Reviews > Culture

Lord of the Oscars

Culture | Culture Beat

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

The Greeks invented both sports and drama, turning what would have been two different kinds of playing into formal competitions. Spectators in both the gymnasium and the theater were interested in determining a winner, whether discus throwers or tragedians. The annual drama festivals would culminate in the awarding of the prize for the best play, with Sophocles beating his rivals Aeschylus and Euripides for 18 first-place finishes. So award shows like the Oscars have a venerable history and considerable cultural significance.

The 76th Academy Awards took place in a time of culture war. A movie about the crucifixion of Christ that Hollywood wanted nothing to do with was breaking records at the box office (see p. 25). A stirred-up FCC was holding hearings to rein in television indecency. The awards show itself was put on a five-second delay to prevent any Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake-style embarrassments. And the movies up for the biggest awards-such as The Return of the King, Master and Commander, Seabiscuit, and Finding Nemo-were culturally conservative.

The Hollywood elite was certainly on its best behavior. Compared to past years, last week's Oscars were sedate and restrained.

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Many people worried that the bohemian artsy types would be defiant and purposefully violate whatever standards anyone tried to put on them, but no. There was no need for the five-second delay. There were no casual obscenities in the acceptance speeches. Even the stars' dresses were relatively modest and demure, stopping the trend over the last few years of starlets trying to outdo each other in revealing gowns.

There was only one anti-Bush rant, this in a highly charged election year, after the Oscars had become notorious as a free platform for winners to hold forth at tedious length on their favorite causes. (And that was countered by equal time for the other side, when a humorous Billy Crystal montage showed the left-wing scold Michael Moore protesting the war with Mordor, until he got stomped by an Oliphaunt. Recommendation for Republicans: Update the elephant symbol accordingly.)

The undisputed winner of the night was The Return of the King, which won in every category it was nominated for, bringing in 11 Oscars, tying Ben Hur and Titanic for most awards ever. Some had felt the earlier two installments of Tolkien's trilogy had been snubbed, but it was evident from the way spokesmen talked about them that the Academy considered The Lord of the Rings to be, as Mr. Crystal said, one nine-hour movie. It blew away the competition in the artistic and technical categories and became the first fantasy film to ever win Best Picture. Peter Jackson, Best Director and Best Screenplay Adaptor, gave the credit to J.R.R. Tolkien.

Jim Rygiel picked up his third Oscar for being in charge of visual effects in The Lord of the Rings. Mr. Rygiel said that he was hard at work on the extended version of the DVD for The Return of the King, which will be released at the end of the year. He said that it would include a whopping extra hour of material, including the Saruman subplot.

In other Oscar news, the family favorite Finding Nemo took best animated feature. Not only did positive movies win; negative movies lost. Capturing the Friedmans, which defends convicted child molesters, lost for Best Documentary. Even the musical performances were outstanding, forswearing the Vegas-style production numbers for Alison Krauss, doing two exquisite numbers from Cold Mountain, one of which was accompanied by the Sacred Harp choir.

Unlike recent years, the Oscars this time were not embarrassing and did not make the viewer despair of American culture. Hollywood still has a long way to go, to be sure, but this year the Oscars could make an ordinary American feel that, yes, that's my culture, and maybe there is hope for it after all.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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