- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

One of the rewards for watching the Academy Awards (there aren't many) is that we see unambiguously how life is not a movie. The most self-indulgent director in Hollywood wouldn't dare make a movie that long and that boring. Despite the splendor of fine threads and spectacular tricks of technology, the men and women who create the glamour are exposed as mere mortals without the illusion of the artful craft.

Behind a microphone without a script, Warren Beatty rambles like a political has-been. Jack Nicholson is merely unctuous and a little raw inside the body of a snide and nasty character without someone to write the brilliant dialogue. Can anyone imagine him as best buddy of a presidential candidate? (Well, maybe of the president we've already got.)

My favorite moment at the awards ceremony came during a medley of songs when singer Isaac Hayes unintentionally disappeared in a fog of artificial smoke, which gave Billy Crystal a running joke: Whatever happened to Isaac Hayes? Technology giveth, technology taketh away.

There's lots of irony to go around, too. Warren Beatty, who would hardly describe himself as a "family-values" man, is most earnest (if a tad tedious) in describing what he values most the love of the expectant Annette Bening and their children. The camera for the evening frequently framed Tom Cruise snuggling up affectionately to his wife, Nicole Kidman. He was nominated for an Oscar for his role as a hate-seeking misogynist.

It's a clich that movies reflect the national psychology. Sometimes they do. Ronald Reagan was said to confuse his movies with his life, but there was nothing inconsistent in the points of view of the movies from the '30s and '40s, from which he drew his allusions, and his belief in the American sentiments his scripts reflected. He was the optimist who promised it would be "morning in America" again, not because that's how life always was, but because that was the American Dream that made all things possible. He knew that the Bill of Rights guaranteed the pursuit of happiness, not happiness.

His anti-missile defense system was derided as "Star Wars," but he also understood that movies provided a topical reference that could capture the public imagination. (And now "Star Wars," no longer derided, is about to be brought back by popular demand.)

Nancy Reagan insisted there are not "two Ronald Reagans." She meant that he was guided by the same spirit in his public life as in his personal one. Life was his performance. That may be why biographer Edmund Morris found it so difficult to get inside the man.

Neal Gabler, in his book, "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality," argues that Ronald Reagan was such a consummate performer that he unconsciously set a new standard for measuring presidential performance. In an age dominated by the values of the media, presidential performance no longer refers to policy but to polish.

Hence, we push our candidates into making appearances with David Letterman or Jay Leno, as if how they tell a joke will tell us something about how they would govern. Bill Clinton never studied Method acting but he deserves an Oscar for the line: "I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

Neither Al Gore nor George W. Bush have a way with words. Mr. Gore has replaced a wooden style with a fiberglass style. His transformation was quick, decisive, and a little unconvincing. George W. is more natural with words than his father, but he still drives a sentence like raw dough through a pretzel machine. He's more comfortable in his skin than in his speech. He's better in a small group than on a stage. Both presidential wanabees lack subtlety.

That's why we have campaigns. We get to watch the candidates in both scripted and unscripted circumstances. In fact, campaigns are less like movies than like the Academy Award ceremonies, watching the stars repeating themselves as they try to twinkle. Without writers giving them something to say, they ramble on, losing their thoughts and occasionally disappearing in a fog of rhetorical smoke. But November will eventually arrive, when we can ask for the envelope, please.

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