"Me and Hattie McDaniel, shit," said Whoopi Goldberg, palpably sensing that this year's Academy Awards ceremony was going to be a bad trip. After letting slip that expletive like a richly fricative fart, Whoopi should have promptly excused herself and flown somewhere like New Guinea; but, four hours later, she was still standing there with the grin of a stroke victim telling terrible, frat-house jokes and simultaneously backing away from them, colluding in her own degradation in ways that poor Hattie McDaniel would never have dreamed possible. People knew going in that this night had the potential to get ugly, what with nouveau riche vulgarian Harvey Weinstein waging history's most expensive campaign on behalf of Shakespeare in Love and Life Is Beautiful, and Elia Kazan accepting a lifetime achievement award for a life that included betraying the people who'd helped him achieve anything in the first place. Billy Crystal, no fool, stayed home.
This year the Oscars themselves were transported across the country with stops for public viewings, like religious icons. That these are false gods cannot be said too many times: In terms of artistic achievement, the Academy Awards are meaningless. But it wasn't until last year--when Robert Duvall lost to Jack Nicholson's Jack Nicholson impersonation and James Cameron announced with an eerie lack of irony that he was king of the world--that this lifelong Oscar addict was finally able to sever his emotional ties. "I really don't care who wins or loses," I told the guests at my party at the beginning of the evening. "Except that if Roberto Benigni wins Best Actor I'm going out that window."
Had I carried out my threat, I'd have missed the surprise finale--in which Shakespeare in Love edged out Saving Private Ryan--and, more important, I'd have missed Benigni. Bounding over other people's seats like a monkey that has managed to elude its organ grinder, the auteur behind this every-cloud-has-a-silver-lining Holocaust comedy used what little English he knew to graciously thank the Jews whose deaths made it possible for him to understand that life is beautiful. "Did he just say what I thought he said?" said a friend. The sentiment was picked up by Benigni's Italian composer, who also won an Oscar. "I wish to thank the Jewry," he said. "Did he mean 'the jury'?" said another of my guests. "No," I said. "The Oscars aren't voted by a jury." It seemed clear that the composer, too, wished to thank the Jews for teaching us that life is beautiful by being exterminated.
Rats teach us life is beautiful every day, by the way, which brings us to Kazan, who was introduced by Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro wearing the identical faces of Fruit of Islam bodyguards. "Don't fuck with us," their expressions said. When Kazan attempted to embrace them publicly, their expressions didn't change--an awkward moment. The cameramen were poised to find people not applauding, so this morning the whole world knows that Nick Nolte and Ed Harris sat on their hands and that Steven Spielberg clapped but didn't stand. Spielberg's seems the right response to me. Judged on his artistic merits, Kazan deserved an audience standing and screaming itself hoarse. On political grounds--he didn't just betray the Stalinist kultural kommissars who were no friends of free speech, he betrayed the passionate idealists of the Group Theatre, who gave him his start and who embodied the best of the showbiz Left--his appearance demanded a stony silence. Respectful but unenthusiastic applause is about the best that this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand kind of situation warrants.
The ceremony itself gave you no clue about the issues at stake, preferring to champion a more old-fashioned--and meaningless--concept of "heroism," especially war heroism. John Glenn introduced one batch of clips. Val Kilmer and a horse (likely the only creature that would appear onstage with him, although even the animal appeared skittish) introduced another full of cowboys to mark the passing of Roy Rogers.
Aesthetically, there was little to talk about. Made anxious by pre-Oscar punditry and by sniggering full-page spreads in People magazine, most actresses eschewed the kinds of outfits that have endeared so many millions of us to, say, Cher. On one cable network, Joan Rivers made fun of starlets who'd gained a couple of pounds; onstage, meanwhile, viewers witnessed a parade of skeletons unlike any since the Bataan Death March. Sophia Loren, introducing her countryman Roberto Benigni, looked as if she'd had the insides of her cheeks chewed away by caterpillars. Christina Ricci was down to nothing but a pair of round eyes. Even that gorgeous willow Gwyneth Paltrow looked like a willow after an especially hard winter. After she'd blubbered through her acceptance speech, Gwyneth's mom and dad got to see their twiggy little girl escorted off stage by Jack Nicholson with a protective paw over one bony shoulder.
What to praise? Randy Newman's "That'll Do," from the Babe sequel, is a lovely ballad and was performed with heart-tugging soul by Peter Gabriel. Too gentle and melodious, it lost to Stephen Schwartz's ghastly inspirational "When You Believe." Jim Carrey reminded us what a real performer looks like: He had the same insane genius glint that Robin Williams used to have when he was still doing cocaine. (When Carrey slows down and starts giving insipidly sentimental performances, that's when he'll be nominated for Oscars.) The special-effects winners from one of Williams' recent horrors, What Dreams May Come, thanked Hollywood for letting them "make something beautiful and cruelty-free." Obviously, they didn't have to sit through the movie.
"For those of you scoring at home," said Whoopi: "Keep it down, we're trying to do a show here." Her writers should be paraded across the country on a post-Oscar death march--but she should be forced to go as far as Albuquerque for doing such a miserable job of selling those lines. Whoopi managed to do what hundreds of Republican congressmen couldn't--to quell my outrage over the Starr investigation. "Fifty million," she said, of the independent prosecutor's budget. "For that kind of money we could have made five good movies--which is what this night is really about." Actually, the only place in the world where a government agency spending $50 million to investigate a president of the United States doesn't sound obscene is from the stage of the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, where $50 million buys you a bunch of Elizabethan frocks and an Oscar campaign.