Camille does the Oscars

Winslet blooms, Madonna clunks, Stone styles: a Paglia's-eye-view of the Academy Awards

By Camille Paglia

Published March 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

For Academy Awards night, the pagan festival I have devoutly celebrated at home for over 40 years, I choose a special Babylonian outfit -- my red-and-black "Absolutely Fabulous" T-shirt, which shows chicly decadent Patsy Stone accessorized with sunglasses, cigarette and bottle of vodka.

I am in a mad movie mood tonight, as I worship the genius of Alfred Hitchcock. Until the Oscar program begins, I am laboring over the page proofs of my book on "The Birds," to be published by the British Film Institute in June. "Who among this tatty flock of starlets," I mutter as the limousines roll up, "can match the divine Tippi Hedren?"

Kate Winslet of "Titanic" is truly titanic in her magnificent green dress, which makes her look like the Grand Duchess Anastasia at a medieval tournament. She should get the Oscar for best bust. Anyone with those floaters doesn't need a lifeboat.

I thought we'd gotten rid of Meg Ryan, but no, there she is bounding chirpily down the red carpet with her new face tucks and a skin sheen as blinding as a Maine lighthouse. God, she revolts me. Cher hoves into sight wearing what seems to be a beige lampshade cut like a tornado eggbeater on her head. Not exactly widow's weeds. She sure got over Sonny's death fast.

Sigourney Weaver (whose mother was a British actress who worked with Hitchcock) always looks so poised and stylized. Of course, it helps to have the height of a basketball player and positively tower over the huddled masses. There's Madonna with a man! Hooray, she's ditched anorexic Ingrid Casares for the night. But it looks like it's only for her brother. Madonna's got a revolving door in her love life -- or else it's a greased laundry chute that propels her boy toys into orbit over Mulholland Drive.

Sharon Stone is fabulous! As usual, she is uniquely dressed and makes everyone else look like lemmings. She's doing a Jean Seberg this year -- the gorgeous garçon haircut, the white beachwear blouse with raffishly turned-up collar, wittily set off by a mauve satin sheath skirt. La Stone always has it. But that saturnine new hubby: hmmm. He reminds me of the looming, big-pockets, dissipated voyeur in Manet's "Girl at the Bar of the Folies-Bergère."

The ceremony is about to begin. The stage set is a disaster: The two giant Oscars look like bathroom deodorizers, and the glitzy gold-brick proscenium looks like a broken ruin, Jerusalem's Wailing Wall. Of course, as Neal Gabler told us in his wonderful book "An Empire of Their Own" (and in the recent Arts and Entertainment television special based on it), the Jews did invent Hollywood.

Here comes tonight's host, Billy Crystal, who year after year is given an insane amount of Oscar time to do his tedious shtick. There are a few amusing moments in his taped opening skit, where he appears in drag as a film noir vamp or as the voluptuously nude Winslet posing for her artist.

Kim Basinger, giving her thanks for the best supporting actress award, is far too breathy and cringing. Get her off! Every time the camera rests on the gloriously blooming, Rubenesque Winslet, touchingly seated next to her frail co-star, the elderly Gloria Stuart (how nice to see real wrinkles for once in android L.A.), it's a shock to have to look at anyone else. Mira Sorvino, for example, who normally passes for sexy, seems to be frumpily unkempt and too snub-nosed tonight. Speak of ruins -- was there once a noble Italian schnozz there?

"The exciting Michael Bolton" comes onstage to sing, or rather to caterwaul. The unappealing mass of webby locks is now shorn, but we're still stuck with those pleading eyes, puny, pouty mouth and lantern jaw. Hook! Celine Dion in the audience is politely applauding him but seems vaguely aghast. Robin Williams gets the Oscar for best supporting actor. Phooey: Once a comedic original, he's now a heavy-handed ham, servile to the audience and without an authentic bone left in his body. Burt Reynolds deserved to get this award, but he's too much the outsider in his Florida retreat. Williams has been scratching the right backs on the inside track for years. Panderer!

"The beautiful Cameron Diaz" is announced as presenter. So here's the best the much-touted new Hollywood can do. Diaz has poor posture, a ratty dress, bad makeup and smarmy diction. What a pink, ectoplasmic blob -- send her off to the Anne Heche camp for overexposed mini-talents. Crystal, rather rudely hailing Charlton Heston as he appears to be returning to his seat from the toilet, gains points from me by lauding "The Ten Commandments," one of old Hollywood's masterpieces. Heston pauses for a dignified moment to accept the acclaim. Who among our present crop of young actors will ever be able to play a Moses, a Ben-Hur or a Michelangelo? We have mice these days, not men.

Helen Hunt has gotten the award for best actress. What an atrocity! Twenty years from now, no one will remember who the hell she was. Hunt is a third-rate Meryl Streep (whom I can't stand to begin with). Oh, that antiseptic, withered-up WASPy look makes me sick -- it's the cerebral, adenoidal, Jodie Foster, cut-off-at-the-neck style of acting. Winslet hasn't paid enough dues yet to win, probably, but I was plugging for Julie Christie, whom I've adored since "Darling."

The compilation of Hollywood special effects footage is super -- monsters, wraiths and train wrecks. There's a Blockbuster Video ad with the loathsome Dancing Baby: what a testament to America's degenerate infantilism! The creepy-cutesy Dancing Baby is a self-portrait of Generation X, self-absorbed yet self-pitying, orphaned, desexed and dead-end. Yes, back to the womb! -- before the hired nannies git ya.

Crystal introduces Drew Barrymore as "the only member of a royal family on the program tonight." After that flourish, she'd best be on her mettle. No, she shuffles out with arms flapping and shoulders pinched, glitter all over her skin and blowsy daisies in her hair. Once, that louche quality had charm; now it just looks like perpetual meltdown. She's like an apple turnover that got crushed in a grocery bag on a hot day. Barrymore is presenting the award for best makeup. Unfortunately, the "Titanic" crew does not win for the frozen faces of the floating corpses -- who look a lot better than Cameron Diaz!

Ashley Judd strides out with a giraffe gait that flashes open her thigh-cut white dress to bare her Naughty Scanties. "Basic Instinct" anyone? The award for lifetime achievement goes to director Stanley Donen, and there is a spectacular montage of clips from his brilliant films. At the sight of the elegant Audrey Hepburn in "Funny Face," I sigh and offer prayers to the Olympian gods: May such Hollywood beauty come again!

Madonna clunks along the stage to present the award for best song. What in Dante's Inferno is she wearing? "It looks like Carol Burnett's dress made out of curtains in her sketch of 'Gone with the Wind'!" exclaims my companion, Alison. Madonna's hairstyle lately is taffy, daffy Shirley Temple with egg-roll ringlets: Is she hiding some jaw resculpting problem? (The liner notes to her new CD find a thousand ways to flap flying hair over that area.) Her biceps are back (how passé!), and they sure don't go with that tent-sized evening dress. Haven't I always warned you people about post-pregnancy estrogen poisoning? On to the next costume phase, Madonna! She hasn't tried suits of armor yet. And when will she figure out what to do with her hands when she's in an evening dress? All that awkward fiddling and faddling. She should consult a state-of-the-art drag queen immediately.

Celine Dion is singing her hit single from the "Titanic" score. With her genuine vocal warmth, she's actually a welcome relief. She's certainly learning how to moderate her shrieking volume. Shrewdly, she's subdued her hair color from blonde to brown to show off the specially made, heart-shaped, blue Titanic jewel, hung like a pectoral over her turtlenecked Morticia Addams dress, with its sweeping train. I believe I recognize the source of that dress: It's what the rich-bitch, lesbo psychiatric student, played by Lauren Bacall, wears in "Young Man with a Horn" -- starring Kirk Douglas. I feel fortunate to have grown up when Douglas was a star: He was my idea of a hunka hunka burning love!

Jack Nicholson wins the best actor award. He deserves it: He's a real pro who's also kept his bad-boy attitude intact. Stone, like the gorgeous, crazy teacher she wittily played in "Diabolique," is standing by a gold-framed, blackboard-like screen and seems ready to give us a lecture, with pop quiz afterward. Oh, it's all about foreign films. But who can pay attention when Stone's there to stare at? Alison remarks, "She's the only one who's a carry-over from the past history of the Oscars. She carries herself so well!" Star quality: You can't bottle it, but you sure can bathe in it.

The grinning Geena Davis galumphs to the podium. She is wearing what appear to be fur bandages wrapped around her upper arms. Classic Hollywood this ain't. The comedown after Stone is painful. We're getting to the end of this epic-length show. A football bleacher of aging stars is now revealed to us, as 70 years of the Academy Awards are reviewed. The applause-o-meter kicks into gear.

There's Anne Bancroft still looking great. Michael Caine has turned into a plumpish dowager. Faye Dunaway radiates. Lou Gossett Jr. is a knockout in black-on-black: what intensity! Rita Moreno bubbles. Gregory Peck and Sidney Poitier are regal. Vanessa Redgrave is braving it out, after her famous anti-Zionist Oscar brouhaha that derailed her career. Eva Marie Saint surprisingly surfaces. The indomitable Shelley Winters gets a huge cheer from the crowd: She's had such a long, fruitful career since she ran around with her chum, Marilyn Monroe, as young gals turning heads in Hollywood.

At last the finale. I'm bitterly disappointed we haven't had a chance to see Winslet's dramatic green dress up on stage, but at least "Titanic" sweeps the major awards for best director and best picture. Alison is peeved at Leonardo DiCaprio: "He's a little dick for not showing up!" she says. Yeah, sore loser! And as far as I'm concerned, he looks like a 13-year-old lesbian anyway. Porridge puss.

James Cameron, who wrote, produced and directed the now staggeringly successful "Titanic," deserves every laurel for his vision and sheer persistence over the long haul. But as a personality, he is amazingly flat: Never since Daryl Hall (the blond one in Hall and Oates) has any major figure in the performing arts had so little charisma or basic pizazz. Cameron reminds me of George Harrison, the most recessive of the Beatles. But Cameron's creativity is genuine and clearly runs deep. Let's hope he'll keep in tune with the masses. The tearjerking "Titanic" shows that postmodernist irony is over.

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

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