Although the producers of the Academy Awards ceremony like to boast that a billion people watch their broadcast, I take comfort in knowing that another 5 billion do not. Out of respect for this majority, I have held back in the past from discussing the Oscar nominations, apart from an occasional reminder about how the awards were launched. (Louis B. Mayer and his fellow studio heads formed the academy as a sweetheart union, in a bid to keep Hollywood a company town. Then, to dress up their bogus union, they gave it a bogus mission of improving the “artistic quality” of motion pictures, a goal that was to be achieved by the studios’ handing each other awards.) Artistic quality has since then come and gone, sometimes remarked upon by the academy voters but very often not–a truth that is surely recognized even by the recalcitrant, self-anesthetized billion. Most people today admit they watch the Oscars only to marvel at the tackiness of the women’s outfits and chortle at Bruce Vilanch’s script–or perhaps it’s the other way around. No matter–“best” hardly figures into the experience, even for moviegoers too lazy to search out the better.
So why do I now break silence, to comment on the recent nominations? One reason, of course, is the announcement that an honorary Oscar will be given to Elia Kazan, for the achievements of his entire lifetime. (You didn’t think I’d keep quiet about that, did you?) But the main reason has to do with the widening chasm between the function of the broadcast and the character of the nominees. Although the Oscar show is the single biggest promotion the American studios mount for themselves, the nominators this year have cast the gloomiest disrepute on Hollywood since Braveheart was named best picture and Mel Gibson best director. What’s remarkable, to me, is that the industry should have performed this act of self-abasement after a relatively strong year for studio releases, when a measure of self-congratulation might have been more appropriate.
The refusal of the Oscar voters to recognize home-grown merit is perhaps most striking in the best actress category, in which three of the nominees are foreign performers appearing in foreign films: Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth, Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station and Emily Watson in Hilary and Jackie. I do not, of course, object to foreign talent’s being recognized; on occasion, this column does its own modest bit toward promoting filmmakers whose names include strings of consonants. Nor do I mean at this time to question the worthiness of the nominees–although Blanchett did give the impression in Elizabeth of being moved around like a Muppet. I merely wish to point out that a brashly trumpeting Hollywood might have noticed a few American actresses other than Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love (well, at least she looked good) and Meryl Streep in One True Thing.
Maybe this is the moment to reveal that I, too, belong to an award-giving organization, the New York Film Critics Circle, which this year, to my intense pride, named Cameron Diaz best actress for her performance in There’s Something About Mary. Not that she was my first choice. I would have preferred to see an award go to Ally Sheedy for High Art or Renee Zellweger for A Price Above Rubies. But if you grant equal status to dramatic and comic performances (the latter being as difficult as the former, with the added challenge of having to seem wholly effortless)–and if you admit that There’s Something About Mary might have seemed spiteful without her stain-resistant grace–then why shouldn’t Diaz get an award? She looked good; she fully inhabited the character while somehow rising above her; and she was unambiguously, unabashedly American.
But then, once the Diaz issue has been raised, we must also ask why the unabashedly American Steven Soderbergh was denied a nomination for best director and Out of Sight was kept to just that status in the best-picture competition. I happen to belong to a second organization, the National Society of Film Critics, which in fact smiled upon Out of Sight and was then derided for doing so by a writer for the New York Times. The reasoning of the Times man was telling: He assumed the award could not be taken seriously because Out of Sight did not make much money (by which standard Armageddon should have topped the National Society’s list) and because Soderbergh is a “critics’ darling.” Maybe critics ought to give awards only to directors they don’t like. If so, the Oscar voters might still be free to vote for Soderbergh. But he remained out of mind, perhaps because his picture is perceived to be nothing more than an entertainment, which has no merit other than its skill in transforming itself, moment to moment, from romance to comedy to suspense, and doing so with the handsome ease of George Clooney’s grin. His picture lacks the aura of importance of Life Is Beautiful–a film with conspicuously inept direction, although Roberto Benigni has received a nomination for directing it. And Out of Sight makes do without the Cliff’s Notes prestige of Shakespeare in Love, for which a best director nomination has gone to John (Point and Shoot) Madden.
Some forty years after the auteurist revolution, which sought to awaken Americans to the merits of their own popular art form, the Oscar voters still neglect the pictures that Hollywood makes best. And with this negligence comes bad faith. Although the best-picture nominees seem to be a weighty lot, what with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line and Life Is Beautiful, their most remarkable feature is a determination to keep their eyes shut tight against present-day American realities. Two confections set in Elizabethan England, one fantasy about a concentration camp built in never-never land, one drama about The Good War, one metaphysical, blood-and-guts nature documentary: This is as close as the Oscar voters want to get to their own lives.
So the members of the academy betray their industry, even in the act of attempting to promote it. And, along the way, they betray the pictures that in one form or another show us something of contemporary America: Bulworth, Rushmore, Affliction, He Got Game, The Spanish Prisoner, Primary Colors, Pleasantville (a nineties satire in fifties clothing), High Art, Out of Sight, There’s Something About Mary, Henry Fool, Beloved (though I wasn’t a fan) and even Blues Brothers 2000 (perhaps the year’s most unfairly dismissed entertainment).
And now, speaking of betrayal, let’s talk about Elia Kazan.
Ordinarily, an honorary Oscar goes to someone who has enjoyed a highly successful career but has been overlooked by the academy’s voters. That’s not the case with Kazan, who won Oscars for best director for Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront. So the award in this case rights a wrong that never happened. Or, rather, it responds to a slight that was committed outside the academy. Kazan’s honorary Oscar makes up for a missing American Film Institute lifetime achievement award, which he was denied by Hollywood people with long memories of his role in perpetuating the blacklist.
To belabor the obvious: Arguments about the blacklist (and the Rosenbergs, and Hiss) are not about the events of the forties and fifties. They’re about America today, and about how we judge our country’s role in the world. To seek an award for Kazan is in effect to propose that America exerts force against the citizens of other nations only when provoked to do so and brings down violence on its own citizens only when they are disloyal. It’s a very comforting proposition for those who are in a position to take comfort. It’s also as accurate a picture of present-day America as you will get from Elizabeth.
But I’ll let other writers fill in the bloody details of this argument. My job, like the academy’s, is merely to improve the artistic quality of motion pictures. So I will close with an assessment of the lifetime achievement of Elia Kazan. His reputation ultimately rests on five films: Gentleman’s Agreement, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, On the Waterfront and East of Eden. That’s not a bad record. Then again, Jules Dassin managed to make at least as many memorable pictures–The Naked City, Night and the City, Rififi, He Who Must Die and Topkapi–despite being forced out of the United States by the blacklist. I look forward keenly to the news that he, too, has been recognized by the academy.