Do you ever wonder why circus performers do not have their own swanky award shows? After all, these men and women, who have devoted their lives to the performing arts, display not just a high level of physical conditioning and athleticism, but astounding bravery and deep commitment to their craft. Aren’t they also deserving of the red carpet treatment, with millions gawking at their beautiful forms and astonished by their every pronouncement?
Of course to even suggest such a thing, is to invite ridicule, because we all know that circus performers will never achieve the kind of acclaim that those who entertain us on movie screens have so effortlessly harvested for the past 100 years. But if you think of the lowly stature of the circus performer, you might then be able to envision how actors and actresses were regarded for centuries until the advent of moving pictures.
In fact, in earlier centuries, actors and actresses were often placed at a station only a little above vagabonds and prostitutes and often doubled as both. Nell Gwynne, the 17th Century’s most renowned courtesan, was an actress who became King Charles II’s royal mistress. An actor, John Wilkes Booth, became Abraham Lincoln’s assassin and thereafter one of history’s most notorious fugitives. King Edward VII, as the Prince of Wales and an accomplished roux, favored dalliances with actresses whom he regarded as easy prey for his ravenous sexual appetite. And Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps the most famous of the 19th Century actresses, was a profligate whose antics off stage attracted nearly as much notoriety as her thespian turns on the stages of Europe.
So what changed in the 20th Century to elevate the lowly profession of the theatrical performer to the Olympian heights it occupies today? Simply, it was visibility. The enormous appeal of the movie house, where for a few hours a man or woman can suspend reality and invest his or her emotions in the lives of fictional characters, has become modern man’s unique form of escape. In the thrall of watching our heroes grapple with life’s challenges and overcome daunting obstacles, the characters on the screen, for millions of us, have come to represent something more than mere mortal flesh and blood. They project a perfection of the human body and spirit, an aura of infallibility, a sense of trustworthiness and the results of perseverance.
The rapid rise of the acting class paralleled the ascendancy of atheism and steady collapse of religion. The vacuum left by these anchors of modern life, made us search for new objects of faith and the acting class provided a convenient vehicle. Over the past 100 years this class has transformed itself into the very beings that the Greeks once worshipped – self absorbed, petty, lustful, vindictive and omnipotent deities, concerned mostly with their own couture, aesthetics and appetites and largely indifferent to the mundane lives of their worshippers. In their Olympian firmament, which we call Hollywood, they and their enablers have cultivated a new pantheism which is as false and as deluded as anything practiced in Greece 2,500 years ago.
So we find ourselves today venerating not those who live exemplary moral lives, but rather those who imitate life. Plato anticipated this 25 centuries ago when he attempted to distinguish reality from imitation. In relating a famous Socrates allegory, he told of prisoners restricted to the darkness of a cave watching shadows projected by a fire on a rock wall. After some time they begin to believe that the shadows constitute reality. Suppose, he asks, that a prisoner is freed and permitted to go out into the sunlight. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they are and would not be able to name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be the reality and the outside world the illusion.
It is only through extended time in the sun that a man or woman learns that the shadows on the wall are not real and that it is the sun which is actually the cause and source of all the things that he and his fellow prisoners have been viewing.
It is a quaint analogy and one I often think of when watching a movie and almost every time I view the Academy Awards. Everything in this annual tribute to the imitative arts seems false – from the designer dresses that most of the actresses don’t own and may never see again; to the forced smiles of the celebrities as they preen in absurd statuesque poses before the cameras; to the resigned applause of the defeated nominees; to the expostulations of the winners themselves who profess humility but whose careers have been built on their own hubris.
This is truly life imitating art.
There is also, of course, a certitude in the voices of the actor/deities and in their projection of wisdom, that has conditioned us to listen to them. And therefore many a recipient of an Oscar has chosen to use his or her moments of glory to lecture us on our failings. Vanessa Redgrave, Michael Moore and Al Gore are three that come to mind. Sean Penn and Bill Maher joined this trinity last Sunday when they admonished us to shake ourselves free of the social constraints of traditional marriage and organized religion. They don’t pretend to be one of us, because they are not. Their omniscience is rarely doubted by their peers who go on cheering and applauding as if the awardees have just unleashed a Zeusian thunderbolt.
What is the thread that weaves through this tangled web of self veneration and arrogance? It is not a universal morality based on human rights and tolerance, as the Sean Penns of this world might wish us to believe. It is, rather, a subtle nihilism that focuses unwaveringly upon individual gratification and personal fulfillment and which disparages anything that smacks of traditional values. How could it be otherwise with a class of people whose solipsistic lifestyles have been elevated by us as models of achievement and whose culture children, such as the young Kate Winslet ( at least in her own telling), are urged to emulate?
But if anyone wants to understand the heart and soul of this culture, they should go to the real Hollywood – the benighted Los Angeles suburb that the film industry left years ago for the sunnier enclaves of Beverly Hills and Century City.
There on the gritty boulevards you will find the footprint of the film industry and the residue of its stain on our society. Sex shops, strip clubs, tattoo joints, topless bars and gimmicky movie theaters all rub shoulders; the streets are dark, even in daylight. The air is oddly dank. Prostitutes and drug dealers are common. It is in this tawdry world of self abandon and amorality that the real Hollywood and the metaphorical Hollywood collide. Here the imitation is stripped away to reveal the reality – of an industry that has lost its moral bearings and constructed a perverted and seemingly impregnable value system of its own.
What is left is Hollywood’s infatuation with itself. Hollywood today is in form as different from Ancient Greece as can be imagined. But for all of that, the Gods on Mt. Olympus must surely be smiling down with delight.