"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Oscars night begins with a delicious cat fight as uber-comedienne Joan Rivers,
doing her annual red-carpet commentary for the E! network, assails ABC for
preempting live coverage of star arrivals before the official program is to
Two and a half hours before curtain time, Joan leads off with fighting words
as she does a satirical split-screen stunt with daughter Melissa over ABC’s
peculiar assignment of hostess duties to actress Geena Davis, a second-tier
celebrity if there ever was one.
ABC has “pulled off a coup,” shouts Joan into her mike, by landing “Bette
Davis” to begin its broadcast evening. No, Melissa responds, it’s not Bette
Davis. “Sammy Davis!” Joan yells. No, not him, Melissa replies, like the
altar girl to a high priestess. “Mac Davis!” Joan tries, and then “Angela
Davis,” a reformed revolutionary to inaugurate the millennium. When Melissa
bats back her final ball — “It’s Geena Davis” — Joan sighs, shrugs and
contemptuously mutters, “Semi-coup.”
Long live Queen Joan for her radical protest! ABC deserves to be pelted with
cow pies for its boring, canned, claustrophobic half-hour prelude to the
Oscars, which squelches all the spontaneity and excitement of the star
arrivals and forces us to contemplate at nauseating length the bovine features
of that awkward, overgrown goofball, Geena Davis.
True, Joan goes a bit haywire when she proclaims that Gwyneth Paltrow on her
father’s arm (“He’s my date,” Paltrow says of “Daddy”) is just “like Grace
Kelly” — at which I nearly fall foaming to the floor. For the entire evening,
big-jawed Paltrow, with her nasal, teeth-clenching Lisa Kudrow style, looks
like a Green Bay Packers cheesehead tottering atop a mushy pink Hostess cupcake.
Glamour seems to be in short supply at these Academy Awards. Instead of the
grand flourish of the divine Sharon Stone, who usually upstages everyone as
she exits her limo, we get Celine Dion in a strange get-up of white slouch hat
and reversed tuxedo jacket. Chatting with Joan, Dion looks like a
fagged-out drag queen who’s emptied her Cher closet. She’s saying more career
farewells these days than Naomi Judd.
I squirm and bitch throughout ABC’s warm-up show, though I kind of like the
segment on the gold Oscar statuettes making their tour by van from St. Louis
to Tucson, Ariz., to Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Those little guys have a lot
more class than Geena Davis, who introduces as her first guest the very bland
Helen Hunt, to whom the award for best actress inexplicably went last year,
robbing the far more deserving Kate Winslet. Winslet’s formidable bust will
be much missed this evening.
At last the program begins, with host Whoopi Goldberg (thankfully replacing
the fatuous Billy Crystal) emerging in whiteface and heavy brocaded gown as
Elizabeth I with a Bette Davis accent: “I am the African Queen!” Goldberg
announces, bringing down the house. Goldberg is terrific — stylish, funny and
relaxed as she makes one raunchy double entendre after another without
compromising the dignity of the show.
After a blindingly fast and close to incomprehensible series of clips from the
entire history of film (educating no one except aging cognoscenti), Goldberg
reemerges in one of the best outfits of the evening — a magnificent, floor-length gold-and-bronze tunic over a low-cut black-velvet sheath. “I am the
last 20th century fox!” Goldberg grandly announces, as she hosts the final
Oscars of the millennium.
Obliquely alluding to the evening’s approaching crisis — the lifetime
achievement award to director Elia Kazan, who named names a half-century ago
during the McCarthy hearings — Goldberg quips, “I thought the blacklist was
me and Hattie McDaniel” (the first African-American to win an acting award).
The Kazan controversy, telegraphed by a crowd of demonstrators at some
distance from the hall, seems to have cast a pall over the evening. The
audience is tense and jittery, and Goldberg sometimes struggles to break the
When Kim Basinger comes out in white as the first presenter, she looks pinched
and parched after Goldberg’s rollicking warmth. I screech with delight when
James Coburn gets the award for best supporting actor over the favored
Geoffrey Rush. It’s about time Hollywood honored Coburn for his long career
as a genuinely macho man of the screen. In his prime, his masculinity was the
real thing. Today’s actors are a bunch of pomaded pretty boys or scowling
Comedians Mike Meyers and Chris Rock seem clumsily adolescent when they take
the stage (separately), since they can’t compete with Goldberg’s leonine power. Christina
Ricci, normally a quirkily interesting personality, looks disproportioned and
uncomfortable in her ill-fitting dress and Vampira mop.
Whitney Houston is fabulously elegant in a slim white gown and early 1930s
hair, but Mariah Carey, heavily girdled in a white dress with a broad halter
strap, looks like a St. Pauli beer garden waitress missing her tray of suds.
The two hold hands as they wail a nominated song, while a columnar gold drape
unfurls behind them like a rushing fountain or a Morris Louis tapestry
painting. But less definitely isn’t more at this show: Suddenly the two gals
are attacked by a gospel choir so badly filmed as they descend symmetrical
staircases that they look like a giant flock of deranged geese.
The show’s constantly changing sets seem to have been designed by a talentless
corn-pone psychotic. There’s no logic or consistency. Goldberg switches her
clothes so many times — in sync with the nominations for costume design — that
it gets wearisome. In contrast, Dame Judi Dench, accepting the Oscar for best
supporting actress, looks wonderfully dignified amid the glitz.
Ex-Sen. John Glenn, introduced by the unexpectedly bearded Tom Hanks, is so
platitudinous that I must fight off narcolepsy. Who the hell invited him? At
last an adrenalin rush as Sophia Loren, her massive, buttressed bosom leading
like the prow of a battleship, comes out to introduce the clip for the Italian
film “Life Is Beautiful.” She looks a bit like Anouk Aimee these days. What
star power! Loren puts all the smirky ingénues to shame.
When Andie MacDowell schleps out after Loren, I literally have to turn my head
away. Can’t American actresses get their damned act together? Now we have a
horrendously bad dance routine designed by Debbie Allen, who seems stuck in
the 1980s. “Pretty sophomoric,” harrumphs my partner, Alison. Is Savion
Glover, with his ugly hunch and hackneyed stomping, the face that American
dance wants to present to the world? Allen’s vapid, pretentious choreography
for this murkily lit number is suited neither for the large hall nor the
television camera. Hook!
The very poised and still sensual John Travolta introduces a selection of
Frank Sinatra movie clips nicely edited by Martin Scorsese. They bring tears
to the eyes. Yes, once Hollywood overflowed with talent. The sheer variety
of Sinatra’s skills — in drama, comedy, song-and-dance revues — is daunting.
His raw intensity, sexiness, authority, sophistication — oh, I’ve got to stop
before I make myself sick.
Now Goldberg is into Elizabethan transvestism, with a beard making her look
like Samuel Jackson. An X-rated joke about “beavers” is an odd segue into the
dreaded Anne Heche, whom I thought we got rid of last year in “Psycho.”
Heche’s radio mike, clamped to her bodice, keeps flickering out, but whether
this is accidental isn’t clear. Cutting-edge technology poisoned by her
mushroom-like clamminess? Ellen DeGeneres, another victim clamped to the
Heche bodice, had a similar fate.
Jim Carrey looks great in a Mafioso black-on-black ensemble, but his mock
grief goes on way too long over his failure to get nominated for “The Truman
Show.” Annette Bening purses her lips in the audience and looks peeved. But
I applaud Carrey wildly when he attacks PC convention by tearing open the
envelope for film editing and boldly announcing, “And the winner is ….” I
despise the namby-pamby formulation “And the Oscar goes to …” Get real!
Let’s junk all that passé liberal pabulum.
Renée Zellwegger, a minor actress who somehow ended up on the cover of Vanity
Fair last year, clunks out hobbled by an elaborate purple-and-gold gown that
she hasn’t the foggiest clue how to wear. “What a big bag of oats!” I
cry with disgust. Doesn’t she have any gay guy friends to shop with? Someone
should slap that girl up and down Rodeo Drive until she learns what fashion
Now Goldberg comes out in a giant bodice of black ostrich feathers and, with a
fey lift of the shoulders, parodies a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The
Birds.” Naturally, this tickles me as a “Birds” fanatic — but it reminds me
that tonight’s Oscars have taken no note whatever of the centenary of
Hitchcock’s birth. They have a lot of catching up to do next year.
I close my eyes when Nicolas Cage appears, since I can’t stand his eternal
pose of beady-eyed earnestness. But director Norman Jewison, to whom Cage
hands the Irving G. Thalberg award, deserves huge applause and gets it when he
lectures the crowd, “Just find some good stories!” and never mind the grosses
or the demographic. Yes, the competitive balance between commercial and
artistic interests in Hollywood has gone badly askew in the past decade.
Oh, no, here’s that shuffling lunk Liam Neeson, whom Goldberg, caressing her
phallic mike, creams over but whom I’ve never been able to take seriously
after watching him heave his melancholy carcass through that Justine Bateman
stinker, “Satisfaction.” Val Kilmer walks out leading a gorgeous bay horse,
who has more beauty and style than three-quarters of tonight’s actresses. Its
splendid black-and-silver saddle and tack deserve the award for best costume.
Then the horse turns its ass to the audience — which may be the perfect comment
about the evening.
Dreary, hunch-shouldered Helen Hunt is back. “She looks like Jan Brady,”
Alison remarks. “She looks like Patty Hearst,” I reply. Oh, I’m so tired of
that generic kind of pallid, decorous WASP anemia. Take her away! Roberto
Benigni is out of control, however, in his Chico Marx conniptions as he
accepts the best actor award. I loved him in the fiendishly clever and very
Italian “Johnny Stecchino,” but this oh-the-humanity Chaplinesque schtick is
getting on my nerves.
After the very dumpy and bleached out Lisa Kudrow exits, we get the ever-joined-at-the-hip Matt Damon (“He looks like Frankenstein!” Alison declares)
and Ben Affleck (“Is he wearing a wig?” I ask). After the studied, weightless
affability of that pair, it’s nice to get some juicy malice in the long-awaited presentation to Kazan. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (his head
rooster-shaved like a convict) look awfully tense as they bring on Kazan. The
scenes from Kazan’s classic films seem to explode off the screen with creative
vitality. Perhaps a third of the audience refuses to applaud him, infuriating
Alison and me, since we despise moralistic PC crusades against artists.
Winning the Oscar for best costume design, Sandy Powell makes the night’s most
sensational stage entrance in her flouncy burgundy-red ensemble. Hip British
women have amazing flair and style. Poor Jennifer Lopez, who is the genuinely
hot and sultry article, got truly awful advice on her muddy makeup and weirdly
cramped and balloon-skirted dress. Ugh! Annette Bening, on the other hand,
glides to the mike with smart, vibrant class.
The show is running long, but here’s Colin Powell, of all people, who is as
superfluous as John Glenn or Rip Van Winkle. Drone, drone, drone. The
stately Uma Thurman sweeps out in a dramatic dress that she knows how to carry
off, but she’s in dreadful muted colors that make her look unappetizingly
bleached out. This low-key color trend is destroying the natural beauty of a
host of actresses.
The aging but still sizzling Jack Nicholson presents the award for best actress.
Oh, God, that overpraised showbiz princess Gwyneth Paltrow gets the crown.
(Doesn’t anyone realize how lousy she was in “Emma”? She has the Streep trick
for accents, and that’s it.) Paltrow is blathering on all weepy and twinkly
and thanking her relatives with that yappy, trembly voice — a total replay of
her speech at the Golden Globes. She’s far, far worse than Benigni, but in a
show of blatant protective sexism, the orchestra doesn’t start up and shove
her off the stage.
When will this damned show end? Steven Spielberg is giving a stiff
testimonial to the brilliant Stanley Kubrick — whose immortal film clips make
the jaw drop with awe. How far Hollywood has fallen! Now we have to
contemplate the wooden Kevin Costner and then the equally wooden Harrison Ford
giving the awards for best director and best film, respectively. The
excessively elfin Spielberg gives mawkish thanks to his kids, and producer
Harvey Weinstein hoves his boorish bulk up to the mike for his moment in the
sun for the callow “Shakespeare in Love” — but is miraculously sent packing by
the deus ex machina of the orchestra, which has finally decided enough is
Hurrah, it’s over. This was a terrible year for films, and the Oscars had to
scrape the bottom of the barrel. As for the awards show itself, there were
some A-minus moments, but my overall grade is C-plus. See you all next year! But
meanwhile, please busy yourself by studying the great films of the past. Filmmaking may be in the pits, but its renaissance will surely come.
Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.More Camille Paglia.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)