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.
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.
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."
But whereas Cider House's purpose was to frame a debate already raging in America, Boys Don't Cry functioned as a preemptive strike to sway audiences to one side of a looming cultural battle. Independently produced, the film centered on a young woman who deceives her lover into believing she is a man. Played by then-unknown Hilary Swank, the character not only cuts her hair like a boy and wears masculine clothing, she makes love to her girlfriend with a prosthetic phallus.
While that sounds like the makings of a disturbing psychological thriller, in the hands of Hollywood it was transformed into a romantic tragedy-a Romeo and Juliet (or Juliet and Juliet as the case may be) for the modern gender-bending age. In his review of Boys Don't Cry, Roger Ebert set out the moral he expected viewers to walk away with: "Everybody in this film acts exactly according to their natures . . . it's a sad song about a free spirit who tried to fly a little too close to the flame."
Like Cider House, Boys received support from critics and numerous national and international awards. And because it introduced subject matter barely conceived in red-state America, it also opened the door for the mainstream media to promote the transsexual lifestyle. Only the second time around, the stories were not presented as narrative dramas, carefully crafted to elicit audience identification and sympathy, but as investigative reports.
On Feb. 25, 2004, CBS' 48 Hours premiered a broadcast titled "Trapped," examining the lives of three "transgendered" individuals who believe they are suffering from society's intolerance of their true identities-namely that, despite their genitalia, they feel more comfortable living as members of the opposite sex. One of the guests, Kayla, was an 11-year-old girl on her way to becoming a boy with the blessing of her mother and the testosterone shots of her doctor. Wanting to affirm her child's inner identity, Kayla's single mother calls her daughter "Kayden" and refers to her as "he." Following CBS coverage, on Aug. 24, 2004, Oprah Winfrey, den mother to millions of American women from all sides of the political spectrum, again featured Kayla/Kayden and her mother in a sympathetic program on transsexual pre-pubescence.
Though neither of these Oscar-winners made much money, progressives considered both successful in that they either furthered a public argument or introduced one. And whereas Boys may have been unsuccessful in its bid to draw in viewers with its tragic same-sex "love story," a film nominated six years later wasn't. No matter how the receipts were parsed by region, the fact remained that Brokeback Mountain-a twisted love story involving two cowboys who each marry wives but continue a homosexual relationship- took in an impressive $83 million in domestic grosses.
This may be why, despite the marked drop-off in Academy Award ratings, the trend of honoring baldly partisan films shows little signs of abating.