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There are plenty of reasons for an arts critic to leave town—say, vacation. OK, OK, all critics should see what’s animating the national conversation from time to time—it can broaden and inform their perspective. But sometimes it feels like The Washington Post‘s reviewers are spending a bit too much time consuming art in other cities, especially New York Los Angeles, specifically the Kodak Theatre and surrounding area—this despite the Post‘s 2009 reorientation as a paper focused on politics and local news. With editorial budgets tight and plenty of in-town art that escapes the Post‘s eye, we offer this regular series, in which we determine how much of the Post‘s travel budget ought to have gone to an individual review. At one end of the budget spectrum: Acela. At the other: Hitchhiking.
Reviewers (and Reporters) on the Road: WaPost sent a veritable junket to Hollywood for the 83rd Academy Awards. Amy Argetsinger landed the A1 lead story with her write-up of the ceremony, complete with the inevitable headline “The King’s Speech is crowned Best Picture.” (Gah!) Jen Chaney of the Celebritology blog was on red-carpet and press-room duty, posting and tweeting about the evening’s couture gowns and the winners’ press avails. And Dan Zak made the trip too, but on a reporting assignment to follow the Oscar-week experiences of Carie Lemack, a Dupont Circle resident who produced Killing in the Name, which was nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
Invoice Argument: The Oscars are the biggest film event of the year, and after months of buildup and studio campaigning, the moment is driven more by celebrity and a public narrative rather than critical merit. But it’s such an occasion—the ceremony, the fashion, the dark horses, and the glamorous parties—that even Fare Assessment agrees the Academy Awards are at least a two-person job. But WaPo didn’t just have Argestinger, Chaney, and Zak on the beat. Cheney shared the Celebritology blogging with Liz Kelly; Ned Martel and Lisa de Moraes wrote the text for a two-page spread on last night’s fashion plates; and Hank
Steuver Stuever reviewed the Oscars as a television event (though the last four all worked from home). Still, seven writers on the Oscars! Win the day much, WaPo?
Budget Hawk: Here’s where things get problematic. With Martel and DeMoraes reviewing the actors’ wardrobes and Kelly blogging from the confines of her home or her cubicle at 15th and L, Cheney’s red-carpet coverage was limited to Twitter and this interview with Zachary Levi (the Chuck star was there to sing the Best Original Song nominee “I See the Light” from Tangled). Before long she hoofed it to the backstage press room to document the winners’ post-victory appearances. (Here’s her warm appraisal of Best Supporting Actor winner Christian Bale.) But if Argetsinger was dispatched to Hollywood to cover the Oscars, surely she too was in the press room. It seems like a carefully managed setting; were two WaPo staffers really necessary for this?
Now compare Argetsinger’s Page 1 recap with Stuever’s take on the TV coverage. The narratives—Anne Hathaway was radiant, James Franco was (probably) high, their chemistry was awkward, Kirk Douglas was creepy yet adorable, Melissa Leo said “fucking” during a live broadcast, Christian Bale didn’t, Aaron Sorkin thinks he’s Paddy Chayefsky (note: he’s not), Colin Firth is British, The King’s Speech took four of the top awards but failed to build a clean sweep, and ABC wanted a young demographic but unfortunately the Academy loves fusty Brits—are identical. Even if Argetsinger was in the room, I got the same sense of how the Oscars went from Stuever, who was not. Compound this with the fact that Cheney was in the room with Argetsinger and the Post‘s lead story today looks a bit overblown sharing the front page with the latest news from the turmoils in the Mideast and the Midwest.
But Dan Zak went to Los Angeles to tell the personal narrative of Carie Lemack, “a tiny, intense policy wonk” whose work as an advocate for terrorism victims yielded a grant from the Council on Foreign Relations that she used to produce Killing in the Name. Lemak is not a film-industry type. Her mother died on one of the airplanes hijacked on 9/11, and in the wake of the attacks she and her sister founded Families of September 11 to represent the victims’ survivors. But the film’s nomination earned Lemak a trip to the Oscars, an experience she shared with the Post. Skim Zak’s article and it seems like a weeklong safari through gift bags, high fashion, and celebrity elbow-rubbing. But its fish-out-of-water tale gives readers a wry and very thorough glimpse into Hollywood’s surreality. Lemak’s conversation with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine actress Chase Masterson leads to a world of “bottles of liquids that eradicate wrinkles or cure insomnia, a $1,000 gift certificate for a personal styling session, jugs of alcoholic chocolate milk” and later free Mongolian baubles and Tahitian getaways. A couturier’s publicist tells Lemak to pose like Kim Kardashian during a gown fitting, though not without warning her that Leeza Gibbons picked out the same dress. Ron Jeremy brushes past Lemak at one of the many “gifting suites” she is ferried to during the week. Yet all the while, Zak notes, Lemak spent the week angling to nab Oscar tickets for one of the film’s subjects. (She got them from Anne Hathaway.)
The Verdict: Zak’s chronicle of the week before the Academy Awards is bizarre, clever, and altogether worthy of the nonstop flight from DCA to LAX, even if he did collaborate with Argetsinger on a late-morning recap of the Vanity Fair after-party, though we’re guessing it was Zak who pet Donald Trump‘s hair. (“It feels like corn silk.”) Cheney’s star-driven coverage was a bit flitty and backed up by three colleagues (Kelly, Martel, de Moraes) who worked from home. But she got to California before Argetsinger, specifically to cover the Independent Spirit Awards for a Saturday evening Celebritology post. So we’ll give Cheney a plane ticket too, though she’s getting a layover in Dallas-Fort Worth. That leaves Argetsinger, who went 3,000 miles to write essentially the same story as someone who watched the Oscars on TV (Stuever) and cover Graydon Carter‘s annual tribute to himself. Not quite worth the airfare, or even a cross-country Greyhound. Our assessment for Argetsinger: Hitchhiking.