My State of the Union


by John Tyler Connoley

March 9, 2004


I've long felt the Oscars were a better gauge of the state of the union than any speech given by the president. I'm not talking about the movies that are nominated, or which ones win -- that only tells us what people were thinking five years ago when those films went into production, and which actors and directors are popular with the Academy this year. When I say the Oscars are a barometer of life in these United States, I'm talking about the awards show itself -- what people wear down the red carpet, and what goes on inside the Kodak Theater.


So here's my summary of the state of the Oscars: tasteful and boring.


The dresses, this year, were all quite beautiful. Flowing lines, bare shoulders, and trains adorned the country's leading ladies. The look was feminine and graceful neoclassicism, like Audrey Hepburn's ball gown at the end of My Fair Lady. But, who remembers that gown? No one. The dress we all remember from that movie is the stunning black-and-white striped ensemble with the big hat that Eliza Doolittle wears to the horse race. Unfortunately, there were no stripes or hats at the Oscars this year (unless you count Diane Keaton's Annie Hall pinstripes and bowler).


The most memorably dressed ladies at this year's Oscars were Catherine Zeta-Jones with a subtle red dragon-scale pattern on her corset top, and RenŽe Zellweger with her unbelievably tiny cinched-in waste. Neither of these dresses was spectacular, but they still stood out against the ho-hum competition. It was as if all the leading ladies wanted to look good, but none of them wanted to risk being noticed. The mood was subdued, to say the least.


The men were even worse. Of course, Robin Williams wore his usual long coat, and Will Smith sported a black-on-black ensemble. But, for the most part, the men didn't even bother to wear tuxedoes. Four-in-hand (conventional) ties were everywhere. Hardly any bowties showed up, except on the oldest or most traditional leading men. Comfort and cost seemed to be the deciding factor, as actors and directors did what they needed to dress up, without really extending themselves. A glamorous pack this was not.


Likewise, the production was nice but bland. In the past, it's always been the unscripted moments that most entertained -- Sally Fields' "you like me" speech, Vanessa Redgrave bemoaning "Zionist thugs," or Cuba Gooding, Jr. dancing and shaking with delight. This year, the closest we got was Errol Morris saying, "I'd like to thank the Academy for finally recognizing my films." There were only three political statements during acceptance speeches -- the usual discourse from the documentary filmmakers (who always have to stump for their cause), and one tiny aside from the normally mouthy Sean Penn. There was nothing to compare with the ruckus caused by Michael Moore last year.


Compared with Whoopie Goldberg and David Letterman (or even with Billy Crystal of years past), Billy Crystal's hosting gig was bland as oatmeal. His jokes were crafted to go down easy, but not offend the taste buds on the way. "Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ," he said, and I perked up, expecting something snarky. But he finished, "opened on Ash Wednesday . . . had a good Friday." And that was one of the more interesting bits from his monologue. Yawn.


The only bright spot in the audience was stage left, where the Lord of the Rings folks sat. Though the LOTR sweep dampened the night's suspense factor, the LOTR crew was delightfully different from the rest of the crowd. Peter Jackson was his usual lovable, schlumpy self -- not even bothering to cinch his tie. His wife Fran's frizzy hair -- with flowers stuck in all over -- was a welcome diversion from the other up-dos. The hobbit actors were cute as bugs' ears, with their identical third-grade-I-cut-it-myself haircuts. And Liv Tyler gave us all some water cooler conversation, with her dramatic (and hideous) swooping hair sculpture. In short, if it weren't for the occasional glimpses of New Zealander frivolity, I might have fallen asleep and missed seeing Best Actress winner Charlize Theron thank "my incredible leading lady, Christina Ricci."


So, what does all this say about the state of the union? I think the attitude in America these days is as subdued as the Oscars. The liberals are hoarse from screaming about Bush for three long years, and don't feel much like shouting anymore. Even the few usual suspects in my neighborhood only seem able to muster a tiny demonstration with three people and a cardboard sign reading "Peace on Earth." In the present economic climate, all of us, not just the Hollywood crowd, are more interested in comfort and cost-cutting than in glamour. Gone are the days of Enron-esque company parties, complete with CEO's riding in on white stallions. These days, we're lucky to get an afternoon off for an all-company potluck. Like the Oscar ladies in their tasteful gowns, I see employees trying to be good enough to keep their jobs, without being so good that they get noticed. Notoriety of any kind is bad for the bottom line, when the bosses are looking for people to can. Better to be tasteful and bland, than risk leaving a bad aftertaste.


According to the Oscar barometer, the national atmosphere is somewhere between subdued and sleepy.


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