Down and whiskery

March 30, 1994|By Russell Baker

IF YOU watched the Academy Awards show last week -- and if you didn't you're a poor excuse for an American -- you probably noticed a lot of the men looked like criminals.

Not high-class criminals, either, like the spiffily tailored politicians and corporate semi-giants who get sentenced to Florida to grow tomatoes and play tennis at that federal prison for socially presentable felons.

These movie birds had the criminal look popularized in the Dick Tracy strip back in the 1930s when Dick was trying to bring Stooge Viller to justice.

Those magnificent Hollywood jaws were blue with five-day whiskery growths. Shirts were worn without neckties. Even under tuxedo jackets! Why? You could only speculate:

Suppose you are on your way to the Academy Awards, all dressed up in your tuxedo, and you get an order on the cellular phone (coded, of course, to keep the cops from interfering) to take somebody for a ride, or however they say it nowadays.

Naturally you've left your rod, or roscoe or whatever they call it nowadays, at home, since it would ruin the drape of your tux jacket. What you do have, though, is something useful for a garroting; namely, a necktie.

To be sure, the show had far too many tuxes without neckties. There couldn't have been that many bump-offs, or so-long-busters, or whatever they call them nowadays, committed in Los Angeles just before the Academy Awards, could there?

Anyhow, this theory wouldn't account for all the men who didn't even wear shirts under their tuxedos. This group, men who eschewed shirts altogether, mostly wore what looked like dentist's tunics under tuxedo jackets. Naturally without neckties. Have you ever seen a dentist wearing a necktie around his tunic collar?

The dentist's-tunic crowd for the most part was heavily whiskered, too, thus intensifying the evening's distinctly criminal look, which must be the sartorial rage in southern California this spring.

These men, after all, make big money in show business, so don't have to knock over filling stations or send dirty double-crossers, or whatever they call them nowadays, to sleep with Bonnie, Clyde and the fishes, or however they say it nowadays.

The question then is, why do men so well heeled that they can wear anything they want to wear choose to appear before an international television audience looking so ratty, or whatever they call it nowadays.

Here's a guess: It's part of the down trend in American life. Down is becoming the place to be. Down is in, chic, the cat's pajamas, or however they say it nowadays.

Public education has been dumbed down. Deviancy, as Senator Moynihan points out, has been defined down; meaning that standards of acceptable behavior have dropped so low that we will put up with almost anything.

Language has been coarsened down. That's why you hear so many ostensibly civilized people, female and male, using language so blue it would make a sailor blush, or however they say it nowadays, if they do, which is doubtful, since everybody is too absorbed listening to this kind of language in movies and on television and music videos.

As time builds its callus over memory, people forget that dumbness this deep, behavior this squalid and language this low were once regarded as, respectively, inexcusable, criminal and vile.

The downing trend numbs us as we adapt to ever-falling standards, so that we don't notice how dumb we're becoming, (( how nastily we behave and how crudely we talk.

The Hollywood guys with their old Stooge Viller whiskers and eyesore dinner-jacket treatments were going with the trend. By going for the hobo look of the 1930s hoodlum and treating the old-fashioned tuxedo as an authentic "monkey suit," they were simply dressing down, poor guys. Poor rich guys, that is.

To be fair, not all of them looked comically thuggish. Paul Newman, for one, wore his tux exactly the way a tux is supposed to be worn by people so at ease in the social whirl that they never wear a tux with a five o'clock shadow or refer to that garment, lowbrow style, as a "tux."

Curiously, the women of Hollywood dressed up that night. It is tempting to say they looked terrific, or whatever they call it nowadays. But that would probably be sexist. Forget I mentioned it.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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