OSCAR ISN’T WHAT HE USED TO BE

Red carpet rite no longer a venue for prime time dissent

The 84th Academy Awards are upon on this Sunday, granting viewers the opportunity to enjoy truly fine acting, from the losing Oscar nominees. Who doesn’t love the annual award show-the glitter, the get-ups, the whole self-congratulatory, statuette-coveting shebang? It’s my star-gazing guilty pleasure, along with The Golden Globes-even though I preferred the red carpet rituals of past years, when there was a clear and present danger of televised spontaneity.

In 1961, U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton N. Minow described television as “vast wasteland”-and he was describing just a handful of channels beamed into homes through small, black-and-white cathode tubes. The annual Academy Awards were a small oasis in this miniaturized landscape: every February there was always a risk of somebody going off-script, something otherwise unthinkable in TV land. By the early ’70s, you could count on scandal creeping past the network censors-or sprinting, as in the case of a streaker’s interruption of presenter David Niven during the 1972 Academy Awards show. (Niven’s quick-witted response: “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”)

On the 1973 Academy Award show, Marlon Brando was a no-show when he won best actor for his role in The Godfather. In his place, he had sent aboriginal activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who arrived onstage dressed in an Apache dress and presented a speech on Brando’s behalf protesting the treatment of North American natives. Some viewers interpreted this move as an example of the man’s integrity rather than his eccentricity, although the marble-mouthed thespian was no slouch when it came to crazy. (According to Johnny Depp, his costar in the film Don Juan DeMarco, Brando once investigated the possibility of powering his Malibu home with electric eels.)

In 2002, Michael Moore accepted the best documentary film award for Bowling for Columbine. “We are against this war, Mr. Bush, shame on you,” he began. “We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons,” Moore yelled over a chorus of boos.

The impassioned speech didn’t go over well with the Powers that Bleep. The following year ABC imposed a five-second video and audio delay on the Oscar telecast, allowing the network censor to cut any “objectionable content.” With this simple tweak of the Academy’s space-time continuum, corporate America had caulked one of the last remaining cracks for dissent on prime-time network television.

Since then, no Oscar presenter or winner has aimed for a politically controversial stance on the air-at least that we know of. The acceptance speeches are harmless as organic carrots, and the expertly choreographed event has about as much surprise element as a stadium event choreographed by the late Kim Jong-Il.

The big Oscar winner in 2010 was the Iraq war film, The Hurt Locker. Pundits applauded the historic first of a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, netting the best director award. This is counted as gender progress in Hollywood: a woman could now whip up a jingoistic, Oscar-friendly flag-waver just as expertly as a man. The Academy committee members-bless their greying, status quo-conscious noggins-chose The Hurt Locker in the best picture and best director categories over Avatar, a game-changing, anti-imperialist space opera directed by Bigelow’s ex-husband, James Cameron.

For 2012, the Academy has selected the worst reviewed movie of the past 10 years, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for seven Oscar nominations. The film stars that go-to-guy for sledgehammer sentimentality, Tom Hanks, and the plot hinges on a boy who loses his father during the Sept. 11 attacks. After perusing the spoiler on Wikipedia, I knew enough to stay well away from this insulin-spiking production.

So even though I haven’t seen all the films the Academy chooses to honour, I’ll watch this Sunday’s show with my usual mix of fascination and repulsion. Even though the odds aren’t great, I’ll be hoping some A-list celebrity manages to squeak out a remark of protest while the prole working the delay button is distracted by Salma Hayek’s neckline.

Vancouver Courier, Feb. 24

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