Does Oscar hate his own smell?

The academy shows American-style self-loathing by handing its biggest trophies to foreigners and drowning itself in montages. Save us, George Clooney!

Published February 25, 2008 12:00PM (EST)

The writers' strike was resolved, but not soon enough, apparently. The wounds were deep. Much blood was lost. Oscar was deprived of oxygen, and sustained a great deal of brain damage.

It must have been grim at that academy meeting, just a few weeks ago. No writers, just a bunch of liminal Hollywood power brokers in $6,000 Brioni suits sitting glumly around a large obsidian table in one of the Carrara-marble, earthquake-proof bunker-vaults deep in the ground under CAA, too depressed even to eat their grilled seafood salads.

"Editors," someone finally said, the idea light bulb suddenly reflecting off his hairless scalp.


"Fuck the writers. They'll all eventually eat each other like the Donner party. We have editors. This Oscars? We break new territory."

Eyes peer up hopefully through $3,000 Japanese glasses frames made of hammered titanium and hand-carved wood.

"This year? All new: all old. We just montage the living shit out of it. Wall-to-wall montages of Oscar footage recycled from the last 80 years."


"Thank God."

"Let's go home."

Five minutes later, a symphony of bloot-bloots and black Mercedes doors automatically popping open, then the roar of fresh German engines as the identical cars began their climate-controlled trips through the poisoned brown air, back to their home garages in Glendale and Brentwood.

The montages, it must be said, were so numerous and so mind-blowingly stupid as to border on sadism.

Jon Stewart, who hosted, presented it as a joke, but they actually did show a montage completely devoted to the uses of binoculars and periscopes in movies over the years.

The unlovable animated Seinfeld Bee character from the vastly disappointing "Bee Movie" introduced some technical award with -- no joke -- a bee montage.

There was a montage devoted to production design. A montage devoted to How the Oscar Ballots Get Cast.

For nearly every major award, there was a montage of all 79 other winners from the past.

In short: This year, Oscar honored the heart-touching magic of the film industry's celebration of life by sucking every possible ounce of spontaneous life, marrow and energy out of the event by waterboarding it to the point of gag-reflex failure with canned montages.

Hollywood executives were firmly convinced for the past several months that writers were worthless. So, all in all, the evening was sort of like "Romeo and Juliet," but without a script: a frictionless battle between the Montage-Yous and the Crapulets. They both lost. Actually, we all did.

Even though the event was way more lame than lamé, it feels wrong even taking potshots at the Oscars now. It's like picking on Britney Spears, at this point -- it's so easy, it's not even sporting. Oscar is elderly, and in dire need of hipness-replacement surgery. In his dotage he is tiresome, dull and earnest, and employs a lot of doddering repetition about how movies "touch the soul" and "inspire others to dream."

Even Jack Nicholson, perhaps because of his symbiotic link to Oscar, looked frail when talking about the "common link that touches the (heh heh heh) 'humanity' in all of us." You know when Jack is having a hard time looking convincingly inhumane at the Oscars that some power grid in hell is in the grips of a rolling blackout.

Hollywood is always a lopsided reflection of the political situation we're in.

In this sense, performing artists, classically a fairly high-strung, hypersensitive lot, have always been pretty effective canaries in the cultural coal mine. What they've been telling us, lately, is that we have a very, very sick culture on our hands.

It was a terrible, tooth-gnashing year of hideous self-reflection, for America: the ugly flipside of cultural narcissism. Our country, on the back end of a rapacious tear of sophomoric jerkbag behavior, is moving into the slightly more mature adolescent phase of starting to hate its own smell.

I am the greatest country in the world / I am the piece of shit at the center of the universe.

After shaving its head and driving drunk around the globe with no panties, calling itself the Antichrist, and finally abandoning its children, totaling its SUV and getting its ass kicked in the parking lot of the Persian Gulf, America is realizing that it is internationally loathed, broke, soulless, tasteless, fat, drunk, malicious, greedy and stupid, and has been generally behaving like a lousy excuse for a world superpower for long enough to lose all its friends and position.

So, since America hates itself this year, Oscar gave the biggest trophies to foreigners:

Best supporting actress: Tilda Swinton -- British.
Best supporting actor: Javier Bardem -- Spanish.
Best actress: Marion Cotillard -- French.
Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis -- British.

Conspicuously missing from this Oscars was any loose talk of politics or the war, until the designated time block for dissent during the presentation of the documentary film awards. This was especially weird: Why, if they didn't want to acknowledge the outside world, did they get a truth teller like Jon Stewart to host the thing?

But it isn't totally shocking when you consider that ABC, which owned the Oscars this year, is owned by Disney. The whole night seemed conspicuously laundered through Robert Iger's Great Disney Sanitizer -- as if the academy came down with heavy threats and successfully imposed a gag order on the evening (a moratorium on natural speech so suppressive and creepy that I took to calling it the "Iger Sanction").

This Oscars was noteworthy, though, if only because it featured the worst musical interludes since the Great Debbie Allen Interpretive Dance Meltdown of 1999.

The Disney movie "Enchanted" somehow had three completely unsingable, perversely idiotic, overproduced, melody-free songs nominated.

Amy Adams sang the first of these: a frantically upbeat anthem about being vermin and doing menial labor -- kind of a "Whistle While You Work" number that had suspiciously happy housewife/sweatshop/totalitarian overtones.

Kristin Chenoweth sang the second "Enchanted" mess: a musically schizophrenic orchestral pseudo-calypso duet with a Rastafarian who was virtually invisible onstage because nobody bothered to light him. This big song 'n' dance number was somehow supposed to convey the "cultural diversity of New York's Central Park" via a kick line of white senior citizens, brides and grooms, a gymnastic troupe of dancing boys in hard hats and Con Edison drag, a flock of tuba players and, most offensively, a mariachi band wearing sombreros ... the likes of which I have never, ever, ever seen in Central Park. In short, it was the kind of illegal gathering that, in the Rudy Giuliani era, would have gotten you shot.

The third "Enchanted" number had waltzing couples dressed like Cinderella and Prince Charming, which could only have been choreographed by John Ashcroft or a 6-year-old girl.

To karmically rebalance these mortal offenses, Bob Fosse must rise and vengefully return from his grave to fan-kick down the door of Robert Iger's summer home and terrorize him with zombie jazz hands.

In the nominated movies, it was a big year for painfully long shots of people having private moments, and great swirls of emotion moving just enough under the eyeballs to be perceptible -- a forced march straight into the head and soul of the actor.

In a year where most of the actresses were shielded from their own regrettable taste by professional stylists like Rachel Zoe, best supporting actress winner Tilda Swinton, at least, was bravely and refreshingly fashion-forward enough to look bonkers. She wore no makeup and what looked like a velvet Isamu Noguchi coffee table, and spoke in insouciant, artistic free verse about Oscar's naked buttocks in the great weirdo-artiste tradition of Dustin Hoffman.

That was pretty much it for iconoclasm during the evening. They really should learn to invite Björk every year.

The best moments were the unplanned injections of humanity: the ruinously beautiful Marion Cotillard's sincere, if stumbling, acceptance speech; Jon Stewart arranging for Marketa Irglova -- the woman from "Once" who, with Glen Hansard, sang "Falling Slowly," a baldly nice and stirringly emotional ballad -- to come back and give her acceptance speech after she'd been rushed off the stage.

The issue of Iraq was finally allowed to chug out all at once: A handful of grunts in Iraq presented the award for best documentary short subject via satellite. Hollywood deity Tom Hanks was ceremonially trotted out to lend gravity to the award for best documentary feature, a category that pitted three films about the Iraq war against Michael Moore's "Sicko."

The winner, Alex Gibney, the filmmaker responsible for "Taxi to the Dark Side," urged the audience to "hope we can turn this country away from the dark side."

Helen Mirren introduced the award for best actor with the following:

"Ambition. Amorality. Greed. Deviousness. Misery. Venality. Remorse ... All facets of the rainbow of human behavior."

And Daniel Day-Lewis won for his savage role in "There Will Be Blood."

Day-Lewis is a wonderfully fluid actor, but frankly, that role, while a perfectly credible Wild West, crotchety old brown-toothed prospector ultimately devoured by his own rottenness, wasn't the most mind-blowing performance of the year. The movie was, however, based on the Upton Sinclair story "Oil," and the role was an excellent allegory for a nation that gets ruthlessly strung out on greed for the black crude, loses its soul, abandons its children and brings about its own demise through unchecked hostility.

I know I am not alone in my contention that Viggo Mortensen deserved a special Oscar for his full-frontal nude fight scene in "Eastern Promises."

Tommy Lee Jones was recognized with a nomination for "In the Valley of Elah," an important bummer of an Iraq movie that certainly won't make anyone feel good (but makes you a better human being if you see it).

Tommy Lee Jones was really superb in that role: His wonderful face has always been almost but not quite handsome, in a messed-up way -- in this film, he looks almost like an early proto-human skull that was reassembled from bashed fragments and covered with grayish-pink modeling putty. Some unfortunate truck stop on the evolutionary highway. A great craggy simian brow and trout mouth. But his black eyes were crammed to the support beams with an incredibly complex emotional reality -- a skillfully compartmentalized man in a state of controlled crisis. Really amazing.

And Clooney -- sigh. He deserved the trophy as well, but Hollywood knows he's a lifer and he'll be around for a while. There's time for Clooney later.

Joel and Ethan Coen, of course, were the night's big winners, taking home the awards for best adapted screenplay, best directing and best picture for "No Country for Old Men."

While I like the Coens, it is important to bear in mind that in their lifetimes, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Alfred Hitchcock never received Oscars for best director. Kevin Costner did, though.

Not that anyone asked me, but "Michael Clayton" was, in my opinion, the best film of the year. There was a lot more to it than its just being Clooney's "Erin Brockovich."

Screw imperial corporate greed-bag awfulness, and that goes for Hollywood too, George Clooney, via Michael Clayton, said under his breath, loud enough to hear. Glitz is meaningless. Greed is deadly. Vanity is overrated. But you can humbly, slowly accrue some virtue, some small but real heroism, by navigating the sometimes-invisible line between doing your job well and doing the right thing.

Despite having one of the best social diatribe screenplays since "Network," what was interesting about "Michael Clayton" was the way it dialed your focus way down to the quiet private battles of the imperfect everyperson -- the unwitnessed, unrewarded slog of trying to amass good decisions and do some small immediate good day to day -- and failing sometimes, despite fighting the good fight, and winning sometimes in a way that goes largely unrecognized.

Like good photography, "Michael Clayton" elevates the normal into the sublime by seeing its own world with such razor clarity that it expands the viewer's perceptions by reframing them with a bigger, more generous awareness.

Nan Goldin, for example, looked at her ragged life and saw art springing all around her, even in the mirror at her own punched-out face. Real life, for all its broken noses, cigarette butts and bad decisions, is more beautiful than the L'Oréal illusion, or six hours in the grip of Rachel Zoe -- provided you can muster enough emotional intelligence to feel your way out of a paper bag, and you're not so desperately afraid of offending people or not looking pretty that you can't move your face or be funny anymore.

Compassion. It's the new Scientology. A new theology for the rich and famous. Ruthless greed and inhumanity, Hollywood seems to have recently realized, are as suicidal as an OxyContin habit: It can really only take a career, or an art form, or a nation, so far.

Well, in terms of national consciousness, maybe it's a start.

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For more Salon coverage of the Oscars, click here.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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