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Friday, March 04, 2005  

Entertainment: Tradition, change and the Oscars

Could it be that I am becoming jaded? I used to watch awards shows fairly religiously. (For an agnostic). But, now I'm slipping. I missed both the Grammys and the Oscars. Failed to record them for later viewing, too. That meant relying on broadcast and print media, along with weblogs, to fill me in. Fortunately, blogger and real life auteur Brian Flemming has the transcript of Chris Rock's opening monologue for the Academy Awards.

Best non-Bush-bashing ever:

"A lot of people like to bash Bush.  I'm not gonna bash Bush here tonight. I saw Fahrenheit 9/11, I think Bush is a genius. I thought Bush did some things this year, you, nobody in this room could do.  Nobody in this room could pull off, okay? 'Cause Bush basically reapplied for his job this year.

Now can you imagine applying for a job, and while you're applying for that job, there is a movie in every theater in the country that shows how much you suck at that job?" (Laughter)

It'd be hard to get hired wouldn't it? (Laughter)

Now I watched Fahrenheit, I learned some stuff man.  Bush did some things you could never get away with at your job, man.  Never, ever, ever.

When Bush got into office he had a surplus of money. Now there's like a $70 trillion dollar deficit. Now, just imagine you worked at the Gap. (Laughter)

The show is considered to be of a historical consequence for several reasons. First, Rock (pictured) is thought to be one of the edgiest hosts ever. Commentators cite remarks he made about the irrelevance of the awards to minority movie goers as proof of that. This year's awards are also the first in which two black actors, Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won major recognition. The other reason some people expected more of this year's show was that it was supposedly geared to the hip hop generation, instead of its staid traditional audience.

Critic Caryn James, writing at the New York Times, says the show broke barriers only superficially. A copy editor agrees, using the headline: "A Ceremony Stuck in the Past Clings to Its Old Glory."

When Chris Rock walked onstage to host the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night, he got a standing ovation just for being there - an encouraging sign that the establishment-heavy audience was eager for a show that was fresh and irreverent, with a whiff of the future. That illusion lasted less than five minutes. All those Oscar voters in the audience weren't amused when Mr. Rock started taking some mild jabs at the industry, as he did with an early joke that called Jude Law a second-rank star.

By the end of the evening, Sean Penn was jabbing back with the pompous comment that Jude Law "is one of our finest actors," a humorless, self-important moment he seized before announcing Hilary Swank as the all-too-predictable best-actress winner for Million Dollar Baby.

The Rock-Penn showdown, and the mini-sweep of top awards for "Baby," create a perfect snapshot of the dilemma the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences faces: it knows it ought to move into the 21st century but hates the idea.

Mr. Rock's presence alone suggests that the Oscar people know they have to shake things up, if only to compete with the long parade of televised awards shows that now precede it and take such a huge bite out of the Academy Awards' distinctiveness and glamour. But the tepid response to even the slightest irreverence from the host, and the affection for the old-fashioned Million Dollar Baby, send a more powerful message: the academy prefers to remain entrenched in the past, clinging to its former glory.

Can awards that name the actress who starrred in a movie about a female boxer the best of the year, confer the top award for an actor on a young African-American for a biography of Ray Charles and commend a veteran black actor with the best supporting actor nod, not be cutting edge? Yes. James is right. These awards, though conferred on deserving people, remind me of the inclusiveness of the Bush administration. Two African-Americans have been named Secretary of State. A Hispanic is the next attorney general. Women and minorities will also be considered for sub-cabinet level positions, and, federal court appointments. But, all of that will occur within a conservative framework. If Condoleezza Rice were not willing to echo what her conservative role models say, we would never have heard of her. The Bush administration 's inclusiveness and the Academy's are similar. As James observes, "Baby" is a Rocky retread. "Ray," which I really enjoyed watching, is a homage to about as uncontroversial an African-American achiever as can be found. Morgan Freeman, though he is a fine actor, is also 'safe.' Furthermore, now that Rock has hosted, and Foxx and Freeman have been honored, the aged, white and wealthy Academy may consider itself 'done' with change for a while. Not only change in considering the complexion of actors, but in considering themes of movies, too. James believes the Academy has signaled its opposition to innovative ideas by enshrining "Baby."

And with "Million Dollar Baby" winning three of the four biggest prizes - best picture, Clint Eastwood's for director and Ms. Swank's for actress - the awards themselves hint at how happy Oscar voters are to linger in the past. The film may be about a woman boxer, but it is shaped by a pure retro sensibility. It's a throwback not only to 30's-era boxing movies but also to other Oscar-winning films about underdogs, like "Rocky."

"Million Dollar Baby" is, essentially, "Rocky" with a tragic ending, the kind of familiar movie it is easy for the academy to embrace. (The grumbling from some advocacy groups about the film's theme of assisted suicide never got much traction.) But in the future the enthusiasm for such an unoriginal film may seem as inflated as the Oscar for "Rocky" does now.

The most original film to gather a handful of nominations this year, "Sideways," went the way of another fine, innovative movie, "Lost in Translation," which in 2003 was also nominated for best director and best picture and, like "Sideways," won only for its screenplay. The fate of "Sideways," like the choice of Mr. Rock as host, says that the academy will let in a breath of fresh air, but quickly close the window before an actual breeze comes in.

Perhaps James is also becoming jaded. Years of watching a culture wallow in its stagnation can have that effect.

Reasonably related

Do read the full transcript of Chris Rock's Academy Awards monologue and the complete text of Caryn James' analysis of the show.

12:07 AM