Americans flipping channels Sunday night between war coverage and the Oscars were treated to a rare instance of defining clarity. While Hollywood displayed its paler feathers on ABC, a series of POWs from the first Gulf War appeared on the all-news channels to tell of their experiences while captives of the Iraqi military in 1991.
Their testimonials were mesmerizing and cast a stark light on the disconnect between much of Hollywood and the rest of us. The irony of watching people accepting awards for acting, make-up and sound effects while men a few remote clicks away were recounting tortures endured at the hands of our current enemies was nearly numbing.
I kept thinking that these men were the ones who should be parading across a stage to accept awards amid the thunderous applause of an adoring public. Surely, the actors in their studied black and lesser adornments were embarrassed to display themselves on such a night. Maybe some were.
As viewers know, only a few mentioned the war. When Michael Moore behaved predictably by bashing President Bush upon receiving his award for best documentary, the audience commendably booed. Host Steve Martin softened the affront by joking that the Teamsters were "helping Mr. Moore into the trunk of his limo."
I realize that highlighting the contrast between glitzy actors and dutiful soldiers is not the stuff of riveting insight, but neither is it possible to ignore. Sunday was a tough day for Americans. Having witnessed our soldiers' dead bodies displayed as trophies for the Arab world -and absorbing the news that five others were prisoners of people whose regard for the Geneva Conventions parallels Saddam's concern for Kurdish day-care issues -one might have expected the Academy to cancel.
But no, protested the cliché minders, "the show must go on." Such a notion might have made sense in America's 19th-century circus era -as in a lion is loose, let's not panic the spectators -but is today N/A. Not applicable. As an act of respect and decency, if not patriotism, the Academy might have postponed its self-love fest and even benefited from a wider television audience.
Viewership for the 75th Anniversary Oscars was the lowest in the ceremony's history, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Hollywood is not entirely to blame for its distorted sense of importance. We're all willing enablers. We (and I include myself in this) love watching the beautiful people.
Clothes, hair, jewelry, make-up and speculation about celebrity romances are amusing divertissements for the coach class, benign distractions from a 9-5 world of mortgages, kids and jobs that wouldn't pay Susan Sarandon's dry cleaning bill. Or, one guesses, Moore's cafeteria tab.
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