Joshua Hammerman
Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Oscar’s Golden Gaffe

I turned 60 two weeks ago. No drum roll, please. I celebrated quietly, with my family, not feeling a need to throw myself a big bash – but neither did I feel compelled to hide under a rock (at least because of the birthday). The Patriots gave me all the birthday present I could ever want.

Aging became a tangentially hot topic this week, in the wake of Oscar’s Very Interesting Evening.

In his opening monologue, Jimmy Kimmel became eerily prophetic when he quipped, “In Hollywood, we don’t discriminate against people based on what countries they come from. We discriminate on them based on their age and weight.”

Sure enough, age became a prime issue when 79 year old Warren Beatty and 77 year old Faye Dunaway fumbled their way through the “Best Picture” announcement, ultimately and incorrectly announcing that “La La Land” had won. Of course the true guilty party was the much younger PWC accountant who gave Beatty the wrong envelope, but still there was plenty of age-based derision directed to the pair of presenters, who looked so lost and confused up there.

It reminded me of the touching film, “On Golden Pond,” which featured an elderly Henry Fonda as the curmudgeonly Norman Thayer, and his wife Ethel, played by Katherine Hepburn, who won as best actress for that part. It’s possibly Hollywood’s most touching film dealing with the frustrations of aging and facing one’s mortality. Norman turns 80 in the film and has trouble accepting it, especially after one climactic scene where he becomes disoriented while on his boat, riding on a pond that for so long had been his home, his anchor.

I found Beatty’s visible confusion equally touching. Jimmy Kimmel later said that Beatty and Dunaway needed extra rehearsal time because they couldn’t read the teleprompter. I’m sure some producer of the telecast was wondering whether it might be better to screen award presenters for signs of dementia.

Let’s get this straight. 79 is not old. 80 is not old. Teleprompters are hard to read with bright spotlights shining in your eyes. And when you are handed the wrong envelope at the Oscars, anyone would be confused.

But Oscar’s Golden Pond-like gaffe has a message to teach us, not about aging per se, but about being human and vulnerable. Last week, all the Hollywooders thought it was so cute to bring in a busload of “real people,” tourists, who got the surprise of their lives. When Kimmel asked one who her favorite star is and she pointed to Denzel Washington and said, “That one,” it was the most moving, unscripted, human moment of the entire night. Until Beatty squinted into the lights.

In the end, the stars were the ones who had to go off script. In the end, they became the real people. In the end, there was no difference between them and those tourists. In the end, the sex god from “Shampoo” and the scheming ice-queen from “Network” became just good old Norman and Ethel Thayer from Golden Pond, aging and raging against the dying of the light, just like the rest of us.

In this week’s portion of Terumah, the book of Exodus tells us that the ark located in the sanctuary in the wilderness, which housed the Ten Commandments, was lined with gold both inside and out. The rabbis easily understood why it should look nice on the outside. But why the inside as well? The response (from the Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 27) is that we all should be the same, and as ethically pure, on the “inside” as we are in public. It’s a great lesson on the evils of hypocrisy, but it also has a slightly different meaning for us in the wake of Oscar’s Golden Gaffe.

What glowed from Ethel, Norman, Warren and Faye, was an inner beauty that glitters every bit as much as what is on the outside. Last week, the Oscars ended in a moment that was entirely Botox-free. The statuette was given to honor a film, “Moonlight” that was so totally about real people that they forgot to hire any megastars to act in it.

The ark was lined in gold on the inside. And so are we. Last week’s supposed fiasco was really a celebration of the intrinsic value of being human that does not dissipate over time, even — no, particularly — as we age.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307
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