Television's reality show, the cash cow that the networks are exploiting to exhaustion, is not new. Millions of us, particularly in the blue states, watched the granddaddy of them all this week to see Hollywood's most glamorous stars get kicked off the island.
Chris Rock was right, the losing nominees all gave prize-winning performances pretending not to be angry that someone else won. He recalled that in 2002 actress Nicole Kidman was smiling so wide when Halle Berry was named best actress that "she would have won an Emmy at the Oscars for her great performance."
We keep eyes focused on the audience as well as on the faces (and the bodies) on stage. The reactions of the losers are as entertaining as those of the winners. Few of us can identify with the winner, but we all understand the disappointment of not getting something we really, really want. Here is pity and fear, served up Hollywood style, the cheap thrill of identifying for just a moment with a tinselized celebrity. Low-rent emotions can be fun.
Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist, writes that when he was a child and first heard the expression "keeping an eye peeled," he wanted to know whether you peel an eye like peeling a potato. A grown-up explained that peeling an eye enables you to see directly into the character of a person. "If you keep your eyes peeled on the clown at the circus, observing the clown before he enters the tent, you can see the person behind the performance, the character behind the image, the heart beating under the costume."
But peeled eyes at the Oscars are deprived of such rewards. Like Tinseltown itself, the evening is about gazing at surfaces, lip-glossed glamour, the rituals of narcissism. Hillary Swank, the winner as best actress for her performance in "Million Dollar Baby," described herself as "a girl from a trailer park who had a dream," but that's not the woman we saw wearing the midnight-blue backless dress.
The Academy Awards ceremony is designed to be without irony, but Chris Rock supplied it anyway with filmed movie-theater interviews with black men and women who had never heard of the movies nominated for Best Picture. He could have similarly interviewed red-state Christians who made Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" the runaway hit of the year, who are not at all interested in any of the movies up for awards.
Does this mean Hollywood is out of touch with America? Not necessarily. It means that Hollywood chooses to be in touch with an America of its own choosing. The studios earn most of their big bucks in ways that have little to do with theater box office or the telling of a good story. The targeted audience for blockbusters (movies that draw lines around the block) are aimed at children, tweens and teens, and the weird movie characters become spin-off toys and games, marketed with fast-food and fashion tie-ins, even theme parks. That's why so many movies appeal to a comic book or fairy tale mentality, relying on cartoon characters and digitalized drama. Harry Potter, Spider Man and the Lord of the Rings are Hollywood's real million-dollar babies.
In "The Big Picture: The Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood," Edward Jay Epstein observes that today's slickly marketed movies are made to a Midas formula by six corporations - Sony, Time Warner, NBC, Universal Viacom, Disney and News Corporation, all functioning as a clearing house. The old studios that mass-produced dreams are gone with the wind, just like the old downtown theaters that were the temples of the dreams. Profits derive from global networks repackaging movies as television reruns and DVDs for home entertainment.
The studio system created adult fantasy first. The stars fed our illusions on and off the screen; we even believed the sugared romances the studios spun as the public version of the stars' private lives. Trashy private lives of the stars is a given today, and scandal causes hardly a ripple of disapproval. Digitalized characters can be created with neither moral nor mortal concern, and best of all can be packaged, licensed and promoted at far less cost than dealing with flesh and blood.
The stars are products, too, shills for marketing tie-ins. They appeal to our aspirations to make money more than to a taste for talent - just like the reality shows. Hollywood changes, but the movies remain what they have always been, a moving illusion of flickering light and shadow.