Scared Boring: Hollywood's Timid Streak
By Tina Brown
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page C01
Everyone has trashed the soporific Oscar show this year, but what can you expect from the new tippy-toe culture in which no one can risk being controversial? One false move and you might unleash a fiery "Eventoid" -- a media cataclysm that at any moment can streak down from the sky like a rogue asteroid to obliterate your reputation, your earning capacity, or both.
Hollywood has spent months with the behavior cops on its case, even before the last Eventoid, the Janet Jackson scare. First, the studios' terror of piracy led to the notorious ban on "screener" DVDs and tapes, eventually revoked in favor of stern documents threatening Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members with lifetime exclusion and walking the plank if the films wound up on the Internet or the streets of Shanghai.
Then came admonitions from the Academy board about "inappropriate" Oscar campaigning, which severely curtailed the normal skulduggery, character assassination and credit-grabbing that Hollywood producers live for and movie fans thrill to read about.
Then there was the patriotism pall: Agents, managers and PR reps drummed into their stars' heads the folly of staging any reckless Michael Moore moments. Alone with their ballots, Academy members defiantly cast their votes for war dissenters Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, but the two actor/renegades' acceptance speeches got gold stars for perfect deportment.
Now add to this a serene capitulation by female stars to the savage critiques of the tabloid fashion police.
Beautiful women know they can't go out to a function anymore without some screeching red-carpet harridan or hissing cable queen voting them off the island. The image of Gwyneth Paltrow's fashion mistake in 2002 -- when she showed up in Alexander McQueen's mesh mess -- was recycled so many times it was fashion's equivalent of Howard Dean's scream.
This year, aside from Uma Thurman's gold-braided Tyrolean duvet-dress that has drawn more ink than the new Iraqi constitution, wacky wardrobe picks by female stars were replaced by silky goddess gowns, uniformly tasteful and professionally chosen. (Poor Uma tried to deflect the fashionista fatwa by changing her outfit before the Vanity Fair party.) Liv Tyler summed up the lofty mood as she intoned the best-song nominations in a Xanax voice and earnest black spectacles -- the same face furniture that suddenly straddled the nose of "Primetime" host Diane Sawyer to connote ultraseriousness when she interviewed a trio of biblical scholars about the accuracy of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ."
The Gibson movie, of course, was the other development unsettling a Hollywood that a year ago would have heard the phrase "Vatican II" and assumed it referred to a sequel.
At a time when everyone else is trying to be careful, Mel's R-rated holy horror scourge-and-snuff flick has stormed the box office with $125 million in a five-day opening. "The town," top agent Bob Bookman told me, "is numbed by the numbers!" Hollywood pros marvel at how Mel got the world press to report that the pope had endorsed the movie after a Vatican screening. The pontiff's alleged blurb, as supposedly passed on by a Vatican spokesman and later disavowed by his secretary, was five short words long: "It is as it was." (The papal equivalent, perhaps, of "whatever.") Some studio heads may be saying off the record that Mel is insane and they won't work with him again, but if they really meant it they would say it on the record.
Movies such as "The Passion" are not supposed to get made at all, and if they do get made they're not supposed to get made on this epic scale, and if they do get made on this epic scale they're not supposed to succeed, and if they do succeed they're not supposed to succeed on account of guerrilla marketing and promotion. The Hollywood elite's conception of brilliant grass-roots marketing tactics would encompass, say, making "The Fog of War" -- Errol Morris's documentary starring a self-searching Robert McNamara -- into a hit with a Deaniac campaign on the Internet. But Mel Gibson's "Passion" being ignited with Bible Belt church tours and licensing deals for souvenir two-inch stigmata nails? That's hard to take.
"When a $20 million-a-picture movie star sinks $25 million of his own money to make a movie in Aramaic, yes, attention will be paid," Bookman said. "But this is unbelievable."
The Gibson phenomenon makes Hollywood denizens nervous because it brings home the scary power of what they fear most: Bush country.
It's not the supposed anti-Semitism of the movie they're worried about now -- though you don't have to be Jewish to wonder about a picture in which the only Jewish authority figures are a bunch of mean, hook-nosed temple priests with long beards and an effeminate, overweight King Herod wearing too much eyeliner and lounging around with a pet leopard, while the gentile authority figure is a conscience-stricken Roman with a fashionable Tom Ford stubble and a wife who talks like the chairman of the local chapter of Amnesty International.
No, it's Mad Mel's vaunted alliance with the alien armies of the right that are determined to return their mortal foe George W. Bush to the White House this November.
Maybe that's what all the good behavior at the Oscars was really about. Hollywood Democrats think that John Kerry's candidacy is going really well and they don't want to screw it up by being boorish or nasty and giving Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh a lot of new material for their next flattening Eventoid. In that sense, the boredom of the Oscars this year was a function not so much of repression or despair as of cautious political hope.
©2004, Tina Brown