Publisher's Note — March 17, 2010, 8:32 am

Oscar Night’s Sad Familiarity— “Like Baghdad”

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the March 17, 2010 Providence Journal.

There are good reasons George Clooney never cracked a sincere smile during the Oscars. For one thing, there was nothing funny or dramatic in the ceremony — not a single decent joke or memorable line in the whole dragged-out spectacle. But beyond that, there was something dispiriting about the evening that I suspect brought out the worst in this usually charming leading man.

Clooney is our era’s thinking-person’s actor. Obviously intelligent, and a liberal, he carries what little remains of the heavily politicized legacy of Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s, when such frankly left-wing personalities as Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Paul Newman had a great deal to say. In keeping with less strident times, Clooney adopts a style that is quieter and, perhaps, more ironic than the style of the older generation of stars. Still, I wonder if it wasn’t pure disgust displayed on Clooney’s face — disgust with the low-quality “humor” and the hypocrisy, sentimentality and political correctness that marked the event.

Of course, Clooney might have been unhappy simply because he knew that he couldn’t win the Best-Actor award for playing the role of someone who fires people for a living. Downbeat doesn’t earn mileage points in perpetually upbeat, happy-ending Hollywood. While the Academy might want to acknowledge a certain kind of dark performance with a nomination, the Polyannas of the movie establishment, epitomized by Tom Hanks, don’t quite want to celebrate it, either.

But how could Clooney laugh at Steve Martin’s “Jewish joke”? Evidently emboldened by the tone of anti-Nazi schtick in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds,” the Academy Award scriptwriters decided to go real low. “Christoph Waltz played a Nazi obsessed with finding Jews,” said the Baptist-raised Martin. Gesturing broadly to the audience, he delivered the punch line: “The mother lode.” Is that funny, or just obnoxious? Jews “dominating” Hollywood is one of the oldest clichés in the anti-Semite’s handbook. I doubt that a Jewish comedian — even a self-hating caricature — would have used such material.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Inevitably, Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for playing an exemplary Christian, who, from the goodness of her white, conservative heart reaches out to a lost black teenager and saves his life. Those are the rules of the feel-good game and I wouldn’t be an American if I didn’t (mostly) enjoy “The Blind Side,” including Bullock’s appealing portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy.

However, there’s a limit to my tolerance for treacle, especially when it’s accompanied by tokenistic recognition of poor, unhealthy black people, symbolized at the Oscars by Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique, the stars of “Precious.” Isn’t it just a little grotesque that real-life and movie-version Sean Touhy, adoptive father of the very hefty teenager Michael Oher, is a fast-food mogul, the owner of numerous Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell franchises? Black people are disproportionately the victims of fast-food fat and grease, and the gushing tributes to Sidibe and Mo’Nique delivered by svelte white actresses mocked the class and racial divide that separates the healthy and affluent from the impoverished and obese.

More than any other aspect of this dreary evening, though, I was depressed by Kathryn Bigelow’s acceptance speeches for Best Director and Best Picture. “The Hurt Locker” might, I suppose, be construed to be an “anti-war” film, but clearly it is not politically engaged in the tradition of “Platoon” or “Apocalypse Now.” When she stepped to the podium, Bigelow, who has said she’s “a child of the ’60s” who sees “war as hell . . . and completely dehumanizing,” could have said something straightforward about ending the destructive and self-defeating American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (the best way to remove U.S. soldiers from bomb-disarming duty). But instead she opted for the purest bromide: “I’d like to dedicate this to the women and men in the military who risk their lives on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan and around the world, and may they come home safe.”

Evidently embarrassed that she singled out the military, Bigelow upped the blandness in her second acceptance by making “one more dedication to men and women all over the world . . . who wear uniforms, not just military, but hazmat, emergency, firemen.” Why not mention the medics and doctors who stitch together and amputate the limbs of civilians and G.I.s who step on unexploded cluster bombs dropped by Uncle Sam and improvised explosive devices buried by the rebels? Why not say something clearly anti-war, or pro-withdrawal?

When ABC’s Sherri Shepherd interviewed Clooney and his Italian girlfriend, Elisabetta Canalis, on the red carpet before the show, he was smiling but already ornery. To Shepherd’s professed admiration for him, Clooney remarked that Canalis “doesn’t understand English or she’d kill you. She’d cut you with a stiletto.” Fortunately for all concerned, he wasn’t in the mood to attend the Vanity Fair post-Oscar party. I don’t blame him. The U.S., following Hollywood’s example, more and more resembles a gated community, and the Vanity Fair gala embodies the very essence of America the humorless, America the frightened, America the stratified.

Among journalists, the New York Post’s gossip columnist Cindy Adams best captured the true atmosphere of Oscar night and, perhaps, the state of the nation. The après-Oscar security, she said, was astonishingly good: “Let [the government] hire the Vanity Fair group to protect us. These guerrillas in spike heels know what they’re doing. It’s color-coded cars. Color-coded limo passes. Streets blocked off. Lanes blocked off. Checkpoints every few feet, like it’s Baghdad.”

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