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Oscar Works Hard for the Charities

Times have changed. Used to be when a Vanessa Redgrave or Marlon Brando or other stars snatched Oscar's spotlight for a favorite cause, they were denounced by show officials and peers alike. Ms. Redgrave even lost work after criticizing Israel.

The official line is the same. "This show is about entertainment," says Ric Robertson, executive administrator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which awards Oscars), "not personal politics."

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But these days, a celebrity without some sort of lapel ribbon (say, pink for breast cancer or red for AIDS) is the exception. Now, Oscar has followed the celebrity lead and become a working royal himself.

Three years ago, the Academy began anointing official Oscar-night charity events. What began as two are now 31 parties from coast to coast, harnessing the power of the official Oscar logo and program materials to fund causes from AIDS to children. Last year's events raised more than $700,000.

What's behind the beneficence? The Oscars have become an antique ritual, says University of Southern California professor Leo Braudy. Charities help atone for the over-institutionalization of the event. Besides, he adds, "politics in Hollywood is more cultural than political."

New York University professor Mark Crispin Miller agrees. "Today's stars make astronomical amounts of money in a time of vast media conglomerates. They all need a way to atone for their success. These celebrities need opportunities to show they're well-meaning and committed."

The media-studies professor adds that Hollywood used to tackle the hard topics in popular films. Now, he points to all five of this year's best-film nominees, saying, "movies have become shallow and dumber. All the tough issues have been sentimentalized and co-opted" - off the screen and into fashion accessories, such as the ribbons or charities.

That the Academy feels comfortable doing charity only shows how far the culture of celebrity has come, notes Lewis Hyde, professor of art and politics at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Oscar would never go where its stars hadn't gone before.

And most stars will rarely stray too far from issues that have developed mainstream support.

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The official charity events (only one per city) must work with the local ABC affiliate. In most cities, they receive sponsor money and talent from the station. But the largest and oldest of these events, an AIDS charity in Minneapolis, receives "the minimum recognition required," from the local affiliate, says organizer Scott Mayer.

Not surprising, comments Professor Hyde. "When royalty are picking which charities to support, presumably there will be some peasant topics that will not fly because they will not advance careers." Or telecasts, red ribbons or not.

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