As U.S. and British forces bombed Umm Qasr and reports of brutalized American POWs were gruesomely confirmed, a whole bunch of people--actors, writers, directors, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, and various other movie-folk, along with a lot of regular people lucky enough to know them--gathered in a well-appointed Hollywood auditorium to honor themselves and each other for their work in the motion-picture industry during 2002.

This ceremony was broadcast live around the globe, but up to the last minute, the propriety, even the possibility, of the 2003 Oscar ceremony was debated like a partial-birth abortion. Never mind that the 12th-row seat of ABC network president Alex Wallau was rigged with an emergency phone set to ring in case of an Oscar-endangering catastrophe. Had an Iraqi A-bomb reduced the Kodak Theatre to a steaming heap of silicone and Versace, the show still would have gone on, with the one or two survivors (best bets: Julie Andrews, who will never die, and Mickey Rooney, who appears unable to die) clambering atop the sizzling rubble to thank the remains of their peers. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, canceling the Oscars would've meant the terrorists have already won.

None of which mitigates the itchiness of throwing a gala awards ceremony (or attending a gala awards ceremony, or enjoying a gala awards ceremony on TV) while hundreds of thousands of American men and women risk their lives protecting (ostensibly and among many other things) our right to throw, attend, and enjoy gala awards ceremonies.

So thank God for Steve Martin. Having morphed over the past few decades from a white-suited doofus with an arrow through his head to a funny, humane New Yorker essayist, Martin proved to be the perfect host for this year's touchy ceremony: wise enough to understand which subjects are out of his depth, and smart enough to make witty mincemeat out of everything left in reach.

In this case, that meant Hollywood itself, with Martin delivering an array of hilariously straight-faced barbs that had his A-list targets squirming their way through shock and fear to flattered admiration. Most impressively, Martin (or maybe Bruce Vilanch) had the so-simple-it's-brilliant idea of using celebrity close-ups as punch lines: After Martin thanked "those movie stars who have the decency not to publicize that they have slept with me," close-ups of his classy "ex-lovers" appeared onscreen in hilarious succession, with subjects chosen for both Martin's pleasure (Halle Berry, Julianne Moore, Renée Zellweger) and ours (Julie Andrews, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen, Ernest Borgnine).

Then the awards began. Having grudgingly sacrificed my personal indignation at the nominations (in a perfect world, Lovely & Amazing's Raven Goodwin would've been nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but even in this crappy world, L&A's screenplay should've gotten a nod), I was content to watch things unfold as God saw fit. (Coincidentally, I've taken a similar stance to watching the war, albeit with more praying and weeping.)

At first, God was just, selecting Adaptation's Chris Cooper for Best Supporting Actor. Cooper repaid the favor with genuine gratitude; if there's anything more moving than watching a straight man struggling to hold back tears, I never want to see it. (Cooper's eloquent homage to Saint Meryl Streep was simply salsa on the omelet.)

Then God was merciful, naming Chicago's Catherine Zeta-Jones Best Supporting Actress, and protecting the eight-months- pregnant T-Mobile spokesmodel from my impassioned prayers for her water to break on stage. (Then I realized that I prefer to imagine God as a deity who pays greater attention to matters of war than matters of acting and fashion, and decided to hold the members of the Academy responsible for their own actions.)

The Academy surprised and delighted me by giving Best Original Song to Eminem's "Lose Yourself." However, a post-show listening to the track diminished the surprise. Lyrically, the song's a hiphop cross of motivational speaking and Stanislavsky method, and it undoubtedly pumped up more Academy members than that trifle from Chicago, which sounds like it was composed on the back of a napkin on the way to the show.

The Academy disappointed me by naming The Hours' Nicole Kidman Best Actress, an award that should've gone to either Far from Heaven's Julianne Moore, who deserved it, or Chicago's Renée Zellweger, whose performance was surprisingly rich and who's just so damn adorable when she wins things I want to give her every award on Earth.

The audience disappointed me by booing Best Documentary winner Michael Moore for his anti-Bush rant. Apparently when Hollywood deigns to give an award to a fat person, it expects gratitude, or at least no screaming.

The Academy freaked me out by giving Best Actor to The Pianist's Adrien Brody, whose performance I've not yet seen, but I trust it's great, as Brody's acceptance speech alone inspired me to worship him forever.

The Academy freaked me out further by naming The Pianist's Roman Polanski Best Director. Isn't this the same voting bloc that got all huffy two years ago over an honorary award for peerless directing legend/McCarthy-era sellout Elia Kazan? Can Hollywood actually consider naming names a less forgivable offense than the anal rape of a 13-year-old?

Finally, the Academy surprised no one by proclaiming Chicago Best Picture. In times of strife, citizens always crave that old razzle-dazzle--just ask Busby Berkeley. Or Leni Riefenstahl.

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Washington Ensemble Theatre presents amber, a sensory installation set in the disco era
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