And the barf bag goes to ... if only Oscars still lasted just 15 minutes
Does anyone actually care about this love-in for smug, posturing hypocrites? PLUS: The worst-ever Oscar speeches
My first reaction on finding out that the imminent Academy Awards is the 91st was to make a mental note to be sure to be out of reach of all media outlets nine years hence. Imagine the carry-on that will mark the centennial of this backslapping, virtue-signalling pass-the-parcel.
As if I needed to add fuming to the fire, I recently came across the information that a whopping 60% of British Oscar-winners over the past 25 years have been privately educated, whereas only 6% of the population have had the privilege – so even rooting for the “plucky” little British contingent comes with a tainted love.
The first Oscars were presented in front of 270 people, the cost of tickets was $5 and the ceremony ran for 15 minutes; these days it is – as Johnny Carson, the host in 1979, quipped – “two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over a four-hour show”. You can’t explain this away by saying that cinema was a minority interest back then either. In 1930, 65% of Americans went to the movies each week; in 2018, only 4%.
Yes, of course we still watch films at home, on DVD and online, but we no longer watch film stars in the hushed, sacred darkness, with their fabulous faces the size of a cathedral. Instead, they are part of the technological furniture; we mock them, pause them, talk and sexually gratify ourselves over them. They know this, and it hurts their fragile egos; no one yearns to become a film star in order to be just an add-on in an evening’s entertainment on Netflix alongside the takeways. They want to be adored.
And so, as the importance of cinema dwindles, the self-importance of the film industry grows. The sight of privileged individuals who had the same chance as everyone else to become doctors, nurses or firefighters, but chose instead to go into a business that is about playing pretend and reaping vast financial rewards for lecturing the rest of us about how to be better people, would be offensive if it wasn’t so funny.
But we have their number: when entertainers espouse a political cause – as they did with Hillary Clinton and Remain – far more “civilians” (to use Elizabeth Hurley’s risibly inaccurate phrase; surely “punter” is nearer the mark) turn against it than support it. Surely some of this disdain on the part of the paying public is down to the increasing desire of actors to be seen as suffering grafters, when their lives are lush and cushy. In the past, stars simply accepted their status as unreal beings and would never have claimed that walking a cheetah on a leash down Sunset Boulevard was in any way comparable to doing a shift in a factory.
But things have changed. Gwyneth Paltrow has not only famously claimed that being a film star is tougher than doing a “regular” job, but also that reading nasty things about herself and her friends was “... almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanising thing”. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, compared being papped with being raped.
It’s odd how a bunch of woke liberals who would be conscious of “white privilege” can be so unconscious of having the greatest privilege possible – doing something you love for a living. The film stars of yesteryear were generally of working-class origin and became successful due to their outstanding talent and/or beauty. Perhaps because of their humble origins, they tended to be genuinely political, rather than posturing narcissists. Marilyn Monroe was famously under surveillance by the FBI for talking openly about her support for black civil rights and her interest in the Chinese revolution, going so far as answering, when asked her opinion of communism: “They’re for the people, aren’t they?”
The Committee for the Fifth Amendment (starring Bacall, Bogart, Garland, Kelly and Kaye) flew on a plane, tauntingly called Red Star, to take a petition bearing 500 prominent industry names to Washington in defiance of the witch-hunts. But these stars – maverick freethinkers in a cowed, right-wing Hollywood – were risking their careers by going against the grain. They weren’t conforming to the lickspittle lip-serving that has seen the modern Oscars become a fuzzy-feels pile-on.
In liberal Hollywood, a creature like Harvey Weinstein could hide in plain sight because he donated to feminist causes, supported Clinton and gave an intern job to Obama’s teenage daughter; hence he was a Good Guy. And you can see why he might have been confused as to what constituted a Bad Guy, seeing at first hand the legions of Hollywood liberals who protected and lionised the child rapist Roman Polanski. Vis-à-vis MeToo, one would have to be quite odd not to approve of the surge of solidarity among Hollywood stars of the female persuasion, especially when at 2018’s Oscars that fine actress Frances McDormand received her award, before declaiming: “All the female nominees in every category stand with me tonight – Meryl, if you do it, everyone else will!”
But I did wonder whether she meant “Suck up to Weinstein”, or “Give Polanski a standing ovation”, because Streep certainly led the liberal sheep-in-wolves-clothing in those fields for years.
This is not the first time in its history that cinema has been threatened by TV. When it happened in the 1950s, the cinema fought back with Smell-O-Vision, the invention of releasing atmospheric odours during a screening. They can’t fight back now, though to give them credit, they’re rolling over and taking it. Even Jane Campion, the director’s director, said it: “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” You can’t Smell-O-Vision your way out of that.
There is a sense this time that there will be no recovery, due to the rise of streaming. Young people have the lowest cinema attendance, due to the technology that makes the cinema look like a museum, and they are unlikely to change their ways as they mature.
The film stars of the fledgling Hollywood truly were worshipped as higher beings; a tribe of Pathan Indians opened fire on a cinema when they were denied entry to a Greta Garbo film, while women committed suicide when Valentino died. Their marriages were regarded as heavenly unions, their romantic sunderings as tragedies. Nowadays, we smirk when they crash and burn, but rather than accept their fate as disposable baubles on the tree of life, they double down defensively in their $25,000 dresses, telling us how awful rich people are.
I’d like an actress to say, just once, instead of thanking everyone from God to her great-uncle: “I’d like to thank my plastic surgeon, and my breasts, both of them, for getting me here!” I miss the old days when film stars were braver and bitchier, vice-signalling and career-risking, political not posturing. When (to paraphrase Marilyn) cinema was from the people, for the people. But that’s long gone and with it our fascination with film, now that the business of quotidian magic is just a little nepotistic racket like all the rest.
Five hideous Oscar acceptance speeches
Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1993)
After accidentally outing his old drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth (news to everyone in Farnsworth’s redneck home town), Hanks proceeded to hold forth about the ravages of Aids with a speech that would make even the most liberal-minded feel a bit queasy. He declared that “the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels”, before talking of “a healing embrace [that] cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common-sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all”.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love, 1999)
So a bit of gush is expected, but Paltrow took it to a whole new level. After saying she didn’t feel deserving to be in Meryl Streep’s presence, she thanked Harvey Weinstein and Miramax for their undying support. Then she went on to mention her mother (“who I love more than anything”), her brother (“the dearest person in the world”), and Mary Wigmore (“my earthly guardian angel”). Then there was Grandpa. “I want you to know that you have created a beautiful family who loves you and loves each other more than anything.” Sentimental and smug. That’s quite a feat.
James Cameron (Titanic, 1998)
Fake humility is common at the Oscars, hubris rather less so. Cameron decided to redress the balance when he won for the deep-sea boreathon. It started quite well, with the director thanking all the right people (including the guy who rigged up the diving camera system), but ruined it all by a slightly overzealous payoff in which he declared himself as the king of the world.
Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment, 1984)
Things started badly for MacLaine when she indulged in some baffling psychobabble. “I think that we all manifest what we want and what we need. I don’t think there’s any difference really between what you feel you have to do in your heart and success. They’re inseparable.” After some guff about her co-stars, she started to compare film-making to pottery, before a hideously self-congratulatory flourish. “Films and life are like clay waiting for us to mould it. And when you trust your own insides, and that becomes achievement, it’s a kind of a principle that seems to me is at work with everyone. God bless that principle. God bless that potential that we all have for making anything possible if we think we deserve it. I deserve this. Thank you.”
George Clooney (Syriana, 2006)
Defiantly refusing to believe that Hollywood stars lived in a bubble, Clooney talked about the brave pioneering spirit of his industry. “We’re the ones who talked about Aids when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects, we are the ones – this academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theatres.” Commendable in spirit, but also blithely ignoring a community where gay film stars stay closeted and only 12 black actors (at that point) had won Oscars in its 80-year history. – Ben Lawrence
– © The Daily Telegraph