GELFAND’S WORLD--There have been more Academy Awards shows than there have been U.S. presidents or even English kings (counting from the year 900 or so).
This week was the 88th Academy Awards presentation. Everyone wondered how the show would work out, considering the blowup over the absence of minority nominees in the acting categories. Would there be demonstrations or angry ad libs? Would the highly scripted character of the show be violated by someone insisting on telling an uncomfortable truth?
It's happened before. There was the time Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to speak on native American rights. There was Vanessa Redgrave. Michael Moore accepted the 2003 award with a blistering speech against the Iraq war. These are the sorts of things that irritate advertisers, and thereby scare the show's producers. That's because this one show's advertising income is a substantial part of the Academy's yearly budget.
So the Academy has been sensitive to the danger of the unscripted line and the unpopular protest since as far back as the 1970s. But something has changed. At age 88, the Academy Awards have hit a robust middle age. It's been through controversy before, and it is better able to handle a controversy such as its uncomfortable dearth of minority nominees.
This year the Academy adopted the technique that is known in politics as hang a lantern on it. That means that if you have some scandal or embarrassment in your record, don't cover it up. Talk about it from the outset. This makes it harder for your critics to engage in the gotcha moment, where they confront you with your hidden past. If you've already hung a lantern on it, there is no gotcha.
This year, the Academy had a twofold problem requiring a larger than normal lantern. The lack of minority nominees wasn't just a matter of how the Academy conducts its nominating process. The public protests are also about the level of minority hiring in the industry as a whole. The fact that the nominating process didn't find even one African American actor from a whole year's productions was indicative of both issues.
So the Academy hung a lantern on it. Chris Rock did an opening monologue that called out industry hiring practices. "You're damn right Hollywood's racist."
He softened the argument by pointing out that it isn't as bad as cross burning racism. It's more like "sorority racist." He got off one of the better lines of the night with, "We like you Rhonda, but you're not a kappa."
There was also a carefully crafted parody of movie scenes which must have required a large amount of expense and preparation. In a satire of the film about the astronaut marooned on Mars, a Black astronaut is left to his own devices because saving him would cost "twenty-five hundred white dollars."
They hung a lantern on it, for sure.
Then they got serious about their problem. The president of the Academy walked forward and gave a speech about steps they have already taken to improve diversity.
A show like this can't help but remind us of the nation's political divisions, because those divisions include a large element of racial divisiveness. I can see how our country's less tolerant people would take Hollywood to task for showing a little racial sensitivity. This show was liberalism personified. There were no demands to deport people or build a border wall. Quite the contrary. There were numerous calls for diversity, and not just in the film world.
Those of us who live in California recognize that the Academy's type of sensitivity does not hold for all Californians. All you have to do is look at our congressional representation (or Pete Wilson's campaign for governor) to see this. But in other parts of the country, the Academy Awards program provides a portrait of California that some viewers take as representative.
Yes, the industry was charged with being hypocritical, but what's important is what it is being hypocritical about. Complaining about the failure to achieve social and racial justice at least points us to a meritorious goal. Compare this to the standard charge of hypocrisy among right wingers, which usually involves marital infidelity. There is wide gulf in our views of what virtue ought to be.
Television has achieved something close to perfection in its technique
Taking a different perspective, there is also something to be said about the technical and human complexities of putting on a show like this.
It is actually a complicated endeavor, because it is simultaneously an awards presentation, a series of comic and musical sketches, and a tightly scripted television broadcast. Every little thing has to fall in place, and there is no place for a dancer to trip, a singer to have a bad night, or one of the presenters to blow a line. There are people who are kept in readiness to fill an empty seat should one of the guests take an extended bathroom break, because an empty seat wouldn't look good on television. And like other scripted endeavors that can go off schedule, the Oscar telecast has commercials to run, but without having football's benefit of a two minute warning.
In this, its 88th year, the Academy is showing middle aged maturity, not only in terms of dealing with controversy, but in shoehorning controversy, songs, and presentations into a 3.5 hour limit. Call us racist? We'll turn it into a comedy monolog and sell a few more commercials. ABC was rolling the credits at 9:04 pm, right on schedule. And as many locals can attest, the expression "right on schedule" did not exactly fit the programs in earlier years.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])