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The Names of the Game


Published April 10, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

So many celebrities, so little time! My mind is simply reeling this week from all the news that's fit to print.

Never mind the intifada (which our president has called the "infitada"): No sooner was the ink dry on my last column than black America, in the form of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Sidney Poitier, swept the Academy Awards. There's nothing Hollywood likes better than mooning over people it's treated badly in the past. "It actually felt as if something in society shifted," said John Cleese, formerly of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Accepting the Oscar for "career achievement" Ñ as opposed to the one for "life achievement," which went to Robert Redford Ñ Poitier invoked the names of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Darryl F. Zanuck and other legendary figures of Hollywood's golden age, princes of celluloid who were "unafraid to have their art reflect their views, ethical and moral." It isn't true: In 1952, Zanuck was the one who urged director and screenwriter Elia Kazan to "name names" of suspected Hollywood communists before the House Un-American Activities Commit-tee. But this is no time to revisit the blacklist. As Peggy Noonan put it in The Wall Street Journal, "There's no reason to be grouchy about the Oscars."

"I accept this award in memory of all the African-American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years," Poitier concluded, "on whose shoulders I was privileged to stand, to see where I might go."

His speech won "the longest standing ovation in Oscar history," apparently, which is something, since they hand them out like Chiclets every year. When his own turn came, Washington could only quip, "Two birds in one night!" before lapsing into what sounded like dangerously Islamic sentiments: "God is great, God is good," etc.

"Oh, my God!" said Halle Berry, swiftly steering the proceedings back to the vernacular. "I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll." It was for Oprah Winfrey, Ethel Waters and, somehow, Warren Beatty, too: "It's for every nameless, faceless woman of color who now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened."

Faceless, maybe. But nameless? Not! Conspicuously un-thanked by the blubbering Ms. Berry was the evening's emcee, Whoopi Goldberg, herself an Oscar winner in 1991, albeit for a supporting role. So what's that, chopped liver? Ms. Goldberg is nothing if not a woman of color who's made cinema history, and when Ms. Berry finally bawled, "Thank you, Academy, for choosing me to be the vessel!'' you got the feeling that all was not well at the Garden of Allah.

Whoopi made her first entrance that night by trapeze, lowered from the rafters while dressed as a shepherdess and smothered in gold lamŽ. This is as cute as a woman can get in Hollywood, black or white, before she winds up in limbo with Sandy Duncan. Rumors flew of a feud between Whoopi and Halle, followed by a press release from Whoopi denying it. She's "very happy for Halle." She's "OK" with Halle's "unintended snub." Backstage, somewhat more composed, Halle confessed that she had "no idea" whether a black woman winning the Oscar would help anyone at all.

The one who's really in trouble in Hollywood right now is that hussy Julia Roberts, whose, um, preference for Denzel as best actor of the year became so obvious onstage they practically had to douse her with a hose. "Some Hollywood heavyweights feel she should have kept her emotions a little more in check," says Jeannette Walls, resident gossipeuse for MSNBC. A "source" told Walls: "We all know how she feels about Denzel. But the Oscar ceremony was not the place to show it."

Meanwhile, over at Morton's restaurant, site of Vanity Fair's "annual Oscar bash," not an eye remained dry. Since the death of superagent Swifty Lazar in 1993, the VF party is the place to be on Oscar night Ñ the most exclusive invitation in town, limited to a mere 1500 people with power in the industry. "Even the stars get excited looking at the stars," Dominick Dunne explains. And Morton's "feels safe" to thighmeister and sob sister Suzanne Somers Ñ speaking of power. "You get to feel normal," Somers declares, "everybody is so famous!"

Oprah left the party and announced that she was canceling her Book Club. "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share," Winfrey declared last week.

But wait Ñ isn't that a new book about John F. Kennedy, Jr., I see in the corner? Yes! It's Richard Blow's American Son, currently excerpted Ñ surprise! Ñ in Vanity Fair and purporting to contain "revelations" about John and Carolyn's tragic final days. Blow was formerly executive editor at George Ñ JFK Jr.'s "political" magazine, which was already going belly-up before his plane went belly-down. It seems that John and Carolyn also had "terrible fights," and that John spent the night before their fatal trip at the Stanhope Hotel.

And on the subject of politics, did you know that there are currently two fictionalized TV dramas about the United States Supreme Court on network television, one about the White House and three about the CIA? True, "The X-Files" is going off the air, but Nathan Lane will be back in a new sitcom next fall playing "a gay senator" on Capitol Hill. And the winner is…?