King’s Speech Vs. Social Network: Choose One

There was no suprise, when the well-made, easy to watch “The King’s Speech” won over the brilliant, provocative and ambiguous “The Social Network,” (the best picture of the year, acccording to the vast majority of critics.

As an Observer of trends of the Oscar Awards for three decades (first for my book, “All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Acadeemy awards,” published in 1986 and still in print in revised editions),  I had predicted the “King’s Speech” win months before the Oscar voters actually filled in their ballots.

I was not the only one; most Oscar gurus across the country did well in their prediction of Best Picture.  How did we know, you may ask? Well, this year’s Best Picture choice just followed well-established trends of yeteryear.

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 of Motion picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has always favored earnest, noble, and inspirational fare that propagated political correctness even before the concept existed.


The Message’s the Thing: All Quiet on the Western Front      

There’s talk that the motion picture we honor tonight may win a Nobel Prize”—Louis B. Mayer about All Quiet on the Western Front

Historical and socio-political factors have always influenced the types of films and performances winning the Oscars.  In other words, the social context, zeitgeist, and message are far more influential than the artistic quality in determining the ultimate Best Picture winners.

From the first year, ideological considerations were taken into account.Carl Laemmle, head of Universal spent over one million dollars to film Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel, All Quiet on the Western Front.  A group of German schoolboys who enlist in the army at the outbreak of WWI and become disillusioned as they face the reality of combat.  The American Legion and other organizations were concerned about the sympathetic portrayal of Germans, but the movie became both a critical and commercial success.

It was a prestige production:Lewis Milestone directed and  Broadway’s noted playwrights, Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott, wrote the screenplay.  All Quiet on the Western Front was nominated for four awards and won Best Picture.  When Louis B. Mayer handed the Best Picture to All Quiet, he solemnly said: “There’s talk that the motion picture we honor tonight may win a Nobel Prize.”

Indeed, the League of Nations could make no better or nobler ambassador for peace than All Quiet or Warners’ pictures of the eras.  Prime among them was Disraeli, for which George Arliss, billed as “the first gentleman of the talking screen,” and promoted by the studio as an important history lesson.  Same could be said for the 1937 Oscar winner, The Story of Emile Zola, which, as noted also evidenced   morality, respectability, and good taste, all the requirements–and qualities–that Will Hays, head of the industry’s self-censorship board, talked about in his lecture at the 1929 ceremonies.

Oscars as Politically Correct Entertainment? Looking Back a Decade Ago 

The Best Picture Oscar contest in 2000 was as much about politics as about art.  It’s always been that way.  How else would you explain that, year after year, the films nominated for Best Picture–and especially the one that wins–are not necessarily the most artistically distinguished, but those whose ideological messages are timely and widely accepted.  More than other films, the Oscar nominees may serve as America’s storehouse of recorded values, a reflection of its zeitgeist.

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.

And who will disagree now-a-days with the anti-Big Business message of Erin Brockovich, 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 this year is 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 timely 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?

The Academy’s tendency to choose earnest movies that deal with “important” or “noble” issues over audacious movies that are more artistically innovative or politically charged is easily documented.  The Academy’s preference is always for safe, mainstream, non-controversial film fare that’s imbued with widely acceptable message:

Noble Theme Over Artistic Quality

In 1937, Life of Emil Zola over The Awful Truth or Lost Horizon

In 1941, How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane

In 1942, Mrs. Miniver over The Magnificent Ambersons

In 1944, Going My Way over Double Indemnity

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 1966, A Man for All Seasons over Alfie or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In 1967, In the Heat of the Night over Bonnie and Clyde

In 1971, French Connection over A Clockwork Orange

In 1976, Rocky over Network and All the President’s Men

In 1980, Ordinary People over Raging Bull

In 1981, Chariots of Fire over Reds

In 1982, Gandhi over Tootsie and E.T.

In 1983, Terms of Endearment over The Right Stuff

In 1989, Driving Miss Daisy over My Left Foot

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 1999, American Beauty over The Insider

In 2000, Gladiator over Traffic

In 2001, A Beautiful Mind over The Lord of the Ring: The Fellowship of the Ring

In 2005, Crash over Brokeback Mountain

In 2010, King’s Speech Over Social Network