HOLLYWOOD—If someone had planned to honor the best works in classical music or the visual arts this weekend, it's unlikely anyone would complain that celebrating such art is in bad taste when a war is being fought.
Yet movies are perhaps the greatest American popular art form as well as one of this country's most influential, lucrative exports, and the Academy Awards ceremony ostensibly exists to recognize what's best in the field. So the problem is . . . ?
Well, there's obviously a problem, because the scheduling, tone and general nature of Sunday's scheduled Academy Awards show has caused as much handwringing as any TV event in recent memory. The arguments have been impassioned and covered the spectrum of possibilities:
Cancel it. Postpone it. Tone it down. Or, as Max Bialystock says in "The Producers," "Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!"
The plan, at least as of Friday evening, was to scuttle the "red carpet" portion of the evening -- when the designer- and jewelry-bedecked attendees would sashay their way through a gantlet of paparazzi and entertainment/fashion reporters -- but to keep the awards show. That strategy, announced Wednesday night, was an acceptable compromise or disappointment for some, a timid half-measure to others. At a Friday press conference, Oscar officials said they would make a final decision Sunday morning.
Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News summed up the "Postpone it" argument succinctly: "Do we really want to show off one of the most superficial symbols of Western culture, even a sedate version, while our troops are barreling toward Baghdad?"
That Mathews and so many others see the Oscars as a symbol of American superficiality -- as opposed to a synonym for artistic excellence -- gets to the heart of the matter. In these days of seven-hour Oscar pre-shows and obsession with formalwear, jewelry outfitters and cosmetic surgery, the Academy Awards glitz overshadows its content -- and thus seems particularly at odds with the sober reality of American soldiers waging war in Iraq.
"It's this self-congratulatory, look-how-rich-I-am nature," producer/academy member Tom Pollock said. "If the Academy Awards were more about what is good, as opposed to the politicking that goes on, then it would have a different impact."
This isn't the first time the academy has had to adjust plans during wartime.
"Right after Pearl Harbor the academy announced that the awards would be canceled, and there was such a hue and cry from people that it was bad for morale that about a month later the board of governors reconsidered and decided to hold the awards anyway," said Damien Bona, co-author in "Inside Oscar" and sole author of "Inside Oscar 2." "They did make a few concessions to the war. They told everybody that they had to refer to it as a dinner instead of a banquet, and as usual they'd have an orchestra playing, but there would be no dancing. And they asked people to wear business outfits instead of formalwear."
The Vietnam War never caused an Oscars postponement; nor did the 1986 bombing of Libya that began the day of the ceremony. A flood, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the shooting of Ronald Reagan did force postponements.
But now the Oscars are more of a television event than ever -- and so is the Iraq war.
"The problem you have now is you have two live events on Sunday," said Bryce Zabel, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences chairman who postponed the Emmy Awards twice, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the assault on Afghanistan. "You have a live war and a live Oscar show, and what the producers and academy have to do is step back and say, `What will that look like?'"
The academy brass and ABC executives have been asking themselves just that over the past several days, as, no doubt, have advertisers who paid a reported $1.3 million per spot. One story making its way around town last week was that ABC initially discussed postponing the show a week but held back as the first images from Iraq were less disturbing than feared.
Most advertisers, meanwhile, were sticking with the show even though the elimination of the red carpet significantly changed the package.
"They paid a premium to get on the Academy Awards, and that premium has to do with being associated with a very glittery, glamorous event," Pollock said. "Even if the show goes on, it's going to be considerably less glittery and glamorous. I think advertisers will not be getting what they thought they were getting. And a lot of advertisers feel they shouldn't be advertising in wartime at all; there's a certain hucksterism about it."
Zabel said that through his Emmy experience he determined three main factors to be confronted when presenting a show during national emergency: safety, attendance and tone.
"You cannot make every shopping mall in America safe 365 days a year," he said. "Can you make a single location like the Kodak Theatre safe on one day? Yes."