Features

Oscar madness

"Oscar madness" Continued...

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

Adjusted for inflation, 2005's Best Picture winner, Crash, was the lowest-grossing film to earn that prize in the show's history, with a theatrical take of a mere $54.5 million. The combined total in the category was the lowest in 21 years. Before Crash, Million Dollar Baby ranked as the least popular Best Picture winner since 1987. It crossed the $100 million mark, but not until after it won the Oscar, and even then it recorded one of the lowest post-show sales bounces in decades. This year the returns weren't much better, though Scorsese's The Departed is keeping the group sum from dipping embarrassingly low.

The few Oscar-winning films that do win big at the bank rarely champion causes of any kind. Of the 16 films nominated for Oscar's six main categories (Best Supporting Actor/Actress, Best Actor/Actress, Best Director, Best Picture) in 2001, The Fellowship of the Ring alone broke the top 10 barrier. And in 2002, only The Two Towers and Chicago garnered highest grosses. More recently, in 2003, The Return of the King and Pirates of the Caribbean were the only films to make it into the top 10. None made it in either 2004 or 2005, and this year The Pursuit of Happyness alone managed the feat.

That means out of the 96 films nominated in the six major categories for Academy Awards over the last six years, only seven topped the box-office receipts. And of those seven, three were part of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a franchise tightly based on the fantasy novels of a conservative Catholic who believed he was recasting biblical truth in the format of myth. Of the remaining five, none could be called overtly political. Expand the list to the top 20 moneymakers of any given year and only a handful of additional nominees (none boasting any social agenda to speak of) make the cut.

In contrast, domestic grosses reveal that many of America's most popular films remain what could be called conservative in theme and characterization: Independence Day, Chronicles of Narnia, The Passion of the Christ, Bruce Almighty, The Lord of the Rings, Signs, Spiderman, and Pearl Harbor. Unlike the majority of Oscar picks, all are tales characterized by risk-taking, personal responsibility, individual achievement, and faith in a power greater than ourselves. The majority even feature patriotism and distrust of central governance.

Particularly revealing given this premise is the popularity of this year's phenomenal, and phenomenally successful film, The Pursuit of Happyness, a movie that not only celebrates hard work and the charity of churches, but even champions capitalism. In a film about a homeless man, the main character's only gripe with the government is how much it takes from him in taxes. Not surprisingly, though Will Smith received a nod for Best Actor, the movie was shut out in all other categories.

This isn't to suggest that only crowd-pleasers should receive Oscar attention. But considering the number of profitable and artistically worthy films that go overlooked by the academy (this year World Trade Center and Inside Man come to mind), it does seem curiously insistent on rewarding little-known and little-liked efforts. There is more to this trend than simple cinematic elitism. Rather, it looks more likely that Oscar voters, with the collusion of the entertainment press, use their accolades to try to shape the debates on the moral issues of our time.

In 1999 two of the year's biggest winners, The Cider House Rules and Boys Don't Cry, wove, respectively, pro-abortion and pro-transgenderism positions into narratives average Americans might find sympathetic. The Cider House Rules told the story of Homer (Tobey MacGuire), a young man who believes abortion is commensurate with infanticide despite his job as surgical assistant to Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), an abortionist. After being confronted with a young woman whose pregnancy is the result of incest, Homer comes to believe his opposition to abortion is narrow-minded and impractical, and he accepts his mentor's life work as compassionate.

In this case, the plot alone presented clear enough value judgments, but it was the lauding of that judgment that lent the film political weight. Not only did the academy give credence to the film's premise by nominating it for Best Picture and Best Director, it also provided novelist John Irving an opportunity to praise the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) when he took the podium to accept his Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Critics didn't shy away from pronouncing simpatico sentiments either. New York Times film critic Stephen Holden made evident the lesson he hoped audiences would take away: "In order for our lives to mean anything at all, we sometimes have to play God, take charge and do what we believe is right." Lesser critics across the country followed suit, tying the film's protagonist abortion doctor to hardworking abortionists in real life. Jack Mathews of The Seattle Times conferred benevolent motives to the entire abortion industry when he wrote, "Like most of today's abortion-clinic doctors, Larch sees abortion as a last resort but a viable one."

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