America's first lady knows there's no business like show business
HOLLYWOOD and the White House have long admired each other's power and appeal, but Michelle Obama's appearance as an Oscars presenter was something else. It was, in short, perfect casting.
Smart, articulate, attractive and popular, the First Lady is a natural leading lady. As her many appearances in the popular media attest, she is every bit the communicator her husband is (and arguably with a more natural common touch). But what exactly should we make of her agreeing to deliver the best picture verdict at the 85th Academy Awards?
There is perhaps a clue to her thinking in the words she used to introduce the award. The nine nominated films, she said, "taught us that love can beat all odds. They reminded us that we can overcome any obstacle if we dig deep enough and fight hard enough and find the courage within ourselves." Those words had an undeniable echo of the "yes we can" slogan on which Obama swept to victory in 2008.
It is through cinema, she added, that "our children learn to open their imagination and dream just a little bigger and to strive every day to reach those dreams".
In that reading, Hollywood is a producer not of opiate for the masses but of road maps to a better life. That's the very stuff of the American Dream.
There's another clue in the films themselves that were vying for the top prize.
The frontrunners were Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty - and you don't have to dig very deep to find in each of them something that might resonate with the current inhabitants of the White House.
Argo's tale of a mission to rescue American hostages from Iran following the revolution of 1979 is a paean to the liberal approach to foreign affairs. The day is won not by force or posturing but by ingenuity, co-operation with allies (not to mention Hollywood itself), and an openness to the unconventional. It starts with an acknowledgement of the bad decision making (by other presidents) that got us into this mess in the first place, and ends with the words of a Democrat president (Jimmy Carter) sharing, as well as taking, the credit for resolving the mess. How could that not appeal to the House of Obama?
Lincoln, of course, tells the tale of the 16th president of the United States, the man who staked his reputation, leadership and ultimately his life on the campaign to abolish slavery - a policy push as unpopular in its time as Obama's proposed healthcare and gun-control reforms. Though Barack Obama's heritage is African rather than African-American, it need hardly be stated how that story might resonate.
And in Zero Dark Thirty we have a third story drawn from real events, in which the hunt for Osama Bin Laden finally yields fruits under President Obama, despite his opposition to the interrogation techniques that may or may not have helped them get there. It's a morally uncertain film in which the most clearly hawkish moment of Obama's presidency provides the yin to the diplomacy yang embodied in Argo.
We may never know for sure, but it is probably safe to assume Michelle Obama knew exactly to whom the Oscar was going before she agreed to present it, flanked as she was by military personnel in full formal regalia. But any one of these three would have proved a fittingly on-message recipient.
But how delicious it is to ponder an alternative universe moment in which Quentin Tarantino's gloriously deranged revenge fantasy Django Unchained had been voted best picture of the year. Just imagine how the sight of a black First Lady presenting the award to a white First Geek for a film about a slave wreaking bloody revenge on the South would have played out among the rednecks and racists still struggling to come to terms with the country's first black president.
But back to reality.
Sometimes the relationship between Hollywood and the White House has been cosy - Bill Clinton's open-house policy for A-listers wanting to stay overnight in the Lincoln Room (many of whom later stumped up six-figure campaign donations, purely by coincidence), and John F. Kennedy's, er, "friendship" with Marilyn Monroe, for instance.
Sometimes it has been uncomfortable, as in the terror of Joe McCarthy's House un-American Activities Committee and the careers it ruined, and the treachery of Ronald Reagan, the one-time president of the Screen Actors Guild, who was a secret informant to the FBI on suspected "commies" in Hollywood.
Michelle Obama is a consummate media performer, whether as the face of a government-sanctioned health and fitness program (Let's Move) or in her appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and Oprah and Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report and Iron Chef and The View and . . . well, check her IMDB credits; 65 appearances, the vast majority on entertainment and chat shows, since 2004.
She is such a canny manipulator of public sentiment, in fact, that speculation has begun to swirl that she has her eye on a White House tilt of her own in 2016. Or on a chat show that could see her emerge as "the new Oprah".
But she is not, as it happens, the first First Lady to participate in the Academy Awards ceremony. According to some handy research by Slate, that honour goes to Laura Bush in 2002. While we're at it, the first president to participate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941, while the last was Ronald Reagan in 1981, when the awards were delayed by 24 hours following an attempt on his life.
The relationship between Hollywood and the White House is deep, if not always savoury. So perhaps all we really need to read into Michelle Obama's appearance as an Oscar's presenter is that it was bound to happen one day. Then again, we all know the biggest stars never really get there by accident.