Letter From L.A.: Writing Off Oscar In the Year of Harvey

And so, the silly season is upon us again. It’s red-carpet time here in Los Angeles. The month of limos, acceptance speeches and borrowed jewelry. The time when Joan Rivers and her daughter blow into town, like the evil twin sisters of the Santa Ana winds, and ask, with all the gravity of Hans Blix: “Who are you wearing?”

This year, there’s a strange feeling in the air about the upcoming Academy Awards: a definite lack of enthusiasm, bordering on disinterest, during what is normally a frenzied run-up to the awards ceremony.

Part of this is obviously due to the fact that, at the moment, the movie business isn’t exactly at the center stage of world events.

But perhaps more tellingly, with three out of the five nominees for Best Picture coming from New York’s Miramax, and none of the contenders coming directly from a major studio, there’s a sense of disengagement-a feeling that the Oscars are already a fait accompli , and that Harvey Weinstein has won.

This isn’t to say that the Oscars aren’t important any more. The statue and the show (as old-timers call them) remain the very pinnacle of show-business achievement. Everyone still wants one; every morning, millions of gallons of water go down the drain in Los Angeles as people stand in the shower fantasizing, practicing their spontaneous acceptance speeches decades in advance.

But to some extent, there’s a feeling that this year, something has gone wrong with both the nominating process and the kinds of pictures being released by the major studios. The concern is that what’s considered “good” is no longer popular, and what’s popular isn’t any good. And the larger worry is that the Oscars, which have always been seen as a mass-marketing tool, will become more like book awards, where Knopf (or Miramax) gets all the accolades, but the Stevens-Stephen King or Steven Spielberg-are what drive the business and connect with the audience.

Seventy-five years ago, when the Oscars first began, the studio chiefs would collect the unmarked ballots from their contract players and vote in the studio’s self-interest. The system was benignly corrupt. But there wasn’t a huge divergence between what was prestigious and what was popular. There was no surprise when Gone with the Wind or Casablanca took home the statue for Best Picture.

With the fall of the studio system-and the end of the contract employee-the voting process ostensibly became more democratic. This gave rise to the late December Oscar-contention releases (the thinking was that Academy members wouldn’t remember pictures that had been released the previous spring) and marked the beginning of advertising campaigns to win nominations and statues.

By the mid-90’s, the Oscars had taken on all the trappings of a modern-day political race: massive advertising and publicity campaigns, war rooms, photo ops, and the lobbying of Academy voters by sending videotapes and providing catered dinners at special screenings. It was probably all but inevitable that the nasty side of the current American political process would also surface-culminating in last year’s whispered smear campaign against A Beautiful Mind .

And at the bottom of all this, of course, was the race for the additional revenue that an Oscar nomination-or win-can bring to a studio’s coffers.

In executive Hollywood, there’s a decidedly bifurcated view of this situation.

Among the lower ranks of executives, the Zeitgeist seems to be that the Oscars have become passé. Obviously, it’s a defensive posture. But as one development executive put it, echoing the sentiments of several others: “I’m not in the business of making movies that open in 15 theaters. I work for a giant media conglomerate. We’re interested in sequels, and video games, and international box-office. Sure, I liked The Hours . But any day of the week, hands-down, I’d rather have Spider-Man on my resume.”

Higher up, there’s a different set of anxieties.

“This year, the Oscars are pretty much of a write-off for all of us,” one president of production admitted on the condition of anonymity. ” Chicago was good and The Two Towers performed, but there’s a real lack of enthusiasm for the nominees, both inside the business and out.” As proof of this, he pointed to the less-than-stellar ratings of this years’ Golden Globes. “Do we want to win Oscars?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes. Are we worried about the awards becoming marginalized? Yes. But these things are cyclical. Titanic was followed the next year by Shakespeare in Love , then American Beauty ; after that, Gladiator was followed by A Beautiful Mind and, I bet, Chicag o. In the long run, it probably all evens out.

“The biggest concern this year,” he added, “is that none of us wants to see the ceremony turn into a Bush-bashing convention.”

This last statement may come as a surprise. But contrary to the impression you may have from television, Hollywood is about as divided as the rest of the country is about the war.

Scratch deep enough, and you’ll find that some people didn’t vote for Richard Gere in the Best Actor category simply because they didn’t want to give him an open microphone. The name Martin Sheen is greeted with eye-rolling. As one producer put it, “Sean Penn has a constitutional right to speak out on the war. Good for him. But don’t whine about the repercussions. I have a constitutional right not to go bankrupt hiring him. If there’s a black list, it’s not going to be created by the studios; it’s going to be created by the American public.”

A year ago, when I last wrote about the Oscars in this space, I said that Hollywood had become nastier, and meaner, then I could ever recall.

Twelve months on, the sit-com business has tanked, the dot-com-like pay scales of cable TV have been cut, TV and movie development budgets have been slashed. There are fewer films being made-and they’re being entrusted to a small but influential group of producers.

In other words, there are fewer seats in the grand casino, and more people clawing for them. It’s almost as if there are now three classes, defined by transportation: The Volkswagen bug that Daddy is underwriting; the leased BMW you can barely cover, given the kids’ private-school payments; and, in the next leap up, a GulfStream 5.

With so much at stake every time, all the time, it’s not exactly a climate that breeds good will toward men. Or women. The rich are becoming unimaginably, almost incomprehensibly wealthy. A desperation has crept into L.A. with the Santa Ana winds, and the residents are acting accordingly.

Nineteen years ago, Sally Field accepted the Best Actress award for Places in the Heart with her now famous declaration, “You like me! You really like me!”

In 21st-century Hollywood-the land of Oscar war rooms, GulfStream 5’s and “Who are you wearing?”-that kind of sentiment seems entirely beside the point.