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Oscar Showdown: Tacky v. Banal

It's only appropriate that an award show about movies would have an overarching theme. Last year, it was "Titanic!" Everything last year was oversized: the dresses, the speeches, Celine Dion's robotic performance, the many awards a movie about a sinking ship got.

This year's theme is slightly more complex, befitting a year of varied moviemaking. It was a year of World War II dramas both lyrical ("the Thin Red Line") and predictable ("Saving Private Ryan"), of intricate politics ("Elizabeth") and intimate romance ("Shakespeare in Love"). So this year's awards theme: "Tacky? Banal? Tacky? Banal?"

Based on the entertainment, the verdict would be tacky. Liv Tyler -- please to explain her career -- introduces her father, his spandex, and a fog machine in a Best Song nominee. Tacky, tacky. The idea behind the entertainment for Best Original Score was ... oh, God, there's no word in English for it. Interpretive tap dance for "Saving Private Ryan" and "Life is Beautiful" -- this is why our boys went overseas? Tacky, tacky, tacky. But the real capper was Val Kilmer's introduction of some cowboy movie tribute. Dressed like a cowboy from the wrong side of the corral, he came on stage with a live, skittish palomino and attempted to read a teleprompter without losing control of the animal. It would have been kinder to take out a billboard on Ventura Boulevard reading "VAL KILMER, YOUR CAREER IS OVER." The stunt was both tacky and banal. All the subsequent entertainment paled by comparison -- Celine Dion's obligatory overwrought movie theme: banal; all the tributes -- World War II, dead people, cowboys, Sinatra, Kubrick -- banal.

Even the clothes are dull. Good taste has been threatening to subdue Oscar couture for years. Aside from the weightlifter Barbie ensemble Madonna wore last year, there hasn't been a significant fashion shock at the awards since Cher's reign during the Reagan years. This year was no exception: everyone looked very chic and well-groomed and boring. If we need another aging Republican in the Oval Office to buck this good-taste trend, so be it: Dole 2000! I can't take another year of well-cut Calvin Klein. This year's fashion verdict: banal.

Although the actresses and actors may be refined, they still act like peasants. Jennifer Lopez still hasn't managed to shake that Brooklyn dialect, and after she began rattling off the nominees for best original song, it would not have surprised anyone if she then flashed a gangsta handshake and declared allegiance to the local bangers. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck proved that the Academy does make mistakes; the learned scribes and winners of last year's Best Screenplay demonstrated that they're not capable of reading a teleprompter without snickering. Those two are an argument for the reinstitution of the old studio system, where a phalanx of etiquette gestapo could beat some poise into them before they were permitted in public. Sure, we might not see them for a few months, but it's a small price to pay. And Ms. Lopez ... well, we'll see you in the next millennium, homegirl. This year's presenter verdict: tacky.

The notable exception to that goes to the usually tacky Anne Heche. Ellen's better half presented the 36 awards for scientific and technical accomplishment one month earlier -- even in Hollywood, the brainiacs don't get to hang with the beautiful people -- and her delivery was badly hampered by a technical glitch in the sound system. Smoothly switching microphones, avoiding smarmy commentary on the irony of a technical mistake during the technical awards recap, and continuing unflappably, Heche was one of the few presenters who did her job with style and grace.

Would that Whoopi Goldberg, the emcee of the ceremony, had done so well. Hosting the Oscars is a thankless job, so the best way to do it is to emphasize to the audience that you, too, are suffering through three hours of painstakingly edited film clips and overwrought theme songs. It is not to put on the costumes from "Velvet Goldmine" and to try to keep the audience awake through "edgy" humor. The Academy isn't edgy -- if they were, they would have nominated "The Truman Show", or given Best Documentary to "Hoop Dreams" way back when. The Academy is relentlessly maudlin. Whoopi Goldberg has a marvelous sense of humor, but her jokes wrecked the illusion that all things Hollywood deserve celebrating, and at a show like the Oscars, that illusion is the only reason people tune in. Emcee verdict: tacky.

Fortunately, many of the honorees reminded the audience of why we all tune in. Italian renaissance man Roberto Benigni won two awards -- one for Best Foreign Picture and one for Best Actor -- and after watching his manic, ebullient acceptance speech for the first award, I was convinced that the Academy elected him Best Actor just because they wanted another five minutes of frantic, elated Italian-English gyrations. His acceptance for Best Actor -- "This is a terrible mistake because I have used up all my English!" -- was the third best speech of the night. Gwyneth Paltrow came in second for her Best Actress speech: between sobs, she professed gratitude and love for an amazingly long list of people, none of whom she happened to be dating at the moment. It was either genuinely moving or her best acting work to date, depending on what your opinion of her is.

But the most mythic moment of tonight's ceremony -- the one that will probably grab the imaginations of aspiring actors and directors everywhere - belonged to the non-glamorous category of documentary awards. The Documentary Short winner, Keiko Ibi, was an adorable, teary mess when she delivered the acceptance speech for her documentary "The Personals"; as she closed the speech by thanking her mother for letting her come to the States "to follow my dream of making movies," she brought down the house.

It almost made up for four hours of tacky, banal, tacky, banal moments. For Ms. Ibi's sake, I hope the Academy follows her lead and surrenders next year's ceremony to a celebration of fulfilled dreams: another year of subdued dresses and interpretive tap dance is no way to reward the people who have fulfilled their film industry dreams, or the audience who helps to make it possible.


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