Features

Oscar's filter

"Oscar's filter" Continued...

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

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.

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