Another Perspective

Shunning Oscar

Who cares what the Academy thinks, anyway?

By 1.27.05

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It's the Red State/Blue State rumble that never happened. Supporters of both The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 are both crying foul at their respective films lack of acknowledgment by Academy voters. Apparently, People's Choice awards for both films (Best Drama and Best Picture, respectively) were not enough to sate appetites for recognition. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, Andrew Sullivan decided to weigh in with his personal "kudos" to the Academy "for ignoring the execrable Fahrenheit 9/11 and the pornographic Passion." I'm sure members of the Academy are eminently relieved. That and $12.00 will get you one of Sullivan's books.

A better question for fans of both movies -- and, indeed, for every film critic who throws a tizzy this time every year as well -- might be, "Who cares what the Academy voters think?" It is all completely arbitrary and subjective. They are, after all, just human beings with opinions like everyone else. There is no reason to believe their opinion is any better than anyone else's. More to the point, there's significant evidence to the contrary.

Is this not, after all, the same Academy that bestowed a Best Picture award five years ago on the intellectually stunted faux epic, Gladiator, never mind the Best Actor nod Russell Crowe got for the same film? What was that award based on? Great hair? Looks good in a metal skirt? This is the same Academy that gave Halle Berry Best Actress for saying, "My man loved him some Jack Daniel's" before tearing all her clothes off and rolling around on the floor naked with Billy Bob Thornton? (Okay, there was something more than rolling going on there, but this is a family publication.) Does anyone believe there really wasn't a better film made in 1997 than the "Let's turn a tragedy into a sappy love story" Titanic.

Of course, occasionally the Academy honors a worthwhile performance or film. How could they not? But when an award does happen to cross paths with my tastes -- say, Frances McDormand in Fargo or Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny -- I understand that it is totally coincidental.

There were more than 250 films in wide release or semi-wide release in 2004. Five were nominated for Best Picture. Those aren't good odds for anyone. Personally, my favorite films of the year were the Dawn of the Dead remake (another resurrection flick), The Life Aquatic, and Collateral. Some Kind of Monster was certainly Best Documentary of the year. None of these films was nominated.

I must also add that I don't believe any of the 2004 nominees -- The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, or Sideways -- is particularly unworthy of nomination. (If anything, I hope Million Dollar Baby leads a few folks to the late F.X. Toole's brilliant short story collection, Rope Burns, from which the film is drawn.)

AS MUCH AS I APPRECIATE the grassroots efforts to get Mel Gibson's and Michael Moore's films nominated -- including a petition by TAS contributor Pat Hynes that gathered over 25,000 signatures in favor of The Passion -- the fact is that the real value of these two vastly different films is not diminished any by the lack of serious Academy recognition. The subversive nature of what they have carried into the marketplace has already upset a lot of apple carts and damaged the conventional wisdom in Hollywood irrevocably. Demanding approval from the Academy Awards only serves to perpetuate the myth that there is something worthwhile, and even necessary, about its acknowledgment, which is what Ayn Rand might have called mysticism of the first order. It seems to me, in fact, more appropriate to celebrate the lack of a nomination.

There is the danger of overreach as well. In an interview with Beliefnet, the head of the Christian Film and Television Commission, Ted Baehr, suggested the Academy Awards was "speeding its own demise by continually ignoring the well-informed opinion of the movie-going public." This is just silly. First, let's not give the "movie going public" too much credit. If you have a problem with Hollywood, you have a serious problem with "the movie going public" because it is the one paying Hollywood's bills.

Further, politicizing The Passion or attempting to turn those associated with it into conservative heroes is likely to make future religious films less, not more, likely. No one in Hollywood wants to go through what Gibson went through, and no one there wants an audience made up entirely of religious conservatives, either. Look at what happened at the People's Choice Awards after parties, when both Moore and Gibson attempted to close ranks and play down their differences. Michael Moore called The Passion, "a powerful piece of filmmaking" and gushed that he had seen it twice. For his part, Mel Gibson seemed eager to distance himself from Bush and the Red Staters.

"I feel a strange kinship with Michael," Gibson said. "They're trying to pit us against each other in the press, but it's a hologram. They really have got nothing to do with one another. It's just some kind of device, some left-right. He makes some salient points. There was some very expert, elliptical editing going on. However, what the hell are we doing in Iraq? No one can explain to me in a reasonable manner that I can accept why we're there, why we went there, and why we're still there."

This should hardly be a surprise to anyone. Gibson, after all, seriously considered financing Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. So be careful of what you wish for. I'm fairly certain most of those who want The Passion recognized are social conservatives who might not be thrilled to see Mel Gibson give an acceptance speech more anti-Bush than Moore's last year. Do you think Gibson wants to spend the next 20 years talking about The Passion? Or do you think he wants to have career opportunities outside of the church set again?

THE TRUTH IS, NEXT YEAR there won't be any Passion, but there will still be an Academy. Movie fans will still nonsensically fall all over themselves over which five films it chooses to nominate. What was lasting and interesting about The Passion was that it brought many, many people out who hadn't been to the movies in many years. It was an exceptional moment in film history, as was Fahrenheit 9/11's super wide release was for documentary filmmaking.

But, frankly, it was just a moment. Neither side should sully it by dreaming about it becoming the status quo. If they were to make ten sequels to The Passion most of these people would not come out again for many years. Does anyone really believe the excitement around this movie -- churches buying out theaters, people wailing in the aisles -- can be replicated again anytime soon? Many Catholics came out in 1973 to face the devil and see a heroic portrayal of priests in The Exorcist. It was a cultural phenomenon that was not replicated four years later when Exorcist II: The Heretic was released. The same goes for Fahrenheit 9/11. Michael Moore can never hope for such antipathy against a single person to ever come together with vast disposable income and a bitter election season again, not in his lifetime anyway. He can aim for Bowling for Columbine heights again, obviously, but this era is finished.

Here's, as John Kerry might say, the real deal: Each year all of us have the power to determine what Hollywood does the next year. They are, after all, thankfully, in it for the money. If you want to see a certain genre rise, make sure to get to the theater on opening night and bring a friend. That's called voting with your dollars and it works. Dislike the Academy Awards if you like, but obsessing over what the Academy chooses to nominate only feeds its reputation as the arbiter of film standards.

More than half a billion dollars in worldwide gross speaks volumes more than a gold statue.

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