The Sleazy Smell of Success: Oscars 2002 Opens in L.A.

LOS ANGELES–And so, once again, the Oscars are upon us. The grand poobahs of the Manhattan media have begun winging their way west in tiny silver jets; they’ll land at Burbank, or Van Nuys, where serious-faced men in dark business suits wait on the tarmac–scanning the skies for any signs of trouble–as limousines with blacked-out windows glide up to the wing tips to accept their precious cargo.

When the cabin doors open, these alpha passengers will step into the California sunshine and pause for a moment–to stretch, to put on sunglasses, but primarily to see or be seen–and then descend with a purposeful, studied nonchalance to the waiting livery.

The key here is to strike the right pose, to assume the right attitude: I am the star of my own life. Not a supporting player in someone else’s.

I do this all the time.

Twenty-odd miles to the south, at LAX, the atmosphere couldn’t be more different–or more convivial–as journalists, photographers, mogul-support teams and the occasional lesser Academy Award nominee jostle and joke as they make their way down the concourse to the American Airlines baggage carousel, which at this time of year resembles not so much a luggage depot as a cocktail party at the opening of a Tumi luggage store. It’s all air kisses and cell phones as the black luggage tumbles down the chutes; cigarettes are clutched, and held in abeyance, as contact is established again with the outside world. There’s nary a hotel room, a dinner reservation or a black Saab convertible rental left to be had in the entire city.

Watching this scene, the sky caps smile: This is the week that invisible L.A.–those sky caps, the bell captains, hotel concierges and valet-parking attendants–looks forward to all year.

It’s Christmas in March.

This year, the Oscars are being held inside a shopping mall.

Call it apt. Or call it ironic. But the new Kodak Theatre is located on the third level of a recently opened shopping mall at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, in Hollywood proper–just down the block from the Frederick’s of Hollywood Lingerie Museum, next-door to the footprints at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, up a flight of escalators from a Ralph Lauren Polo store.

A curious location, indeed. Especially this year, when the awards are so tinged by a cheesy nastiness, and controversy.

On one hand, the Academy has come a long way from the days when Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn and Jack Warner would dictate how their employees should vote.

But as the writer Andrew Sullivan was first to point out in the London Sunday Times (and on his Web site, andrewsullivan.com, which I heartily commend), this year’s Oscar race has taken on all the worst attributes not just of wholesale retailing, but of a modern political campaign: Nominated actors appear on talk shows to promote their candidacy. The trade papers are filled with campaign advertising, echoed by spots on local news radio. The studios have set up war rooms; vicious rumors are spread that border on character assassination. There are dinners and screenings and mail pieces to lobby voters.

How much effect does all this have? Some. But in different ways than you might think.

By every yardstick, the Oscars remain the apotheosis of movie-industry recognition. The Golden Globes are fun, and nobody turns down a New York Film Critics Circle Award. But anyone who’s ever come to work in this city has their Oscar acceptance speech already written. To claim otherwise is to lie. And the rarefied few whose accomplishments finally qualify them for voting membership in the Academy don’t cast their ballots frivolously.

Quality counts. You can’t really buy an Oscar–or Steven Seagal would probably have one. But at the same time, it would be naïve to think that all the background noise doesn’t have some effect on the membership. And to some small degree, what’s reflected is the wider scope of Hollywood politics.

Ordinarily, the charge that mathematician John Nash, the lead character in A Beautiful Mind , is an anti-Semite in real life might be enough to torpedo the picture’s chances for a statue. But since the accusation first surfaced on the Drudge Report, it’s been discounted in Hollywood, if not in the press. (Hollywood still hasn’t forgiven Web-mucker Drudge for Monica Lewinsky and the stained dress.) Moreover, Mr. Nash’s appearance on 60 Minutes was the perfect synthesis of East Coast/West Coast damage control: a political mea culpa with a drugs-and-disease explanation. Added to this is the fact that three of the principals involved with the film–producer Brian Grazer, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman–are generally thought of as good guys in Hollywood who make hugely successful motion pictures. So the net effect of the smear campaign may well be zero.

A Beautiful Mind isn’t an isolated case, however. Two of the other Best Picture nominees are similarly tinged by larger-picture politics.

Personally, I liked Gosford Park . The co-producer, Bob Balaban, is an acquaintance, and I’m happy for his success. But there’s a sense that director Robert Altman’s statements after 9/11–a host of blame-America-first tirades–haven’t sat well with Academy voters. And they’re not about to give him a podium in front of a worldwide audience to voice his polemics. The 1960’s are over. We’re not fighting in Vietnam anymore.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there’s a feeling that Black Hawk Down producer Jerry Bruckheimer may have overplayed the patriotism card–not with Black Hawk Down itself, but with his more recent agreement to produce a reality-based television show about American combat troops with Pentagon involvement. In the post-9/11 world, Hollywood embraced patriotism, not propaganda. (Don’t feel bad for Mr. Bruckheimer, however. In terms of his career, this is a hiccup. Within the next five years, he’s virtually guaranteed to win the Irving Thalberg Award, given to a producer for a distinguished body of work.)

So where do we come out in all of this?

It’s possible that Academy members will do the noncontroversial thing and vote the straight Lord of the Rings ticket.

But, as a betting man, I’d go with the sentimental hometown favorites: A Beautiful Mind for Best Picture, because it’s Brian Grazer’s time; Ron Howard for Best Director, because it’s time; Nicole Kidman for Best Actress, because it’s time; and Denzel Washington for Best Actor, because surely, surely, surely it’s time.

And so it’s Oscar week again in L.A.

On Sunday night, they’ll give out the statues, stare at the dresses and squeeze into the particularly divine form of bedlam that is the Vanity Fair party.

Recently I took part in a panel discussion out here, in which industry professionals advised young filmmakers how to break into the business. In between the usual questions–How do I get an agent? How do I submit a script?–I found myself thinking about the movie industry in general: how it seems to have become meaner and nastier and uglier over the past few years. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s ambition. Maybe it’s because the stakes have gotten so much higher for everyone than they’ve ever been before. Or maybe it’s always been this way–and for the first time, the Oscar race reflected it.

In either case, I held my tongue on this subject.

On Monday morning, they’ll break down the Vanity Fair tent behind Morton’s. The moguls will depart from Burbank; the journalists will leave from LAX. The sky caps, bell captains, hotel concierges and valet-parking attendants will total their tips.

And working Hollywood will get up, look in the bathroom mirror and swear–promising themselves that they’ll work harder and do better, that they’ll be in the Kodak Theatre auditorium one year, no matter what it takes.

Thinking about our hometown, The New Yorker essayist E.B. White once wrote, “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

In Los Angeles, hope rises with the sun.