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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Embracing the Dark Side

Have the Oscars left the public behind?

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EVERYONE WAS WRITING ABOUT THE WRITERS’ STRIKE AND I WAS WONDERING ABOUT AMERICAN GANGSTER AND CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR.

To put it another way, the pundits were focused on the obvious potential impact of an ongoing strike on the big night. What, Nicole Kidman won’t have anywhere to go in her new gown? I was more interested in the unexpected drift of the Academy’s nominating process. It’s popular among the intelligentsia to deride the Oscars as a popularity contest among cash cows. If this was ever the case, and I don’t think it ever was, it certainly hasn’t been the rule in recent years.

Maybe the turning point occurred that remarkable night in 1999 when Saving Private Ryan, the front-runner by a long stretch, was defeated for Best Picture by the Weinsteins’ whimsical art house film, Shakespeare in Love. Steven Spielberg’s face sank slightly. Oscar night has never been the same.

Which brings me back to American Gangster and Charlie Wilson’s War. Both movies epitomize what Hollywood can accomplish when heart and head work hand-in-hand. Both are engaging films on important subjects, dramatizing reality through memorable storytelling and brought to life by stars that light the screen with charisma. Both were overlooked for Best Picture nominations, losing to films that before this decade would have been confined to the Downer and Oriental theaters and their counterparts in bigger cities and college towns.

Nowadays the American Gangster-types are often shut out of the race. Denzel Washington must look on as Javier Bardem in his Prince Valiant hairdo reaches for the gold. Is it a good thing or a bad thing, this evident taste shift inside the Academy?

As is often the case in all fields of life, the development might be good and bad. Could it represent the rise of a younger cadre of Academy members, a cinematic manifestation of the late-boomers versus early-boomers phenomenon playing out in the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Or has the Academy lost touch with the public in a conscience-struck effort to counteract all those crummy movies the studios dump in multiplexes? You know the ones—the bad chick flicks, flatulent comedies and action pictures featuring fiery explosions every fourth frame. Have they forgotten that in between the Brie eaters and the mouth breathers are millions of people who just want to enjoy a good movie on their night out?

On the positive side, the Academy is shining a spotlight on several artful, provocative films that would otherwise receive less attention. Oscar nominations spur ticket sales (but don’t ensure enormous spikes). As a result, moviegoers who might otherwise be content with The Bucket List might check out more challenging work such as No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. They might be transformed into art house aficionados. “Hey, honey, I hear there’s this great Romanian film about abortion during the Ceausescu era. Let’s find a sitter!”

Sure, seeds are planted. One thing leads to another, but not inevitably to the desired result. A complaint commonly heard this season is that the Oscar nominees are dark, troubling and no fun. For many, dark and troubling adds up to CNN and the nightly news. Even Charlie Wilson’s War suffered from the widespread aversion to movies with 9/11-related themes. Not unlike the days of the Great Depression, when screwball comedies and musicals dominated the box office, we live in troubled and uncertain times. Some moviegoers want to escape altogether. Others just want to be entertained for two hours. I have always maintained that provocative ideas can be entertaining. Sometimes I even believe that they should be.

Don’t misunderstand: There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men are great films. They made my Top 10 for 2007. But for all of their strengths, they were not entertaining in any normal sense. Which brings me back again to American Gangster and Charlie Wilson’s War, movies that have something to say about the challenges and ambiguities of politics and society while packaging their messages entertainingly.

And entertainment, not necessarily of the mindless kind, is what many people want at a time when the Academy has decided to embrace the dark side. I think it’s great that the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson are being honored for their achievements.

I just think the Academy is doing itself, the craft of filmmaking and the public a disservice by overlooking whole classes of other directors making movies that are worthwhile and engaging. The TV audience for the Academy Awards has been slipping over the past few years, probably because most people haven’t seen the Best Picture nominees and don’t especially care to see them.

There is a bright spot among this year’s nominees and its name is Juno. It examines such thorny issues as abortion, adoption, parenting and human commitment (not to mention the well-deserved disdain of younger generations for the baby boomers) and does so hilariously. The subjects may be heavy, but the tone is light. With Juno, director Jason Reitman reaches what most indie filmmakers claim to be after—challenging situations in contemporary life enacted on a human scale without the treacly romantic soundtrack or fiery explosions.

Because it cost relatively little to make, Juno may be the most profitable of all the nominees for Best Picture. And because it is a comedy, Juno almost certainly won’t win a major award on Oscar night. To the Academy, comedy has always been the unwanted stepdaughter wearing hand-me-downs to the ball.

For David Luhrssen’s Oscar predictions, read his blog, I Hate Hollywood, at www.expressmilwaukee.com. The Academy Awards ceremony will be broadcast beginning at 7 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 24, on ABC.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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