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[whitespace] Hail, Berry

Halle Berry and Denzel Washington deserved their honors at strangely paranoid Oscars

By Richard von Busack

"I do my job. I always do my job. Sometimes you people like it."

-My wife's proposed Oscar acceptance speech, in entirety.

Both exhilarating in moments and boring by the hour, the 74th Oscars were one long, pious event that began with a little guy. The little guy was an unshaven Tom Cruise, wearing what he presumed was a little guy's outfit: the kind of narrow-lapeled black coat and tie once referred to by Abbie Hoffman as "a funeral suit," the kind of very old suit a person unaccustomed to suits hauls out of the depths of his closet to attend some one's burial.

The little guy rhetorically asks the audience, "After Sept. 11, should we celebrate the joy and magic movies ought to bring? Dare I say it? More than ever ... but, that's just me."

No one who stuck with the marathon for the next four hours and 15 minutes could say they hadn't been warned. As annoyingly solemn as a rabbi, Kevin Spacey called for a moment of silence for the victims of Sept. 11.

Frank Pierson, the president of the Academy, made some unsettling remark about "enemies from without and within" that could have been expanded upon. Considering that they had the archparanoid whisked in from New York, couldn't someone have explained where these enemies were?

Woody Allen's five minutes of standup were the revival of a dying show-biz tradition by a man who hasn't forgotten how to perform live, a man who had too much class to try to wring the audience for more September sorrow.

If the purpose of the ceremony was to lift national spirits, you couldn't have asked for a better surprise or a larger boost (and apparently Allen knows that The Curse of the Jade Scorpion was way, way down there, which is also heartening).

The gag writing was at a decade long low--a Viagra joke? In 2002? Whoopi Goldberg didn't have anything to work with, and she knew it. There was even the joke about "fairies" on Hollywood Boulevard. Bob Hope lives!

The stars dressed somberly in earth tones, concealing their bodices in honor of a new serious America on the warpath. As close as the show came to the traditional fleshy appeal of movies was Benicio Del Toro making the worst Wonderbra joke I have ever heard. (No one dressed as outrageously as Lisa Blount, the voluptuous wife of the winner for the Best Short Subject, The Accountant. Moreover, she made some intriguingly loaded, cryptic comment about "doors that opened when others had closed"--meaning her husband, her career or what? Would she say more, except for enemies from without and within?)

Only Gwyneth Paltrow, still in nympho character since The Royal Tenenbaums, dared show off, in a nigh-topless gown. From the Egyptian eye makeup and the dress, it's apparent that she wants to go bad in the worst way.

The show offered resounding proof that tokenism wasn't responsible for the easily defendable picks of Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. Berry, as we saw, is a woman in touch with her emotions, as in her acceptance of the award--an unscripted moment (at last!) consisting of quadruple coronary, multiple orgasm and religious transcendence. I was simultaneously cheering for her and worried that she was going to embarrass the paint right off the walls. As dubious as Monster's Ball was, she did a fine job of deglamorozing herself.

That's My Baby!

When I saw Training Day, a woman in the audience yelled, "That's my baby!" at the first shot of Washington playing Richard III as a bent Los Angeles cop. When the villain died, as villains must, she cried, "Oh, why did they kill Denzel?"

When he's not being a goody-two-shoes in his movies, Washington rouses this kind of emotional identification and spontaneous delight.

Washington's and Berry's victories are being presumed as a triumph for black Hollywood (is there such a thing?) rather than two fresh and sturdy performances triumphing over some more traditional academic acting.

Washington skunked Russell Crowe, and that was justice. So was Randy Newman skunking Paul McCartney, something else to celebrate. After only 16 nominations, one victory; and one of the high points of the show was Newman's hugely entertaining live duet with John Goodman.

If the point of this show was to celebrate Hollywood's struggle with its own racism, it should be mentioned that racism has been the subject of one Newman song after another ever since the 1960s. He's persisted in examining this corrosive national evil, even at the cost of a lot of airplay. "Sail Away," "Christmas in Capetown," "Land of Dreams"--the list goes on. Even his hit "Short People," dismissed as a stupid novelty song, is a coded joke about the malevolence of blind racism.

The Academy that gave four separate awards to the mendacious and slushy A Beautiful Mind still has a lot to answer for. How can you celebrate the way the shameless hack Akiva Goldman was honored for his whitewashing of John Nash's life in A Beautiful Mind? Or stomach the sight of director Ron Howard saying that his late mom told him he's win the Best Picture Oscar--but she always said that. (Really? Even about How the Grinch Stole Christmas?). The awards have been handed out--now it's time for biographer Sylvia Nasar and/or Nash himself to go public.

Jennifer Connelly hadn't given her best performance as Nash's wife, but she deserved a body-of-work nomination. Speaking of bodies--what happened to hers? Dressed like Third Waif on the Barricades in a production of Les Misérables, she could have been trading nutrition secrets with Lara Flynn Boyle. Sometimes you see a movie star and you just pray they've been making a concentration-camp picture. But that's just me.

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Web extra to the March 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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