The Magazine

A Night at the Oscars

If you love movies, it's hard to like the Academy Awards.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By MARTHA BAYLES
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PEOPLE WHO LOVE MUSIC HATE medleys. And people who love movies hate those "Celebrate the Movies" clip reels shown on cable TV to promote movie channels, and in theaters to promote moviegoing. As one of the diehards who sat up to watch the 77th Academy Awards, I really hated the opening clip reel, put there by the movie industry to remind me how much I love movies. Even the most willing cow needs an occasional rest from the milking machine.

If the members of the Academy had wanted to attract more viewers, then perhaps they should not have been so timid about including the two most controversial films of 2004, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. The Passion, which received three nominations but did not win (Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup), deserved one for Best Picture and Best Director. And Fahrenheit, which received no nominations, deserved one for Best Documentary, a category in which fairness and accuracy have never been among the criteria.

Without remasticating the well-masticated debates over these films, I will simply note that both sold a lot of tickets to people who do not ordinarily go to the movies. So if they had not been airbrushed out of the proceedings, then perhaps all those one-time ticket buyers would have tuned in, boosting the ratings and saving us from that tacky clip reel.

It was, of course, entirely appropriate that the clip reel rolled across the ceiling of the Kodak Theater before and after each commercial break. For this is what movies are rapidly becoming: commercials for themselves. Instead of drama, comedy, suspense, or any other recognizable genre, the standard-issue Hollywood flick is now a pastiche of attention-grabbing moments meant to thrill, tickle, tease, and titillate audiences too immature or distracted to care how, or whether, they all fit together.

A perfect example is Diary of a Mad Black Woman, last weekend's top box office hit. Jerking loonily from soap opera to Christian uplift, gutter cruelty to gross-out comedy, it is the first feature directed by Darren Warren, a veteran director of music videos. And like music videos, it only reinforces the mini-attention span of the average popcorn buyer. It remains to be seen whether Diary will survive to a second weekend. Some of these messes do, some don't. The industry is now structured so that one weekend of suckers is usually enough.

Which returns us to the Oscars. If Diary is typical of what works in Hollywood these days, then Chris Rock was the perfect MC. His opening monologue was painfully convoluted, making sense only as an attempt to offend the right people (notably President Bush) without offending the wrong people (notably the millions who voted for Bush but might also shell out nine bucks to see a Chris Rock movie).

Rock was coherent in the worst way: He could not drop the race shtick, but he could not make it funny, either. At one point he ran a man-on-the-street segment, asking African-American moviegoers if they'd seen Sideways. In case you were wondering, they hadn't. The message will sound familiar to anyone over age five: Hollywood is for white folks; black folks have their own culture; so don't expect black folks to care about stars like . . . uh, Morgan Freeman (Best Supporting Actor), Don Cheadle (nominated for Best Actor), or Jamie Foxx (winner for Best Actor), or movies like . . . uh, Ray and Hotel Rwanda.

Earth to Chris: It's not about race this year. African Americans have starred in good movies and bad. This is worth taking notice of, but most moviegoers, regardless of color, are preoccupied with other topics, such as war and peace, life and death.

About war and peace, little was said at the Oscars, apart from Rock's stunningly lame joke about a "war" between the Gap and Banana Republic over nonexistent "toxic tank tops," which he followed, bizarrely, with a message of "love to the troops fighting for freedom all over the world." (To his credit, Academy president Frank Pierson offered a corrective in the form of a proper tribute to the armed forces.)

About life and death, there was (and is) more to be said. Four of the five top Oscars went to Million Dollar Baby: Best Picture, Best Director (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hilary Swank), and Best Supporting Actor (Morgan Freeman). And the Oscar for Best Foreign Film went to The Sea Inside, a Spanish film that--in the opinion of just about everybody--is similar to Million Dollar Baby in offering a sympathetic depiction of assisted suicide.

Both The Sea Inside and Million Dollar Baby have been roundly attacked by religious conservatives and activists for the disabled. Both movies have been stoutly defended by secular liberals and "death with dignity" activists. Curiously, no one has bothered to judge them on a combination of moral and aesthetic grounds. To do that is to attack one and defend the other.