Yesterday, I flew home from Los Angeles, the epicenter of all things Oscar, just in time to sit down and watch the Academy Awards.
Let me start by saying that I absolutely love movies. In college, I took a course on cinematic arts just so I’d understand and appreciate the craft better. I’m currently working on a children’s book set in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and years ago I flew to LA to see my favorite actress, Olivia de Havilland (still kicking today at 98-years-old) honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, the same entity that brings the world the Oscars awards every year.
I know that films are supposed to entertain, enlighten, and sometimes do both. Occasionally, they challenge our thinking or make us uncomfortable. That’s the nature of the arts. Throughout history, writers and actors have produced work that severely tested the powers that be. Because the price for crossing certain lines was so severe, however, they usually did this in ways that were clever and genuinely thought provoking. Had they chosen instead to express their views more directly, likely they would have found themselves at the guillotine instead of being immortalized later as required reading (and viewing) by succeeding generations.
Film and by extension, the Academy Awards, used to be that way. In fact, it really wasn’t until Marlon Brando and Vanessa Redgrave took the opportunity to use the platform of the Academy Awards to interject their own politics into the entire proceeding that everyone felt compelled to start doing the same.
Until then, the films really spoke for themselves, and I think that’s a good thing. Honestly, if we’re going to applaud members of the film community expressing their political views at every turn at an awards show like the Academy Awards, then we shouldn’t balk if it starts becoming the norm everywhere else.
I’m all for freedom of speech, of course, but I’d really find it hard to watch if the trophy presentation at this year’s Super Bowl included a little speech by Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft on each of their own political causes. That’s not to say that politics never enters into the world of sports entertainment because it does, but it’s much rarer. When an athlete tries becoming a politician it is often received rather poorly no matter what side of the political spectrum it’s originating from. Likewise, I’m not all that interested in what country music and rock stars think about particular issues unless they can show a PhD to back up their opinions.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the Academy Awards, politics is not only a big deal at the ceremony itself but in the voting as well. Think about all the discussion and debate that went into the nomination of American Sniper for Best Picture. It’s kind of ironic when you think about it because if you look at the list of former Best Picture winners, you’ll note that the 1946 winner, The Best Years of our Lives, dealt with the struggles of veterans returning home from war. It was preceded the year before by The Lost Weekend which chronicled the life of a writer struggling with alcoholism and followed by Gentleman’s Agreement which tackled prejudice. Obviously, the same voters who felt compelled to honor films dealing with those difficult social issues weren’t afraid to give a golden statuette to a “war” movie.
With its rich history, the Academy is now taken with the practice of annually honoring an old favorite. This year it was The Sound of Music. Last year, it was The Wizard of Oz which was celebrating its 75th Anniversary. Another famous American film was also celebrating that same milestone and actually beat The Wizard of Oz for Best Picture in 1939. You probably know it—Gone with the Wind. The Academy decided to pass over any mention of it last year because it was deemed too controversial in light of the nomination (and subsequent victory) of Twelve Years a Slave.
Democrat political pundits this morning were applauding last night’s award show in particular for its various political messages on wage equality and immigration among other issues. That’s probably all you need to know about the flavor of the show.
Later this week, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) will have its own “show” of sorts with various conservative leaders stepping out in succession to express opinions from that end of the political spectrum.
So if you’re a Democrat, tuning into CSPAN and watching CPAC would be like a Republican powering through the Academy Awards.
Strange but ironically true.