"Ben Stein says the people who were snubbed on Oscar night weren't the stars who were passed over for Academy Awards, but American troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conservative humorist, writer and political pundit said movie stars and film industry professionals failed to highlight the sacrifices of soldiers during the awards ceremony on March 5. "Not one prayer or moment of silence for those who have given their lives," Stein said, speaking Thursday at a Republican Party fundraising dinner."

-- Associated Press, Sat. March 18, 2006


Dear Ben:

Hi. We've never met. But you seem like a nice, smart guy – at least, you did on your game show. (Did you quit, or did that get cancelled? Congratulations or I'm sorry, by the way. …) Sorry I didn't write earlier; you know: Tax time. Uh, anyhow, please indulge me in a brief fantasy: It's some parallel universe. Not, like, Man in the High Tower parallel, but more of a Gwyenneth-Paltrow-gets-to-live parallel; a little different from our space-time. Maybe we've got Samuel L. Jackson on the $20 instead of Andrew Jackson, and Cronenberg didn't pass on directing Basic Instinct 2. Minor differences. In that universe, subtly different from our own, one of Hollywood's biggest stars – perhaps Tom Hanks; maybe Bruce Willis; possibly Denzel Washington or Julia Roberts (and hey, they all had movies coming up; they could have used the face-time) – stepped onto the stage of the Kodak theater with the lights muted and Bill Conti's orchestra quiet and asked for a moment of silence in honor of America's troops serving in peril abroad, and the fallen men and women who now rest in graves all across America. They would have done so sincerely; they would have used the plain-spoken sort of language one hopes will be heard on occasions like that; there may have even been a mention of God, or a prayer. And after a minute, they would have raised their heads and said something simple – "Thank you, and God bless America." The camera would then have cut to Jon Stewart, who's smart enough to take that kind of thing seriously and would have then found a deft way to segue to a musical number, the next clip, the next award.

So now you've imagined a bit of this universe, Ben. My problem is that I can't help but imagine the speech you would have given Thursday night in that universe. Would you have stood up at the podium for the Kent County Republicans' Lincoln Day Dinner – a fundraiser with over 1,000 people in attendance paying $75 a plate (Which seems a lot; my dad knows this Italian guy out on Highway 53 who can get you roast pig, lasagna and vegetable crudités for, like, a fifth of that. Let me know if you want the number …) - and said the equivalent of, Hey, I just flew in from L.A. and boy are my arms tired, and wasn't that a nice moment at the Oscars, let's hear it for Bruce/Tom/Denzel/Julia and thanks Hollywood for unexpected grace at a time of national challenge ... and moved on to some light after-dinner anecdotes about working with Grand Rapids' own Gerald Ford?

See, I don't think you would have.  Or maybe that's just evil, mirror universe Ben Stein I'm imagining, with a beard, and a moon laser. Evil mirror universe Ben Stein stood up that Thursday night and said something like: They offer a moment of silence to our troops and then give their award to a song about a pimp! Or: It's too bad that Bruce/Tom/Denzel/Julia didn't donate the cost of their clothes for the evening to the USO! Or … I don't know, Ben. But I can only imagine that Evil Ben Stein would have seen a chance to make hay out of Oscar night no matter how it went down.

This is depressing to me, Ben, imagining that version of you in that parallel universe, with the Oscars just another football to kick around in the so-called 'culture wars' no matter how they were conducted. I mean, I don't think that the existence of movies negates the existence of the military, or vice-versa. I don't think there's much of a disconnect between Hollywood and everyone else. But then again, it's probably cool to talk about elitism at a $75-a-plate dinner, much like it'd be cool to pose as a cop and arrest someone for impersonating an officer. Which I think may have been a plot point in a Martin Lawrence movie, but I digress.

There's a lot of things that don't come up on Oscar Night, Ben, and thank God for that. Because nothing is more cluelessly creepy than watching Hollywood try to care. Remember a few years ago, Ben, when Whoopi Goldberg showed off her FDNY-emblazoned cape at the finale of the Oscars, saying " … We got your back."? Do you remember how insipid and self-congratulatory that moment was, how pathetic and small Whoopi's ugly, expensive sequins were in the face of real tragedy? Well, if you had gotten a pause for America's fallen in the show, it may have been done that badly, never mind my best-case scenario above. (Which I'm still trying to cast in my head, by the way – Eastwood? Everyone loves Eastwood, right? Morgan Freeman? No, only if it was a narrated moment …)

According to a web page The Washington Post last updated on the 17th, Ben, two thousand three hundred and ten American service men and women have been killed as part of America's war in Iraq. I'm sure you know that number, and, like me, maybe look it up now and then to get it right - because, frankly, you would want to get that right. Well, if someone didn't know that, the Oscars wasn't going to be how they found it out … and if someone did know that, then a brief announcement at Prom Night for Famous People wasn't going to deepen their awareness.

See, that's all it is, Ben: Prom Night for Famous People. The Oscars are silly, ephemeral stuff. Which war, and death are not. I mean ... it'd be silly for the Oscars to mention the war, wouldn't it?

Just like it would be silly for someone talking about the war, and two thousand three hundred and ten dead soldiers and their families, to talk about the Oscars.

I mean, Ben, here's the deal. When I read that news story, I actually thought that I didn't know which was more depressing: Getting a lecture on ethics from someone who worked for Nixon, or getting a lecture on the morality of show business from someone who worked for John Hughes.

Yours,

James.

P.S. Researching this, I saw your most recent film credit was in Son of the Mask … Ben, do you ever worry the good roles, the good movies, are one day going to just pass you by and things won't be as easy as they are right now?