The Oscars- proudly out of touch

Last weekend, even before any envelopes were opened and winners announced later that evening, the Sunday morning talking heads were taking on the Oscars and they didn’t like what they saw. There were the usual complaints about how Hollywood is out of touch with mainstream America and that the nominated films grossed only a fraction of what the hits of ’05 took in. And in between the barbs, one interesting fact slipped through- the people criticizing the films hadn’t actually seen them. No surprise there…

For a two-and-a-half hour broadcast, Jon Stewart kept things moving along nicely, coming up with some good barbs of his own at the liberal, Hollywood elite. He told them how wonderful it must be that they were finally backing a winner and they had to graciously laugh at that. Jokes aimed at Bush were off the radar it seemed, maybe to balance the perception that the assembled were already tilted too far left.

Regardless, the ratings were off by 10% last year, which shouldn’t be a surprise. Naysayers will point to the fact that the top box office pics weren’t getting too many statues but the fact is that almost all of the shows that are usually the last bits of cultural glue that bind us together have been on the wane lately- the Olympics, the Grammys, etc.. TV ain’t the only medium where it’s at so it’s stupid to expect everyone to still gather together for its spectacles.

Nevertheless, the appeals that went out this time weren’t to the web users downloading pirated copies of movies but to a more general audience that wasn’t going to the theatres anymore. Box office revenues keep shrinking and a lot of hand ringing is going on to figure out why. Again and again, we were told that there’s nothing like seeing the grandeur of a larger-than-life epic on a big screen! This despite Steven Soderbergh’s recent experiment with Bubble (which came out in theatres and DVD at the same time), which may well be the wave of the future.

But back to the heavily reported gap between big-money pictures and nominees, there were a few wise articles like this: Best-picture nominees rake in the praise, not necessarily the bucks. There’s the issue of escapism vs. topicality- note that many nominated pics were, as Stewart said, period pieces that reflect today and issues now. Also notice that the high grossing pics didn’t have any great acting. How many memorable lines were there in King Kong? Can you remember the names of the kid actors in the Harry Porter movies? Were you really bowled over by Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds? Did any of the Star Wars prequels have the characters do much more than soggy Shakespeare moves? What these pictures offer are CGI thrills and spills and that’s exactly what they rightfully get nominated for. That’s exactly what makes these big budget pictures great sometimes and to think that also should get them more recognition is just fooling yourself and would make the Oscars look even stupider. And anyway, a certain expert who knows a thing or two about blockbusters doesn’t think they’re going to be around long anyway: Lucas says big-budget pics are doomed.

What did make the evening interesting were the upsets. Dolly Parton was supposed to be a shoe-in for the best song and she’s beat by the first rap group to perform at the Oscars, doing a song about pimpin’ no less. Who said Hollywood wasn’t hip? Still, as Stewart noted, that meant the score was Three 6 Mafia- one, Scorsese- zero. Sure it’s apples and oranges but still sobering indeed.

And how about Crash beating Brokeback Mountain? Though many of the self-appointed moral guardians of society probably saw neither film, they were probably a little relieved that a less offensive film won the big prize. Nevertheless, BM took awards for screenplay, music and director, which ain’t shabby. And in terms of cultural impact, even if it didn’t get the big award, BM is still the movie that won. Just think of all the parodies of it if you doubt that. Crash can’t match that and in terms of race movies, I didn’t think it was any more stirring or honest than Something New, which was at least a funny and touching film rather than an overly ambitious mess.

(For eloquent defense of Crash, see this Alternet article. For an excellent article about what BM is really portraying, see this L.A. Times article Can movies change our minds?)

One thing that Crash and BM had in common, other than the controversy was that these were films that no one wanted to make. It took years to develop them and find support for them. Such is the case with topical movies and even though the two of them dominated the ceremonies, the same will hold true for other movies like that which are starting out right now.

In the end, the most moving moment of the evening probably came from George Clooney. Once a pretty boy who didn’t seem to have earned his standing, he stood now as a moral force trying to use his star power to say something significant. He acknowledged that many people say that Hollywood is out of touch.

I would say that you know we are a little bit out of touch every now and then here in Hollywood – every once in a while – and I think that’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones to talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. You know we bring up subjects. We’re the ones, you know, this Academy gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community and proud to be ‘out of touch’ – and I thank you so much for this.

Even Stewart’s comments about how these were never problems again (a funny but cheap joke) couldn’t dispel a moving sentiment like that.