Where Oscar is just a flashy pinko liberal: Hollywood morality lost on middle America

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THE FINAL Oscar night party guest had scarcely collapsed into a limousine and headed home before the lampooning began. Two and a half thousand miles from Hollywood, on the opposite coast, talk radio host Howard Stern was in stitches. 'What in the hell does he think he's talking about?' he asked guests in his New York studio, as they pondered Tom Hanks's speech for the umpteenth time.

Warming to his theme, a giggling Stern snapped on the tape again, this time to a chorus of stage weeping from his cronies. 'And there lies my dilemma here tonight,' intoned Hanks, clutching the Oscar for Best Actor for his role as a man dying with Aids in Philadelphia.

'I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels.' There were more guffaws from Stern, and more theatrical wails from those around him. 'We know their names,' continued the actor. 'They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the Gracious Creator of us all.'

As the most irreverent, and easily the most popular, of America's so-called radio 'shock jocks', Stern is not fussy about whom he mocks, or how viciously he does so. He frequently mimics blacks, by performing a hammed-up drawl, or ridicules gays, whom he caricatures with a high-pitched lisp. Although he portrays himself as the champion of free speech against the tyranny of the politically correct, peddling outrage has made him a millionaire, and Public Enemy No 1 to the US broadcasting authorities.

But, for once, he seemed to have some sort of point. Although Stern concentrated on the oddity of Hanks's performance - the actor bizarrely introduced the American founding fathers - he was by no means the only one to wonder what he was talking about. The Oscar-winner's overblown rhetoric may have won uncritical acclaim from his peers in the hothouse world of the West Coast entertainment industry, but there was disbelief elsewhere. Why, Americans wanted to know, should modern-day Hollywood assume the right to set the country's moral compass? Since when were its acolytes in a position to preach about Aids, or, for that matter, God and the Constitution?

Independence, a community of 118,000 people, likes to claim that it sits at the 'heart of America'. The town is east of Kansas City, on the flat farming plains of Missouri, and would be considered a suburb but for a fierce sense of identity and a superstition that metropolitan life is the source of all things undesirable - tax increases, drugs, gangs, ethnic minorities, and liberals.

Independence was the beginning of the Oregon and Santa Fe trails, a supplies depot for pioneers heading for the Western frontier in the mid-19th century. And it produced Harry Truman, the haberdasher who made it to the White House without a college degree.

And the town, a clump of historic buildings blighted by the sprawl of shopping malls, car-washes and fast food joints, bears many of the hallmarks of middle America: strongly conservative, blue-collar, overwhelmingly white, Democratic, and unusually devout.

Howard Stern is not broadcast here, although the equally repellent voice of the far right, Rush Limbaugh, has a big following. The Stars and Stripes flutters everywhere. There is little crime; this year's two homicides are exceptional. In fact it's about as far removed from the ornamented world of Hollywood and the streets of Los Angeles as it is possible to be.

Jim Gray, director of social studies for the Independence school district, watched the Oscars at home on television. He did not much like what he saw. 'I thought to myself, how fake,' he recalled. 'I thought, it's all very well to be concerned about people with Aids when you have lots of money to give away. It's quite another to go out into the hospital wards, and start working with such people. It is also different if you have to go into schools and teach kids about these issues.'

Gray, 39, is a history teacher at the 1,500-pupil William Chrisman, one of the town's two senior high schools. Over the years, he has fought a losing war with the effects Hollywood is having on his students. 'Hollywood has desensitised young people to violence and has over- glamorised sex. These days when students invite someone for a date, they expect it to result in a sexual encounter. It has affected their general morality. For example, it has encouraged them to lie and cheat, because it does not condemn such behaviour in the movies.'

To be fair, Aids and homosexuality are not subjects which many Midwesterners find it easy to broach. When the Kansas City Star, Independence's local paper, last week took the bold decision to run a three- part series on the metropolis's gay community, there were 800 calls to its readers' comment phone line, the bulk of which were critical, if not explicitly homophobic.

In Big John's Corner Bar, just off Independence's main square, most local drinkers had not bothered to watch the Oscars. If there was such a place, this would be the world headquarters of both the politically incorrect and the personally incorrigible. 'Divorce,' says one beefy man's baseball cap, '(is) the screwing you get for the screwing you got'. The proprietor, a bearded maverick called John Norton, has a notice in his back room showing a man's backside: 'Sexual harassment? Kiss my Irish ass.'

Norton interrupted a conversation about an alligator- shooting expedition to Florida to give an analysis of the ethical question of homosexuality: 'Ever seen a hippopotamus screw a giraffe? No, you haven't] Why? Because it ain't what God intended.' Homosexuals would not be welcome, it was explained to me by one man, a lawyer. In fact, he said, they would be beaten senseless.

Prejudice aside, widespread scepticism about Hollywood has not made it easy for those with a genuine and urgent message to be heard. Jim Gray approves of Steven Spielberg's Oscar-showered Schindler's List, and endorses his call at the ceremony for more teaching about the Holocaust. However, he observes, 'He's doing what I have been saying in the classroom all along.'

He encourages his students to explore the subject more deeply, and lays on extra material. But asked how much his school's textbooks devote to the slaughter of 6 million Jews, Gray holds his thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. 'That much. One paragraph.' Whether Spielberg's plea will make much difference remains to be seen. But, in the eyes of the Midwest at any rate, the director hasn't been helped by the self-congratulatory hot air that so often erupts from the far side of the Rocky Mountains.

(Photograph omitted)