bad taste, the annual Academy Awards have an unnerving propensity for making unwanted, Weinsteinian advances on that most alluring of sequined starlets: ontology. This time out these gropings included not just existential questions like is human language fundamentally comprehensible, that is to say, how bad can a tag-team speech be (The Vice squad of makeup and hairstyle artists was perfectly, timelessly terrible—walking [barely] and talking [even more barely] Platonic forms in tuxedoes and ballgowns hologramically projected on the 3-D walls of the cave that is the Dolby Theatre), but also seemingly mundane though in fact more profoundly vital matters like whether the cinematography Oscar should be presented in the commercial breaks (as was originally planned, but then backed away from after the vehement backlash from the filmmaking “community”) while the television viewers were subjected to ads for Google Assistant in which “iconic” scenes from famous movies are blithely rejiggered by means of Artificial Intelligence—these mysterious shenanigans making one wonder even more acutely if any of the goings-on on Oscar night or at any other time in Tinseltown are real in any meaningful sense of the word especially since the recording of motion pictures with a camera is the lifeblood of all movies, and those responsible for that service in the nominated films would have been honored for their crucial contributions off-screen, hidden from the movie-loving masses and spawning suspicions that it had all been done by AI non-human union busters in the first place!
Often these Oscar inquiries come in the form of grand statements uttered ex cathedra, as when Guillermo del Toro, presenting the award for Best Director (he won it last year for The Shape of Water), asserted that the nominees’ films would be exactly the same films after the winner was announced. He then opened the envelope and read off the name of his countryman Alfonso Cuarón, director (and writer and cinematographer) of Roma, the black-and-white semi-realist reverie of 1970s family life in a pleasantly affluent district of Mexico City told from the point of view of the indigenous nanny. (Cuarón took home statuettes for his work in all three categories; he also produced the movie but failed to haul in the award for Best Picture amidst mutterings that malevolent Hollywood powers were displeased at the business-model threat from Netflix, which bankrolled the film.)
A sensitive, sentimental and learned filmmaker, del Toro was trying to assuage his (and our) nagging distrust of, even shame at, the whole enterprise of rating and rewarding what Hollywood likes to call its art but is in fact commerce. But del Toro’s claim seemed to this viewer—one whose own faculties were admittedly garbled after several strong margaritas—to founder on the shoals of schoolmarmish superficiality: the physical features of a film, even a masterpiece of dental prosthesis like Bohemian Rhapsody or the Oscar-bait bagatelle, Green Book that hooked the Best Picture big fish, may remain unchanged after the faux gold dingus is deeded over, but a movie’s status is certainly altered by its reception. Flicks exist in the eye of the beholders, and if these beholders number in the millions all the better. Condemned by the market and opinion makers, a flop will have few friends and be a changed beast—battered, broken. Citizen Kane didn’t get the nod as Best Picture in 1942, while the propaganda piece Mrs. Miniver won the following year. Even during the War on Terror, the kooky and cloying Mrs. Miniver is no longer the film it once was, nor in Trump Time is Citizen Kane. The del Toro platitude didn’t hold water.
It is no coincidence that Mexican filmmakers have done well in the Age of Trump, and even before it during the more numerous deportations of the Obama years. There was much, unsubtitled Spanish spoken on the Dolby stage this year with pointed attacks on walls and jingoism. The most gracious of these critiques came from Cuarón when he lauded the American films he cherished as a kid, characterizing them as contributions to the cinema of the world—a vast theatre without borders. (Never mind that the roughriders of the American movie lobby—like their counterparts in the defense industry—have ceaselessly done their best to subjugate the globe.)
In this vein, Hollywood’s war on Trump took a bizarre turn last Sunday—practical and philosophical at once.
Dominant liberal opinion among the movie-making classes would like to see the leading man of the 24/7 Trump feature film impeached and imprisoned, and if not, then at least scattered—metaphorically speaking in this digital age—on the editing room floor.
Not for thirty years has the Academy Awards show been done without a host, and that edition of 1989 began with Rob Lowe prancing about with a squeaky, fetish sex kitten of a Snow White. Lowe had been chosen for the role thanks to his smash hit of the previous year: his illicit sex tape made at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, an appearance winkingly referred to in the White-Lowe duet “Keep the Cameras Rolling.”
This opening Oscar sequence will long endure as the most bizarre male monument to pre-#MeToo Hollywood.
This time around Kevin Hart was slated to lead the proceedings but was given the hook after the firestorm kicked up over the youthful—okay, he was in his thirties—indiscretion of his homophobic tweets. Various overtures were made to former Oscars hosts, but they wisely ran for cover. When in doubt downsize: the idea was hit upon to go without an emcee.
At least this was the story put about by the Academy. I suspect a much more sophisticated plot lay behind the scheme.
Really this was Hollywood’s way of showing what the bigger, more lucrative, round-the clock show in Washington, New York, and Mar-a-Lago (with a recent episode set in in Hanoi, but cut short because the star’s ratings were bested by The Bachelor: Vietnam) would look like without the bad-boy host. The Oscar junta wanted to prove that no-President USA reality tv of the people, by the people and for the people could be far more entertaining and effective. What is Trump but an anti-Bob Hope, the longtime host of the awards back in their heyday? Have the show-running generals solve the problem, the Academy proclaimed: no Trump, no Pence, no none-of-them. Allow the Schumers, Pelosis, McConnells and Grahams to hit their marks and deliver their lines. Viewership goes up, things move along more briskly. Everyone’s happier, from advertisers to critics to John and Jane Doe.
Let the Deep State in Hollywood and in DC do what it does best: make quality entertainment. We don’t have to have a comic with a mike to sell us the rigged, back-channel jockeying of the military-industrial complex or its movie wing out on the Left Coast.
The spectacle would run as if on auto-pilot: this year’s Oscar presenters and winners would speak for themselves. The result was the same only faster—and with higher ratings.
A feel good road movie about racism took home best picture. A Mexican director won again, this time not for a space odyssey (Cuarón’s Gravity was the big winner of 2014) but for a down-to-earth drama that aestheticized class struggle and the enduring legacy of colonialism.
Blatant hucksterism (for Bohemian Rhapsody) collaborated with the panicked search for an opening production number and led to the event’s kickoff—an exercise in infinite regression, with the band Queen (sans Freddie Mercury, not even as hologram, but still with two of its founding members, who also happened to be producers of the biopic in which they featured) blasting through their anthems (“We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You”) in an emaciated five minutes to the cheers of happy-clappy stars pulled from their seats by the mysterious forces of Hollywood tribalism.
The effect was post-nostalgic, stopgap, and not even earsplitting. This one didn’t go better in Dolby, but at least it was over quickly.
Kendrick Lamar, content with his Pulitzer rather than the Oscar, wanted no part of the streamlined show, refusing to serve up a truncated version of his own anthem “All the Stars” from Black Panther. There must be no-shows in order to demonize the killjoy snobbery of intellectuals and malcontents: Lamar obliged. That vastly overrated film’s music did not go away empty-handed, however. The Oscar-winning score was the work of a Swedish composer long resident in the USA by the name of Ludwig Göransson. To prepare for his magnum opus, he went on a research safari to Senegal for inspiration (not for plunder!), though his mix of “traditional African” sounds with old-school orchestral grandeur sounded for all the world like appropriation.
Spike Lee did not turn his back on this soundtrack symphony, nor on the best Actress Award being snatched from Glenn Close’s waiting fingers for the eighth time, snubbing her iron-willed performance of the eponymous Wife, and fittingly withholding public appreciation of a woman’s creative genius. Said snatching was somewhat reluctantly done by Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in the salacious ante-chamber romp, The Favourite. It was just fine for the Spike Lees of this world to dismiss Green Book while giving the green light to the Favourite, a film that blithely blacked-out any reference to the South Sea Company founded in Anne’s last year and her part in the expansion of slavery and the racist British Empire. A soundtrack of spooky organ music and ethereal drones removed the Favourite hijinks not to another century but to another planet altogether.
For the Oscar night musical numbers, also clipped back in number and length, a cowboy and cowgirl in fringed buckskin yippee-ki-yayed, Jennifer Hudson belted out a hymn (“I’ll Fight”) to a sitting Supreme Court Justice, and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga dove, cheek-to-cheek, into their soupy mega-hit “Shallow” from a Star is Born. The peroxide Diva with the world-class voice kicked the number all the way down Hollywood Boulevard and into the Pacific, then landed the Oscar, to boot.
In other words, all ran according plan and without a host. There was nothing radical or visionary, just the usual liberal blasts and business as usual. Who needs an emcee to suffer the blame for a bad show or distract with drolleries when the wrong envelope is opened at a state dinner or the wrong button pressed in the situation room? The Dolby extravaganza went off without a hitch. And so it could be in Washington if Hollywood gets it way.
The coup will not come with impeachment and or a disqualifying diagnosis from army psychiatrists, but simply by pulling the plug on the host. We don’t want a Chief Executive. What we need is a Chief Executive Producer.
(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.)