The best measure I can offer of the success of Friday night’s telethon is that, about halfway through the show, I called 1-866 TO UNITE and charged a $50 donation to my MasterCard. I am sure that the husbands, wives, and children of the victims will make good use of the money. The telethon itself was a mercifully restrained example of the kind of Hollywood hoopla that vanished from the face of the earth on Sept. 11, the day when “everything in our lives”changed forever —or so the talking heads on CNN keep insisting. What made last Friday night different from other Friday nights, as far as I can tell, was that a portfolio of Vanity Fair-style celebrities, including Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Clint Eastwood, Robert De Niro, Bruce Springsteen, and Wyclef Jean, managed to get through a two-hour long evening spectacular without ego-tripping or revealing their own personal experiences of the tragedy. I was struck by the contrast between the relative restraint and good manners of the Hollywood folks and the puerile self-importance of some of the writers in New York. And it was a relief to sit and watch television without anyone aspiring to the visionary wisdom of Nostradamus or Tom Clancy.
The show was broadcast from sets in New York and Los Angeles and from a theater in London; the locations were “not disclosed” for “security reasons,” a decision that would seem to encourage the present national mood of paranoia. The sets, with their cascading rows of candles, brought to mind a New Age healing space or a Stevie Nicks video–a place for wounded hearts to be soothed and salved. The musicians came off much better than the actors. Alicia Keys was spectacularly good; she brought to mind a young Roberta Flack. Dave Matthews was a surprise; he seemed to be emotionally centered in the moment in a way that performers like Mariah Carey couldn’t match. Bruce Springsteen tried out an unrecorded song whose refrain, “my city is in ruins,” smacked of mournful hyperbole; while the World Trade Center is gone and thousands of people are dead, the rest of the city is thankfully intact. Performers like U2 and Tom Petty stuck to familiar, comforting hits. With his long blond hair, scraggly beard, and dark jacket, Petty looked like a Beverly Hills colorist’s version of Jesus Christ; his version of “I Won’t Back Down” struck a defiant note that seemed appropriate enough to me but was roundly condemned by reviewers the next morning.
I felt especially bad for the comedians. They were clearly in a tough spot. Robin Williams has plenty of experience seeming somber, but it was weird to see Jim Carrey quoting Winston Churchill and to watch Chris Rock talk about the guys who were still out at the World Trade Center site digging, and digging, and digging–it sounded for a moment like the set-up for some macabre punch line. While the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-style road shows of the World War II era made plenty of room for comedy, the organizers of “America: A Tribute to Heroes” opted for a grave tone that recalled the Around the World In 80 Days era of Hollywood liberalism, shorn of its ethnic particularity, rudeness, and fidgety drive. Still, it would be easy to imagine Marilyn Monroe and Sammy Davis Jr. performing, or Peter Lawford and Natalie Wood answering phones. A bully like Sinatra, on the other hand, would not have been welcome. The Chairman’s closest relative here was Fred Durst, the lead singer for Limp Bizkit, who wore a brand-new Yankees cap and premiered a lousy acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s classic high school anthem “Wish You Were Here.” Since Durst was a prime instigator of the violence at Woodstock ‘99, in which dozens of people were killed, badly injured, or raped (after the singer urged his fans to “go crazy” and “destroy shit”), his presence seemed like a mistake. Perhaps the organizers saw Durst as a better, more mainstream choice than possibly violence-prone hip-hop artists like Jay-Z or Eminem. Other strange choices included using the boxer Muhammed Ali, owner of the most famous fists in the world, to speak about how Muslims abhor violence, and asking the very delicate-looking Calista Flockhart to read from The Diary of Anne Frank.
The most ideologically pointed moments of this somber entertainment came courtesy of a few quotations from JFK and FDR. (Robert De Niro recited the Four Freedoms, playing his familiar role of an ethnic guy from New York.) There was also a filmed plea-for-tolerance sequence in which Muslim-American children aired their fears about becoming objects of hate. Sadly, the hate incidents of last week do show that American Muslims are in need of protection; I did wonder, however, whether the majority of female Muslim-American students wear full-length black chadors to class. This bit of Hollywood stagecraft is worth picking over because it underlines the evening’s sotto voce multiculturalist message. A more honest program might have shown that the majority of Muslim-American children dress and act more or less the same as their Christian, Jewish, and Hindu classmates. Instead, the producers chose to represent American Muslims as the ethnic equivalent of baby seals–cute, defenseless creatures who are very different from the rest of us, but who are not at all scary. The message of universalism was reinforced by the complete and quite unusual absence of the American flag. On the other hand, many of the performers were accompanied by a gospel choir, whose fervent presence probably did very little to reassure nervous Muslims in other countries who fear that they are about to become the targets of a latter-day American Crusader army.
The contrast between the president’s speech on Thursday night and the following night’s entertainment could not have been greater. A person who had emerged on Friday night from a two-week stay in a cave and then turned on his television might have watched the entire program from beginning to end without gleaning how or why thousands of Americans had died in Washington and New York (a natural disaster?). There were victims and heroes, but no terrorists, criminals, crime, or war. The only clue would have been provided by Clint Eastwood, who squinted and growled into the cameras for a brief moment or two at the end of the evening, somewhere between “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful.”
Still, production values were very high, and the show itself was, by Hollywood standards, surprisingly tasteful. It worked. To pretend otherwise would be to deny who we are; we are soaked in the essence of Hollywood, we bathe in it nightly. We are exquisitely sensitive to such stimuli and to their effects, as are billions of people around the world–including those who turn our commercial jetliners into bombs and fly them into our buildings.