Oscar’s Ring of Fire

Composer/Singer Scott George and Osage musicians perform “Whzahazhe: A Song For My People” on Oscar Night.

In those rare moments when the real pierces the illusions of Oscar Night, I grip the arm of my sofa, waiting for hidden burner rockets beneath the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard finally to ignite and launch the whole celebrity capsule up towards the actual stars above.

During the 2017 awards, a group of unsuspecting out-of-town sightseers was ushered through a side door of the Dolby and then trotted out for display in front of the Oscar conclave. The look in the visitors’ eyes was not one of dazzlement but sheer terror. Sure that they had been duped into service as extras in a preview of the Apocalypse, one couple had their impromptu wedding presided over by a similarly dazed Denzel Washington, who happened to be in the front row since he was up for an Oscar for Best Actor.  Only a cynic, and an unobservant one at that, would claim that the lowly tourists were in on the gag.

The people teleported in from the everyday blinked in disbelief, as if bracing for lift-off. As with a Pacific Gas & Electric transmission wire running through parched California pines, authenticity’s spark constantly threatens to start the blaze that will finally consume the Hollywood cult.

Every edition of the Academy Awards flirts with these disasters. During the 2017 ceremony, held just a month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Mexican actor Gael García Bernal trumpeted his right as a “migrant worker” to speak against the new president’s border wall. After this bogus comparison to those forced to flee their homelands or work in deplorable circumstances for illegally low wages, I half expected to see real migrant workers herded across the stage for an obligatory round of applause from the gowns and tuxedoes. Usually, though, the real is kept out by the walls of illusion surrounding Oscar Land.

But sometimes inconvenient truths flare up from within. Halfway through this year’s awards ceremony, host Jimmy Kimmel extolled the power of organized labor on wresting concessions from the producers during the strikes of last year:

“This long and difficult work stoppage taught us that this very strange town of ours—as pretentious and superficial as it can be at its heart—is a union town. It’s not just a bunch of heavily Botoxed, Hailey Bieber-smoothie drinking, diabetes prescription abusing, gluten-sensitive nepo babies with perpetually shivering chihuahuas. This is a coalition of strong, hardworking, mentally tough American laborers; women and men who would 100% for sure die if we even had to touch the handle of a shovel. But the reason we were able to make a deal is because of the people who rallied besides us. So, before we celebrate ourselves let’s have a very well-deserved round of applause for the people who work behind the scenes.”

Union stagehands in their tuxedoes had shuffled onto the back of the stage and stoically endured a showy blast of Hollywood condescension. Only these “strong, hardworking, mentally tough American laborers” could see the hypocrisy of an Oscar host speaking for unions in the midst of an industry infomercial (the awards ceremony) that is a rigged, winner-take-all lottery ensuring a massive raise in personal income for the star who snatches the statuette.

Oscar cannot always stamp out authenticity on his stage, as when Jonathan Glazer, who won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film for Zone of Interest, was brave enough to confront today’s most glaring hypocrisy, which was otherwise given the silent treatment on Awards Night:

“We stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation, which has led to conflict for so many innocent people – whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza– all the victims of this dehumanization … how do we resist?”

Denunciation of Glazier’s remarks by a range of Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, was swift and vicious.

As usual, attention to this vital protest, was distracted by trivial showboating—Donald Trump and his virtual tussle with host Kimmel. It hardly counts as due diligence for the ex-president to be checking in on what liberal Hollywood is up to on Oscar Night, but the show does provide an easy target for him and anyone else—like your faithful Musical Patriot—who wants to take a shot. Trump’s post on TruthSocial called the broadcast “disjointed and boring”—these, his most trenchant adjectives coming amongst a welter of invective. Even maniacs can dole out grains of truth. Trump had added “irrelevant” and “largely ignored” to the charge sheet, but his uncontrollable digital heckling only served to raise, if slightly, the temperature of interest in the ever more moribund event. Phone in hand, Kimmel read Trump’s insults on stage, apparently against the admonitions of the producers, and then responded with his own clever riposte, “Isn’t it past your jail time?”

Occasionally the show kicks itself into life. This year’s energy was provided first by Ryan Gosling’s rollicking, campy, “I’m Just Ken.” At the head of a Busby Berkeley extravaganza that roved auditorium and stage, the bleach-blonded actor momentarily banished the boredom deplored by Trump.  “I’m Just Ken” had been nominated for Best Original Song, a silly category that is a relic of American cinema’s early links to Vaudeville and the allure of the crooning voice (Al Jolson’s in The Jazz Singer of 1927).

Gosling’s outfitters co-opted Barbie’s favorite color and clad him completely in pink, right down to his leather gloves that comically punched the air in impotent masculine rage. This exuberant staging of a musically generic paean to the bruised male ego stole the Oscar show, just as Ken had made Barbie his movie not hers. Here was yet one more confirmation of the patriarchy, even if Gosling let Margot Robbie (who played the doll in the movie), and writer/director Greta Gerwig each sing a couple notes of the melody into the microphone he waved in their faces.

In an uncharacteristic show of aesthetic judgment by the Academy, Barbie was passed over in most of the major categories, but was nominated for two different original songs, the other being the supposedly feminist counterpart (and counterpoint) to “I’m Just Ken”— Barbie’s existential plaint, “What Was I Made For?”  That Mattel, producer of the movie, and everyone else knew the obvious answer (to make money for the corporation), didn’t seem to detract from the appeal of this navel-gazing nonsense.

The trusty Academy algorithm churned out the appropriate result: the Oscar went to Barbie not Ken. “What Am I Made For?” had been performed earlier in the ceremony by sibilantly self-obsessed Billie Eilish and her unobtrusive, piano-playing brother Finneas O’Connell. That they made off with their song statuettes counted as a conciliatory nod to the life-sized doll herself, as played by Margot Robbie, who had been snubbed out of a nomination in the Best Actor category.

The closing song from Martin Scorsese’s’ Killers of the Flower Moon had also been nominated: “Whazhazhe: A Song For My People.” Whazhazhe is the Osage name for themselves, people of the “mid-water.”

The piece was written by Osage composer and performer, Scott George who was joined in the film and again on Oscar night by musicians and dancers from his nation. Enveloped in red light on the Dolby stage, with a giant yellow disc that might have evoked the sun, ten male drummers sat around their octagonal drum, each beating time as they sang over and over:  “Wahzhazhe no-zhin te-tha-bey / Wa-kon-da they-tho gah-ka-bey” (Osages, stand and be recognized / God made it for us.). Behind them was a semi-circle of nine female singers, the musicians encircled by ten male dancers. All drummed and sang and danced like their lives depended on it —the “it” of their song being the land.  This was not entertainment, not even a song in the sense conveyed by the inert, plastic “What Am I Made For?”, but something grounded in the world and beyond the insufficient designation “music.” These musicians rendered commercial categorization and awards irrelevant.

What the Osage delivered were undeniable, unshakeable sonic facts in a literal confrontation of Hollywood’s musical outrages against Native people—not to mention all its other screen crimes against them over the past century. Last Sunday’s Osage performance came just over a half-century after Marlo Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather to the Oscar ceremony to refuse his Best Actor award for the Godfather because of “Hollywood’s unfavorable depiction of Native Americans.”  Backstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that evening in 1973, John Wayne had to be restrained from assaulting Littlefeather. The Academy apologized to her in 2022, two weeks before she died at the age of seventy-six.

That a breathy, bathetic ode to a doll (and, of course, Mattel issued a series of Native American Barbies beginning in the 1990s) could make off with the fool’s gold statuette rather than recognizing the startling display of reality, showed in the most definitive fashion yet, how fatuous the whole Oscar exercise is.  From the Osage there was none of the distended waffle of Eilish or the ironic braggadocio of Ken from the Edge. After the drumming and singing stopped, applauded by its own reverberations and the audience, the performers did not bow. They stood to be recognized.

The creation of Scott and his musicians wasn’t a commodity to be sold and exploited, ripped and mashed-up.  Last Sunday on the far (though not the farthest) shore of Manifest Destiny so long hymned by Hollywood, this Osage truth statement in song was thrilling, frightening, unvanquished. In the echoing thunder of the drums, I thought I could hear the Dolby boosters begin their thrust, launching the celebrity spaceship and its brightest earthly stars on a one-way trip to Alpha Centauri, leaving the musicians and dancers on the stage of the earth that was again theirs.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com