Stars and strikes: Oscars hit by war guilt

Sunday 23 March 2003 01:00
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By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles

Call them the coalition of the unwilling. After much agonising about the war in Iraq, most of Hollywood's glitziest celebrities – barring some unforeseen last-minute calamity – will be appearing as scheduled at tonight's Academy Awards. But that doesn't mean they are remotely excited about it.

Ever since hostilities in the Middle East broke out on Wednesday night, rumours have been flying about possible casualties – the celebrity variety – as well as the risk that the Oscars might be cancelled for the first time in its 75-year history.

Will Smith, who had been down as a presenter, was the first to pull out. Then Angelina Jolie. Cate Blanchett got cold feet too, along with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, even though Streep is up for an award as best supporting actress for her role in Adaptation.

Over the past couple of days, studio heads, agents and the producers of the Oscars show itself have been burning up the phone lines trying to lure the big names back.

The problem is primarily image. Is it really appropriate to dress up in lavish finery and indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation at a time like this? Just ask Nicole Kidman, widely considered the favourite for best actress for her turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, who is now wondering if it is not all going to be a colossal embarrassment.

"She is very uneasy," a producer who knows her said, on condition of anonymity. "She doesn't want to come off like Marie Antoinette, all togged up while people are dying on the other side of the world."

Daniel Day-Lewis, the favourite for best actor for Gangs of New York, is already on record saying it would be "obscene" for Hollywood to strut ostentatiously across the world's television screens at a time of war. That helps to explain why the dress code will be more low key, and why the red-carpet arrival has been cancelled. (Day-Lewis, incidentally, seems to be attending.)

The show's organisers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the ABC network, have been little short of spooked by the stars' response. But they are adamant the show will go on. Academy president Frank Pierson argued at a news conference that going ahead was the patriotic thing to do. "At a time when American culture and values are under attack all over the world, we think it is more important than ever that we honour those achievements that reflect us and America at our best," he said.

The producers' attitude is at odds with many actors and film-makers who have spoken out passionately against the war. Several participants have announced they will wear peace pins, and the winners may have political messages instead of the traditional list of over-emotional thank yous.

In the end, Hollywood is a place where public appearances keep careers going. That might explain why many no-shows will be foreigners– among them Peter Jackson, the New Zealander who directed The Lord of the Rings, Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director whose Man Without a Past is up for best foreign-language film, and Alberto Grimaldi, the Italian producer up for best picture for Gangs of New York.

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