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And the Oscar goes to . . .

Movies | Whatever the Oscars have become, they certainly are no longer the gold standard for family entertainment

Issue: "Foster care's future," March 5, 2005

With occasional exceptions (such as last year's sweep by The Return of the King), the Academy Awards now recognize primarily "adult" fare. Of the five Best Picture nominees this year, none is destined to become a family classic, with only Finding Neverland coming close.

Between 1990 and 2004, eight of the 14 Best Picture winners were rated R. None were rated G or PG. Now, there's no rule that says the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must pick a film suitable for family audiences on which to bestow its accolades. Nor does this imply that films recognized since 1990 are without merit (Schindler's List and Braveheart, both rated R, are on that list).

It does suggest that whatever the Oscars have become, it isn't the gold standard for family entertainment. In fact, since 1968's Best Picture winner, Oliver!, the only film to receive that honor that's really suitable for family audiences is 1981's anomaly, Chariots of Fire. One year after Oliver!, the X-rated (at the time) Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture, and the Oscars seem to have not recovered since.

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Look back in Oscar's history and the picture changes. The list of previous winners is populated with many genuine classics, and among them quite a few films worth seeking out at the video store when searching for worthwhile family entertainment. Many of them deal with themes just as pressing, just as appealing to an adult sensibility, but in a way that's accessible to a much broader audience.

Going all the way back to 1935, Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty is still the best adaptation of the often filmed tale. Charles Laughton as the brutal, pitiful Capt. Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian are without parallel.

Gable pops up again in 1939's well-remembered Gone with the Wind, but 1941's How Green Was My Valley, which topped Citizen Kane that year, deserves as much attention. John Ford's moving story of a Welsh coal-mining town facing industrialization features a very young Roddy McDowall as the youngest sibling in the Morgan family and Walter Pidgeon as the local minister.

Casablanca, winner in 1943, highlights the differences between "then" and "now." A surprisingly cynical take on World War II, the film still manages to find hope and integrity amidst chaos, unlike later anti-war Oscar winners Platoon and The Deer Hunter.

Skipping forward to 1956, Around the World in 80 Days features a sense of exoticism and wonder almost entirely absent from last year's remake. The pace may be somewhat slow by modern standards, but the journey is worthwhile.

A year later, David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai won Best Picture. The film is another complex, morally nuanced World War II tale that is nonetheless utterly inspiring. Kids familiar with Star Wars' Obi-Wan Kenobi may enjoy seeing Alec Guinness in one of his greatest roles, as a British colonel forced to lead his men in building a bridge in a Japanese prison camp, while an American (William Holden) tries to destroy it.

Ben-Hur (1959's winner), a film subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," gave Charlton Heston his greatest role. David Lean and Alec Guinness returned to the top spot three years later with the epic Lawrence of Arabia, the film that also "introduced" Peter O'Toole.

In 1965, Robert Wise's film of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music made the Von Trapps a household name. It's a classic Hollywood musical with enough drama, romance, and war-time intrigue to still captivate modern audiences often uncomfortable with spontaneous outbursts of song.

This brings us to 1966's A Man for All Seasons, the last film on the list, with the exception of Chariots of Fire 15 years later, that can be recommended without qualification for family viewing. The two films have in common being some of the best portrayals of Christian faith to ever appear in a mainstream Hollywood production. Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More and Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell serve as inspiring examples of resolute commitment to faith and conscience in the face of immense pressure.

The list above certainly isn't comprehensive. More chestnuts await those willing to venture beyond the new-release walls at the local video store. It just goes to show that the Academy Awards aren't useless-they just require a sense of history.


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