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Oscars 2003: Berating Bush at the Oscars

DEMOCRACY is still alive in the United States. In perhaps one of the darkest moments in its history, when President George Bush chose to trample democratic norms by his aggression towards Iraq in shocking disregard for world opinion, Hollywood stood defiant on the Oscar night. The film fraternity used the podium to condemn the world's most powerful leader.

And, they could get away with it. Freedom of speech is still a beautiful reality in the U.S., where citizens take pride in the fact that their nation rests on the unique pillar of liberty. And, at the Oscars presentation, movie men and women were both restrained and brazen in telling millions of people around the globe what they felt about their Government.

Most of the stars who walked into the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles on the evening of the oscars ceremony (March 2003) literally dressed down as a mark of sorrow for what was happening in Iraq. If diamonds gave way to flowers and peace dove pins, bright colours were largely shunned in favour of black and shades of pastel in a ceremony that is invariably marked by glitz, a ceremony where top designers sweat it out to show off their spunkiest styles.

In any case, celebrities though walking on the red carpet did not pause to pose for cameras and questions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to do away with this traditional number.

There were some directors, actors and actresses who however thought that this was not enough. They spared no words. Michael Moore -- whose work, "Bowling For Columbine" won a special prize at Cannes last year and the Documentary Feature Oscar on Sunday was the harshest critic. He invited his fellow documentary nominees on stage, saying that they were there "in solidarity with me, because we like non-fiction, and we are living in fictitious times...We live in a time where we have a man who is sending us to war for fictitious reasons (seems true, does it not, for Washington is yet to find Saddam Hussein's evil arsenal)...We are against this war Mr. Bush. Shame on you."

Bold and provocative though Moore was, his film was disappointing. On the surface, "Bowling For Columbine", appears to be an uncompromising look at the pathology of violence and fear in America, where the number of guns is said to outnumber that of voters and television sets. Moore, who shot the docu-drama soon after the Columbine school massacre, loses his sense of balance when he tries to examine issues such as race relations, the gun lobby, and the country's historical propensity for destructiveness. At the end of the movie, the question was whether Moore had toed the line of Charlton Heston (the star of "Ten Commandments" and "Ben Hur") and his National Rifle Association.

Of course, Moore would explain this by saying that the gun culture and the bloody mess in Iraq are separate, and a tacit support for personal weapons does not indicate a nod for Bush's, in some ways personal, agenda in Iraq.

But the moot point here is not so much Moore's inner contradiction as it is the freedom he enjoys in gunland to mouth the severest of indictments against his President and be applauded for it.

There was more of this as the Oscar ceremony sailed into the night. Adrien Brody who clinched the Best Actor honour for his title role in Roman Polanski's "The Pianist' amazed everyone. Nobody expected him to walk away with this statuette, and at 29 he was the youngest to have won it, beating veterans such as Michael Caine ("The Quiet American") and Jack Nicholson ("About Schmidt"). As musician Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish Jew who lived through World War II by hiding from the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, Brody lost 14 kg to look like the real-life pianist.

When Brody came to collect his piece of treasure, there were more surprises in store. Refusing to be intimidated by the gong meant to drown his voice because the time allotted to each winner was up, Brody said: "My experience in making this picture made me very aware of the sadness and the dehumanisation of the people in times of war, and the repercussions of war. And whether you believe in God or Allah, may he watch over you, and let us pray for a peaceful and swift resolution."

In what was also seen as an upset, and, more important, a fearless move by the Academy to recognise talent, and distinguish it from the talent's personal life, Polanski was adjudged the Best Director. He ran away from the U.S. in 1977 following a statutory rape charge, and was expectedly not at the theatre to receive his Oscar.

"The Pianist" is yet another dramatisation of the Holocaust by a man whose own Jewish family died during the Nazi tyranny. What was most appealing in the film was the touching twist at the end: a German officer finds the pianist in a rundown house, asks him who he is, and when Szpilman answers that he is a musician, the Nazi commands him to play the piano lying in one corner of the room. The Jew plays, and the music changes the hardened soldier, and Szpilman lives all over again. Polanski's creation happily sounded the right notes for the large Academy voters, who probably saw an answer to war and conflict in "The Pianist". At least, they could not have missed the futility of picking up a gun to solve a problem.

If Polanski was a first time winner (he was nominated earlier for "Chinatown" and "Tess", and got a writing nod for "Rosemary's Baby"), so was Nicole Kidman, though it was widely anticipated the she would be the Best Actress for her 30-minute role as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours". Sporting a fake nose, Kidman came closest to being beaten by Renee Zellweger in the musical "Chicago", which thumped up six "Little Men", including one for the Best Movie.

Based on a play written by a Chicago court reporter and first produced in 1926, "Chicago" is the first musical after the 1968 "Oliver" to garner the top prize. Although its helmer, Rob Marshall had done a stage version of "Chicago", he is new to cinema. 'The film, unlike "Moulin Rouge", has a soul, and the crime thriller grips you with not just its magnificence, not just its razzle-dazzle of crooning and tap dancing (Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, who got a supporting award, and Richard Gere, with not even a nomination, had to sing and learn to dance), but also with its slick picturisation. Marshall weaves the story of two murderesses and a clever lawyer (who tells them that if they cannot be famous, they can certainly be infamous) into an elevating, spirit stirring operetta. Its cinematic qualities remain intact; rather they glow.

Yet, Marshall did not wear the Best Director's crown, in a strange dichotomy in the way the Academy thinks and acts. Can a man who helms the Best Film not possibly be the Best Director?

Perhaps, it is this state of contradiction that helps the Americans to thrive and rise above dark clouds. As Barbara Streisand said, "I am happy to be living in a country that guarantees every citizen, including artists, the right to say and sing what they believe." And, indeed, the Oscars provided the right pep for the artistic tribe to berate Bush.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 30 2003)




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