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On the gateway outside the Memphis prep school where so much of “The Blind Side” happens, there is a quote from Jesus Christ (Matthew 19:26): “With God all things are possible.” Indeed. Maybe even an Oscar for Sandra Bullock.


Right now, Bullock seems poised to be named best actress when the 24 statuettes are handed out March 7. Long one of Hollywood’s more popular players, Bullock is also a major star, especially if one gauges stardom by box-office numbers: Among her competition, Helen Mirren, so strong in “The Last Station,” has made movies with a cumulative gross of about $630 million. Bullock’s figure is $1.6 billion (figures courtesy of boxofficemojo.com).


As they say in boxing, a good, big fighter will always beat a good small fighter. In terms of Hollywood accounting, Bullock is Mike Tyson, and most of her opponents are the St. Louis Ballet. And while money isn’t everything — from “The Dark Knight” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” many of the all-time box-office earners were not even nominated for best picture — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly loves it when a moneymaking performer gives a performance that can credibly be defined as Oscar-worthy (Nicole Kidman in “The Hours,” George Clooney in “Syriana,” to name two).


Of course, it isn’t Mirren whom Bullock has to worry about. It’s Meryl Streep (“Julie & Julia”), whose performance as Julia Child seems as beloved as Julia Child herself. Having won critics’ prizes in New York, Boston and San Francisco, Streep also took home the Golden Globe this year for best actress in a musical/comedy. She’s always a contender. The ever-aging academy membership knows who she is. This is an advantage not necessarily held by the two fabulous younger actresses in the mix, Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”).


But Bullock has also tapped into something this year that has gotten a response across the demographic board — a $250-million response, at last count. As Leigh Anne Tuohy — rich, white, Republican, gun-toting, outspokenly Christian — Bullock does everything right: When she meets Big Mike Oher (Quinton Aaron), a massive, homeless, athletically gifted teenager, she immediately brings him home, clothes him, feeds him and sees that he gets into her children’s school. It is, we are told repeatedly, the Christian thing to do. And, of course, it is — although not exclusively, which seems what the movie would have you believe.


Dramatically speaking, Bullock’s performance doesn’t seem to have more than a couple of dimensions; Eva Longoria does much the same thing every week on “Desperate Housewives,” and Julia Roberts did exactly the same thing in “Erin Brockovich” — which, not coincidentally, won her an Oscar. Bullock, like Roberts, has spent a career playing America’s sweetheart — smart, savvy, but usually the girl-next-door.


Bullock doesn’t exactly do a Mary Tyler Moore (a 360-degree image reversal, a la “Ordinary People”), but as Leigh Anne, she’s all hard shell and upscale, a woman of a certain age (Bullock is 45) who looks the way she does, one suspects, thanks to personal trainers and starvation. The physical aspect of Bullock’s performance should not be discounted; it likely compensates in a major way for the fact that Leigh Anne’s soft, gooey center, which we have to believe exists, never really oozes out. Like Roberts’ Brockovich, Leigh Anne may do good things, but revealing a rounded personality is not one of them.


But again, like Roberts, Bullock may benefit from the fear among Oscar voters that they may never get another chance to give an Oscar to an actress they like, and who has raked in so much dough. With exception of her portrayal of Harper Lee in the Truman Capote bio “Infamous,” Bullock has seldom turned in work that one would consider Oscar-worthy — much like Roberts pre-“Brockovich.” Bullock has specialized in romantic comedies except when she did action movies like “Speed.” It’s a generalization that Oscar always pretends doesn’t exist. “The Blind Side” may be the anti-“Precious” — an upbeat movie with black people — but it’s not a romantic comedy.


Streep has been nominated 16 times, and hasn’t won since “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). Judging the quality of a performance, which is what Oscar voters are supposed to do, is always subjective. It’s arguable, for example, that Marisa Tomei was actually better than Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Davis, Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson when she won her best supporting actress for “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). Arguments can be made. But, very often, other factors are also at play. Like money. Maybe politics.


To judge by TV commentators, Tea Party rallies and Massachusetts voters, the nation is in the throes of some kind of conservative counterrevolution. No place is more fearful of the right than Hollywood. From the early-‘30s Motion Picture Production Code, by which Hollywood censored itself, through the often inscrutable decision-making of the MPAA, the film industry has been very happy to genuflect before its most indignant constituency (lest Congress actually get involved). Oscar voters are independent and predominantly liberal, and it would be totally coincidental. But honoring “The Blind Side” — in which Tim McGraw’s character says, “Who thought we’d have a black son before we knew a Democrat?” — would be a very easy bone to throw to those on the right who are always keeping the excesses of pop culture in their crosshairs.

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By Barry Koltnow
8 Feb 2010
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