All That Glitters

by Kieth Merrill
Meridian Magazine

When I was a kid growing up in Farmington, Utah, I went to a movie every Thursday night. Someone in our tiny town installed twin 35-mm motion picture projectors in the cultural hall of the old rock church. It was the only "Movie Theater" for 30 miles.

There was a new movie every week. The boy scouts sold popcorn and candy bars. Once I even got up the nerve to hold hands with Hazel Sessions. I was ten.

Those old classic Hollywood movies helped shape my imagination and perception of the world beyond our little country town.

The distance between being a kid at the ward show every Thursday and being at the Academy Awards this past Sunday night [2001] is enormous. It stretches across an extraordinary and unexpected lifetime.

But that's where I was on Sunday night and even in the midst of the glittering glitzy glamour of the Academy Awards, fond memories of those early beginnings at the "ward show" came flooding back.

Two Worlds

As a member of the Motion Picture Academy, I am always invited to attend the Academy Awards Ceremony. Historically it is held on Monday night. I only attend when there seems to be a compelling reason to do so.

"Compelling" for me is a nomination for one of my films - that has gotten me there twice so far - or someone in my immediate family whose turn it is to rub shoulders with the stars, just once and just for fun.

My son, Dagen, is in graduate film school at USC. It wasn't his turn, but I couldn't resist the chance to take a USC film student as my guest. Some dads take their boys fishing. I don't fish.

We parked at the LDS Institute of Religion at USC and walked. That simple decision became, in a curious way, a symbol of the inevitable dichotomy between my life as a Mormon and my world of making movies.

Going to the Academy Awards is a walk in the world I must embrace if I am ever to make a contribution to the vision President Spencer W. Kimball expressed in 1977 regarding magnifying the gospel through the arts.

We can not expect to see our story told on screens in the great movie centers around the globe and also reject or ignore the industry that may make it possible.

It is a walk in two worlds, a delicate straddling of two paths, one defining who I am, the other leading me to where I am compelled to go.

Glimpsing the Rich and Famous

Dagen and I crossed USC campus on our walk to the Shrine Auditorium.

Wandering the campus in our rented tuxedos made us targets of attention. Huge throngs had gathered for a hopeful glimpse of the rich and famous. Anyone wearing a tuxedo was a suspect.

The incredibly long and luxurious limousines were six deep across the street at the entrance to the Shrine.

Official arrivals began at 3:30 PM. It was almost 4:45 PM by the time we reached the end of the long line formed by those of us sans limousine. We were routed along a pathway defined by barricades and protected by police. We had to show our tickets 7 times before we reached the line.

The celebrities time their arrivals in accordance with their stature. The broadcast began at 5:30 so now the biggest stars were emerging from their chariots. As they were escorted forward they cut a course perpendicular to our line.

Dagen had scouted ahead. His reconnaissance paid off. We left the queue, skirted the line, stepped into the street and mingled with the limousine crowd as they shuffled forward.

I know about limousines. The last time I was here as a nominee in 1998 we rode in a stretched white, large, luxurious, chauffeur-driven Lincoln with a glass partition "protecting" us from the driver, and we had our own wet bar and TV.

Don't be impressed. You can rent the biggest limousine in Los Angeles for a few hundred bucks. For all the pretentious display of affluence and celebrity, having "been there, done that," we felt no envy.

It is a condition of our curious popular culture that tuxedos, glittering gowns and limousines make everyone seem glamorous, famous and important.

Everyone looked like somebody we should recognize as they disembarked the long, lavish limousines and were ushered forward.

Dagen and I were ushered with them. You see, we too looked like someone that everyone else thought they ought to recognize. No one was about to challenge us. My son was more amused than impressed when people would nod an acknowledgment and smile - just in case.

Entrance to Ceremonies

The entrance to the ceremonies reminded me of that marvelous narrow canyon in Petra leading to the temple of the Holy Grail at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Rather than vaults of stone however the walls were made of elegant red curtains draped over what was probably a chain link fence on any other day.

We all moved very slowly. It was like being in a crowd of a thousand people at the scene of an accident. No one wanted to hurry lest they miss the carnage - in this case a celebrity. Necks craned about. Eyes darted. Heads turned.

The fans above announced the arrival of someone famous like screeching cowbirds erupting with a warning of intruders on the Serengeti.

A security man brushed past us on the right, opening a path with a commanding "excuse us." He was cutting a trail through the tuxedo forest for Hilary Swank. Ms. Swank was last year's Oscar winner for best actress. This year her hair was blond, her dress more daring and the heavy jewelry from Asprey and Garrard - no longer in fashion for 2001 - was missing.

As she brushed past us she bumped into my son. She smiled and, adjusting the wisp of a daring dress that barely covered her body, made a comment so wholly inappropriate that it would be inappropriate to repeat it here.

Suffice it to say she was so lovely in her appearance that her crude and earthy comment jolted me. It was as if the Fairy Princess had burped and the twinkling magic of the forest had been shattered.

Being a celebrity is a horrible fate. Handling it gracefully is, for most of them, an un-acquired art.

Forgive me Hilary. I do not judge you harshly but merely observe with some disappointment. The true essence of who we are can easily manifest itself in an unguarded moment. That which sprang forth from within you seemed a painful contradiction to your external elegance.

People Magazine will soon be mocking the fashions of this glamorous event. The "best and worst" will soon adorn the covers of the tabloids, determined by some arbitrary standard never identified.

To qualify for consideration, of course, you must be a woman and you must be a contemporary icon of popular culture. Otherwise, who cares? Well, almost everyone seems to care.

Unless you are Jennifer Lopez - who seems determined to identify her career by degrees of sheerness - or a presenter competing for the cover of Entertainment Magazine. Even if you are slender to the edge of anorexia and surgically enhanced - that is still not an excuse for immodesty.

But the world sees things differently. The surprising number of women in provocative gowns, who came in all ages, shapes and a broad spectrum of physical condition was proof enough of that. That night, cleavage seemed a condition of fashion and certainly seemed to be a requirement for the competition.

In fairness of course it is always the outrageous few who catch the eye. In reality, most of the women attending the gala were restrained, modest and beautiful in all the right ways.

Julia Roberts

Twenty feet from the metal detectors my son tapped me on the shoulder. I was making notes for this article having decided to jot my thoughts and attempt to bring you with me to share this moment.

"Julia Roberts," he said as if speaking the name of a familiar old missionary companion. I looked up. She was just to my left floating in a tiny bubble of security guards. Her actor boyfriend, Benjamin Bratt was walking beside her reflecting her miraculous smile.

Bratt is 37. Julia is 33. Benjamin looked shorter than his alleged 6'2" frame and more coiffured and cleaner than recent pictures in People Magazine. In spite of security clearing her way, Julia moved slowly and I had the opportunity of seeing her up close.

She was gorgeous. There was nothing ordinary about this woman. There is endless speculation on what it is that makes one person a plain and ordinary woman, another an actress and another a glorious Super Star.

It is an endless quest and a question without a clear answer. It is many things. It is talent, training, hard work, experience, opportunity, and a whole series of serendipitous events. It is choices. It is luck. Most of all I believe it is genetics and extreme good fortune.

Julia Roberts is by any standard one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Her role as Erin Brockovich in the movie by the same name won her a Golden Globe, an award from the National Board of Review, a Screen Actor's Guild award, and top honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

Even without her inevitable Oscar Sunday night, Julia Roberts was America's sweetheart. I've enjoyed her in films. It was interesting to stand beside her. Her smile was iridescent and irresistible. What made her so charming was that she seemed absolutely unable to resist sharing that magnificent smile with her screaming, adoring fans. They loved her. It was a fascinating moment to be "with her" as the focal point of such affection and infatuation swept over us.

Caught up in that moment and being "of the world" it was easy to see her as the virtual embodiment of her own two favorite actors, Katherine and Aubrey Hepburn.

Blinded by the bright lights illuminating her face and her fame it becomes all too easy to ignore her lack of any apparent resistance to faltering personal morality.

As I glanced up and scanned the enthusiastic faces above me I could not help but notice the predominance of teenage girls in various states of a worshipful trance.

Until the moment I saw all this, it had been easy to ignore the probable impact of Julia's example on the declining morality of our popular culture.

Julia Roberts' debut notoriety as an actress ("Satisfaction," 1988) was more likely the result of her tabloid affair with Liam Neeson than her performance.

In fairness however, her remarkable performance in "Mystic Pizza" (1988) justified the success that followed, but her personal life has been checkered with men, failed engagements, marriages, divorce, and the shameful live-in affairs that have become so acceptable.

Of her three and a half year relationship with Benjamin Bratt she said simply, "Why would anyone want to get married? We're happy, we're cruising."

A trusted friend reminded me of Julia's political philosophy. "The word 'Republican' in the dictionary" Ms. Roberts has said in essence, "is somewhere between reptilian and repugnant."

The issue is not one of defending Republicans or being Democrat, of course. It is an issue of the open disdain so popular among Hollywood's elite for people with conservative ideas and value-centered lives.

Julia Roberts is vulnerable, lovable and believable. We love her for the person we believe her to be based on the characters she creates on screen. She is the undisputed sweetheart "of the world."

As a result, she also happens to be one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. We too easily forgive and forget the fact that she is immoral in her personal life, self-servingly liberal in her philosophies and an open advocate of ideas and actions that erode traditional values.

Movies do impact our social mores. For good or for evil, for better or for worse. We are influenced by the examples of the characters depicted on the screen, but also by our affection for the human actors who bring those characters to life.

Julia responds and reacts - I presume - according to the level of truth and light in her life. The great risk to someone illuminated by artificial light and a chorus of flattering voices is that they are blind to pure light and deaf to true messengers.

Julia Roberts is the personification of Hollywood. She stands on the elevated pedestal of adoration, the Crown Princess atop the "Rameumptom" of popular culture.

Standing that close to this wondrous woman on Sunday night, the glitter was almost blinding.

Sunday school in the old rock chapel was half a century away. The simple virtues so easy to understand were faint and faded memories of a distant lifetime. "All that glitters is not gold" my teacher told us, then tried hard to help us understand and recognize true values.

Reflecting quietly on that moment I think I finally understand.

Stop! That is enough. What a bore I have become, inviting you to the Academy Awards then wagging my finger and shaking my head and condemning the obvious evils of our industry like a fanatic on the corner with a hand painted sign that says "JESUS SAVES".

Jesus does save. I believe that with all my heart, but in his grace and love he has ordained a mortal experiences of choices. We have been placed "in" the world with the challenge to avoid becoming "of" the world. Just what that means in its entirety is another complex question all together.

A Royal Household

In this world, Hollywood has become a royal household. Like all things temporal, it has the power for good and the power for evil.

The motion picture business is a marvelous industry filled with thousands of good - even great - people. Most of the people filling the room Sunday night were in that category.

I sat next to the man in charge of post-production at Walt Disney Studios, a job he has held for 22 years. He has raised a family and earned a living and never been part of the "dark side."

I would do you a great disservice to let my close encounter with the reigning queen of Hollywood be our only shared experience from Sunday night.

It was a marvelous evening. It was wonderful fun. I was with my son. We talked about the great films we have yet to make. We talked about the epic films that will one day fill the prophetic vision of Spencer W. Kimball.

Just beyond the metal detectors we entered a bright red arena. With Gladiator nominated as Best Picture it was hard not to compare the broad red carpet promenade with the Roman amphitheater for gladitorial combat.

Screaming fans were packed into bleachers extending above us on all sides. Braided red ropes on golden stanchions guided the celebrities into the cameras. Some were stopped for interview and comment. Seasoned smiles disguised the disappointment of those not singled out to be among "the chosen." It was exciting.

I bumped into Actor/Director Ed Harris coming out of the men's room. We had a chance to chat about his film, his work and this night of expectations. We "hung out" with Goldie Hawn, Morgan Freeman and Sigourney Weaver - sort of.

It was fun to watch Dagen rub shoulders with a dozen of the stars who made it to the stage. They always noticed him and smiled. He really looked like somebody they ought to know and remember.

With a few noted exceptions, we enjoyed Steve Martin, the tributes and special awards. We cheered for our friends who were nominated, even when they lost.

There were highlights you may have missed. They were highlights because they reminded me that behind the glitter of the Julia Roberts and Hilary Swanks there are armies of good men and women who dress modestly, work hard, raise families and in their own way live their lives with determined integrity.

There are 6000 of us who enjoy membership in the Motion Picture Academy. Most of us remain behind the scenes, unknown, working our magic the best way we can and going home to our families at night.

Dino De Laurentiis has been involved in over 600 films. He was honored with the lifetime achievement award. Do you remember what he said? Here is a man who has been immersed in the motion picture business for a lifetime. In the moment of his greatest achievement he said simply, "I want to thank the six most beautiful women in the world" then introduced his wife and five daughters watching from the second row.

Mr. De Laurentiis was only one of many who acknowledged wives and husbands, children and parents. One happy winner raised the golden trophy and dedicated it "to my Mom in heaven and my Dad in Detroit."

Even bad boy Russell Crowe honored parents with his surprisingly humble acceptance, "I want to thank my Mum and Dad who I just don't thank enough." It was in some respects an unusual year for acknowledgment of spouses, parents and family.

We are easily enticed by all things that glitter. If they glitter bright enough we are easily blinded.

When I entered the Shrine Auditorium I passed beneath four gigantic Golden Statues of Oscar. Here, it occurred to me, is the definitive glittering idol of popular culture - a contemporary god of Elkenah.

I found myself both "in" and "of" the world all at the same time.

I love movies. I love watching them. I love making them. I love my life as a filmmaker. Immersed once again in the intoxicating glamour of the Academy Awards, I found a part of me enthralled with every moment. But my humble roots in the old Rock Church seemed to tug on my soul and whisper caution.

The experience remained most enjoyable, but I found myself musing on the meaning of it all at a very different level.

It was after all the Sabbath and I had already made a difficult decision - and compromise - just to be there at all.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)

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