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Oscar 2004: The Politics of the Best Picture Award

Instead of taking the usual line and criticizing the Oscars for being artistically biased, I would like to be more instructive and look at the specific socio-historical contexts and ideologies that have influenced the types of films that are nominated for and win Oscars. I am proposing that, above all, the Oscars are noble, middlebrow, politically correct films that are not necessarily the most deserving artistically.

Case Study 1: Oscar 1982–Noble Politics and Gandhi

That the Academy often judges a film by the “importance” of its contents and the relevance of its political message was clear in 1982, whenRichard Attenborough’s Gandhi swept most of the important Oscars. Cinematically, Gandhiwas a rather conventional biography, lacking scope or visual imagination, albeit one about a universally respected political figure. The film’s subject was epic, and it could have been a great movie had it been directed by a more subtle and inventive filmmaker – such as David Lean, who made the Oscar-winning The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.

However, Gandhi’s figure was so inspirational and his anti-violence preaching so timely, that the Academy favored it over other worthy nominees:Steven Spielberg’s E.T. or Sidney Lumet’s courtroom dramaThe Verdict. Sydney Pollack’sTootsie, starring Dustin Hoffman in a dual role, was undoubtedly an excellent and timely comedy (nominated for 10 Oscars, it won only one), but it lacked Gandhi’s earnest intent and noble theme.

Vincent Canby, the N.Y. Times critic described Gandhi as having “the air of an important news event, something that is required reading,” and faulted the film for its earnestness: “all films about saintly men tend to look alike, even though the men themselves may be radically different.” But he understood the Academy members’ motivation: “To honor a film like Gandhi, a perfectly reverent if unexceptional film about an exceptional man, they are paying their dues to the race (human), certifying their instincts (good),” and also the belief that movies about worthy subjects can make money.”

The Academy’s taste in 1982 did not differ from that of most film critics groups: Gandhiwon awards from the New York Film Critics, the National Board of Review, and the Hollywood Foreign Press (the Golden Globes). However, unlike other years in which there is critical consensus, in 1982, there was sharp disagreement: the L.A. Film Critics citedE.T., and the National Society of Film Critics chose Tootsie.

Tootsie seems to have “suffered” from the Academy’s long-held bias against comedy.Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977 and James Brooks’ Terms of Endearment in 1983, are some of the few comedies to have won Best Picture. The Academy’s bias is also apparent in the case of actors who excelled in comedies, but had to deviate from this genre to win respect.

Perhaps the prime example of this prejudice isCary Grant, who distinguished himself in romantic as well as screwball comedies. It was comedy – beginning with The Awful Truth in 1937 – which made Grant a star, and comedy that displayed best his intelligence as an actor. Grant’s best comedies were opposite Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby) and Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), neither of which brought him a nomination. But Grant had to step outside of his specialized milieu to earn Oscar recognition. The first time for a sentimental melodrama, Penny Serenade (1941), as a married man who loses his adopted daughter, and the second, for a “serious-melodramatic” role in None but the Lonely Heart (1944), in which he played a Cockney drifter.

No other actor of Grant’s generation contributed more to screen comedy, but he became a “victim” of the Academy’s notion that comedy acting was “easy” and “effortless”–in Grant’s case, it was actually the product of hard work, meticulous preparation, and fine-tuning. That Grant won his two nominations during the War years, when most male stars were drafted, further shows that his colleagues underestimated him. The Academy “corrected” this injustice by bestowing on Grant Honorary Oscar in 1969 for his “unique mastery of the art of film acting.”

Case Study 2: Oscar 1990–West Versus East, or Past Versus Present

In 1990, too, politics was more forceful a factor than film art per se. Kevin Costner, then at the height of his popularity as a star, proved his critics wrong when Dances With Wolves – his epic ode to a West long gone – won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Director. Costner directed himself as an idealistic officer whose solitary life at a frontier outpost is interrupted and forever changed after encountering the Lakota Sioux tribe. Costner’s main competition was Scorsese and his crime-gangster film, GoodFellas, which swept all the critics awards. (More on Scorsese’s year.)

The great divide in 1990 was based as much on politics–the film’s geography and ideology–as on artistic quality. GoodFellas, like most of Scorsese’s films, was a quintessential New York film: urban, tough and bloody. In contrast, Costner hailed from California, and Dances With Wolves was a romantic, pacifist epic that glorified Native Americans. Hollywood consensus held that GoodFellas was brilliantly crafted, but suffered from excessive violence and ambiguous morality. It was certainly more virtuous to honor the rapidly extinguished Native American culture, particularly since Dances With Wolves was securely set in the past; it would have been a different experience if the film dealt with discrimination against contemporary Native Americans. Not to be underestimated was Costner’s movie’s epic scale and running time, always a plus at Oscar time, and that it was deemed more “authentic” than most Westerns due to the fact that a portion of the dialogue was subtitled. Industry cynics labeledDances With Wolves as Gandhi for the 1990s, or a film utterly congruent with the zeitgeist.

Oscar 2004-Another Case of Politically Correct Entertainment?

The Oscar contest this year is as much about politics as about film art. What kinds of conclusion can be drawn, assuming for the moment, that the five Best Picture nominees are (in alphabetical order): The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Hotel Rwanda, Million Dollar Baby and Sideways.

With the notable exception of Sideways – Alexander Payne’s lyrical meditation on middle-age crisis and male camaraderie – the other nominees represent safe, noble entertainment, a throwback to classic Hollywood cinema, namely, old-fashioned fare. They are movies that integrate, with varying degrees of success, new technologies (visual and sound effects) into conventional, mainstream narratives that have a beginning, middle, and an end. (More on Sideways.)

Let me be more specific and suggest how these nominees fit into the overall Oscar traditions.

The Aviator will occupy the slot usually taken by historical epics, such as Braveheart, Gladiator, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to mention some recent examples. Mind you, notwithstanding blood and gore, most of the Oscar-winning epics are basically sand-and-sandals movies, in the vein of such historical adventures as Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis? With its sympathetic rebel-visionary-hero, the eccentricHoward Hughes (splendidly played byLeonardo DiCaprio), and Scorsese’s bravura filmmaking, The Aviator is safely placed in the past (the 1930s and 1940s). There’s nothing controversial about the film, not even Hughes’s descent into madness, which makes it similar to the 2001 winner, A Beautiful Mind, a biopicture of the noted mathematician John Nash, which shrewdly eschewed its hero’s alleged anti-Semitism and homosexuality. (More on The Aviator.)

Finding Neverland, Marc Foster’s well-crafted fable about the creation of Peter Pan, also represents safe entertainment, particularly since the filmmakers have made a point to say that it’s not a biopicture, or the actual life of J. M. Barrie. In a shrewd and calculated, though emotionally satisfying mode, Finding Neverland avoids the one potentially controversial aspect of its story: Barrie’s unusual (to say the least) attraction to young boys, that from today’s perspective might be perceived as a borderline case of pedophilia. If Finding Neverland is nominated, it will be in the tradition of E.T. and other children-oriented fairytales that could be enjoyed by the entire family. (More on Finding Neverland.)

Hotel Rwanda — Who would disagree with the pacifist, anti-genocide message of Terry George’s film, an enjoyable biopicture about a courageous hotelier, who, with feisty determination, triumphed against all odds and saved 1200 lives during the 1994 debacle ignored by most of the world. Hotel Rwanda, like The Killing Fields, and In the Name of the Father(which was co-written by Jim Sheridan andTerry George) is safe and noble entertainment, too. Voting for it would be rooting for the right, non-controversial cause. (More on Hotel Rwanda.)

Representing classic Hollywood cinema at its very best, Million Dollar Baby represents a combination of an old-fashioned boxing drama, like the 1976 Oscar-winning Rocky (or the 1932 Oscar-nominated The Champ). The “novelty” here is that the film centers on a female fighter, since the vast majority of boxing films have been about men, such as Scorsese’s Oscar-nominated Raging Bull. Ten or twenty years ago, the film would have been considered feminist, but from today’s perspective it’s not really new anymore; four years ago, a small indie, Girl Fight, that revolved around a Latina boxer, came out of Sundance. (More on Million Dollar Baby.)

What’s new about Million Dollar Baby is its timely, controversial social issue, which has not been dealt with in mainstream Hollywood. In this respect, if Million Dollar Baby is nominated and wins Best Picture (as I have been predicting), it will be in the tradition of such Oscar-winning or Oscar-nominated social-problems pictures asThe Lost Weekend (1945), about alcoholism;The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), about the readjustment problems of soldiers to civilian life after WWII; Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) about anti-Semitism; On the Waterfront (1954), about trade unions and squealing; In the Heat of the Night (1967), about the civil rights through the story of an interracial male camaraderie; andPhiladelphia (1993), which was not a Best Picture nominee but won an acting Oscar forTom Hanks, about AIDS. (More on the Best Picture race.)

Million Dollar Baby is the kind of “humanistic” film that’s not only old-fashioned in its structure, story, and values, but also boasts a timeless look that makes it more universal; the story could have taken place in any era and in any place in America. Clint Eastwood’s drama recalls the 2000 Oscar-nominee Cider House Rules, which shrewdly avoided the issue of abortion by focusing on a humanistic doctor (Michael Caine) and his relationship to a young, orphaned protégé (Tobey Maguire). In dramatic essence, Cider House Rules is not that different from the relationships of Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, as veteran coaches and trainers, with their young female protégée, played by Hilary Swank. In treating a polemic issue in individualistic manner, Million Dollar Baby joins the company of Traffic, which reduced the drug problem to the intergenerational strain between a new drug czar (Michael Douglas) and his drug-addicted daughter as well as All the President’s Men, The China Syndrome and Wall Street, all of which dealt with societal problems from an individual perspective that made them easier to comprehend, to digest, and to enjoy.Million Dollar Baby is a good message movie, a good entertainment, and a good box-office. Is there a better combination for wining the coveted Oscar?

Year after year, the films nominated for Best Picture are not necessarily the most artistically distinguished, but those whose ideological messages are timely and widely accepted. That’s the nature of film as a mass medium that can’t be divorced from the socio-cultural setting in which is exists. Moreover, the Oscar films serve a function as America’s storehouse of recorded values, a reflection of its zeitgeist. With its more conservative membership, which is about a generation older than Hollywood’s movers and shakers, and two generations older than most American moviegoers, the Academy has always favored earnest, noble, and inspirational fare that propagated political correctness even before the concept existed.

For Your Consideration: Oscar Politics in Perspective

The Academy tends to choose movies that deal with “important” and “noble” issues over artistically innovative or politically controversial movies. Over the years, preference has been given for safe movies whose messages are widely acceptable:

In 1941, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane
In 1951, An American In Paris over A Place in the Sun
In 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon
In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days over Giant
In 1964, My Fair Lady over Dr. Strangelove
In 1967, In the Heat of the Night over Bonnie and Clyde
In 1971, The French Connection over A Clockwork Orange
In 1976, Rocky over Network or All the President’s Men
In 1980, Ordinary People over Raging Bull
In 1981, Chariots of Fire over Reds
In 1982, Gandhi over Tootsie or E.T.
In 1990, Dances With Wolves over GoodFellas
In 1994, Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction
In 1997, Titanic over L.A. Confidential
In 1998, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan
In 2000, Gladiator over Traffic
In 2001, A Beautiful Mind over The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
In 2002, Chicago over The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

January 18, 2005
E-mail Emanuel Levy

Updated twice weekly, the site features five regular columns: Current Reviews, Oscar Alert (of films and performances), Film Commentary (on timely and relevant issues), DVD of the Week (both classic and new), and Festivals/Events (such as essays on Brando’s career and this year’s centennial celebration of George Stevens and Cary Grant).

Samuel Butler once observed that, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself.” About Emanuel Levy …

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon