Everyone, it seems, is dazzled by the stars and the glitter of the Oscars.
The Academy Awards Show is one of TV's most-watched annual events. Hundreds of millions of viewers around the world vicariously participate in the movie industry's salute to its best and brightest. Hollywood's most luminous celebrities compete with one another to see who can look the most beautiful, and for weeks beforehand there's frenzied speculation as to who will go home with an Oscar.
Buried beneath the spectacle are more serious issues. Hollywood is an important combatant in America's culture wars and, this March 25, as the statuettes are passed out, we can discern that much of the product being celebrated encourages audiences to embrace “cutting-edge” values that conflict with traditional morality.
None of this year's crop of best-picture nominees is overtly anti-Catholic. But the Miramax release Chocolat (five nominations) makes its villain a conservative Catholic, repudiates an orthodox understanding of the faith and ridicules Lenten fasting. An unwed mother (Juliette Binoche) opens a chocolate shop whose goodies magically awaken the passions of a small town's inhabitants. Her key antagonist is the devout mayor (Alfred Molina) who expects everyone to attend Mass regularly.
It's a female-empowerment fairy tale set in 1950s France. An ascetic lifestyle is presented as a danger to a person's sanity, and spontaneous sensuality is seen as the key to a healthy mind, body and spirit — a point of view always popular in Hollywood.
Looking beyond the best-picture category, several films nominated for multiple awards have gay-related themes. Wonder Boy (three nominations) chronicles the mid-life crisis of a celebrated novelist (Michael Douglas) who teaches creative writing. His prize pupil (Toby McGuire) begins to develop his literary talents at the same time he realizes he's gay. The movie presents homosexuality as a lifestyle just as valid as heterosexual family life.
A similar set of attitudes can be found in Shadow of the Vampire (two nominations). Silent film genius F. W. Murnau (John Malkovich) hires a real-life vampire (Willem Dafoe) to play the lead in the horror film Nosferatu, promising him that he can feed on the female star after the cameras stop. Both the director and his vampire are also shown to have homosexual tastes.
Billy Elliot (three nominations) aspires to challenge our preconceptions about gender roles. The adolescent son (Jamie Bell) of a British coal miner must struggle to fulfill his dream of attending ballet school because his father believes that only homosexuals dance that way. Although the youthful hero is straight, his best friend is gay, and the audience is meant to accept both boys' sexual orientation as perfectly normal, healthy and moral.
Hollywood usually cuts Fidel Castro a lot of slack. But in his persecution of homosexuals he went too far even for tinseltown. Before Night Falls (one nomination) chronicles the sufferings of a Cuban revolutionary poet (Javier Bardem) who was jailed just because he was gay. Sexual liberation is presented as the most important example of free speech.
This questionable assumption is repeated in Quills (three nominations) and The Contender (two nominations). The former holds up the blasphemous, pornographic writings of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) as a test case for artistic liberty. His incarceration and torture in an 19th-century French insane asylum is interpreted as an attack on non-conformist free spirits everywhere.
The Contender is a camouflaged defense of the sexual misconduct of former President Clinton, whom the entertainment industry fervently supported. A Democratic commander-in-chief (Jeff Bridges) nominates a liberal woman senator (Joan Allen) to be vice president after the death of his running mate. A conservative Christian congressman (Gary Oldman) opposes her nomination because of lurid allegations about her sexual behavior. He is revealed to be a fanatic and a hypocrite, guilty of “sexual McCarthyism” — which Hollywood considers to be the worst possible sin.
Drug use is also a hot topic, and several films treat it permissively. Wonder Boy, Shadow of the Vampire and Before Night Falls present narcotics as an accepted part of the artistic milieu without passing judgment. Almost Famous (four nominations) is a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s that goes a step further. A 15-year-old rock fan (Patrick Fugit) attaches himself to an up-and-coming band and one of its groupies (Kate Hudson). The effect of dope-smoking on the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle is heavily sanitized as we watch how the music's values become subtly embedded in suburban youth culture.
Traffic (five nominations) effectively dramatizes the destructive effects of drug use, crosscutting between three different stories. Its central characters are an honest Mexican cop (Benicio de Toro), the ambitious wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) of a jailed dealer and a drug czar (Michael Douglas) with an addicted daughter.
The message is the corrupting effects of the drug trade on everyone who touches it and how the War on Drugs has failed. It's argued that too much emphasis has been placed on law enforcement instead of on treatment programs. But no evidence is offered that this more permissive point of view will reduce consumption.
Fortunately, the two movies that garnered the most nominations aren't offensive to believers. But, predictably, both highlight spiritual paths that aren't Christian. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (10 nominations) is an innovative martial-arts epic about a warrior's quest for a lost sword. It turns into a spiritual journey inspired by Buddhist beliefs.
Gladiator (12 nominations) is an imaginative reworking of the Roman Empire spectacles of the past, chronicling the fall of a heroic general (Russell Crowe) who becomes an enslaved gladiator. But it's also the first movie in that genre to show pagan practices while making no mention of Christianity.
Erin Brockovich (five nominations) is another female-empowerment yarn. Its heroine (Julia Roberts) dresses like a hooker and uses the kind of profanity once heard only in male locker rooms. Also a single mom, she rightfully challenges a utilities giant in a class-action lawsuit when she discovers a power plant has left toxic chemicals that harm the local inhabitants.
Trial lawyers and their staffs are, along with Hollywood, one of the linchpins of the current liberal coalition. They're depicted here as populist crusaders even though Erin walks away with $2 million — six times more than what the average plaintiff in the suit clears. Based on a true story, the movie suggests that it's OK to go for the gold as long as you preach a politically correct message — another notion widely accepted in the entertainment industry.
It's no accident that 13 of the 17 films that received two or more nominations are R-rated and thus not intended for family viewing — a major departure from days past.
When taken together, the content of most of the films honored with Oscar nominations is proof positive that Hollywood has a cultural agenda that goes far beyond mere entertainment for the masses.
Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.