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How Hollywood Sees Itself

Daily Variety's review of the Oscars says a lot about the people who make our culture. Hint: They loved Halle's speech.

12:00 AM, Apr 8, 2002 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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IF YOU WANT to understand American popular culture, you have to read Daily Variety.

Variety is the trade paper for the entertainment industry, and besides providing a comprehensive record of what goes on in New York and Hollywood, it's a lens through which you can see how the people who make movies and television see themselves.

Consider the case of the 74th Annual Academy Awards show a couple weeks ago. You remember it. The show opened with Tom Cruise, smirking and smiling as he walked across the stage and telling us how, in the wake of September 11, he had called all of his "actor friends" to ask if what they did with their lives was really important. "Should we celebrate the magic the movies bring? Now?" Tom wondered aloud. He paused, steeled his gaze, and thundered, "Dare I say it? More than ever!"

The show went downhill from there. Whoopi Goldberg made bad jokes and the producers ran a series of movie testimonials from luminaries such as Lani Guinier. Sidney Poitier was given a lifetime achievement award, and got his very own testimonial video, which, oddly, featured only black actors. And then there was Halle Berry. After winning Best Actress for her role in "Monster's Ball," Berry went on a long, hysterical, unhinged rant about the barriers she was breaking down for her race, the footsteps she was following in, and the discrimination that she encounters as a serious actress of color. Halle Berry, whose mother is white, was the Miss USA runner up in 1986 and a successful model before she turned to acting. She gets $2.5 million per picture and reportedly received a $500,000 bonus for taking her shirt off in last year's John Travolta disaster, "Swordfish." No doubt oppressed, serious actors of color everywhere were thrilled to see her carrying their banner. I imagine Andre Braugher cried.

The morning after the Oscars, newspapers across America were, appropriately, filled with derision. But not Variety.

In the March 26 issue, Phil Gallo reviewed the pageant. The "presentation's tenor was drawn from a post-Sept. 11, reflective mindset," he began. "To open the kudofest, a nicely wrought Morris film followed Tom Cruise, who spoke with a forced conviction about movies that affected him as a youth."

"The ceremony unfolded more than it pounced, its tone initially sober and then restrained . . ." Gallo continued. "It took [Whoopi] Goldberg placing a scarf over Oscar's privates (claiming it was in response to a complaint from Attorney General John Ashcroft) to give the show that little something extra . . ."

Naturally, Gallo loved Berry's speech: "No matter what direction Goldberg or [producer Laura] Ziskin went, though, this will be remembered as Halle Berry's night. An emotional lifesaver for this overlong telecast, Berry standing onstage crying with her Oscar in hand will be the 74th's enduring moment--that she had the presence of mind to remember to address the historical importance of her win gave her speech a structure in line with the show's theme of serious celebration."

It explains so much. Where everyone else in America sees ostentatious excess and self-aggrandizement, Hollywood sees restraint. There's a war going on and instead of paying tribute to the people who are doing important jobs, Hollywood gave us what Cintra Wilson rightly called "The We're Justifying Our Existence Oscars."

None of which is surprising. What is surprising--amazing, really--is that, as our friends at Variety have shown us, these people don't even realize they're doing it.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.