Nine films are competing for the Best Picture award to be handed out at the 2012 Academy Awards extravaganza on Feb. 26-and the average box office gross of the nominees is one of the lowest in the last 20 years. Only one of the nine, The Help, could be considered a genuine hit. And, as with popular nominees of the previous two years, few industry insiders give it much chance of winning. (One Oscar betting site currently pegs its odds at 33 to 1.)
Since underrepresentation of crowd-pleasers prompted the Academy's decision in 2009 to have up to 10 Best Picture nominees each year rather than five, the natural question when sizing up this year's race is, what gives? The answer lies in a story that shows how worldviews make a difference both in making movies and choosing winners.
Let's start with that expansion decision, which followed years of sliding Oscar night ratings. The president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis, said in a press conference that the Academy's goal was to expand the playing field for worthy films: "Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize."
Yet while the move wasn't without precedent (prior to 1943, the Best Picture category often included as many as 12 nominees), many skeptical industry watchers surmised that while a desire to cater to the movie-going public played a part in the Academy's decision, the Academy had been shamed into it.
The 81st Academy Awards four months earlier saw the snubbing of The Dark Knight, one of the most financially successful, critically acclaimed films of the last decade: It was the highest-grossing movie of 2008 and also received a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that averages the scores of film critics across the country. It received neither Best Picture nor Best Director nominations. Instead, less-regarded films like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader, which received only 72 percent and 62 percent positive averages, respectively, and grossed only small fractions of The Dark Knight's haul, made the cut.
Speculation that its popularity and superhero subject matter caused Oscar voters to diss The Dark Knight sparked widespread outrage across the blogosphere. Awards Daily, in a piece titled Oscar Shoots Self in Foot, wondered what criteria could have possibly accounted for the Academy's choice. "They don't think about ratings, they don't think about critics, they don't think about the public anymore (they certainly used to). So what do they think about?" wrote Sasha Stone. The Chicago Tribune's Marc Caro warned that Oscar might be flirting with irrelevance: "When the Academy denies top recognition to such critically and popularly beloved movies as The Dark Knight and Wall•E ... it risks confirming the suspicions of those who think it has grown out of touch with mainstream tastes."
During the question-and-answer session following his 2010 announcement of the Best Picture expansion, Ganis admitted, "I would not be telling you the truth if I said the words 'Dark Knight' did not come up."
The new, enlarged 2010 ceremony featured indie productions like The Hurt Locker and An Education going head-to-head with crowd-pleasers like Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, and Up. The widely publicized insider wisdom was that Avatar, based on the seismic impact it had on the entertainment landscape, stood a good chance of winning, and the other three nominations were pure audience bait with little to no hope of taking home the big award. In the end, all the big box-office players lost out to the low-budget war drama, The Hurt Locker (which made less money at the box office than any Best Picture winner in modern Oscar history), and 5 million more viewers tuned in.
Why did that happen? Britain's Daily Telegraph argued that the Academy refuses to "bow cravenly to box-office success; instead it rewards serious, accomplished filmmaking." But here's another suggestion: Filmmakers with the talent and resources to make excellent movies (which usually means movies that treat ideas seriously) are choosing themes that the broad swath of Americans find uninspiring if not outright offensive.
Think about Best Picture nominees that also have big box-office numbers. They tend to be films in which the main characters struggle to overcome either their own inner weaknesses or outer obstacles to achieve a specific moral ideal. Gladiator, Erin Brockovich, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Juno, Up, Inglourious Basterds, Seabiscuit, Slumdog Millionaire, The Departed, Avatar-all of these high-grossing Best Picture contenders of the last 10 years, whether you ascribe to their worldview or not, present a fixed concept of virtue. Character development and the subtext of the story serve to reinforce, not deconstruct, that concept.
Take last year's big winner, the natty, quintessentially aristocratic The King's Speech. For the good of his country King George perseveres to overcome his stutter and thus deliver a speech that uplifts and steels the hearts of his people during a war. Though it bore none of the usual markings of a movie likely to top $100 million, word of its excellence spread, and it eventually became a bona fide blockbuster. This year's sleeper hit, The Help, in which a young white journalist helps black maids in the segregated South speak out against oppression, followed a similar (indeed, even more dramatic) trajectory, as did 2009's The Blind Side, in which a wealthy family adopts an impoverished teenager. (It goes without saying that, though a conflicted character, The Dark Knight stands with those who battle on behalf of unconditional morality.)
The films Oscar voters have tended to award in recent years, on the other hand, frequently have themes of inner uncertainty and lack of a fixed moral compass. The characters may start out clutching onto an ideological ideal, but events of the story conspire to show how misguided or naïve they have been in trying to consistently apply that ideal to the vagaries of life.
For example, The Hurt Locker, while an excellent film, features soldiers unsure of their role in the Iraq War, questioning whether they fight because their cause is just or because they love the rush that comes from combat. The Descendants, one of the favorites to win Best Picture at the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, follows a man whose concept of marriage and family is decimated after he discovers his comatose wife had been cheating on him. He must learn, through blow after blow to his ego and his notion of what it means to be a parent, to accept new ideals, drawing wisdom from his teenage daughter and her pot-smoking boyfriend. When one minor character tries to apply an overarching virtue-forgiveness-to the distressing situation, she is portrayed as something of an embarrassment.
The 2010 indie nominee, The Kids Are All Right, which superficially made the case for same-sex parenting, featured partners who, along with cheating and lying to each other, are unsure of their sexual feelings and unsure whether those feelings are good or bad. Besides the inessentiality of fathers, the only moral ideal the film leaves its characters with is that acknowledging their uncertainty and slogging on despite it is better than fixing on a single definition of marriage and family.
Though not a Best Picture nominee, The Iron Lady (for which Meryl Streep is considered the frontrunner for Best Actress) serves as perhaps the best illustration this year of how a filmmaker's thematic choices may keep the public away from a movie they would otherwise have great interest in.
The basic facts of Margaret Thatcher's life are these-a lower-middle-class grocer's daughter struggles to win acceptance in the male-dominated Tory party of the 1970s before going on to become first leader of her party and then prime minister of Great Britain. During her time in office she triumphs over her political rivals, governs her country to renewed economic prosperity, and collaborates with other world leaders to help end the Cold War.
It would not have taken a hagiography to make a movie about Thatcher that resonated with American moviegoers. But it would have taken the perspective that Thatcher deeply believed in her stated political and moral ideologies, and that her dedication to them was what drove her to overcome all obstacles. Instead, in between showing a young Thatcher as blindly enthralled by politicians as other young girls were by the Beatles, director Phyllida Lloyd shows Thatcher's motivations and her own feelings about her goals to be suspect.
Told through the conceit of Thatcher looking back on her life while enduring the hectoring of her now-deceased husband, she considers that it may have been ambition rather than righteous passion that drove her: She quietly grieves what her triumphs may have cost her. In the end, the ideologies the Iron Lady stands on are shifting sand-perhaps not worth her lifetime of dedication. No wonder, despite its brilliant acting and riveting subject, the film failed to win much attention from moviegoers.
As in the case of The Iron Lady, filmmakers don't necessarily have to believe in absolute moral values to draw audiences, but if they want to make movies that make money for something other than mammoth spectacle and genre pandering, they should probably create characters who do. If Academy members want to draw more viewers to their TV screens next year, they might give more attention to well-made movies that feature crusaders, caped or otherwise.
Since 2006 it's been my blessing and privilege to write movie reviews for WORLD. The following 20 films, representing all rating levels and genres, are some of my favorites:
October Baby PG-13 (Dec. 3, 2011)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes PG-13 (Aug. 27, 2011)
True Grit PG-13 (Jan. 15, 2011)
Of Gods and Men PG-13 (March 26, 2011)
Inception PG-13 (July 31, 2010)
Sherlock Holmes PG-13 (Jan. 16, 2010)
Babies G (May 22, 2010)
The Damned United R (Dec. 5, 2009)
The Blind Side PG-13 (Nov. 21, 2009)
Up G (June 6, 2009)
Star Trek PG-13 (May 23, 2009)
The Visitor PG-13 (March 14, 2009)
Gran Torino R (Jan. 17, 2009)
Frost/Nixon R (Dec. 13, 2008)
Wall•E G (June 28, 2008)
Prince Caspian PG (May 17, 2008)
Henry Poole Is Here PG (Sep. 6, 2008)
3:10 to Yuma R (Sep. 22, 2007)
Spider Man 3 PG-13 (May 5, 2007)
Astronaut Farmer PG (March 10, 2007)
When I speak to young people about writing, I wonder if they will have the discipline and fortitude to endure the years of hardship that most apprentice writers have to experience. I also wonder if they will have the wisdom to cope with success, should it ever come their way.
As an aspiring author in the 1960s and '70s, I had a powerful drive to succeed. If I had been pressed to define the term, I would have said that a successful author is one who is able to support himself and his family through his writing. He should be able to make a living with his craft.
But there was more to it. I began to notice that many of the "successful" people in creative fields suffered fractured lives that led them into depression, burn-out, alcoholism, drug abuse, hedonism, and divorce-estrangement from faith, family, and community, everything that really mattered.
It seemed a cruel hoax. After an author, actor, musician, or artist had mastered his craft, after struggling and clawing his way to center stage, there he encountered a mockery of his ambitions, a dark mirror image that was, in fact, the direct opposite of success.
"Success" is a powerful concept in American culture. We are often described as "success-driven." We want our children to succeed, and we use success as a standard to measure a life and a career. We might suppose that anything so important would have a clear definition, but that's not the case in artistic professions.
I think it's important that people in creative fields define themselves and their ambitions outside the context of popular culture. Popular culture offers fame and fortune, but has no moral center. It's a fire that warms itself and uses artistic people as fuel. The fire burns hot for a while, then the ashes go to the dump.
It's a familiar story, and should remind us of the question Jesus asked in Mark 8:36. To paraphrase: "What's left of you after you've become a star?"
Until fairly recent times, art was viewed as more than the self-expression of an individual. It served a community and had a moral, ultimately religious, function: to present a coherent vision of who we are as human beings, and to provide guidance on how we should conduct ourselves in the short span of time we have on this earth.
The sense of community that nurtured and inspired artists in the past is hard to find in the present day, but not impossible. I have found remnants of it among people who try to view experience through the lens of a Christian worldview.
In such environments, artistic people can find a purpose, an audience, and a professional identity (some call it a "vocation") within the same stream of thought and belief that has nurtured great writers, composers, artists, and thinkers for the past 2,000 years-4,000, if we include our rich heritage from the Old Testament.
In that context, the artist serves something higher than himself. His art should be more than a summary of his lust, nightmares, and petty desires. And even though success in America is inextricably linked with money, success in the arts should deliver more than a fat bank account.
Christian artists must balance the needs of the flesh with the needs of the soul, bearing in mind that some things should not be put up for sale. If you're writing or performing for someone else's children, while your own children live as orphans, you're not selling your talent; you're selling your children-your soul.
Further, there are some songs that maybe you shouldn't sing, some books you shouldn't write, some movie roles you shouldn't take, and some words you shouldn't say.
Popular culture might not understand that kind of thinking, but our grandparents' generation would have had no problem understanding it. There are some things you shouldn't do for money.
From a Christian perspective, something is amiss when the artist entertains his audience but corrupts himself and the people he loves. As Francis Schaeffer once observed, the artist's ultimate work should be his own life.
-John Erickson is the author of the Hank the Cowdog book series