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Making Whoopi at the Oscars

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In Too Deep: Whoopi Goldberg's movie roles don't measure up to her Oscar host act.

A dose of wisecracks helps the self-glorifying medicine go down at this year's Oscars

By Richard von Busack

Whoopi Goldberg's wise-assness--where does it disappear to when she makes movies? If you didn't count the clips of Marlon Brando and the legion of dead movie cowboys, she was the best thing about the Oscar broadcast last Sunday (March 21).

And it was cognitive dissonance to have her be funny, because just 24 hours before I was squirming through vintage bad Goldberg in The Deep End of the Ocean. The movie might have made sense if it were about a cat. Cats do go missing all the time and then turn up years later, two blocks away, christened with a new name. But if they found the cat, I mean, the kid, right away, you wouldn't get what you paid for in The Deep End of the Ocean, which is Goldberg as Det. Candy Bliss, looking over the top of her spectacles with that emetic "Yes, I am wise, but it's wisdom born of pain" expression she's crafted into an annuity.

At the Oscars, Goldberg was dressed as Ziggy Stardust and later togged out in a black shoulderless gown with a huge feather trim, making her look like Akim Tamiroff in the last scenes of The Vulture. Later, she turned up wearing a big floral collar like the kind they drape around the winner at the Preakness Stakes. How can Goldberg be so funny one moment and so awful the next. Kind of like life, really.

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What a Dame: Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love.

It was a British New Wave evening: one passing mention of the Kipper Kids, the avant-garde performance art group; one quote from the Stranglers' "No More Heroes," by Martin Childs, co-art director for Shakespeare in Love ("all the heroes, all the Shakespeare-os"). To top it all, we were treated to the mind-roasting effect of Bill Conti and the band playing Brian Eno's "Needle in the Camel's Eye."

The flubbed speeches were splendid. Here was James Coburn, looking like the Bad Santa, groping for words and defying those cruel-looking models in evening gowns who come to rake slowpokes off the stage. (Perhaps they're hired from one of those shadowy organizations that trains glamorous women to be lethal assassins.)

It was a delight to see Roberto Benigni climbing over the chairs like an ape, beautifully fulsome and enthusiastic: "He who kisses joy lives in eternity's sunrise." ("Fate is the fool's name for fortune"--Erik Rhodes, The Gay Divorcee.)

Paltrow Unchecked

But the best speech was certainly Gwyneth Paltrow's teary acceptance recital, during which she thanked everyone but Bongo the Dog. They say the camera never lies, but sometimes it withholds the truth. Cameramen, picking out aggravated-looking celebrities, might be recording the effects of indigestion, an unpleasant memory or a too-tight Lauren gown. So it's only speculation to interpret the facial expression of Paltrow's mother, Blythe Danner, as "For God's sake, pull yourself together!"

In this weepy moment, Paltrow showed the qualities that those of us who doubt her divinity (and cheered at the end of Seven) have felt in our hearts: callowness, shallowness, goody-two-shoesism. (But wait. Maybe it was a beautiful selfless moment. Maybe Paltrow decided "I'm going to make Fernanda and Meryl and Emily feel better about losing, by making a complete jackass out of myself.")

By contrast, Nick Nolte's feelings were unambiguous. I liked and admired Nolte not just as an actor but also for the expression of barely muted disgust that he wore through out the proceedings. ("I think he deserves a special award for making out with Barbra Streisand," opined a friend.)

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The Patriarch Formerly Know as the Prince of Egypt: The animated fable's big song won an Oscar instead of Aerosmith.

I approved of Nolte's refusal to applaud Elia Kazan for "lending his prestige to the cause of limiting civil liberties," as the daughter of blacklistee Michael Wilson put it. Nolte's good taste was visible in one especially sour-faced reaction to Carly Simon. Simon was fiendishly disguised as Steve Tyler of Aerosmith, an imposturature that fooled even his band (whose members don't look like the sharpest knives in the drawer, anyway). The ruse failed. The award went instead to the Mariah-Whitney duet: the famous Prince of Egypt signature tune, "Miracles Can Happen, when you buhlieeveeeeeeohhhhhhahahhoowhoahoaawahaha").

But the reaction shot that didn't happen was the one I noticed most: did you catch the network's solidly heterosexual refusal to cut to Ellen DeGeneres for a comic reaction when Anne Heche's microphone went haywire on her? This act of cowardice lent support to writer Bill Condon's otherwise dubious claim that James Whale was run out of business for being gay.

The military/industrial/entertainment complex moments in the show were hard to top. We had, apropos of nothing, a visit from Gen. Colin Powell and, of course, the interpretive tap-dance salute to World War Two. ("This arm-waving gesture represents the aerial Battle of Midway, and this split represents MacArthur and Halsey's two-pronged drive toward the Japanese archipelago.") And there was astronaut John Glenn hosting a montage of positive role models in the movies: "Madame Curie, meet Muhammed Ali!"

But weird juxtapositions are what made the ceremony. The entertaining MC Whoopi can be contrasted with the fresh memory of the ghastly on-screen Whoopi. There's Huntz Hall marching shoulder to shoulder with Akira Kurosawa in the Parade of Dead Cineasts (together at last in heaven, filming The Seven Bowery Samurai). Here's an impressive screen image, shadowy and powerful, contrasted with the actual actor: greenish, beaky and (as often as not this night), with hair slicked back with goose grease.

Now it belongs to the ages--Robert De Niro's Alfalfa haircut, Paltrow's nervous breakdown, Martin Scorsese hiding behind Elia Kazan as if seized with the temptation to give the old man bunny ears. I can hardly wait for next year: Steven Spielberg with three new adopted kids to thank, newer and grimmer tuxes, and the phrase we'll be hearing echoed throughout March 2000: "And the winner is ... Baby Geniuses!"

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Web extra to the March 25-April 1, 1999 issue of Metro.

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