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If it's good, then surely it must be due to Hollywood

March 14, 2004|KENNETH TURAN

About 25 years ago, I gave novelist Ken Kesey a call. He was somewhere deep in Oregon, a calm voice among the big trees. Kesey sounded so sane on the telephone responding to my questions I couldn't resist bringing up something that had been on my mind since March 29, 1976.

That was the night that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," based on Kesey's celebrated novel, took the Oscars for best picture, best director (Milos Forman), best actor (Jack Nicholson), best actress (Louise Fletcher) and best adapted screenplay (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman). "It was the first film," Oscar historian Robert Osborne has written, "to win all four of the Academy's most famous awards -- picture, actor, actress, director -- since 'It Happened One Night' forty-two years earlier."

How many times was Kesey thanked on that historic night? Not even once. He later told reporters that that omission broke his heart. As a fan of the novel, all that history still rankled, and when I took a chance and expressed my sympathy to Kesey, he sighed a weary sigh. "Down in Hollywood," he said, his voice sounding especially far away among all those trees, "the sun shines on them so long, they think they own it."

Cut to 2004 -- Oscar and Independent Spirit Award weekend. I was curious what Charlize Theron and Patty Jenkins, the star and writer-director of "Monster," a film based on the life of Aileen Wuornos, would say about their subject if either of them won. I wondered if the more things change, the more they would remain the same.

At the Spirit awards Saturday afternoon, "Monster" won twice, taking best actress for Theron -- who spoke only briefly but made sure to thank her manager and her lawyer -- and best first feature for Jenkins, who spoke at length. Jenkins even found the time to do the unusual and thank critic Roger Ebert, whose rave for the film helped put it on the map. Aileen Wuornos was not even mentioned.

When Theron won the best actress Oscar on Sunday night, she too spoke at length and was fulsome in her gratitude. She thanked her director, "our entire crew," her manager, her lawyer, her fiance, her publicist, her makeup designer Toni G and the people of South Africa before adding, "If I'm forgetting anyone, please don't kill me." Aileen Wuornos was not even mentioned.

Admittedly, Wuornos is a tough person to thank. She was a murderer several times over, executed by the state of Florida after a lengthy stay on death row. Anyone who's seen the two excellent Nick Broomfield documentaries on Wuornos knows how difficult, complex and troublesome a woman she was.

But still, not mentioning Wuornos in some way, shape or form is insupportable. Without Aileen Wuornos and her savage life, there is no breakthrough part for Charlize Theron to play, no career-making film for Patty Jenkins to write and direct, no Oscar to bring home to South Africa.

Without Aileen Wuornos there is nothing, which is exactly what her memory got out of the awards weekend.

This absence was bothersome for several reasons, not the least of which is that it perpetuates after death the very attitudes toward Wuornos, the way she was marginalized and made invisible by a society that found it more convenient to forget that individuals like her existed. Broomfield's first doc, "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," went a considerable way toward rectifying.

To anyone who's seen "Monster" and the Broomfield documentaries, this forgetting of Wuornos is not surprising. It is in fact indicative of what's most worrying about Jenkins' film. Despite its superficial somberness, the picture's Hollywood heart shows in its simplification and standardization of Wuornos' story into a familiar tale of the bad things that happen to Women Who Love Too Much. Given how far "Monster" departs from the complexities of Wuornos' real saga, it's to be expected that the filmmakers have had little trouble forgetting she even existed.

Denial of reality

On a broader level, the reason for bringing all this up is not merely to chastise Theron and Jenkins but to point out the denial of reality that the obliteration of Wuornos represents is typical of the ferociously self-centered way the movies do business.

It's visible in the denigration of writers, whose essential initial creative input must be obliterated if executives are to feel creatively important.

It's visible in the obliteration of the truth by a community that, no longer recognizing the difference between honesty and lies, routinely says what needs to said, no matter where reality might lie.

It's visible in Hollywood's oblivious attitude toward the broad public's unhappiness about screen violence, a stance they will likely live to regret. Myself and my accomplishments are so interesting, how could I possibly have time to think of somebody else?

Aileen Wuornos, executed for murder, was not around to have her heart broken by her Oscar and Spirit omissions. Quite possibly she was made of sterner stuff than Ken Kesey and would not have cared. Maybe if Wuornos had still been alive, someone would have remembered to say something about her. But maybe not.

The sun still regularly shines on Hollywood, people still think they own it, and we are all poorer for that.

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