As painful and alienating spectacles go, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony at least had the virtue of a certain grim efficiency. Billy Crystal, hosting the awards for the ninth time, desperately reprised his never-funny opening montage bit, where he’s cut into scenes from the year’s marquee films; when he launched into his still less-funny medley of reworked showtunes based on the plots of nominated films, he mugged to the crowd of overdressed bold-faced names at the venue formerly known as the Kodak Theatre: “You didn’t think I wasn’t gonna do this, do you?”
Sadly, no. Indeed, nothing about Sunday night’s perfunctory display of statue-bestowing carried the faintest whiff of daring or surprise, let alone wit or aesthetic ambition. At a seeming loss to explain why viewers should take an interest, producers of the show were reduced to airing infomercial-style testimonials to the idea of movie-watching, wherein Tom Cruise announced the terrifying news that the film industry had awakened his young imagination, and some star or another cited the transcendent message of The Outlaw Josie Wales. And since labored French pantomime seemed to be the evening’s winning ticket, Team Oscar also trotted out some members of Cirque du Soleil, who delivered their own interpretation of the charms of moviegoing, which seemed mainly to involve a lot of frenzied bolting out of your seat and into the air, apparently to secure the quickest possible exit. It was arguably the evening’s most stirring moment.
Played out as they were, Sunday’s Oscar proceedings supply a curious parallel to this week’s big-ticket media event in the political world—the next installment in the far more cash-intensive and self-important spectacle of the GOP primary season. Voters in Michigan and Arizona will cast ballots Tuesday in the grinding two-way race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum (inconveniently just as the print version of this column goes to bed). And much as the Oscar broadcast homed in on the formal, therapeutic virtues of movie-watching over and above any compelling screen characters, conflicts, or plotlines, so has this political melodrama—fed by unprecedented heaps of Super PAC cash and ferociously negative ad buys—failed to deliver a storyline that justifies all the self-promotional din.
Certainly the conventional horse-race reportage provides scant narrative interest. At press time, Mr. Romney seemed poised to eke out a victory in Michigan after trailing Santorum in the polls for the past several weeks. But a too-close Romney win wouldn’t seem likely to deliver the plodding frontrunner the turnaround his campaign so desperately craves—Michigan, after all, was supposed to be something of a sure thing for Team Mitt, since his father had been governor of the state, and since Romney fils had locked it down with comparative ease in the 2008 cycle. What’s more, the most recent polling in the next major battleground state of Ohio has Mr. Santorum still enjoying a comfortable 7-point lead. With apologies to hardcore mavens of popcult themes in the nation’s politics, such as Maureen Dowd or Frank Rich, one might even assign signature best-picture mascots to each campaign: Santorum’s mad dash to shore up his limited base-appeal amid the big-money ad buys of Team Romney calls to mind the machinations of small-market baseball general manager Billy Bean (Brad Pitt) in Moneyball (minus, of course, the plot point of Bean’s divorce); while Romney’s campaign of frenzied self-reinvention in a psychological vacuum evokes the equine protagonist of War Horse, who weaves willy-nilly across the battle-lines of World War I—though Mr. Romney can only wish he could demonstrate a bit of the thoroughbred’s hard-earned valor.
And as it strains to gin up some reliable audience engagement, the nation’s political press is picking up some of Billy Crystal’s manic and mannered vacuity. The Los Angeles Times’s Paul West, for example, professes to find in Mr. Santorum’s kitchen-sink culture crusading on the Michigan hustings the stuff of an “all-out class war” in today’s GOP. The evidence, such as it is, is heavy on the cheap symbolism, and distinctly light on the policy specifics. Mr. Santorum took time out from the Michigan battle royale, Mr. West notes, to attend the opening race of the new NASCAR season in Daytona and allude to Mr. Romney’s privileged upbringing—while also muffing a Sunday appearance on ABC’s “This Week” to defend recent remarks that depicted expanded federal support for post-secondary education as an Obama-led conspiracy to brainwash the nation’s youth. (Santorum’s anti-college shtick bears quoting at length, since it wildly mischaracterizes both Obama’s plan—which would supplement high-school curricula with vocational study for workers who aren’t college bound—and since it is so richly steeped in paranoid looniness: “President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his own image.”)
But for such clownish posturing to qualify as modest-scale class revolt—let alone as “all-out class war”—some troops would have to be massing somewhere. Instead, debate appearances and ads at the height of the Santorum-Romney showdown turn typically on small-bore issues such as who is the more authentically conservative of the candidates, or which personality in the race is more gauzily “American” or “successful.” Mr. Santorum dare not make too much in Michigan of Mr. Romney’s opposition to the Obama administration’s successful 2009 bailout of the auto industry, since Mr. Santorum, too, attacked the measure. Likewise, Mr. Romney dare not depict Mr. Santorum as a wild-eyed extremist in the Kulturkampf for the simple reason that evangelical voters bulk large among the exact blue-collar base that remains so stubbornly disenchanted with the specter of Mr. Romney as the nation’s next Equity-Fund-Manager-in-Chief.
Mr. Romney’s paralysis here is all the more striking since Mr. Santorum is all but begging for such attacks with outbursts such as his recent admission in a Michigan stem-winder that an entirely anodyne 1960 JFK speech on church-state separation “made me want to throw up”—and his later explanation, during his red-meat interview on This Week, that he viewed JFK as a dangerous “absolutist” when it came to evicting religious believers from the public square. (For diehard pundits determined to tease out class confrontation from culture-war fluff, it also bears repeating that mocking Mitt Romney’s high-corporate pedigree is just what any smart opponent of Mitt Romney does—just ask Newt Gingrich, or the no-less well-born shade of Ted Kennedy.)
All this palpable longing for the base-versus-establishment plotlines of the high-Reagan era GOP calls to mind the inert nostalgia of this Oscar season, from the precious highbrow reveries of Midnight in Paris to the formal jouissance of The Artist. Still, our political prognosticator-class doesn’t have to succumb to despair just yet. There’s still time to bring in the players from Cirque du Soleil; after all, Santorum likes to boast of his own pedigree as a second-generation immigrant, and Mitt Romney did his mission work in France.