Los Angeles In the Season Of Terrorism

It rained in L.A. over Christmas-and the land of sunshine, and car-detailing, and fame-fueled optimism, was in something of a pall.

At a holiday dinner, hard on the heels of the announcement that Air France flights had been canceled into LAX, the conversation wasn’t so much about toys, or excess, or the Schadenfreude that accompanies the daily box-office figures, but targets of opportunity in the City of Angels.

Perhaps it was the wine. Or the L.A.-centric denial that runs as deep as the earthquake faults beneath this city-the belief that you will succeed in show business, in the face of overwhelming odds. But the general consensus at the dinner table was that save for the airport itself, there are no spectacular, economically critical, iconic targets of opportunity here. Disneyland? Maybe. The Hollywood sign? It’s made of plywood. Downtown L.A.? Six out of 10 people who live here probably couldn’t identify it.

The real derision, however, was saved for the lone, empty police cruiser parked outside the gates at Paramount. Surely it’s not going to dissuade a terrorist with a bomb-particularly if he’s using an airplane to deliver it. But at the same time, given the number of awful movies the studio released this year-conceptually flawed, with no obvious executive point of view (i.e., “This is a colossally dumb idea, why are we making it?”)-maybe the car wasn’t there so much to stop terrorists as angry stockholders, demanding regime change.

Los Angeles has always been a strange place to spend the holidays-dating back to the days when Irving Berlin sat down at a piano in Beverly Hills, looked out on the palm trees and proceeded to write “White Christmas.”

By far the most disconcerting gift I received this year was a box of steaks and ground beef from a notorious movie producer (is there any other kind?) on the day the USDA announced that mad-cow disease had been discovered in the U.S. The question posed over leftover turkey that night: Did he know beforehand? Answer: Probably. Then there was the follow-up ethical dilemma: Is it permissible to re-gift this item? Answer: Wait till you get his notes on the script you’re about to deliver.

This year, even beyond the rain, the war, the terrorist threats, mad-cow disease and the men standing on Beverly Boulevard waving signs for the going-out-of-business sale at F.A.O. Schwarz, there was yet another reason the holiday seemed odd: With the change in dates for the Oscars (from the end of March to Feb. 29), the awards season began a full month earlier. And the full-court press to win nominations-the movie-business equivalent of the Presidential primaries-was pushed from January to early December.

I vote in two of the 17,238 august bodies that will be handing out awards for outstanding cinematic achievement over the next two months. Luckily, my membership in one of them makes me eligible to receive screening tapes. And I now know what it must be like to be a registered Democrat in New Hampshire these days.

Each morning, the mailman struggles to the front door laden with scripts, screening invitations, movie passes, desk calendars, ad reprints, soundtrack albums, four-color brochures from the studios featuring their suggested nominees, and 200-page books detailing the “Making Of” various movies.

The L.A. Times and Variety are filled with full-page “For Your Consideration” ads; FedEx, Airborne Express and U.P.S. seem to arrive on the hour with videotape screeners of the top films. There are “meet the filmmaker” events. And Clint Eastwood himself is on the radio, narrating an advertisement touting the performances of Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in Mystic River .

The conventional wisdom out here is that despite the all-out effort from Miramax to promote Cold Mountain , the Best Picture award this year will go to the final installment of The Lord of the Rings . But on the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past the beautiful minds in Hollywood to start an old-fashioned smear campaign-something to the effect that the film producers glossed over the fact that Aragorn was, in actuality, a homophobic bipolar anti-Semite. Not that anybody at Miramax would ever stoop to such a thing, of course. So let’s just paraphrase Howard Dean here: “I didn’t say I believe it. It’s just what I heard.”

In any event, the “For Your Consideration” packages continue to arrive. And the contretemps over the security ban on screeners-the worry that smaller movies will be overlooked-seems to have passed. Good movies get noticed. Particularly this year, when there were so few of them.

In the meantime, I keep having this vision that I’m going to open the front door and find Seabiscuit standing there-on his hind legs, with a front forelock thrown over Gary Ross’ shoulder, asking, “Want to go for a ride?” Or Harvey Weinstein himself, doing some door-to-door lobbying: “I’ve got Anthony Minghella out in the car. Want to meet him?”

Either way, something I said in this space last year bears repeating: If George W. Bush is truly serious about finding Osama bin Laden, all he has to do is make him a voting member of the Academy. One way or another-by Feb. 29-DreamWorks or Miramax will hunt him down and force him to vote for Best Picture.

And so one year ends and another begins-a Presidential election year, at that.

In the race for this nomination, Hollywood Democrats haven’t unified behind a candidate yet. The only real consensus out here is that George Bush must go. And the state party is still trying to come to grips with the recall election, and the long-term implications of so many Democrats and minorities voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Handicapping the race for support out here, it currently feels like Howard Dean is in the lead, followed by Dick Gephardt and then Wesley Clark. John Kerry isn’t on the radar, and Joe Lieberman still hasn’t been forgiven for criticizing Hollywood during the last campaign.

Still, it’s only January. And what I call the Universal Law of Celebrity Thermodynamics applies to politicians as well: Heat dissipates. Stars fade. Front-runners stumble and dark horses surge. For all the tracking polls and prognosticators, nobody really knows anything until the audience shows up at the box office, or the voting booth. Howard Dean may seem invincible, but I’d keep an eye on Dick Gephardt over the next month.

In the meantime, there’s somebody outside my front door, ringing the bell. More screeners? Maybe. But if it’s Harvey, I’m going to ask him to wash the car.

Los Angeles In the Season Of Terrorism