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By Rick Kisonak | March 25, 2003

No sooner had the question of whether war would be waged last week been answered than a new preoccupation seized the hearts and minds of countless Americans: what effect would bombing the bejesus out of Iraq have on the 75th annual Academy Awards?

Indeed, as bunker busters rained down on the city of Baghdad, it was the population of Hollywood, which seemed most truly in turmoil. The specter of war forces each of us to confront grave issues we might prefer to sidestep but, being the special human beings they are, stars were confronted with special challenges.

Announcing his Tuesday decision to “truncate” the show’s traditional red carpet ceremony, producer Gil Cates shared with reporters his concern for “celebrities who might feel uncomfortable discussing films and fashion while American soldiers (are) putting their lives on the line.” Not that stars didn’t feel a sense of duty. Some designers found themselves besieged by 11th hour cries for help. “We have had …calls from people who want something more understated,” Escada’s spokesperson reported to the Associated Press. “We certainly understand if they don’t want to wear something over the top.” In a related story, Giorgio Armani and Donatella Versace canceled trips to Hollywood according to Variety.

Throughout the week, agents, handlers, publicists, assorted entertainment insiders and the stars themselves issued a flurry of bulletins to a public presumed to be on pins and needles. Early in the week, for example, Best Actor contender Daniel Day-Lewis pronounced that it would “seem obscene if we’re seen bouncing up the red carpet grinning when people are dying.”

“Seen,” as it turned out, was the operative word here. What quickly became apparent was the reality that stars weren’t so much uncomfortable with the idea of indulging in a nightlong orgy of narcissistic glitz as worried that this might not be the best time to wind up on the front page doing so. Early in the week, planners for the most glamorous parties weren’t sure which way the winds of war would blow. “We’re taking it one day at a time,” cautioned a spokeswoman for Vanity Fair, which traditionally hosts one of awards night’s biggest A-list soirees, “It will be clearer as the week goes on.”

And clear it got. Virtually everybody who is anybody in the end was expected to show despite hostilities in the Middle East. Everybody, that is, except the press. “The Governor’s Ball is still scheduled, though neither photographers nor camera crews will be permitted,” reported Reuters at midweek, adding “Parties by Vanity Fair and Paramount are restricting press access to prevent stars from being quizzed about the war.” Organizers for other high-ranking shindigs, including Women’s Wear Daily‘s, quickly fell into step and producers of the Academy Awards broadcast itself informed nearly 500 media members representing 300 news outlets that they weren’t invited after all. The stage was set for the first Stealth Oscars.

As the week wore on, celebrities continued to search their souls. Barbara Walters shelved her annual pre-Oscar special, which this year includes interviews with Nicolas Cage, Julianne Moore and Rene Zellweger. “With such serious issues facing the nation,” Walters intoned, “it is the right decision to postpone the special.” Sure, especially since it was thought at the time ABC might wind up cutting away for battlefield updates throughout the evening, preempting a substantial portion of the broadcast anyway. This way she has the option to air the show when interruptions are unlikely.

Nicole Kidman informed reporters that she was of two minds as to taking part in the festivities. “There are two arguments…where they say you need to continue on with things…and then there’s the other thing where you just say of course it would feel very strange to show up.”

On Wednesday, Cate Blanchett, scheduled to be a presenter and shooting a film in New Mexico, denied rumors that she planned not to attend. “She’ll be there,” a representative assured adding that the only reason for any possible bow out would be her “fluctuating filming schedule.” Uh huh. It can be awfully complicated getting all the way to L.A. from New Mexico.

The following day, Will Smith informed Oscar producers that he would not act as a presenter as planned in light of “the world situation.” According to his publicist, the actor felt that “now (is) not the time to celebrate.” (I felt the same way after watching Men In Black II.) Later the same day, Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki announced he would stay home in protest against the war. The response from within the entertainment community was immediate: “Aki who?”

By Thursday, news services were reporting that the red carpet ceremony had been canceled altogether in the process causing mass confusion among celebrities, fans, designers, producers and Joan Rivers. The host of E!’s annual pre-Oscar special appeared on that morning’s Howard Stern show to inject a note of reason. Asked whether she too wasn’t worried about the possibility of a terrorist event, she didn’t hesitate: “I’m willing to get blown up for my country.”

Get the rest of the story in part two of STAR SPANGLED BANTER>>>

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