© Alex Berliner, Berliner Studio/BEImages.
Six months ago, I traded the comfy coffee hangouts of Seattle for the vermilion sunsets of L.A. I wanted to expand my universe, to write for movies and television, to not have so many Birkenstocks in my direct line of sight. So naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to cover the Environmental Media Awards for Grist.
I dressed carefully in my kicky Audrey Hepburn-inspired black dress and John Fluevog flat Twiggy boots. I had my nails done specially, then promptly ruined the manicure digging for my keys. Finally, I arrived at the Ebell Club and sidled up to the barrier dividing the press and the “green carpet.”
Because this wasn’t a major event like the Emmys or the Academy Awards, the press area was manageable and civil, with nobody jostling for position. The other journalists were surprisingly polite and jovial; they were also extremely casual, most of them in jeans. This is, however, still Los Angeles. The reporter next to me, from a fashion magazine, had a cheat sheet from her editor with questions to ask: “What fragrance did you wear on your wedding day, and why did you choose that fragrance? What’s your current obsession?” (Daryl Hannah’s, as it turns out, is farmers’ markets.)
I didn’t have a cheat sheet of my own, just plain old curiosity about what an environmental awards show would look like. I knew the nonprofit Environmental Media Association — a bridge between Hollywood’s entertainment industry and green organizations — would be lauding films, television shows, and companies that succeeded in passing along ecologically sound messages and practices. And I soon realized that this annual event, featuring a keynote speech by freshly branded TV magnate Al Gore, hadn’t attracted your typical granola-crunching, Celestial Seasonings-sipping folk.
Photo: Vanessa McGrady.
Magic Carpet Ride
After the delicate dance between the early arrivals’ publicists and the journalists who were less than enthusiastic to interview them, the A-listers started filtering in — think Cameron Diaz, Alicia Silverstone, Harry Hamlin. Those arriving in hybrid cars were allowed to drive up the green carpet; Hannah showed up with her twin nephews in a primer-black biodiesel 1983 El Camino.
The crowd was populated by red-carpet veterans like Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, Blythe Danner, and Hank Azaria. There were adorable teen celebrities from shows like Zoey 101 and a bunch of stuff you probably don’t know about on Nickelodeon. And there were diehard environmentalists who likely don’t give an organically grown fig about the red carpet, namely Ed Begley, Jr. and Rob Reiner.
When I asked Amy Smart of Road Trip and Starsky and Hutch what she’d like to say to the president and his cabinet, her first reaction was nonverbal, and involved one of her fingers. “Wake up. Gosh, to me it is completely devastating the way Katrina was handled, it’s devastating that there’s a war going on and that so many people are dying. There’s no real reason for it, there’s no importance placed on the environment. It’s just terrible. I don’t feel like he’s for the people.”
© Alex Berliner, Berliner
Then came Wendie Malick. I kept thinking she was a Desperate Housewife, until I finally placed her as superbitch Nina Van Horn on Just Shoot Me. In real life, she was very nice — and didn’t mind when I accidentally poked her and got a tiny pen mark on her pink cashmere sweater. Malick, who serves on the EMA board, said her rule is, “Every time you get something, give something away.”
Which sounds like a good law of karma. Oh, karma: right after I poked Malick, Tony Hale of Arrested Development poked me in the chest while complimenting my necklace. Hale said he’s interested in modernizing the image of a green crusader. “One of the things is to break stereotypes of what an environmentalist is. When I was growing up it was seen as weird, tree huggers.”
Some “stars,” such as Extreme Makeover plastic surgeon Anthony Griffin, tried very, very hard to make the connection between their work and the environment. “This season we’re doing less makeovers, and saving supplies and things like that,” he said. I detected an irony deficiency in the good doctor. He told me about one makeover candidate who personifies the issue, a motorcycle rider. “He was weaving between traffic, he got his leg cut off. Is that an effect of the environment? Yeah, traffic, overcrowding. So we see the effects of what happens in the environment.”
I got more substantial thoughts from Begley, a rock in the environmental movement, who has even developed a green cleaning product, Begley’s Best. The earthy and charming actor told me how he walks the walk. “I can live on very little money now. Not because I have some huge savings, I don’t, but because I don’t require a lot of money,” he said. “I don’t have an electric bill to speak of, because my house is powered by the sun. I don’t use much gasoline, because my car is charged by the sun. I’m not using a lot of natural gas to heat my water for laundry and showers, because that, again, is heated by the sun, most of the year.”
In earnest and elegant style, Danner and Azaria, the stars of Showtime’s Huff, walked the carpet together. Danner talked about how she incorporates eco-responsibility into her life. “I wake up and I have tea with environmental tea bags. My granddaughter wears recycled diapers. I recycle, I try to compost. I’m even buying paper clothes. I’m getting a new apartment and I’m putting in bamboo floors.” Later in the evening, Azaria admitted that he was “embarrassingly ignorant” about how he could lessen his environmental footprint, even though he donates to green causes, but thanked EMA “for putting my mouth where my money is.”
Actor-producer-director Reiner, by contrast, sounded fully informed as he endorsed a “Manhattan Project for renewable energy.” He continued, “It’s win-win-win-win all over the place … Unfortunately, I think we’re going to need new leadership in order for that to happen. Right now you have an administration that comes from the oil industry, and talk about fossil fuel — they’re fossilized in their thinking. Not being forward-thinking — we’ve got to give that up.”
Kathy Najimy, who provides the voice of a character on the animated King of the Hill, put the liberal-actor message in a different light: “It’s a sad day when a cartoon is doing more and cares more and pays more attention to the environment than our president.”
It’s in the nature of actors to blow smoke, to pander to eager reporters and clicking cameras. And that night, sure, there were some people who didn’t know their PCBs from their PCP. But that they all showed up meant something.
Standing on Ceremony
When it came time for the actual ceremony, my duties were supposed to be done, but I finagled a ticket and took a seat in the venerable club’s auditorium.
© Alberto Rodriguez, Berliner
In a sign of the changing definition of environmentalism, EMA Executive Director Debbie Levin urged the well-heeled audience to do what comes naturally: shop. “Nothing can ward off global warming more effectively than responsible consumerism,” she proclaimed. She advised them to drive hybrid cars, and to stay at hotels such as the luxurious and ecologically sound Fairmont chain (an event sponsor).
During the two-hour ceremony, presenters tripped over other helpful lifestyle tips (“A laptop is more efficient, because you don’t have to plug it in!”). The awkwardly written banter verged on painful — now it’s clear why Nicole Richie needed to be on an unscripted reality show — but a few original thoughts slipped through. Najimy, whose Emmy Award-winning show is going to be canceled, asked audience members to “tell [FOX] that we are going to send Ed Begley to storm them in his hybrid and clean the shit out of their offices.” Danner remarked that of her three children, Azaria — who plays her son on Huff — was the easiest to birth.
This year’s theme was family, and many of the participants and audience members had relatives in tow. As the evening’s keynote speaker, Gore was introduced by three of his children, who noted his ever-present passion for family and the environment. “It’s like living with the Lorax,” remarked son Albert.
Gore spoke little of his current venture, Current TV, and instead focused on long-term thinking and technology. “Corporate skinheads like ExxonMobil are leading us in the wrong direction,” he said, noting that the burden is on corporations to exercise environmental leadership. He suggested that this time of high oil prices and ecological precariousness is “an opportunity to put people to work to build better futures for the next generation. The real question is whether or not we will accept the moral responsibility for what we are doing.”
Before receiving a standing ovation from the adoring crowd, Gore presented “Ongoing Commitment Awards” to Cindy Horn (wife of Warner Brothers President and COO Alan Horn) and Lyn Lear (who’s married to Norman Lear). The women began the EMA, with the help of their high-caliber friends and families, in 1989. Their teenage children (the Lears have a son and the Horns have two daughters) have apparently been doing environmental work since shortly after emerging from the womb, and were each granted a “Futures Award.”
As for the other winners, episodes of The West Wing, King of the Hill, Lilo & Stitch, and Trippin’ took home awards for television; I (Heart) Huckabees won for feature film, and Farming the Seas for documentary. The Turner Award, which recognizes storylines that address overpopulation, was given to The George Lopez Show.
But winning didn’t seem like the ultimate goal, in light of the planetary purpose that brought everyone here. After the ceremony, the famous people and their entourages retired to the ballroom, where they enjoyed gourmet organic cuisine and a fund-raising auction. And me? Well, I guess my gala invite got lost in the mail. I just went home and munched on the organic, whole-wheat cardboard — er, crackers — they’d handed out at the door.