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.
Which is precisely what made their strut `n fret so inappropriate just now. Regardless of one's political views toward the war, we're in it. We're there. Soldiers are at grave risk; some are wounded or dead; others face a lonely terror and probable pain.
I'm not suggesting that we have to drape ourselves in black burqas for the duration or replace the Dixie Chicks with funeral dirges, but Hollywood's association with recent anti-Bush, anti-war demonstrations makes the gaudy Oscars unseemly and celebrity protests garrishly inane.
So that the real stars Sunday night were the humble, plainspoken former POWs. No frills, no gush. Just the facts and a few nods in the direction of honor, duty, country and family. Even as these former prisoners of war described events and circumstances that would make anyone wince, their faces betrayed nothing of pain.
Yes, they had been afraid. Yes, they were hurt. At least two said they suffered broken bones in crashes before being taken prisoner. One soldier recounted how his injuries went untreated, how he was tossed in the back of a truck despite broken legs and a shattered pelvis.
Another told of being beaten with a heavy whip for five to 10 minutes, then interrogated, then beaten again, then interrogated. He gave out snippets of information at the end of each round, he said, but nothing that would be useful to his tormentors or harmful to his comrades. Talk about acting.
To travel from that experience to Michael Moore's rant about a fictitious president sending our soldiers to war for fictitious reasons -even if you believe that, well … it leaves one speechless.
Too bad the images of dead soldiers and prisoners of war didn't have the same effect on Moore.