After years of declining ratings, the Oscars finally delivered a show the world could not stop talking about. Unfortunately, one ugly moment followed by a surreal acceptance speech dominated discussion across social media and gossip columns.
It overshadowed several beautiful moments scattered throughout the evening. For example, when the wonderful Youn Yuh-Jung, last year’s best actress in a supporting role, joked about her poor pronunciation skills and then congratulated this year’s best actor in a supporting role, the deaf actor Troy Kotsur, in sign language.
But the moment that turned me to a puddle came at the very end.
Lady Gaga escorted Hollywood legend Liza Minnelli onstage to announce the Best Picture winner. The wheelchair-bound Minnelli seemed to have a little trouble following her cues when Lady Gaga leaned over, touched Minnelli’s shoulder and softly whispered, “I got you.”
I could not hold back the flood of tears that overcame me watching such a moment of genuine, life-affirming compassion. I watched the rest of the program with clouded eyes and salt-stained cheeks.
The 76-year-old Minnelli has had to use a wheelchair off-and-on for nearly two decades. Many of her health issues began when she suffered a bout of viral encephalitis in 2000.
It is a devastating disease. I know. In 2002 it nearly killed me.
For several weeks I suffered from short, severe headaches. I had been studying hard to prepare for the LSAT, a law school entrance exam. The day after I took my test, friends and family helped me to move apartments. Halfway through I took a step off the moving truck and felt my right foot give way. It felt like it had suddenly fallen asleep.
I shook my foot and took another step. It gave way again. More disconcerting, the tingling sensation began to slowly creep up my leg. By the time it reached my mid-calf I began to panic. I sat on the curb and called for my mother. She spent 50 years as a registered nurse. It took about two questions before she rushed me into a car headed to the hospital.
On the drive I tried to call my girlfriend. While I knew what I wanted to say, the only thing that came out of my mouth were garbled slurs. I sounded blackout drunk. My mother had to take the phone to tell her where we were headed.
By the time we reached St. Joseph’s Hospital, my cognitive function had been severely degraded. I could read the word “Emergency” on the door, but by the time I got to the end of the word I had forgotten the beginning. I could tell anyone who asked that the metal spigots on the ceiling were to put out fires, but I had no idea what they were called.
Many tests, spinal taps and seizures later, doctors confirmed I had both meningitis, an infection of the membrane around the brain, and encephalitis, an infection of the brain itself.
The later has a significant mortality rate. For survivors, it can have debilitating long-term consequences.
I endured a six-month migraine, suffered from aphasia (the loss of speech that recently forced Bruce Willis to retire), spent a year sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, and had to relearn to speak and walk. I had a PICC line inserted into my forearm so I could self-administer powerful drugs through an IV three times per day for months. To this day I still have trouble remembering names — something that once came easily to me.
Minnelli was not so lucky.
Thankfully, she had Lady Gaga by her side on Sunday night. The reigning queen of heartfelt kindness after she helped a dementia-stricken Tony Bennet bid a graceful adieu to his fans, Lady Gaga was the perfect choice to accompany Minnelli. Her gentle patience comforted both the silver screen legend and the audience holding its collective breath.
In one sweet, simple moment Lady Gaga smoothed over a potentially fraught situation and paved the way for a rising wave of ovations the audience broke into for Minnelli.
The glint in Minnelli’s eye and glow in her smile as she heard the applause was the prize of the night.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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