Nero’s rule of the Roman Empire is often cited as a time of extravagance, including the tale of his playing the violin as the city burned. What Rome might not have faced in those times was a crushing recession, although I’m sure there were people who went without sandals and grapes. In reviewing a news-starved L.A. Times edition last week, I noticed that the Business section had but four pages. The Calendar section—movies, TV, face lifts—had 26. I get it that we’re a show business capital, but that Calendar featured a story that seemed to be bordering on desperation as the producers of the Golden Globes ceremony described the Globes as “a catalyst to have some fun” at a time when “there’s such a gloomy feeling around town.”
That same day the Times’ Section A headline read “Job losses highest since 1945.”
Those producers might just as easily have pointed out that the Golden Globes ceremony creates jobs and sustains salaries in the critical catering, liquor, and hair products industries. For in truth people will work and collect pay as a result of Hollywood’s time-tested, strike-tested, and even 9/11-tested commitment of giving out awards to itself.
I readily acknowledge that perhaps the only thing sillier than deciding who’s the “best” actress or actor is writing millions of column inches about it. This column becomes part of that column and I don’t really begrudge any awards system for existing, since awards inevitably generate some amount of musing about excellence if not always promoting excellence itself. Any parent proudly displaying their child’s school attendance award will agree that schools can only be effective when students attend them.
But we might ask ourselves whether a sustained and harsh economic downturn brings with it any demand for some new etiquette. Specifically, should the golden lives of golden people be presented in high-definition gold as entertainment for American homes wherein people are having trouble sleeping because of the recession? There’s no bottom to any discussion about media responsibility, but if there were such discussions, they might now include the notion that television content has some obligation not to spite its audience with images of rich people applauding themselves. I’m just throwing this out there…
Of course we can expect some acknowledgement of the economic crisis from awards show stages. I’ll go on record right now, however, and beg the actors not to wear ribbons for America’s unemployed. Although a few “Bernie Madoff Burned Me Too!” buttons might demonstrate solidarity between rich actors and their economically strapped audiences.
Several news sources have reported that despite down-sizing at the studios, the spending on award campaigns for films has not subsided. This season WGA writers received not only “screener” DVD’s of films hoping to be nominated for writing awards this season, but several envelopes of expensively printed booklets and script copies. One full-color booklet touted a director at great length, and featured costly die-cut windows in the center of the pages. That would not have been ironic for some bloated epic like Titanic. But this expensive handout was for Slumdog Millionair, a really terrific film about poverty… as anyone recently laid off from Fox Searchlight might tell you.
During the Depression, and so far there’s just the one in the 1930s, people used to enjoy what film writers have called “white piano movies.” These were movies where actors would dance and pitch woo against lavish looking sets with curtains and chandeliers. And of course, someone was playing a white piano. But that’s the industry’s product. Does that mean that every other activity in the entertainment industry, especially self-aggrandizing awards, must reflect that same lavishness? How about if this year every awards participant arrives in a car powered by alternative fuel, and the limo budgets are donated to charity? There’s one of my “white piano” dreams.
The same day that job losses hit record levels and that Golden Globes item appeared in the Times, there was an article of news in that four-page Business section. It reported that Warner Bros. was about to outsource jobs to India and Poland as part of cost-cutting. The move would “affect scores of back office workers in management information systems, finance, and accounting.” It’s no headline that many people pursue show business to finally conquer their insecurities, but it could be news if some of the glitter budget was routed elsewhere at this particular time in our history. Divert funds from Oscar campaigns to public school music programs? Don’t we all agree on happy endings?