First lady Michelle Obama appeared on screen from Washington on Sunday in order to announce the award for best picture during the Oscars.
CHRIS PIZZELLO / Associated Press
The moment Michelle Obama appeared at the Oscars, the surprise guest at the end of a long and listless night, a collective groan reportedly went through the Dolby Theater media room.
On my East Coast couch, I felt the same dismay: Did they really have to go there? Because everyone knew what was coming next. By Monday morning, the right-wing punditocracy had declared this a national tragedy: wholly inappropriate, brazenly political, proof that the White House is self-serving and elitist and in Hollywood's pocket, or vice versa.
OK, deep breath.
First of all, there is no great standard for “appropriate” at the Academy Awards (which, I suppose, is a defense of Seth MacFarlane as host). This is an evening for wealthy people to name-check their agents while modeling plastic surgery techniques. Beyoncé could lip-synch here, and no one would care.
Besides, the First Lady's statement was so carefully vetted and depoliticized that it left nothing to actually criticize: Something about the arts being good and movies making us laugh and cry and inspiring our nation's youth. Singer Shirley Bassey, warning young women about the dangers of rich, cold men, was twice as relevant and 10 times more exciting.
On the other hand, given the lack of an agenda to promote or political points to be won, the FLOTUS appearance seemed like unnecessary bait, proof that the White House has tone-deafness problems of its own.
It's easy to see why the White House jumped when Oscar producers came calling. The billion-viewer platform was surely irresistible; Republicans have used it, too, when offered the chance. Ronald Reagan taped a message to the Oscars in 1981. Laura Bush had a cameo in an Oscar-telecast video in 2002.
Obama's trouble was agreeing to be the highlight of the ceremony, the super-secret guest with the most important role in Hollywood's Most Important Night.
It was an odd bad call for a woman who has proven surprisingly good at selling herself. Being first lady is a thankless job — you're supposed to be substantive without projecting too much substance, powerful without projecting too much power — but Obama has managed, better than most, to harness the celebrity for her own purposes. She champions good causes (and, really, somone's going to get upset about nutrition?). She champions fashion; US Weekly quickly reported that her Oscar dress was by Naeem Khan. She dishes with Rachael Ray about her midlife-crisis bangs and mom-dances with Jimmy Fallon.
Usually, she manages a nifty trick: Looking glamorous, but not distant. This is, in fact, the same trick the Oscar ceremony tries to pull off every year, but usually fails, because too many participants get caught up in their own hype.
Someone is always going to wear an inappropriate dress or blather on too long about his greatness. Someone is going to coo, “It came true,” while cradling her Oscar at the podium, triggering the gag reflex across America.
And something predictably pious is going to happen in the end — as when Obama announced that this year's top prize went to the movie about how Hollywood, teamed up with a hyper-competent U.S. government, managed to save the world. (If Republicans ran Hollywood, the winner would have been the one about the miserable people in France.) This would all be fine — “Argo” is good, art is art — but the Oscars always has to rub it in, patting Hollywood on the back for the goodness it projects into the world. On ABC's red carpet show, a hostess asked Daniel Day Lewis if he still carried Lincoln in his heart.
Here's what people don't tend to ask on Oscar night: Why are so many movies filled with gratuitous gun violence? Why is the Hollywood elite still overwhelmingly white? Why do so many stars need Botox to sustain their careers?
Michelle Obama didn't need to be a buzzkill at the Oscars. But the woman with a health-filled public policy agenda could stand to project a little distance. Instead, she had to parrot the self-congratulatory hype: that somehow the Best Picture nominees “prove that love can endure against all odds and transform our lives in the most surprising ways.”
With her platform as first lady, Obama can do better. To impress the lingering skeptics in the public, she'd get more mileage doing “Ellen.” Or, better yet, “Family Guy.”
Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe.