The Human Spirit

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April, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- As Halle Berry glided center stage, the tension in the Kodak Theater became electric. The Oscar for Best Actor of the year was now going to be announced. The air was tense with the buzz for Jack Nicholson or Daniel Day Lewis. Both actors had turned in wonderful performances. But I had voted for neither. I voted for the underdog -- Adrian Brody. His was an extraordinary achievement. It is, of course, impossible to measure an actor's performance quantitatively. The success of his work lies in the singular impact that his performance has on his audience. For me, Adrian Brody as Wladyslaw Szpilman in "The Pianist" was the most profoundly moving motion picture experience this year. It was a compellingly soul felt performance. Underdog or not, my vote was for Adrian Brody.

"And the Oscar goes to..." Halle Berry's struggle opening the envelope was torturous. "Adrian Brody!" As a body, the theater gasped, then, broke out in astounded applause. Brody himself seemed momentarily stunned. Then, with a nervous brush of his fingers through his unruly hair, he climbed on stage. Halle Berry waited smiling with his Oscar. In spontaneous exuberance, he embraced the beautiful Ms. Berry bowling her over and planted on her the most celebratory kiss in the history of Academy Award moments. The audience howled in appreciative joy. As he expressed his gratitude to the Academy for the recognition, he at the same time reminded us that his work on "The Pianist" kept him ever mindful of the dehumanization of war. Even in celebration, he rooted his art in the reality of life. The U.S. had invaded Iraq just three days before. Adrian Brody marked this year's Academy Awards, not only with his singular act of joy, but with a graceful, meaningful acceptance speech as well.

As I write this on my laptop in New York City, we are now into the third week of war. The U.S. just took control of Baghdad International Airport and coalition troops are now only miles from the city limits of the capital. The days of the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein now seem numbered. But our coalition's body count and the number of those wounded also continue to climb. Despite the much-vaunted technical precision of our bombing, the pain of civilian casualties continues to mount as well. They are what are called the collateral damages. "Body count," "collateral damage" - those sterile, dehumanized euphemisms of war. Soldier or civilian, each is a human life ended by warfare. This was what Adrian Brody was talking about.

Determined not to see death turned into euphemisms, three days ago, I went down to Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan. I had made my first pilgrimage to the site of the World Trade Center devastation on a cold January day fifteen months ago. I wanted to go once again to pay my respects. The people who died there will never become euphemisms. They are now a part of American history. They will be remembered with a memorial on the site that will be both warmly human and spiritually evocative. A striking plan by the brilliant architect Daniel Libeskind has been selected. The excavated site of the former towers will remain open with a contemplative green sunken garden in its place. The great slurry wall holding back the waters of the Hudson River will remain exposed. Soaring up beside the memorial garden will be a magnificent building towering a symbolic 1776 ft. high into the sky. That is taller than the former World Trade Center structures - the new height symbolic of the beginning of our nation's independence. It is a soaring statement of the triumph of freedom over terrorism. The peak of the building will taper into a spire merging with the heavens.

In that apex of the structure will be a lush, living garden in the sky. There is to be life, both on earth at the foot of the tower as well as at its very pinnacle.

When I first visited the scene of devastation on that January morning, snowflakes were falling. Those white flakes reminded me of the ashes that came down that awful morning of September 11. This time, my visit was in early April. But again, it was cold and gray and a light snow started to fall. Again, it was a chilly reminder of that terrible day. However, the site was now dramatically changed. The debris of the wreckage had been completely cleared away and there was preliminary construction beginning at the far bottom of the excavation. We were moving forward. After intensely spirited competition, an architectural plan had been selected for rebuilding on the site. We were working to build the future. There is a vision to replace the past with something better, something even more dimensioned.

New York celebrates the human spirit, and, for me, the theater does it best with joy, passion and insight. In so many different ways, the plays I have been taking in are just that - a celebration of the human spirit. The British comedy, "The Play What I Wrote," did it with laughter. The award winning British drama, "Vincent in Brixton," did it with love. The big Broadway hit musical, "Hairspray" rejoices with both love and laughter. "Last Sunday in June," an off-Broadway original celebrated the bonds of friendship and community

The Pulitzer Prize nominated new drama, "Take Me Out" celebrates the diversity of life with the metaphor of baseball. The quintessential celebration of the human spirit, however, is the great musical, "Man of La Mancha," now revived on Broadway starring the glorious voice of Brian Stokes Mitchell.

As I sat in the theater enthralled by its stirring anthem, "To Dream the Impossible Dream," I sensed the entire house connect as one and soar with the shining words of the song. How can anyone's spirit not soar to these ideals? How can anyone's soul not glory in its humanity?

To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
To run where the brave dare not go!

And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable stars!

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