When Bob Hope took the Oscars podium last night, the life of two generations passed before our eyes. Transmitted through the magic of black and white kinescope, his wry vitality cut through the sea of sparkly space-age metallic draped on dewy bodies, reminding me how much can be lost in the changing of the generational guard.
Last night, we all witnessed the unspoken ceremonial ordination of a new generation, with James Franco and Anne Hathaway as co-hosts of the awards, awe-inspiring in its audacious bravado. The timing is ironic, by the way, given that The New York Times had just run an article titled "Graying Audiences Return to Movies", reporting that the number of older moviegoers has risen 67% since 1995.
Audience members of all ages can appreciate that Gen X's James Franco and Gen Y's Anne Hathaway are delicious. They are shiny and scrubbed, sweet and humble. Given a chance, they will both age well, like fine wine gathering complexity, richness and depth over time. But they do not yet define reality.
Bob Hope, on the other hand, did. And not just for the couple of years most of today's
celebrities tend to hold sway, but for decades. As a Baby Boomer, I looked up to Bob Hope. Hope's comedic understatement simultaneously revealed the truth we all sensed while inviting us to be insiders in the joke. Even though we were young, we felt respected, important, elevated.
I never thought I'd have to say it but I miss Jack Nicholson, too, beaming like a wild man from the front row. As the years rolled on, we were aging, too, but we reveled in his dependability, promising to play with us forever with his irreverent dark glasses and irresistible smile.
I miss a huge swath of my own youth -- those many years in which I thought that the world of glamor was defined by movie stars from an older generation who loomed larger than life, infused with the aura of immortality. Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Olivier: Who could have ever imagined an Academy Awards absent of their regal presence defining our hopes and aspirations?
And I never thought I'd say this either: I miss the entire generation. The Greatest Generation and now the disappearing generation. I miss Kirk Douglas in his prime, swinging his sword and sweeping leading ladies into his arms, but I am grateful for his appearance last night, even as a fragile whisper of the memory of a time when good always prevailed over evil, and some things seemed more than transitory.
Of course, by the time we Boomers were teenagers, we had already begun to realize that reality is both malleable and imperfect. But as members of the largest generation of youths in history, we at least thought that if reality were up for grabs, it would be we who would always be calling the shots.
Billy Crystal, in his brief return to the spotlight last night, reminds us of the fragility of our generation's audacious belief in the indisputability of our permanence. Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon, Steve Martin: How could there be an Academy Awards without our generation's own icons giving out the awards, graciously accepting the regal statues, laughing intimately with one another on camera backstage?
Was it just last year that all these and more, planted so securely front and center, connected us to faith in our immortality? Yes, indeed. It was. Meryl, Billy, Steve and Susan, owning the room as if we would be forever. But with the Academy Awards 2011, the Greatest Generation is but a memory, and the Boomers are now suddenly the exception rather than the rule.
This was an awards season made poignant more by the unspoken silences and absences than the bright and sparkly special effects on the screen and women making their way in impossibly high heels down the red carpet.
We have, in fact, witnessed the clean sweep of not one but two generations. And at the very least, we owe it to ourselves to pay our respects. But note to the Academy: it would be well-advised to hope that we also continue to pay for tickets.
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