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Jewish World Review March 22, 2000 / 22 Adar II, 5760

Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly
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The Stiffs and Their Statuettes -- NOT TO SPEAK ill of the dead, but did anyone else notice during the Oscars that everybody and everything involved in the 4 1/2-hour festival of self-worship had been embalmed?

The whole evening is one endless night-of-the-living-Modern-Maturity ghoulfest, a vast array of Dorian Grays cinched up in their tuxes and shoehorned into their evening gowns, gathered together to love one another, average age 67 going on 22--the largest aggregation of plastic-surgery success stories ever assembled under one roof. It's a freak show: Billy Crystal schticking his way through the long night in the hysterical manner of a man who is afraid his hairline is going to beat him offstage; Jack Nicholson leering and sprawling paunchily in his ringside chair like an especially dissolute pasha waiting for his next lap dance; the preserved Cher competing with the petrified Jane Fonda for whatever horrifying Faustian prize is at stake in their ghastly eternal contest.

And this is just the veneer over the deeper horror of the thing: The rest-in-peace, six-feet-under, worms-crawl-in-and-worms-crawl-out, absolute, utter and complete deadness of anything that passes in the movie business for an idea. Here, Hollywood, is a notion: Ideas are not the same as special effects. Ideas are about things that are, in fact, not mechanical--original thoughts, intellectual daring, honesty, courage, radical notions, that sort of thing.

But, you may say, it is just such a bold embrace of the new that our present Oscars and our present Hollywood do indeed celebrate. At least, that is what quite a few of this year's winners all said, bless their little tinsel-filled heads. The awardees fell all over themselves in awe at their own honesty, courage, radicalism, etc. Bruce Cohen, co-producer of the five-award winner "American Beauty," blessed DreamWorks for "giving us the freedom to make the film we wanted to make." Hilary Swank, who won an Oscar for portraying a woman who lives as a man and who is killed when her secret is discovered, pronounced that "four years ago, this movie would not have been made."

The day-after stories were all about Oscar's great leap into maturity this year in rewarding "edgy" ideas. The Los Angeles Times' front-page article gushed over "a gallery of honored films on the night that plumbed unsettling or intense issues in their plots," while The Post reported "the arrival of a new sensibility in the heart of the moviemaking establishment."

Let's see. The evening's big winner was "American Beauty," which won five Oscars for, as the Los Angeles Times put it, "a dark essaying of suburban desperation in full, bitter bloom." Gosh, we haven't tossed aside a novel, flung down a short story or walked out of a movie exploring that theme since, oh, last Tuesday. Someone should call up Sinclair Lewis and tell him the moving picture boys are finally coming around to his way of thinking.

"American Beauty" concerns the destruction of the Burnham family. The Burnhams live lives of conventional, ostensibly successful suburban smugness, but--get this!--underneath their facade of normalcy they are a bunch of twisted souls living lives of quiet desperation. Wait, here's the really rad part: the Burnhams are us. As "American Beauty" cinematographer and philosopher Conrad L. Hall said, they are "all part of a wonderful, wonderful dysfunctional family called the human race." Dude, deep.

"The Matrix" came in second with four Oscars, for technical achievements. This is a movie that dares to tell an allegorical truth about the horror of the modern state crushing life and soul out of the individual. Messrs. Dostoevsky, Kafka, Huxley, Orwell, Burgess, etc., your royalty checks are doubtless in the mail.

"The Cider House Rules" won two Oscars for its portrayal of an abortionist who is also the ether-addicted yet wonderfully caring director of an orphanage and who cares not a fig for the outside world and material success. "Girl, Interrupted" won for its portrayal of an angry young woman in a mental institution. See it now! Shocking stories of iconoclasm and rebellion against social norms!

The most breathtakingly awaited bit of entertainment in the evening was Robin Williams's staging of the song "Blame Canada," from the cartoon movie "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut." You see, the song had several dirty words in it, and it was very likely that the authorities would respond to their utterance by shutting down the show and beating everyone on stage with truncheons. The brave, brave Mr. Williams sang two of the less naughty words and a chorus member almost-sang the naughtiest. The crowd cheered and cheered.

Oh, the originality. Oh, the daring. I was, by evening's end, quite unsettled.

Michael Kelly is the editor of National Journal. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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