There are worse blunders in the world than John Travolta introducing a Tony Award winning musical theatre star who has been featured in more than a few movies and television shows, sang this year’s Academy Award-winning best song and also happens to be Jewish, by the fictional, Arabic sounding name of Adele Dazeem at last week’s Oscars. But not many are more bizarrely fun.
Sure, Idina Menzel (Adele’s real name) might not be an absolute household name, except perhaps in gay households or among rabid fans of the 10 years running Broadway musical Wicked (Note: That in itself might be repetitively redundant). However, you’d certainly think John would at least know who she was. After all, he did begin his career singing and dancing on Broadway and, well, okay…I won’t mention the rest.
Still, it was not so much the flub of Ms. Menzel’s name but what it signified that proved to be the perfect metaphor for both the Oscars this year and what movies mean to us. In a culture of 24/7 news and rabid social media that makes even the most famous accessible to mere Average Joes like you and me, this was just another prick in the mirage of societal “royalty” that has been created by Hollywood over the last century. This latest little flub exposes the movies for what they are – one endless fake reality. And the fact that this, rather than any one award winner, is the latest meme of this year’s Oscar show tells us everything about what makes this particular awards program so infinitely watchable even when it’s as boring as hell.
At their best, movies use contrivance to represent and comment on reality with the philosophy that the ends justify the means. At their worst they conspire to create a set of ideas that tempt us into buying into a reality that is positioned as something that we want and must have but, in our realities, can never have because it would take an army of 200 technicians of all talents from all walks of life to create it for us in every minute of every day.
There is nothing wrong with reveling a bit in this kind of escape but in hard times that can also be toxic. As the people of the world become more and more connected movies are becoming less and less about reality, false or otherwise, and more and more about blatant escapism. (Note: With the exception of documentaries, which have created a new commercial subgenre of their own, in part due to the popularity of reality television). We know this and buy into this but what’s getting harder and harder to buy into are the phony images of the people who star in and make the films we see. They are now so present in high definition in our living rooms that it’s impossible not to notice that they are nothing but flesh and bone human beings who are talented but not always smart. Or that they are memorable physical images who often look a bit odd or off-kilter when they appear as themselves and don’t speak the lines that someone else gave them to say.
First let’s deal with the physical:
Of course, there is nothing particularly wrong with attention to physical perfection through whatever technology is available, surgical or otherwise, if being before the cameras is your business or if you just want to look a little refreshed. There is, however, something very wrong with it if you believe it will permanently freeze you in time at 35 or 45 or, heaven forbid, even 55 – thus creating the illusion that you will never get any older and, in turn, will never die.
My Mom, fairly unlined without the help of any plastic surgery (thanks for the genes, Mom!), used this as a sort of mantra even after she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer at the age of 60. And that way of thinking worked to her benefit for quite a few years before the end finally came. Yet the only thing we can be sure of in show business and life is that the end will come – to our favorite movie, television show and, regrettably, to us. So certainly it helps to be able to at least try to separate the fake from the authentic while we’re on the journey before we croak.
This certainly doesn’t mean that you can’t look good while you dream and that you have to live every moment in reality. I mean, who wants to exist in a 24/7 world with the Ted Cruzes, Kris Jenners, Vladimir Putins or your ex-husband/wife/girlfriend/ boyfriend or family member from hell without some relief? (Note: Or even could) On the other hand, to live in the soft gauze of denial as if you were Jean Harlow in a 1930s Hollywood movie won’t do you any good either. Mostly because at some point the camera and lighting is gone and you will be left as not the lead but, at best, a special guest star with a box around your name at the end of the credits with the word AND preceding it. Wow. No wonder Ms. Harlow had the good sense to die at the ripe young unlined age of 26 – even back then.
The movie industry is an interesting one in that it’s a dream factory that seems to discard those who can’t consistently live up to the ever-changing beauty and/or ideals of the moment. This wreaks havoc on not only all of the players in the system since the rules are constantly changing but on us. Movies confuse us about what is real and true and they substitute a superior, or even inferior alternate reality that can make us feel worse or better about ourselves depending on the film or our moods. It’s a wonderful escape but it can be equally and awfully sad when we realize our lives will never be as good as our favorite fantasy.
This can and often does cause unbelievable discord on the psyches of those whose chosen lot in life is to be the poster children for our movie fantasies – meaning our movie stars. And it accounts for all of the plastic surgery or facial injections and hair plugs or fake wigs on many of the female and even male stars, including one of your most famous winners this year. It also explains the parade of actresses over 50 and 60 at this year’s ceremonies who are barely recognizable remnants of their former selves.
Someone has to say this so I suppose I will:
Do you want to look like Goldie Hawn or Jackie Bisset at almost 70 years old?
Kim Novak or Cloris Leachman in your eighties?
Mickey Rourke or Geoffrey Rush in your early sixties?
John Travolta or Tom Hanks in your late fifties?
If you gaze at the photos side by side you’ll see the difference and note that yes, each pairing are the same or close to the same age.
Here is the dirty little secret no one wants to say out loud. Even with the best augmentation you can never look as good or vibrant or unlined as someone two decades younger. (Note: Stand next to the younger version and you’ll see). It doesn’t fool the cameras or anyone else – only yourself. The exception is, of course, 76-year-old Jane Fonda. However, she was born looking like Barbarella, has exercised her body AND HER BRAIN almost every day for her entire life and is, well, Jane.
Which brings us to the mental:
Actors are given words to say by writers – in the movies and often in real life when they’re out in public. But sometimes they are still inarticulate and, in the case of the Adele Dazeem debacle, can’t read. Or, as in the case of this year’s best actor winner Matthew McConaghey’s rambling acceptance speech where he noted that his hero is always himself 10 years from now, revel in the kind of sheer narcissism and gall it takes be a movie star.
When the fakery behind a perfectly poised façade is exposed even further with a classic flub like Adele Dazeem it in turn becomes even funnier and, perhaps, even a little sadly watchable – like when Toto the dog pulls back the curtain to reveal a doughy, human-sized older man pretending to be the larger-than –life, fire-breathing, all-powerful Wizard of Oz
The takeaway from this year’s Oscars and the takeaway you will get from anyone in the movie business who will deign to speak to you honestly about it is this: there is A LOT you don’t know about Mr. Travolta and Mr. Mcconaughey, as well as Lupita Nyong’o, Jared Leto, Cate Blanchett, Ms. Menzel and all of the hundreds of people behind and to the side of the cameras who made them look good this year.
Though the Oscar selfie Ellen tweeted, and particularly the events leading up to it, did tell us part of the story if you study them closely enough. Look at the dynamic. Meryl, the Mom everyone wanted to please; Bradley Cooper the eager and accommodating bro who only wanted to please and take the picture; Brad and Angie, the wealthy, fabulous looking aunt and uncle you haven’t seen in a while who are much less pretentious than you thought they’d be; and Julia Roberts, the prom queen star older sister with the still larger than life smile. All brought to life by slightly crazy (but not too much) Cousin Ellen, in town for her once a year visit.
Last year the Academy tried something different with host Seth MacFarlane playing the nasty younger brother trying to pull his pants down in front of all the girls and embarrass the family by singing a song called “I Saw Your Boobs.” It spiked the ratings a bit but didn’t go over with the rest of the clan. Thus this year’s selfie presented more like a benign version of National Lampoon’s Vacation where every top member of moviedom got to go on a family trip that we got to see live in our own personal reality show type home movie.
Yes, these are ridiculous analogies but no more ridiculous than anything else making the news this week – like Oliver North comparing those fighting against gay marriage to the abolitionists who tried to end slavery. Why shouldn’t the movies and the Oscar show be reduced to a harmless fun episode of the daytime talk show “Ellen?” It seems in keeping with the times and what is required to get through them.
All of this posing begs the question of why movies and the Oscars need memes and themes and ultimately can’t simply be about excellence. Why? Well, there’s nothing really dreamy about that. But does everything have to be a selfie or a song parody? Broadway seems to revel in live performance at the Tonys. Why must movies become a social media event and not incorporate more, um…film?
More to the point, can’t something just be what it is rather than a meta collection of the events of the day that overshadow the events they are there to honor to begin with? One might ask why there couldn’t be more of a real tribute to The Wizard of Oz onstage rather than just a wave to Judy Garland’s show biz kids from the audience and Pink singing Over the Rainbow in front of an Oz footage backdrop. Yes, Pink was great but it was hardly a cohesive tribute to THE classic film of all time. More like a formula of what to include for commercial expediency. (Note: The latter worked by those standards – the ratings were the highest they’ve been in 10 years).
Of course, to do anything else would mean a constant look and flow of boring reality rooted in the past and no one wants to see that, right? The majority of people under 30 would be horribly bored without some social media tie-in or contemporary artist, or so the school of thought goes (Note: As a college professor who spends a lot of time around this target audience who love movies I’m not so sure). And you’d lose almost everyone over 40 because they might have to ask themselves if they want the life of their favorite movie star, botched cosmetic augmentation and all, or to switch places with the father, mother or grandmother of the kids next door.
Clearly, there is only one choice in all of this – which is why we will always continue to watch the Oscars, hoping against hope that the dreams or dream people they evoke will one day be our reality. Even if everything about them is slightly askew and even though the chances of it all happening are the same as one day waking up to find our selves in the merry old Land of Oz.