Whoopi Goldberg bombs, Roberto Benigni annoys, and ''Shakespeare in Love'' triumphs over ''Saving Private Ryan'' because of voter laziness

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
March 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Lisa Schwarzbaum critiques the Oscars

Good taste is never in high demand at the Oscars; au contraire, it’s the lapses we tend to cherish. I like a bad joke, a bad line-reading flub, or a bad hair-and-makeup job on a big star as much as the next viewer. But something weird happened at the Academy Awards last night, something I wouldn’t have predicted: Vulgarity wore out its welcome.

And quickly. Beginning with Whoopi Goldberg. Oh, I loved her entrance in Elizabethan white-face. Loved all her costume changes for that matter. But man, did she ever get the mood of the room wrong. I mean, here she is, pushing her bawdy-disgruntled-undervalued-liberal-black-woman thing — and yet obviously she’s valued because a trillion people are watching WHOOPI, an opinionated black woman, preside over the Superbowl of entertainment! Is this really the night to make tediously raunchy jokes with ”beaver” and ”scoring” as a punchline?

Whoopi bombed last night, she knew it — and yet, crassly, she took it as a sign of her own outrageousness. That wasn’t appreciative shocked silence she heard; it was the sound of a global audience on the phones to friends wailing, ”I miss shmaltzy Billy Crystal!”

As for Roberto Benigni, ah: He did not exactly advance the cause of international cinema, either. Here’s this, this, this … insistently noisy jester, throwing himself on people like a love-starved chimp, spritzing the room with shtick until — the camera doesn’t lie! — everyone around him clearly wanted to send their tuxedos out for dry-cleaning. Here’s this lucky clown who, with the help of the Miramax Machine, has managed to convince himself — and, distressingly, a worldwide audience — that the Holocaust can be made palatable if you call it a ”comedy,” a ”fairytale,” a ”fable,” a ”love story” about ”hope.” (This is more than vulgar; it’s stupidly offensive. The Holocaust isn’t supposed to be palatable. In real concentration camps, loving fathers couldn’t protect their sons. The little kids died first. Don’t get me started.)

Speaking of Miramax, how vulgar is the conventional wisdom that ”Shakespeare in Love” makes great literature ”accessible,” as if audiences are dolts who otherwise wouldn’t understand a thing? How vulgar is the possibility that ”Shakespeare” (a nice, small, audience-flattering, romance) beat ”Saving Private Ryan” (a big, bloody epic with stirring ideas about patriotism and male bonding) for the top prize because Academy members, too old or just too lazy to go to movie theaters, watch everything on videotape — and Paltrow and Fiennes in close-up look better on a TV screen than the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach?

How vulgar is it to red-bait by giving a Lifetime Achievement Award to Elia Kazan?

There is, though, one benefit from the steady accretion of so much bad taste last night: By the time the dance medley came on — you remember, the extravaganza with the ”Life Is Beautiful” Holocaust Flamenco and the ”Saving Private Ryan” D-Day Tap Dance — a worldwide audience was anesthetized against any further pain. Good thing, too. If we weren’t, the shock would knock big, gold Oscar right off his perch.

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