The Big Night

The people cry out to the Academy gods: More cleavage and glitz! Less Crystal!


Camille Paglia
March 26, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

oh memories of Oscar of yore! In my wretched youth in the provincial 1950s,
Academy Awards night was my second favorite pagan high holy day -- after
Halloween, when I could indulge in cinematic drag.

Perhaps nothing will ever match my electric ecstasy on the night in 1960 when
Elizabeth Taylor, still weak from her emergency tracheotomy at a London
hospital, won the Oscar for her role as a sultry call girl in "Butterfield 8."
The next day at school, my feet scarcely touched the ground.

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Still, year after year, I tune into the Academy Awards and hope for nirvana.
Nowadays, of course, we have our familiar preceptress, Barbara Walters, to
guide us into the evening with her annual pre-Oscar (or post-, depending on your time zone) special. Tonight, clad in
a white hostess gown, she greets us in a peculiar, stagy posture that is
half Loretta Young, half Ann-Margret, with just a touch of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Though I nearly pass out when Barbara confides that theater owners have
dubbed boring, horse-faced Harrison Ford "the star of the century," I'm
mollified when she labels him "a poor schnook" as a child. Her other guests
have more pizzazz: cross-legged Woody Harrelson, looking like the Rasputin
Mahesh Yogi, gravely endorses "recycling sperm," while hawk-eyed Lauren
Bacall imperiously oversees salmon-slicing at Zabar's deli.

At last the Oscars begin, and I go into my usual frenzy of fury at the short
shrift given to the stars' limousine-and-red-carpet arrival -- a traditional,
sacred ritual for which Angelenos begin lining up at dawn. Why the hell
does the Academy think a billion people tune in around the globe?

This year the grand entrances are even more amateurishly treated than
usual -- a vile, clichid "Entertainment Tonight" montage of jittery, ugly, cramped
shots of a handful of ill-chosen celebrities. But of course the idiotic
producers of this show want to reserve all possible time for Billy Crystal,
the Host Who Ate Tokyo.

Why in Dietrich's name must we tolerate these endless shenanigans by smug,
corny hosts? -- at the expense of the stars who are the true raison d'jtre of
the evening. I and every drag queen from Rome to Rio want to see gowns,
gowns and glamour! What's the point of designers and jewelers lavishing all
that luxury on nominees if we can't see the bloody stuff in all its glory?

After Crystal's fully 15 minutes of narcissistic shtick, it's outrageous
that the actual award winners like Cuba Gooding Jr. are rushed off the stage
by the fascist orchestra, which goes into Juan Peron mode after the requisite
30 seconds. I cheer when Gooding refuses to leave the mike and dances
around, shouting and carrying on in rebellion.

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My anti-Crystal mood lifts somewhat when he lobs a juicy shot at Gloria
Steinem and provokes a welcoming wave of applause for Larry Flynt in the
audience. Despite the usual humanitarian sentimentality of the Academy
establishment (e.g., a droning, senescent Arthur Hiller), the pornographers
seem to be winning.

Fashion standouts are the royally composed and chiseled-cheek-boned Kristin
Scott Thomas; Nicole Kidman, svelte in elegant Chinese puce; Sigourney
Weaver, stiletto-slim in wine-red; and Lauren Holley, whose pert bosom juts
on display in a very forward manner.

Barbara Hershey, who has gone through more bizarre life changes than Jane
Fonda, has forever forsworn her flower-child roots by appearing in tumbling
Victorian ringlets and a lush, parrot-green gown that encroaches into the
aisle and threatens to swallow a very prim Jodie Foster in the next row.
Nervously clutching the hand of her moist boy toy, Hershey makes the
solitary Foster look more sexless than usual.

This year, the show is experimenting with sending out single presenters,
which does eliminate the usual asinine interplay of tittering duos stumbling over names longer than Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, but which
cruelly exposes a whole series of unprepared girly-girls -- Mira Sorvino,
Sandra Bullock, the mealy-mouthed Winona Ryder -- to more sacrificial pressure
than they deserve. What is this -- Iphigenia at Aulis?

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Introducing Madonna, Crystal takes a swipe at a squirming Barbra Streisand by
praising Madonna's "class" for performing, despite not being nominated
herself. Class, maybe; hara-kiri most definitely. Why did Madonna think she
could carry off a quiet torch song live? Frowning and straining with deadly
earnest and awkwardly waving an errant left arm, she breathlessly quavers
off-key and manages to cast renewed doubt on her singing abilities. When a
relaxed, radiant Celine Dion comes on to pinch-hit for the next song, it's an
unexpected relief.

Presenter Courtney Love, following Madonna's shaky screw-up, looks like the
cat that swallowed the canary. Quel oneupsmanship! -- as Holly Golightly might
say. More statuesque than Madonna, Love looks chic and confident in silky
white. I'm no fan of Hole, which I think overrated, but Love has sang-froid
and real dignity onstage -- in the way the slouching, servile Winona Ryder or
klutzy, tatty Claire Danes do not.

Whoops! Lauren Bacall, against every prediction, doesn't win the Oscar for
best supporting actress. Bacall looks like she's going to cry. I am
devastated and rush downstairs to get a beer. This past weekend, AMC was
showing one of my favorite Bacall films, "Young Man with a Horn," so I'm taking
this very hard. She's in my pantheon of major divas.

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A very stylish, sexy someone named Jessica Yu, accepting the Oscar for
documentary short subject, is looking absolutely fabulous and upstaging most
of the show's official stars. She even gets off one of the best lines: "You
know you've entered new territory when your dress costs more than your film!"
Mazel tov to Ms. Yu, and here's hoping we see more of her!

Despite being done to death on recent, hectoring PBS fund appeals, Michael
Flatley (formerly of "Riverdance") and his "Lord of the Dance" troupe storm
onstage in a fiery burst of genuine creative energy. The red and black
leather costumes are a bit Pat Benatar (I love her; don't get me wrong), but
all this sweaty physicality feels real good after Billy Crystal's smarmy
nattering.

Debbie Reynolds, pushing a ship's prow of enormous bosoms, sails to the mike
and pronounces her prompter text "drivel." Out comes the sheepish
writer -- her depressive nudge of a daughter, Carrie Fisher, hunchbacked and in
slacks. How remarkable that the postmenopausal mother seems more female and
more vital -- the vampire lives!

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Bounding onstage are the three indomitable stars of "The First Wives Club":
Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, bubbling over with infectious
glee. What fun! Their chemistry is so obvious that Hollywood has to be
crazy not to plan a sequel.

Jodie Foster strides purposefully out to give the screenplay awards. She
looks better standing up, her silver lami pants swishily glittering under a
white tunic. But then she opens her mouth, and out comes that horrible,
pinched, snide, nasal accent -- Candace Bergen Goes to Yale on a Feminist Visa.

The evening is wearing down. I'm glad that Frances McDormand -- an honest,
spunky Carol Burnett type -- wins for best actress, but I'm peeved that
Geoffrey Rush gets best actor for mimicking a real-life person with a
disability -- Hollywood p.c. with a vengeance. At least Ralph Fiennes didn't
get it, thank heavens -- what an awful, obvious actor. Only in a Harrison Ford
age could anyone think the uptight, antiseptic Fiennes sexy. Bring back Kirk
Douglas! -- a dreamboat in his prime.

Well, I'm off. Can't wait till next year!

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Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at askcamille@salon.com.

MORE FROM Camille Paglia

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