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Oscar madness

Entertainment | With the Academy of Motion Pictures set to vote on this year's Oscars, odds are against the movies most moviegoers like

Issue: "'Into captivity they shall go'," Feb. 24, 2007

Do Americans have bad taste in movies? If the movies that make money compared to the movies that win awards are any gauge to go by, the answer is apparently yes. Our taste is dreadful.

We like big, bold movies-movies filled with adventure, romance, heartache, heroism, and tender family feeling. Movies like The Perfect Storm, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Passion of the Christ, and Spiderman represent a wide range of films that, despite their differences in terms of genre, all made it to the top in terms of ticket sales. And believe it or not, once upon a time, Oscars actually went to films like these.

In 1981, Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for Best Picture but was beat out by the uplifting Chariots of Fire. Though they were both defeated by Ghandi, in 1982 Tootsie and ET: The Extraterrestrial were also nominated for the big award. Even as recently as 1997 box-office heavyweights like As Good as It Gets and Titanic were not only nominated but also drew in the largest audiences.

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These were fun, exciting, popular movies, and both the public and the academy seemed to be in lock-step in their enjoyment of them. But not anymore.

As The Hollywood Reporter's Michael Grove points out in a recent piece detailing Oscar trends, around 1989 things started to change. And after 1997 that change became more pronounced and seemingly permanent. These days, Grove observes, "There's no question that if you want to be in the Best Picture race you've either got to be a small serious drama or a big commercial film . . . with some serious or, better yet, tragic undertones." He then adds, "This fits very well with today's academy appetite for portentous indie dramas that, preferably, have been made for very little money."

What Grove doesn't mention in his analysis of academy voters' taste is that Oscar's turn toward more "serious" films coincides with its drive to award more political films-that is, progressive, countercultural films that push a specific social agenda.

Despite the academy's claim that its members "do not promote political matters," nearly every Oscar-nominated movie with demonstrably political themes falls on the left side of the ledger. A quick perusal of the nominated films of the last few years reads like a checklist of the liberal platform. Validates same-sex couples-check (Brokeback Mountain). Endorses transgendered lifestyles-check (Transamerica). Repudiates immigration law enforcement-check (Babel). Promotes euthanasia-check (Million Dollar Baby). Blames Israel for its difficulties with its neighbors-check (Munich). Advocates class-action lawsuits-check (Erin Brockovich). And the list goes on to cover everything from the president's supposed scheming with oil companies (Syriana) to the constant implication that being married in the suburbs is a miserable way to go through life (American Beauty, Far from Heaven, Kinsey, Closer, and others).

Even with the inclusion of a rousing cop thriller like The Departed, the 2006 Oscar season is shaping up much the same. Martin Scorsese's drama may be brilliant, but it is also brutal-a hard R-rated film whose few amusements are of the grim, resigned kind. Some have argued that Best Picture nominee Little Miss Sunshine is bucking the trend by bringing laughs back to the biggest category. However, while it has its moments of wry hilarity, those chortles come by way of a porn- and heroine-addicted grandfather; a sullen, silent teen who spends the entire film wearing a shirt that proclaims "Jesus was wrong"; a suicidal gay Proust scholar; and a 10-year-old girl who simulates a strip routine for the talent portion of a beauty pageant. Hardly the makings of a broad, inclusive comedy. Dreamgirls, on the other hand, the most exuberant, accessible movie in any of the major categories, is setting records for receiving the most nominations without being up for Best Picture.

The remaining films are not only serious, they also have the advantage of being politically important (or, at least, politically self-important). Out of a myriad of interlocking narratives, Babel features one clear villain: the loudmouthed, ignorant Americans who tumble through other people's countries mistaking target practice for terrorism and demanding that their illegal nannies miss their sons' weddings before being deported. Though Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima may present a well-crafted story, it nonetheless reverses the roles of conventional World War II films and casts Japanese soldiers as heroes and American troops as villains (not surprisingly, many critics have drawn parallels between that view and the current war).

And once again the films up for awards Feb. 25 have proved that while agenda-driven films do well with critics, their Oscar gold seldom translates into box-office green.

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