Dragging ‘Oscar’ Down

Most years, it’s fun to watch the Oscars. There’s always the enticing possibility that some performers will be congratulated (or congratulate others) for their “courage.” It’s a priceless moment — particularly now, as soldiers die abroad to keep Americans safe — offering an unparalleled opportunity to witness the limitless self-absorption of Hollywood.

Yes, most of the time, the Oscars are fun. But this time, it’s a bit different. As USA Today noted, “Drug addiction, mercy killing, mental illness, genocide, abortion, ill young mothers and borderline alcoholism — these are a few of Oscar’s favorite things this year.” Not surprisingly, all of the movies have fallen well short of the magic $100 million in box office receipts — perhaps because Americans aren’t rushing to view Million Dollar Baby‘s glorification of mercy killing or to admire Best Actress nominee Imelda Staunton’s performance as an abortionist in Vera Drake. Billy Crystal is lucky he’s not hosting; it would be pretty difficult for him to come up with his trademark clever ditty about this crop of downers.

Oscar voters may pride themselves on supporting “important” movies — but increasingly, they seem to equate “importance” with “gloom.” They’re wrong. They’d do themselves — and American filmgoers — a lot of good by checking out a 1941 film, Sullivan’s Travels.

Directed by Preston Sturges, and starring Joel McCrea, it’s about a creator of fluff movies determined to make a serious film — an “important” movie — about the dark side of life. A child of privilege, he decides to become a hobo in order to gain personal experience about his film’s subject. But through an odd confluence of events, he finds himself unjustly thrown in prison, working on a chain gang. And one night, as the convicts are treated to a movie, the protagonist finally realizes how valuable, how truly “important,” the gift of a good, joyous film can be.

Certainly, there is a place for serious film. Not all the stories can be happy ones — nor should they be. But when Hollywood becomes ensnared in a shroud of gloom, it’s natural for moviegoers to look elsewhere to satisfy their very natural, normal desire for some escapist, lighthearted entertainment.

“Important” films can end on a note of hope — think of Gone With the Wind, or, more recently, 1981 Best Picture Chariots of Fire, or even more recently, Forrest Gump. It is, perhaps, more of a challenge for the filmmaker to avoid sentimentality in combining inspiration with heft, but it can be done.

In Hollywood’s current climate, odd and aberrant themes don’t breed ostracism — they beget celebrity. And so, when the Hollywood elite gather to praise each other for their “courage,” it’s worth realizing that there’s no bravery in dragging Americans down the dark and twisted paths of psyches tortured by drug use, mental illness, lovesickness or crippling misfortune.

Sad to say, if any “courage” is required today in the film world, it must be summoned by those who would seek to make uplifting films that simultaneously entertain and glorify the human spirit. We are all the poorer for it.


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