It's Oscar time once again, and this year Hollywood is feeling especially proud of itself. But not for the usual reasons. The March 26 Academy Awards will be one of the most-watched TV shows around the globe as always, and the media feeding frenzy gets crazier each time around. But most of the coverage focuses on handicapping the winners as if the Oscars were a sporting event. Less attention is paid to the content of the films nominated and what this might tell us about the current state of popular culture.

What's new is that, even on this latter issue, the industry is bursting with self-satisfaction. “It's a pretty powerful year for serious films,” best-actor nominee Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) told reporters. “On a scale of originality, this is one of the best years we've had in a long time.”

“Audiences and filmmakers are interested in pushing the boundaries of subject matter,” best-supporting-actor nominee Kevin Law (The Talented Mr. Ripley) said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “It proves that subversive films are making money.”

These views reflect the thinking of the industry as a whole. So it's instructive to examine the nominations from this perspective and learn what themes present-day Hollywood considers “serious” and “subversive” — and what it believes characterizes “originality” and “pushing the boundaries.”

Pushing the Boundaries

The Cider House Rules can rightfully be described as “pushing the boundaries.” Based on John Irving's novel, it's the first Hollywood film to have an abortionist as its hero. A dark-horse favorite for best picture, it received seven nominations, much to everyone's surprise.

The plot revolves around a maverick physician (Michael Caine) who runs a New England orphanage during World War II. He trains one of his charges (Tobey McGuire) to be his successor. At first, the young man refuses to emulate his mentor and perform abortions, which were illegal at the time. But after some difficult experiences in the world outside, he has a change of heart regarding the procedure and returns to the institution that raised him. The movie's pro-abortion message is so strong that Planned Parenthood Federation of America is organizing screenings to promote it.

“Blame Canada,” nominated for best original song (it's from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut), is also attracting notice for “pushing the boundaries.” Never before have network censors objected to the performance of a nominated song on the awards show because of profanity. But the show's producers claim to have devised “clever” ways around this problem.

Also for the first time, there are several Oscar-nominated films with homosexuality-related themes. The Talented Mr. Ripley got five nominations, including one for Jude Law, who plays the object of a homosexual crush. It chronicles the murderous relationship between an impoverished, ambitious homosexual (Matt Damon) and the expatriate heir to a shipping fortune (Law).

Another “subversive” departure from the usual choices is the number of acting nominees whose characters have lesbian affairs. Hillary Swank is up for best actress in Boys Don't Cry for her performance as a teenage girl who passes herself off as a man in order to seduce other women. Chloe Sevigny received a best-supporting-actress nomination for playing Swank's main love interest. Catherine Keener is up for the same award for portraying a manipulative yuppie who has an affair with a co-worker' s wife (Cameron Diaz) in the surreal Being John Malkovich.

American Beauty has received critical kudos for its “originality.” It's garnered the most nominations of any film (eight, including best picture) and is the odds-on favorite to sweep the awards. Its hero is a suburban advertising executive (Kevin Spacey) who suffers a midlife crisis. Its story makes light of dope-smoking and adultery and praises homosexual relationships.

Good News

Any good news? A little. After a long dry spell, Hollywood is once again embracing as “serious” spiritual subjects with positive points of view. Two of the five movies up for best picture have supernatural themes that don't challenge the basic tenets of Christianity. The Sixth Sense, with six nominations, tells the story of a child psychologist (Bruce Willis) working with an 8-year-old (Haley Joel Osment) who claims to see ghosts. The Green Mile, with five nominations, dramatizes the relationship between a kindly prison guard (Tom Hanks) and a death-row inmate (Michael Clarke Duncan) with miraculous powers.

While these two films’ spiritual underpinnings aren't exactly orthodox, they don't fly in the face of Church teachings, either. Unlike most films dealing with mystical subject matter, they're both well-made and heartfelt, affirming God's existence and linking morality as well as miracles to a divine presence.

The End of the Affair, which also has a spiritual strain running through it, grabbed two nominations, including Best Actress (Julianne Moore). Based on Graham Greene's novel, it examines a World War II adulterous romance involving miracles and Catholic faith from a sincere, albeit unorthodox, perspective.

Hollywood's rediscovery of the spiritual also has its dark side, with the recent release of several horror films of excessive violence (e.g. Scream 3). But, thankfully, none of last year' s anti-Catholic moneymakers (Dogma and Stigmata) garnered any nominations.

‘R’ Rated Awards

During Hollywood's golden age, almost all of the Oscar-nominated films could be enjoyed by the whole family. But no longer. Four of the five best-picture nominees are rated R, as are 10 of the 12 movies which received more than two nominations.

When queried about the films up for awards, best-supporting-actor nominee Osment, who's a preteen, told reporters: “I haven't been allowed to see them. I'm not old enough.”

Maybe Hollywood shouldn't be so pleased with itself after all.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.