Oscar: Message’s the Thing–Politics More Important than Art?

The Oscar Award contests are as much about politics–or socially accepted messages–as they are about art–or strong aesthetic and production values.

It’s always been that way. How else would you explain that, year after year, the films nominated for Best Picture–and especially those that wins–are not necessarily the most artistically distinguished films, but those whose ideological messages are timely and widely accepted by the Academy members. Indeed, more than other films, the Oscar nominees may serve as America’s storehouse of recorded values, a reflection of its zeitgeist.

So, judging by the five nominated films in 2001, what was the country’s mood as we began a new millennium

With the notable exception of “Traffic”, Steven Soderbergh’s richly complex chronicle of the drug war, the other four nominees represent safe and noble entertainment, a throwback to old- fashioned fare. They are movies that integrate with varying degrees of success new and sophisticated technology into rather conventional and crowd-pleasing narratives, a trend epitomized in 1997 by the Oscar-winning blockbuster, “Titanic”.

Take Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator”, which swept the largest (12) number of nominations. It’s a gloriously mounted production that, notwithstanding its blood and gore, is basically a sand-and-sandals epic, a throwback to such historical adventures as “Ben-Hur” and even “Quo Vadis” With its sympathetic rebel-hero (splendidly played by Russell Crowe) and mythic battle of good versus evil, safely placed in the distant past, it’s the same kind of film as “Braveheart”, Mel Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner, as well as numerous costume dramas of the 1950s and 1960s.

And who will disagree now-a-days with the anti-Big Business message of “Erin Brockovic”h, a well-made biopicture centering on a working-class woman, a classic American underdog, who, with feisty determination and commitment to the cause, triumphed against all odds. That’s safe and noble entertainment, too. In its crowd-pleasing qualities and bravura star performance by Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich offers a similar message–and emotional pleasure–to those of “Norma Rae”, Martin Ritt’s 1979 biopicture that earned Sally Field her first Best Actress.

Lasse Hallstrom’s fluffy, insubstantial “Chocolat” is the kind of compassionately humanistic film that’s not only old-fashioned in its values and looks, but also set in the past, in this case a remote French village in the early 1950s. Structured as a romantic fable, basically a fairy tale, it cherishes similar values to those flaunted last year in Miramax’s Oscar-nominated “The Cider House Rules”, also directed by Hallstrom and also set in the past. There’s nothing challenging about “Chocolat”, an enjoyable, well-acted film whose liberal–anti-censorship, anti-repression–morals are both timeless and universal.

The Academy’s most audacious act that year was nominating Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a foreign-language film, for the Best Picture and nine other categories, an all-time record in the Oscar’s annals. Yet once you overcome the shock of recognition–after all, only a few foreign films have garnered Best Picture nomination–it’s easy to understand the members’ motivation. A hybrid of a movie, an action-romance-costume drama, “Crouching Tiger” shrewdly positions at its center two bright and beautiful women who’re just as expertly skillful in martial arts as their male counterparts. Moreover, once the resistance to a subtitled film (and Mandarin at that) is surmounted, it’s easy to understand why the movie is breaking box-office records, conquering the American heartland where foreign fare is seldom shown.

One can’t deny the good, honorable politics behind voting for a film like “Crouching Tiger”, particularly in a year in which there are no black-themed movies and not many performers of color in the contest. Showering this film with multiple nominations is respecting cultural diversity, and a global one at that, and showing hospitability to a talented ensemble from Asia, which is rapidly becoming a major market for American movies. It also provides compensation for snubbing “Crouching Tiger’s” gifted helmer, Ang Lee, who has never been nominated before, despite the fact that his 1995 literary comedy, “Sense and Sensibility”, was singled out in seven categories, winning best adapted screenplay for Emma Thompson, its star.

Of the five nominees, the only contemporary saga, dealing with the contentious issue of drug wars across the American and Mexican borders, is “Traffic”, a film that’s also stylistically innovative. Yet a closer look at Soderbergh’s ambitious movie, which tells not one but three stories and with a huge and amazing cast, shows that it, too, is a compromising and old-fashioned narrative, albeit in a different way from “Erin Brockovich”, Soderbergh’s other contender in competition.

“Traffic” might have been the most exciting and complex American movie of the year, but it’s marred by a soft and balanced last reel that somehow negates the story’s predominantly tough and bleak tone. In treating a polemic issue in personalized, individualistic manner, by centering on the intergenerational strain between a new drug czar, a Ohio State Supreme Court Justice (played by Michael Douglas) and his drug-addicted teenage daughter, “Traffic” follows the tradition of most social-problem films (“All the President’s Men”, “The China Syndrome”, “Wall Street”) that reduce and deflate various ills of the social system to an easier-to-comprehend individual or family problem.

Film after film suggests that any problem, political or economic, can be treated and often resolved in individual terms by an ordinary personality. Never mind that “ordinary” in Hollywood terms means casting an attractive star like Jane Fonda and Robert Redford in the past, and this year Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich”, and Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in “Traffic”. As “Traffic’s” multi-layered unfolds, the initially established mysteries, double meanings, and ambiguities gradually give way to an orderly narrative that goes out of its way not to upset its viewers too much. That’s good entertainment, and good box-office. Is there a better combination

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.

Take the Oscar contest in 1967, for example, a year in which black-themed films about racial prejudice left their most impressive mark with the release of three Sidney Poitier star vehicles: “To Sir with Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night”. As a result, Poitier became the first black actor to be celebrated as America’s most popular star. All of a sudden, black was not only beautiful but good business at the box-office. The Academy showered both “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” with multiple nominations and awards. An overly explicit comedy, “Guess Who’s Coming” depicts a liberal couple (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn), he a publisher, she an art gallery owner, whose value system is provoked when their only daughter announces her intention to marry a black surgeon (Poitier); it does help that he’s handsome and internationally renowned. Nominated for 10 Oscars, it won Hepburn her third Best Actress and William Rose the screenplay Oscar.

In the same year, Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” became the first film about racial discrimination to win Best Picture. Once again, context proved more important than text. The timing seemed “right” to honor a topical film about the evolving camaraderie between an initially bigotted police chief (Rod Steiger) and a black homicide detective (Poitier). Arguably, of the nominated films in 1967, the most exciting one was Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde”, an innovative film in every sense of the term. However, its glamorizing attitude toward its gangster characters, and the fact that it was made by the New Hollywood–Warren Beatty was producer and star–must have worked against it. It’s still shocking to think that the Academy honored “In the Heat of the Night” for best editing and sound over the amazing achievements in these areas in “Bonnie and Clyde”.

That Academy members tend to judge films by the importance of their subjects and relevance of their issues also became clear in 1982, when Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” swept the Oscars. Cinematically, it was a rather conventional and solemn biopicture of the political martyr,a picture that lacked epic scope or visual imagination. However, “Gandh”i’s real-life figure was so inspirational and his anti-violence preaching so timely a message, that the Academy favored it over two artistically more interesting pictures, Spielberg’s “E.T.” and Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie”.

Though accomplished on every level, “Tootsie” was a comedy, a genre notoriously underestimated by the Academy, and it lacked the noble intent that “Gandhi” had. The late N.Y. Times Vincent Canby described “Gandhi” as having “the air of an important news event, something that is required reading.” But he understood perfectly the Academy’s reasoning: “To honor a film like “Gandhi”, a perfectly reverent if unexceptional film, 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.”

In 1990, too, film politics was more forceful than film art. Kevin Costner, then at the height of his popularity, 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.

Indeed, the great divide in 1990 was based as much on politics, in this case 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 Wolve”s 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 extinguishing Native American culture, particularly that “Dances” 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 the movie’s epic scale and running time, always a plus at Oscar time, and that it was deemed more “authentic” than most Westerns because a portion of the dialogue was subtitled. Industry cynics labeled “Dances” as “Gandhi” for the 1990s, a film highly congruent with the zeitgeist.

There’s no denying that all five Oscar nominees this year are respectable movies. But there’s also no denying that extra-filmic factors, such as politics and ideology, continue to play a crucial role in the nomination and choice of winners. That’s the nature of film as a medium that can’t be divorced from the socio-cultural setting in which is exists.

For Your Consideration: Oscar Politics in Perspective
The Academy’s tendency to choose movies that deal with “important” and “noble” issues over artistically innovative or politically controversial movies is easy to document. Preference has always been 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”

If you want to read more about this issue, please consult
All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (Continuum International 2003, paperback).