Oscar 2010: Safe, Noble, Earnest Entertainment?

 Part One of Five Articles


 The Oscar contest this year is as much about politics as it is about art.  But it’s a certain kind of politics, one that’s often covert and subtle rather than overt and blatant.  Take the two frontrunners this year for the top award, Best Picture: “The King’s Speech,” with 12 nominations, and “The Social Network,” with 8.

There is not doubt that, as sharply written by Aaron Sorkin and brilliantly directed by David Fincher, “Social Network” IS a better picture, artistically—at least one or two notches above “The King’s Speech.”

There is also no doubt which of the two movies is more relevant to our times, which is more provocative thematically, which one makes more demands of its audience, which one lingers in memory, and which one will survive the test of time, the ultimate criterion for any art work, including film.

But favoring an easy, likeable movie with a positive message and upbeat ending, like “The King’s Speech,” which, admittedly, is well-made and very well-acted, has always been the case with the Academy voters, who tend to be old, conservative, and favoring easily digestile fare.  (Early on, a senior, well-respected publicist expressed his concern to me that the dialogue in “Social Network” is so witty and fast that a large number of Academy voters may not “get it”).

In this respect, no much as changed.  Year after year, the films nominated for Best Picture–and especially the one that wins–are not necessarily the most artistically distinguished films, but those whose ideological messages are timely and widely accepted by mainstream society. I could argue that, as a group, the Oscar-nominated films serve as America’s storehouse of recorded ideals and values, a reflection of the zeitgeist.

The era in which political factors impinged the most on the Oscar Award–and not necessarily in a positive way–was in the early 1950s, during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s second round of Hollywood investigations; the first was in 1947.  Most of the winning films in those years could be described as light, escapist fare.  In sharp departure to the 1940s, in which the Oscar honored timely films, just a few years later, Hollywood was so fearful of McCarthy that it went to the other extreme, honoring films that had little to do with the surrounding political reality. 

The 1950 nominees included tales about Hollywood (Sunset Boulevard), the New York theatre (All About Eve), a witty comedy (Born Yesterday), a family comedy about marriage and suburbia (Father of the Bride), and an adventure set in the African jungles (King Solomon’s Mines).

An American in Paris (1951)

The Oscar winners of 1951 and 1952 were also non-political, escapist entertainment, showing again the Academy’s fear of voting for films that were critical of the American Way of Life.  MGM’s musical, An American in Paris, featuring George Gershwin’s celebrated score, won the 1951 award, competing against serious films, such as George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun, based on Theodor Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy, and Elia Kazan’s powerful version of A Streetcar Named Desire.  This win must have surprised MGM itself, for the next day it took ads in the trades that showed Leo the Lion smirking coyly at the Oscar statuette. The caption read: “Honestly, I was just standing in the sun waiting for a streetcar.”

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The 1952 Best Picture, Cecil B. DeMille’s circus adventure-melodrama, The Greatest Show on Earth, unaccountably won over Fred Zinnemann’s psychological Western, “High Noon,” and John Ford’s picturesque romance, “The Quiet Man”  “High Noon” earned the largest number of nominations, 7, and was earlier cited by the New York Film Critics–it probably lost for political rather than artistic reasons. 

More than a few critics perceive “High Noon” as an allegory about American foreign policy during the Korean War.  Marshal Kane (Cooper) is eager to achieve peace after cleaning up the town five years earlier (WWII), but reluctantly, he’s forced to face a new aggression (the Korean war).  According to this ideological reading, the Quaker wife (Grace Kelly) stands in for the American pacifists and isolationists, though she too later changes her mind and ends up supporting her husband’s cause, and even killing.  High Noon propagated the idea that “war in certain given circumstances may be both moral and inevitable.”

The British critic Philip French regards “High Noon” as a liberal statement, the archetypal Kennedy Western, standing in sharp contrast to “Rio Bravo,” directed by Howard Hawks in 1959 starring John Wayne, which he considers the archetypal Republican Barry Goldwater Western.  “High Noon” is accordingly seen as a parable about an existential man, Marshal Kane, who stands alone to defend his moral principles in the McCarthy era.  The town’s folks who refuse to help Cooper, deserting him one by one, are viewed as those American masses afraid to stand up and fight for civil rights.

Whether or not these particular readings are valid, one thing is clear, High Noon does deal with civic responsibility, passive versus active involvement in public life, and heroic behavior in political crises–all issues with explicitly political overtones in the 1950s.  The filmmakers responsible for High Noon, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann, and screenwriter Carl Foreman, were known for their liberal (too leftist?) politics. 

High Noon is the Most Un-American Thing I’ve Seen in My Whole Life—John Wayne

 This was the last American film of Foreman, who was forced into exile to England for two decades.   Gary Cooper, known for his Republican leanings, claimed to be unaware of the political message of his role.  But some of his colleagues, like John (the Duke) Wayne, objected to the film’s message, claiming that the rugged men of the West, who fought nature and the Indians would unite–not cower–in the face of four villains.  In 1971, in a Playboy interview, Wayne described “High Noon” as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” referring to “ole Coop putting the marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country.”

Not surprisingly, the Duke claimed he had voted for the mediocre and apolitical, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Now seriously, which is a better film: “High Noon” or “The Greatest Show on Earth?