If nothing else, this year's Oscars will provide months of vitriolic fuel for right-wing, Hollywood-hating pundits. The show is hosted by political comedian and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, certainly no great fan of the Bush administration. And just look at the films that have been nominated for awards. There are films that utterly fail to condemn homosexuality (TransAmerica, Capote, Brokeback Mountain). There are films that insult the memory of patriotic, Republican Commie-hater Joe McCarthy (Good Night, and Good Luck). There are films that cast doubt on the unparalleled racial harmony we enjoy here in America (Crash, Hustle & Flow). There are films that assail the inherent correctness of America's corporate/capitalist power structure (The Constant Gardener, North Country, Syriana). There are even films that call into question our current war against freedom-hating terrorists (Munich, Paradise Now, Syriana again). Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh and the like are going to have a field day.
But what is the real story of this year's Oscar nominations? Is Hollywood insidiously pushing its left-wing agenda on impressionable moviegoers? Or has America in general finally found a voice to express its dissatisfaction with the current political and social climate?
Ask conservative filmmaker Michael Class and he'll tell you. Class was so incensed by the films he was not actually forced to watch this past year that he took it upon himself to form the “American Values Award for Film and Television” and hand out large, gold, American eagle-shaped statues to movies like Cinderella Man, The Chronicles of Narnia, End of the Spear and The Great Raid. (TV shows like “John Ratzenberger's Made in America” and “Science of the Bible” also made the list.) Class' website (www.magicpictureframe.com) claims these movies and shows “reflect the traditional values that Americans hold dear. These are movies and TV shows that celebrate love, honor, marriage and family, discipline and commitment, personal responsibility, and the drive for excellence and achievement.” Obviously, Class assumes that only Americans are capable of love, honor and marriage. Certainly no Norwegians could celebrate personal responsibility.
“Skip Syriana, Munich and Brokeback Mountain unless your only criterion for seeing a movie is aesthetic merit. These movies are morally confused. I don't want my kids seeing them,” said Ratzenberg in a recent press release. In other words, “What good are beauty and art if they don't tell you precisely what you are supposed to think?”
Jason Apuzzo, founder of the Liberty Film Festival and self-described “God-fearing, America-first, right-wing extremist,” recently wrote an article on his conservative blog Libertas condemning the Oscars. “Today's Academy Awards have devolved into just another marketing tool for ’indie' films nobody's seen,” he states. “The tipping point in this process probably came in 1998, when Miramax's low-budget Shakespeare in Love stunned the industry by beating out Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture. Oscar season hasn't been the same since.”
Apuzzo brands all of 2005's “left-leaning social issue films” as “The New Triviality” and argues in favor of such nontrivial films as Star Wars: Episode III.
Apuzzo does make one salient point, however. Over the years, Oscars have increasingly gone to independent films. This year, in fact, only one of the Best Picture nominations (Universal's Munich) went to a major studio film. (Though it should be noted that “indie” studios like Warner Independent, Sony Pictures Classics and Paramount Classics are actually owned by major studios, making their degree of independence debatable.)
The reason for this shift is twofold--and neither has anything to do with “liberal Hollywood” trying to freeze out highly “moral” studio blockbusters.
Firstly, since Miramax's Shakespeare in Love claimed its Best Picture honor in 1998, the number of independent studios has exploded. Excluding Miramax (which was founded in 1979), a list of the top 10 indie distributors in America (Lion's Gate, Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Sony Classics, Warner Independent, The Weinstein Company, Magnolia, Paramount Classics, Fine Line, ThinkFilm) features no company founded before 1992. It's no wonder we didn't see so many “indie” films up for Oscars back in the '80s.
Secondly, despite what people like Class and Apuzzo think, quality films are far more likely to come from independent studios--companies less interested in the bottom line and more interested in individual artistic expression. The more people a studio must appease in order to make back their investment, the more their vision must be compromised. The difference between studio and indie films is like the difference between McDonald's and a fine, home-cooked meal.
Yes, by their very nature, independent films are seen by fewer people than the multimillion-dollar studio blockbusters. The advertising budget for War of the Worlds was probably 10 times the entire cost of TransAmerica.
Which brings us to a troubling sticking point. Because the majority of Academy Award-nominated films this year are smaller, more independent offerings, fewer potential Oscar viewers have seen the nominees than in years past. (Take 2005's Oscar sweep by $377 million blockbuster Return of the King, or 1998's domination by $600 million sensation Titanic.) As a result, viewers may feel they care less about the results this year. The ratings for this year's Academy Awards telecast will undoubtedly be the lowest in years (a fact those right-wing pundits will seize upon to prove their point that “America” hates liberal movies.)
So does that mean that the Oscars should start handing out more statues to the likes of Will Smith and Michael Bay? Of course not. The goal is not to celebrate the most popular or most expensive movie of the year. (That's what things like the People's Choice Awards are for--to reward great cinematic achievements like Elektra.)
The Academy Awards are not voted on by the general public. They are chosen by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an honorary group of about 6,000 film professionals. The purpose of the organization is to celebrate the films that most advance the art and science of moviemaking.
So, my fellow Americans, I ask you to do your patriotic duty this Sunday: Put on your gayest cowboy hat and root for that liberal foreigner Ang Lee to win an Oscar. It may not be good for George Bush's America, but it's good for the art of cinema.