Conservatives usually have a few bones to pick with Hollywood over the Academy Awards. Not content with merely opening it, Hollywood pushes the envelope, often with questionable taste and mockery of common values.
Nevertheless, Washington and Hollywood are linked at the hip like Siamese twins. It's a love-hate relationship; one with changing party affections over the years. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan each sent greetings to the awards ceremony -- FDR by radio in 1941 and Ronald Reagan with videotape 40 years later. Both offered encouragement to one of our most popular cultural institutions.
The real stars, as both Hollywood and Washington can agree, are the fat cats, and right now they're mostly Democrats. Jack Kennedy's close association with Frank Sinatra put him dangerously close to the mob. A decade or two later, Charlton Heston stepped off his chariot to become president of the National Rifle Association, and gave big bucks and warm praise to the Gipper's campaigns. The Reagans stayed close to their Hollywood friends.
Washington isn't Paris or London. Haute fashion and gritty politics don't mix well in the nation's capital. You could hear howls of outrage from conservatives demanding the separation of Hollywood and the White House on Sunday, when the first lady surprised the Academy Awards audience to announce the Oscar for best picture.
Their anger is understandable, given the uncritical press for Barack Obama's copycat version of Camelot, and the first lady fit right in, adding her hyperbolic rhetoric to praise the big screen. The nominees for best picture, she said, remind us "that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage to believe in ourselves." (Really?)
What's ironic is that she probably wouldn't have appeared at all if she thought the winning movie would be "Zero Dark Thirty," which renewed a debate over "enhanced interrogation techniques." Nor did the White House, or the Pentagon, show good judgment by contributing several soldiers and sailors as a backdrop for the first lady. In their gold-braid uniforms, they looked like they were about to break into a chorus from Gilbert and Sullivan.
Her presence hardly suggested an imperial imprimatur or an "officially crowned winner," as one critic suggested. With "Argo," the odds-on favorite, the first lady must have guessed she would announce a movie reflecting America's "can-do CIA spirit" -- not a behind the scenes look at the search for Osama bin Laden, but an in-your-face rescue of six American diplomats during the Iranian hostage crisis.
The movie depicted a triumph of brashness and acumen over the mobs shouting "death to the Great Satan," even if the rescue didn't quite happen like the movie says it did. It even made fun of Hollywood's self-aggrandizing pomposity.
"So you want to come to Hollywood and act like a big shot without actually doing anything?" asks John Goodman, playing a movie makeup artist.
"Yeah," says Ben Affleck, the CIA agent. With the knowing smile of an actor with perfect timing, John Goodman tells him: "You'll fit right in."
It's easy -- and fun -- to be snarky about the Academy Awards night. The show is good-natured and feminine in its narcissism, the Hollywood Super Bowl of fashion, hair, glamour and the sentimental feeling.
If the glitz stands in sharp juxtaposition to the real life problems we all face -- high unemployment, a deficit that's off the charts and growing, entitlements that will soon break the Bank of China -- it's not the first time that Tinseltown offered fantasy, nostalgia and good stories for trying times. Entertaining escape films were common fare during the Depression of the 1930s. Fred and Ginger danced the blues away, and the audiences at the Bijou and the Palace loved it.
We all hunger for good visual narratives told with talent, and many movies this year did just that. The box office shows it. "Zero Dark Thirty" is a thriller, not propaganda; "Lincoln" is a drama wonderfully acted that takes liberties with history in both language and fact. Joe Biden was his usual self, suggesting he could get tips to shape mental health policy from interviews with the director and male star of "Silver Lining Playbook," a comedy.
The nominated movies naturally show considerably more talent than the scripted awards ceremony. The dumb jokes about boobs, gays, Jews, blacks and Hispanics sounded like children showing off naughty words they've just learned. But when more than a few winners were cut off with the theme song from "Jaws" -- a modern version of vaudeville's dreaded hook - we secretly wished we had a similar shark to answer the polarizing rhetoric from Congress and the White House. Da-dum, da-dum, da-dum ...