Elliott Smith

at the 70th Annual Academy Awards, March 23

By Warren Sentence

Between NCAA tournament games last Saturday on CBS, a man was given the opportunity to take one three-point shot for two million dollars. The contest’s sponsor, Gillette, would pay out the cash–one million to the shooter, one million to his chosen charity–if he could simply throw the ball through the hoop. Gillette provided the man with a coach, NBA hall of famer Rick Barry, who worked with him for two days prior to the shot. During his career Barry relied on an unorthodox underhand delivery from the free throw line (also known as the “charity stripe”) and established himself as one of the best free throw shooters in the history of the game. On Saturday, when handed the ball, the man ran through the routine he and Barry had practiced. He toed up to the three-point arc, he dribbled the ball five times as Barry counted aloud, he took a deep breath, and he shot.

If you were watching last Saturday, if you hadn’t left your chair to order pizza for the Utah-North Carolina game, you saw that shot go up and then fall harmlessly to the floor. I couldn’t help but wonder if this man’s big opportunity wasn’t likely to haunt him forever after. How many hours’ sleep would he sacrifice replaying the shot in his head? What if he’d bounced the ball six times instead of five? What if he’d cocked his wrist a split second earlier? Should he have thrown it underhand, Barry style? Gillette did give him $50,000 just for being there; that should buy back some of his sleep.

Five days earlier, without realizing it, a great many more people watched a similarly anonymous man toe up to the line and take his shot. One billion people are estimated to have watched the telecast of the Academy Awards on ABC. For kicks I will write that number out: 1,000,000,000. If you were one of them, if you hadn’t left your chair to top off your white grenache between Trisha Yearwood and Celine Dion, you saw the shot go up. But it’s too early to say whether it will fall harmlessly to the floor.

Elliott Smith, whose Oscar-nominated song, “Miss Misery,” from the film Good Will Hunting, served as the lunch meat between two slices of fluffy white bread, is a native of Portland, Oregon. For a few years he performed with a band called Heatmiser and enjoyed a very modest degree of success, releasing three albums and a handful of singles on a variety of independent labels. Recently Smith has emerged as a solo performer, making three albums under his own name on the Cavity Search and Kill Rock Stars labels. Smith has toured both with Heatmiser and on his own, and typically plays venues with a capacity under 500 (he’s booked at the Empty Bottle for April 25).

His appearance on the Oscars is perhaps the most unlikely pop juxtaposition in recent memory. (British art-punk pioneers Wire once appeared on Suzanne Somers’s network variety show, but the difference in audience size alone clearly tips the Walter Mitty scale in Smith’s favor.) What impression did Smith make on the country fans loyal to Yearwood? What about the young girls, gay men, and Streisand fans in the lurch who tuned in for Dion? And what about the average Oscars viewer, for whom the musical portion of the show is just a bit of third-ring entertainment?

He skulked sheepishly out from the wings, his hair impossibly greasy, carrying his own guitar. He wore a white suit, not provided for the occasion by Gaultier, Prada, Oldham, or Armani as were the couture gowns and sleek suits worn by the majority of attendees. The suit, according to a recent interview in Spin conducted by folk-pop songwriter Mary Lou Lord, was preowned. He sang the entire first verse of “Miss Misery” with his eyes closed. When he did open them, only for a moment, what did he see? You can be certain it wasn’t what he usually sees when he looks out from the stage. It wasn’t a gaggle of kids in jeans, vintage Pendleton shirts, and John Deere caps. I doubt that in the whole of the Shrine Auditorium that night one wallet was attached to its owner’s pants with a chain. Perhaps he saw Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman or Kate Winslet or Sharon Stone. Given the epic inappropriateness of his being there, for Smith to have survived that one moment of eye contact is a greater achievement than finding a way to spend $200 million making a movie.

Elliott Smith is Everyboy. He’s the kid who dropped out of Columbia College and works at Starbucks, or the kid who noodles on his guitar for hours on end, watching TV with the sound off. It’s preposterous enough that he was given the opportunity to play on an awards show for an audience that probably outnumbered his previous largest by–generously–999,998,000. But for that show to have been the Oscars and not, for instance, the Grammys makes it downright surreal. Only five songs are nominated for Oscars each year, most of them written by people like Diane Warren, the one-woman Hollywood hit factory responsible for such melodramatic pap as Up Close & Personal’s “Because You Loved Me.” At best they’re overcooked turkeys by old rockers gone soft, like Randy Newman or Bruce Springsteen.

Smith’s songs, by stark contrast, are understated confessions, so palpable he seems ashamed to spit them out. Like the boy on the sofa trying to tell the girl that he loves her (or that he doesn’t), he breathes louder than he speaks, swallows the most telling of his words, and keeps his gaze firmly fixed on the skinny laces of his Chuck Taylors. His melodies are subtle and sophisticated. His songs don’t attack the memory like advertising jingles or Q101 heavy rotators–they gently insinuate themselves in the mind’s ear and, by just the second or third listen, generate the sweet nostalgia great songs are capable of. There’s a touch of Simon in Smith’s songwriting and a touch of Garfunkel in his voice, but his lyrics are more self-involved and deprecatory. That Gus Van Sant could anticipate the power such unassuming songcraft might lend his movie is a credit to his sensitivity.

It’s impossible not to wonder what effect this sudden crack at glamour will have on Smith. On his most recent album, Either/Or, he even warns himself of the possibilities: “Flirting with the flicks / You say it’s just for kicks / You’ll be the victim of your own dirty tricks.” But he can’t have done himself much harm. If even one tenth of one percent of the people who watched the Oscars that night go buy Either/Or, he’ll sell a million records. Kill Rock Stars says that in February, probably due to his nomination, the album sold as many copies as it had in all of 1997. And “Miss Misery” is not even Smith’s catchiest song. What if he’d been able to play “Say Yes” or “Pictures of Me,” two “Eleanor Rigby”-esque gems, or the plaintive “Rose Parade,” all from Either/Or?

Smith’s performance was the most riveting three minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour Oscar broadcast. Amid all the inflation and self-congratulatory back patting, he just sang us a song, an act as arresting in its simplicity as David pitching a stone at Goliath. Despite predictions to the contrary, electronica, post-rock, and drum ‘n’ bass haven’t succeeded in burying the song as pop music’s preeminent vehicle. And all the sequins and klieg lights of Hollywood couldn’t overwhelm Smith’s sincerity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Elliot Smith TV photo by Randy Tunnell.