Every time they played the theme music for the Golden Globes ceremony Sunday night, the same question kept popping into my mind:
Sitting in the front row, the sly-fox leer under the extra-dark shades, Jack Nicholson was always the poster boy for this heaping helping of Hollywood hoopla that annually launches Oscar season.
Jack was nowhere to be seen Sunday. Things have changed. Always known for the party atmosphere as much as the awards themselves, this was Golden Globes, The Next Generation. The ratings were up, but without Jack at the party, the question through the three-hour broadcast was, are we having fun yet?
Maybe it was Ricky Gervais' blas attitude hosting the affair. Maybe it was the way the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (bestowers of the Globes) got some of them so right - and some so wrong. This may be because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association only has 90 voting members, so it's easy for things to get lost in translation.
It probably had more to do with the sheer weight of the images from Haiti in recent days. Punctuated by the ribbons worn by the evening's oh-so-glamourous attendees, Meryl Streep's acceptance speech for her own Globe bridged the crazy chasm between the beautiful fantasies created by the talented artists filling the Beverly Hilton ballroom - and the heartbreaking events outside in the real world.
Whatever the reason, the Globes' glimpse of the beautiful people felt extra superfluous this year.
I read recently that movie stars possess the power to make audiences feel like we know them. And it did feel a little like a family to watch Drew Barrymore, Kevin Bacon or Jeff Bridges, actors we have watched for decades growing up in the industry, stepping up to the stage to claim their first victories.
Their wins highlighted another theme running through the evening: hard work. The Globes' biggest winner, James Cameron, who took home prizes for best director and best picture for "Avatar" expressed his gratitude at being able to make a living this way.
The sense of all this creativity being a day job was a refreshing new twist, and an alternative to the mindless glamour that the Globes started out being all about.
The big "news" of the evening was the double win for "Avatar," beefing up its Oscar chances and, coupled with its $1 billion international box office, suggesting a "Titanic" deja-vu for filmmaker Cameron.
Using "Titanic's" 11 Oscar wins in 1998 to proclaim himself "king of the world," you have to wonder what domain he can rightfully lay claim to with this sci-fi epic set more than a century in the future on the moon of a distant planet.
In fact, "Avatar" is a greater achievement than "Titanic" from any perspective. The earlier movie captured the hearts - and ticket grosses - of the world with its grand special effects and the effect Leonardo DiCaprio had on teen-age girls and their mothers. But it was about a sinking ship.
In "Avatar," in contrast, Cameron literally creates an entire new world, complete with an entirely new race of 12-foot-tall blue beings who speak a language that he also created.
Pushing 3-D and motion-capture technology to the next level, he creates a realm so dazzling, some filmgoers have reported a sense of depression at having to return to this world. (Other filmgoers report migraine headaches from wearing the 3-D glasses for almost three hours.)
While "Avatar" strings its screenplay on a conventional three-act war-movie scaffolding, Cameron makes the action stand for something. The climactic battle in the last reel is a retelling of the march of Western "civilization," a tale told over and over, including in these islands where we live, of the battle between "advanced society" exploiting the land for its treasures, and the indigenous beings who lived there in the first place, in harmony and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.
"Avatar" has graduated from mere movie to a must-see milepost in contemporary culture. It has plenty of detractors and sparks lively discussion of everything, from its implications about race and technology, to the sensuality of its computer-generated beings.
Personally, I'd still like to see "Up in the Air" snag this year's best-picture Oscar. But I'm in awe of James Cameron's brilliance as both filmmaker and storyteller. The money spent making "Avatar" is all up there on the screen. And rather than mindless escape, its time on screen is spent raising questions worth asking.
Whatever new world James Cameron wants to claim to be king of sounds about right to me.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org.