Tinseltown’s Self-Love — and Loathing: Wolcott Covers the Oscars

Marshall McLuhan said TV was a ‘cool’ medium. Wolcott’s criticism was always hot.


Oscar party, smoshcar party — who cares?

Well, according to the Times, not nearly as many people consider a ticket to Vanity Fair’s Oscar party to be the huge deal it was only a few short years ago. It would appear that the magazine, with a new editor, was not pleased with the Times’s assessment, and so the newspaper was disinvited from the shindig.

This seems to be a trend at Vanity Fair — the glossy also recently disinvited one of its most storied writers from its pages (though we don’t know if he’s still invited to the party):

Well, here at the Voice, we have fond memories of James Wolcott’s coverage of Tinseltown’s annual self-love-fest, and below we give you just one of the pop culture explicator’s excursions across our pages.

In 1982 (not long before he left for Vanity Fair’s no doubt bigger payday), Wolcott, in his column covering all things on the idiot box, checked in on which film critics were handicapping the Oscars — who was going to win big, who would go home in tears: “Just as movie moguls while away the hours trying to divine the whims and desires of the Public, movie critics have increasingly begun wasting time and space delving into the collective mind of the Academy, wrestling with such brawny questions as ‘Will Warren Beatty’s rakishness hurt him with the Academy’s older members?’ and ‘Is Diane Keaton too bohemian to score with the West Coast neatniks?’ ”

Wolcott was having none of it. “You can’t help but realize how belittling it is to fritter away brain cells on something as insignificant as Henry Fonda’s Oscar prospects. But for those with a bit more on their minds, Oscarmania is a party in which the streamers droop like limp macaroni.”

When Wolcott was finished skewering Oscar, he honed in on a televised version of Working: “Studs Terkel’s lump-in-the-throat socialism has become something to flee. In Working, Terkel nods gravely and sagely as a troupe of Hollywood actors pour out their hopes and peeves into his endlessly whirring tape recorder. He’s a barstool Walt Whitman, listening to the downtrodden of America rattle their multitudinous chains.”

Wolcott does, however, approve of fellow commentator Clive James’s prose: “some of the sharpest, funniest writing about television on either side of the Atlantic.” The Voice critic relates that he’d learned a lot from James’s television column in the Sunday edition of London’s Observer, having “stolen from it left and right,” and then goes on to lament that the Australian-born essayist-poet was calling it quits — having decided to “hang up his rabbit ears.”

“I’m going to regret losing his lethal parodies of tangled diction and his pop-nourished insights into American dreck,” Wolcott tells us, adding, “Reviewing Star Trek, for example, James noticed that all of the planets Captain Kirk beamed down to were reassuringly familiar. ‘The planet always turns out to be the same square mile of rocky Californian scrubland long ago overexposed in the Sam Katzman serials: Brick Bradford was there, and Captain Video — not to mention Batman, Superman, Jungle Jim, and the Black Commando. I mean like this place has been worn smooth, friends.’ ”

Wolcott’s column was titled Medium Cool, but it was the subtitle, Television and Its Discontents, that let you know what you were in for.