George Clooney, a winner for best supporting actor for Syriana, exemplified the rare best of Oscar 2005.
As an alienated CIA agent in the show's clip - scarred, bearded, packing 30 extra pounds - he was scarily persuasive, using all the force of his street experience and the dead aim in his eye to intimidate super-slick Washington string-puller Christopher Plummer. (It reminded me of how much better Syriana would have been even as propaganda if it had half the characters and stuck with them.)
Then Clooney stepped up to the podium, looking dapper in his tux, and told the world how proud he is to be "out-of-touch," smartly defining it as being ahead of the mainstream when it comes to social awareness and civil rights.
As a filmmaker in Good Night, and Good Luck, as an actor in Syriana, and as a personality throughout the awards season, Clooney pulled off the trick that most other talents in Hollywood must still learn to master: exercising their social consciousness without losing their yen to entertain, and, yes, to dazzle.
You fear Hollywood's dominant idea of dazzle is more like the dancers who mimed social friction and communion to the turgid theme song from the tendentious Crash - a piece of choreography that must have had Martha Graham spinning in her grave.
The clip of Good Night, and Good Luck - a movie that looms ever-larger in the memory and even plays well in little bits - demonstrated Clooney's savviness as a filmmaker. In one of the night's few perfect selections, the producers chose the climax of broadcast legend Edward R. Murrow's attack on Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy for using witch-hunt methods to buttress his hawkish reputation as an anti-Communist and further a paranoid atmosphere.
As a director, Clooney knows that for those precious minutes all he has to do is keep his camera trained on his star David Strathairn's face as the newsman says the politician "didn't create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves."
Clooney learned from honorary Oscar winner Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville) that real-world movies can provide what most features long ago ceased even to offer. Their atmosphere can extend beyond the corners of the screen. They can deliver slashing takes not just on politics or social issues, but illusion and reality, truth and lies, life and death. They can even boast a stronger visual dimension than pure escapism.
You saw this in the clips from Clooney's film and Altman's classics, from The Constant Gardener (Rachel Weisz took the best supporting actress prize for that movie) and Capote - but not from a bombastic montage of Hollywood protests against social ills such as racism and homophobia, including such head-scratching inclusions as 9 to 5 and The Day After Tomorrow.
After that interminable bout of back-patting, Jon Stewart (thank God) deadpanned: "And none of those issues was ever a problem again." He then hilariously announced that Susan Sarandon was so moved she had just donated a $50,000 check to the Academy. "Congratulations to us," quipped Stewart.
Clooney, at least, pushes a socially conscious artistic agenda with a classiness that makes even Tinseltown self-congratulation ingratiating.