by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
March 25, 2002
AT THE TOP OF THE A-LIST, HOLLYWOOD CELEBRATES FREEDOM
HOLLYWOOD -- I live eight blocks and a 12-minute walk from the new home of the Academy Awards at the new Hollywood & Highland shopping center's Kodak Theater, but I was at Mass 500 yards and a million years away when the "Gold Knight" was handed out for the first time to my favorite songwriter, Randy Newman, after 16 nominations. No matter; I was busy praying for Halle Berry to win.
The return of Oscar madness to Hollywood after a long, long absence was a feat that bears examination. For years after the first celebration of stardom was held in the Academy Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, just a block away from the Kodak Theater, the ceremony was held either at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the downtown Music Center, or the Shrine Auditorium next to the University of Southern Califonia campus, about 40 blocks south of downtown.
In coming back to Hollywood, the awards show left a poor, mostly black neighborhood to go to a poor, mostly Latino neighborhood that is undergoing gentrification at a very rapid pace.
But, as it never was at either of the downtown sites, the 74th Academy Awards was a night for black people this town will never forget.
As a resident who drives only when my wife and daughter loan me their cars (they're mine actually, but I need the exercise and walk or take the bus or Metro Rail), it was still important to me to avoid the ceremonies as much as possible after a first quick look at the preparations.
Long stretches of Hollywood and Sunset Blvds. and Highland Ave. were closed off during and after the week-long preparations, and traffic here is already so very bad that no one with the least sense of urgency would ever go near the awards. Besides, there were more cops on duty than are usually deployed on any given shift in the entire 465-square-mile City of Los Angeles, and they were being aggressive about traffic violations all over the neighborhood.
The shlock merchants who peddle tourist crap at hugely inflated prices close to the theater were outraged by having to close for a day, but for those of us who reside here it was a day to celebrate. Hollywood had come an awfully long way back from the early and mid-1990's, when gang violence tore a gaping hole in our tourist traffic and wrecked our neighborhoods and daily lives.
At the height of the violence in 1993, there were more than 50 murders in Hollywood, and people got shot, stabbed and beaten to death - even during the Hollywood Christmas Parade. The building where that once happened, the Blackthorn Apts. a block from the Boulevard, is no longer an abandoned eyesore inhabited by punk gangs and crack addicts, but a fairly luxurious Section 8 complex for low-income gay people, and across the street Carol Burnett has bought and restored the apartment building where she was born. And although there were three people shot on my block over the past year, there has been only one murder on this street in three years, and just 17 murders all last year in the entire Hollywood Division.
But the return of Oscar means something greater than ratings, box office and tourism for Hollywood. After losing its independence to robber baron extortionists downtown in 1909, a new City of Hollywood may be ready to rise from the ruins. This comes at a time when cityhood proposals covering more than half of the city -- its northern half across the Santa Monica Mountains in the San Fernando Valley and its southernmost afterthought, San Pedro, will likely join Hollywood on the November 2002 ballot. Support for the proposals, as a Los Angeles Times survey recently revealed, is overwhelming in all three areas, and together they have enough voters to carry the citywide vote.
This has been a historic week for Hollywood and for me; on Thursday, for the first time in 36 years since leaving home at 19, I have a television. It's not a real television but a 17-inch computer monitor hooked up to a splitter through which one coaxial cable delivers the basic channels via a tv tuner and another coax cable to a high-speed modem delivers broadband Internet access from AT&T.
We watched the first two hours of the awards before taking off for the 7:00 p.m. Spanish-language Mass, which with the reading of Christ's Passion on the Cross is the longest Mass of the year, and afterwards went to my daughter's place -- she shares a house with other women from Peru -- to see her roommate, Betsy, who'd just gotten a new 27-inch monitor.
Only then did I realize that Whoopi Goldberg's joke about Oscar being the only 74-year-old guy in Hollywood who can last three hours was not literal at all. In Betsy's room, we found ourselves watching again as the Oscar for Sound for the 15th straight time failed to go to Kevin O'Connell for "Pearl Harbor."
The three women asked me who I wanted to win for Best Actor, and I answered "Denzel Washington," but I told them Russell Crowe was a sure thing.
When Halle Berry won and came weeping to the microphone, hailing Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne and Diahan Carroll, I started bawling, too -- just me, not the women; they laughed at me.
Her nomination and victory, the first ever for an African-American woman, was a vindication of a centuries-long struggle for recognition, and coming as it did with the Oscar for Denzel Washington and the Lifetime Achievemnent Award for Sidney Poitier (who sat next to us all evening one night this past December when we celebrated the graduation of my wife's son Eduardo from medical school), completed a sweep for black people at a ceremony that in some recent years has not honored or nominated a single one.
Not only did Halle Berry wear the most beautiful dress -- totally blowing away the Scientologists Renee Zellwegger and Nicole Kidman -- she made the best acceptance speech I have ever seen. It was absolutely riveting to hear her tear words from the depths of her soul to describe an experience most of us never even dream about.
It was incredibly refreshing to see all of the preening and the glamorous overlay instantaneously erased by emotions that were primal, authentic and masterfully transformed to speech.
I'm proud to say I got caught in only one traffic jam, and that for a very short time.
I'm delighted they closed all those dreary shops for a day to let it all take place.
And disappointed as I was by Jennifer Connelly's amateurish reading, her reluctant applause for Robert Redford and other honorees (except those for "A Beautiful Mind") and her ugly, goose-necked dress, I was proud that her film was honored as Best Picture, because for once it truly was.
Yet of everything that was said and done in Hollywood last night, from the absolute peace of a suite of ancient prayers at Mass to the incredible and incandescent descent and departure of Whoopi Goldberg, it will be the face of Halle Berry and the words of Robert Redford that stay with me.
"It is freedom," he said, that is honored by the immense diversity of American film. And even if the network censors said cameras couldn't linger on Gwyneth Paltrow's breasts and the security regime was three times over the top (and yet flawless), it is freedom -- freedom at last -- that Hollywood could celebrate last night.