The frenzy surrounding the Academy Awards, coming to you live March 24, has gotten out of hand.
More money has been poured into the campaigns to win an Oscar than ever before.
What's also new are the allegations of smear tactics deployed by publicity departments against rival films. This take-no-prisoners competitive spirit tends to obscure the importance of the movies themselves and what their content might tell us about the current state of popular culture.
Overall, the films nominated reflect a movement away from the “edgy” choices of the last few years. The impulse to test the limits of traditional morality seems to have somewhat receded. It's tempting to read this as an indication of how the events of Sept. 11 have altered the cultural climate even though all the productions were completed before the catastrophe.
Certainly, no one could mistake the current crop of nominees for the family-friendly fare of Hollywood's Golden Age (1932-67). However, it is worth noting that there are far fewer R-rated films are up for Oscars this year than in the recent past.
Most encouraging are the 13 nominations (including Best Picture) received by The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Based on the first novel of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, it is grounded in a transcendent view of the struggle between good and evil that most Hollywood films discarded four decades ago.
A band of knight-like warriors embark on an epic quest to return a golden ring with dangerous powers to the volcano where it was forged. Set in a 7,000-year-old fantastical world of men, hobbits, elves, dwarfs and wizards (Ian McKellen and others), the film has both majestic battle scenes and carefully dramatized interior struggles. The Academy seemed to have had no difficulty distinguishing it from the more superficial but similarly themed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (only three nominations).
Three of the films with multiple nominations are deeply felt pleas for tolerance in dealing with persons with mental disabilities, and they all underline the virtues of compassion, charity and love in an uplifting way. A Beautiful Mind (eight nominations, including Best Picture) is an intelligent, passionate drama that chronicles the descent of real-life mathematical genius John Nash (Russell Crowe) into schizophrenia, and his heroic efforts to recover his sanity with the help of his long-suffering wife (Jennifer Connelly).
For Sentimental Reasons
Both I am Sam (two nominations) and Iris (three nominations) have their hearts in the right places in dealing with the subject, but neither can resist sentimentalizing the effects of their protagonists’ disabilities. Sam is an old-fashioned weeper masquerading as an issue film about the problems of child-raising as faced by a service-industry worker (Sean Penn) with the mental and emotional age of seven.
Iris plunges us into the real-life struggles of aging novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench) as she succumbs to Alzheimer's disease. Its most satisfying sequences are the efforts of her devoted husband (Jim Broadbent) to care for her. But the flashbacks to his steamy courtship of the young Iris (Kate Winslet) become clever tricks that prevent the filmmakers from digging deeper into their material.
Amelie (five nominations including Best Foreign-Language Film) also focuses on the positive side of human nature. The TITLE character dedicates herself to intervening, sometimes intrusively, into her Parisian neighbors’ lives to make them happy. Though its tone is sweet and its highly stylized look original, its Gallic eroticism is uacceptable and unnecessary.
Patriotism is back in fashion, and Black Hawk Down (four nominations) and Pearl Harbor (two nominations) fit into the prevailing mood.
Black Hawk is a brilliant, brutal, documentary-style re-creation of a real-life 1993 U.S. combat mission in Somalia. The extraordinary bravery of our soldiers is brought home. Their spirit reminds one of the courage and camaraderie displayed by the police and firemen at the World Trade center on Sept. 11.
Pearl Harbor, though equally well-intentioned, looks like a hundred-million-dollar video game in comparison. Its cardboard romantic triangle and flashy special effects don't add up to the tribute to those who died during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that its producers intended.
The addition of a new category — Best Animated Feature — opens the field to two family-friendly films of artistic quality equal to their live-action counterparts. Monsters, Inc. (four nominations) is a computer-animated Disney fantasy that remains true to the spirit of Walt, not something to be taken for granted these days. The setting is Monstropolis, a city whose energy sources are children's screams much as electricity and oil power real-life urban environments. The screams are provoked by scary monsters who turn out to be more frightened of the kids than vice-versa.
The computer-animated Shrek (two nominations) has a postmodern spirit. Unlike Monsters, Inc., it deconstructs its genre. Though visually inventive, its fairy tale about a princess, an ogre and a fire-breathing dragon sanitizes the differences between good and evil and becomes a relativistic, pop-psychology parable about self-esteem.
Another exercise in deconstruction is Moulin Rouge (eight nominations, including Best Picture). This musical comedy combines innovative MTV-style editing and narrative techniques with a deliberately anachronistic use of contemporary songs (the Beatles, Elton John, Madonna, etc.). Set in Paris in “1899, the summer of love,” its familiar story centers around a romance between a penniless writer and a courtesan-dancer (Nicole Kidman) with a heart of gold. Its message is typically postmodern, namely that freedom is best expressed through sexual liberation.
Training Day (two nominations) and Monsters’ Ball (two nominations) appear to endorse the tenets of existing moral values but end up subverting them through their excessive use of sex and violence. The former takes place during the 24-hour probation period of a young under-cover police officer (Ethan Hawke). His charismatic mentor (Denzel Washington) has pursued gangs and drug dealers with such single-mindedness that their moral code has become his. Monster's Ball is an intense love story between a white prison guard and the African-American wife (Halle Berry) of an inmate he recently executed.
Gosford Park (seven nominations, including Best Picture) and In the Bedroom (five nominations, including Best Picture) are two of the year's most challenging films. Each has murder as one of its dramatic high spots.
Gosford Park is a masterful ensemble piece set on an English country estate in November 1932, where a party of aristocrats (Maggie Smith and others) and their servants (Helen Mirren and others) are gathered for a weekend hunt. When their host is murdered, the attempt to solve the crime reveals a cesspool of snobbery, sexual exploitation and Darwinian class warfare bubbling beneath that society's seemingly smooth surface. The audience starts to conclude that the murdered man may have deserved his fate and is glad that probably no one will be apprehended.
In the Bedroom is an intelligently observed, intimate drama about the efforts of a Maine doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and his school-teacher wife (Cissy Spacek) to cope with their 21-year-old son's murder. When it appears that the perpetrator will get off lightly, this genteel couple takes the law into their own hands. Their vigilante justice is made to seem as ominous as the original crime, but the film's point is that we should withhold judgment of their actions.
Both of the movies’ treatment of these crimes is morally ambiguous in a manner that characterizes much of present-day popular culture. While they don't goad us to push the edge of the envelope any further, they don't endorse traditional morality, either.
Apart from The Lord of the Rings, Black Hawk Down and Monsters, Inc., the films with multiple nominations this year fall mainly into this category. For those who believe in traditional values, this is progress of a sort. But they shouldn't forget that Hollywood still has a way to go.
John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.