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Greatness is Humble


Joan Juliet Buck

Four years ago, I slid on some fabric on the floor in the back hall and fell on my wrist, so that through the Oscar telecast , the thumb was being massaged by Helen and then Margaret, while Ian rolled his eyes at the idiocy of the Oscars and everyone else defiantly pretended to enjoy themselves.

Today, when my love suggested a walk around Taghkanic lake, I’d rather have been doing paperwork. But his cabin fever is more acute than mine right now, so off we went. We tromped around a mile of sucking mud and were crossing the car park when I stumbled and fell, my gloveless hands surfing the black-tar-gravel surface.

Young doctor Hasbrouck in the ER removed the visible gravel from my palm and gave me a tetanus shot.

By the time we were installed at friends’ house watching the Oscars, I was still a little shaky.

The dresses were almost uniformly vile: Driverless collisions between half -finished satin upholstery material, drapings as subtle as bunched Sunday morning duvets, thighs and shorts and visible panties and tits set off, over and over, to maximum disadvantage.

Regally, the older ladies—Jamie, Lee Curtis, Michelle Yeoh, Sigourney Weaver—wore form-fitting glittering columns. Though the Michelle Yeoh glitter could’ve done without the feathery bits. Because when your features begin to get just that touch indistinct and your lines incline towards feathery, you don’t want to emphasize the receding definition with thin wafting uncertain plumage. But she won!

And everyone looked extremely thin. So Ozempic works.

It was wonderful to be watching with people who know that business.

I thought that if we still had magazines, if we actually still read Vogue and Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair, if there were still shared places where we went to get our information about what was happening in the worlds that we cared about, not merely flashes on our palm held screens, I might’ve known more backstory.

I wanted Tar to win best actress for Cate Blanchett.

I wanted Austin Butler to win best actor for Elvis.

I wanted Elvis to win something big.

I wanted Tar to win something big.

I wanted Living to win something big. A win for Navalny, the documentary about the Russian dissident — I only found it last year in London because I bought The Radio Times, a magazine that tells you what to watch and when to watch it, and found a listing for Navalny. Not even a featured event, just a listing.

That’s how one used to find things out: read the listings, make note.

But the win for Navalny was the only political statement of the evening. Even the various speeches upon receiving awards for All Quiet on the Western Front failed to mention the war that is happening now, that has been happening for over a year in Ukraine.

So between the overly shiny half-baked dresses, and the rain of awards for the first cinematic attempt to grapple with the multiverse since The Matrix—a commendable undertaking, perhaps one not yet fully endowed with soul, you know, like AI, it worked as fun that expressed awe and bewilderment—my scraped palm and bruised bones were a little hungry for Meaning.

And then Lady Gaga sang.

Lady Gaga, held in high esteem by my musician friends, has always looked to me like the ornate white red and gold cake in the corner of the display case that you don’t really want.

Something overly shiny and taut rendered her gaze oddly impotent — was it the false lashes, the costumes or the persona that caused too much static for me to be able to take her in, see her, hear her?

Her performance at the Oscars could have been just more lashes glamour surface satin shining into meaninglessness.


She peeled off the persona, the make up, the static, and gave us her soul.


Elizabeth Kemp was Lady Gaga‘s acting teacher for “a star is born.” Elizabeth combined her Actor’s Studio method with dreamwork that made the unconscious an active partner. That was where the power lay, she said. That is where you can tell the truth.

When Elizabeth Kemp died in September 2017, a piece was ripped away from everyone who’d worked with her. For a concert a night later, Lady Gaga sang to her, and for her.

Her Oscar song also seemed to be sung for, and to, Elizabeth Kemp: it was a dive into the trench of soul.

Lady Gaga went into the intimate interior that Elizabeth demanded from her students, Lady Gaga was humble and private and undefended and intense. Everything that Elizabeth expected, everything into which she coaxed her students with music and whispers, to ease those who came to her to go deep into their own dark.

And in the temple of bullshit, the singer who’d once worn an ironic dress made of meat summoned a dark purity that had nothing to do with the context.

Something vertical happened.

Greatness is humble. And gives no speeches.

(Thank you, HK)

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Joan Juliet Buck, author of The Price Of Illusion, once a pillar of Condé Nast, is currently writing a serial novel for Radio Free Rhinecliff, available on Apple Podcasts. Her Facebook diary was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.