Billy Crystal, the hippest fashions, Swifty's party, "Spike's pique," victory speeches that go on and on, "the envelope please." It's time once again for the Academy Awards, the evening when we all honor the year's finest achievements in film, right?
Well, not exactly. Some great performances or films always go unrecognized, while other more pedestrian efforts have been known to dominate the evening. That's because it's not only movies that inevitably mirror their times; movie awards do, too.
Thus, the Academy Awards always end up reflecting hot trends in the culture at large--even if those trends are filtered through the tastes of a rather superannuated group of voters. This year is certainly no exception, for the academy has seemingly thrown most other considerations aside so it can spend virtually the entire night celebrating the end of the Reagan-Bush era--with its emphasis on traditional genres and values--and the rise of the opposing force of Clintonism.
Look, you don't have to live west of La Cienega to know the Academy Awards often tell us something about broad social trends. Between 1942 and 1946, for example, three films connected to World War II ("Mrs. Miniver," "Casablanca," "The Best Years of Our Lives") won best picture, while no movie about the unpopular Vietnam War won a key award until well after that conflict had ended.
In the 1980s, five of the 10 winning films were inspired by real-life events and set abroad, a list that included "Gandhi," "Chariots of Fire" and "Out of Africa." The moral? In the patriotic Reagan era, members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences often found it easier to make "social statements" when they were set a few thousand miles from our borders.
This year, almost all the best-picture nominees offer a revisionist, Democratic vision of America. After all, if Ronald Reagan sold himself as a macho Western hero, Bill Clinton is a President who insists on appointing a woman as sheriff-attorney general and supports gun control. The President known for riding off into the sunset alone wanted to cut social spending and taxes as he spoke for the individual; the President known for hugging everybody wants to raise spending and taxes in an effort to create a community. One man presided over the largest arms buildup in our history; the other cuts defense spending and tries to allow gays in the military. Reagan's America was abrasively self-confident and assertive; Clinton's nation is more introspective and self-absorbed.
It's no coincidence, as Clinton rolls back the Reagan Revolution, that the academy is honoring films that subvert the traditional Western or war movie. It doesn't matter that all these movies were conceived and made long before Clinton was elected, for the cultural tides were already shifting and, in any case, the voting came after. Moreover, successful filmmakers can read trends just as well as successful politicians; if George Bush had won, it's likely something less Democratic and more equivocal might have cracked the Top Five list--say, "Patriot Games" or "Aladdin."
Instead, we have "Unforgiven," perhaps the ultimate anti-Western Western, with a star who, in an earlier incarnation, gave Reagan his most memorable line ("Go ahead, make my day.") Take that, Ronnie. If "The Crying Game" is a multicultural movie about a terrorist who forsakes terror, "Scent of a Woman" is a film about a former military man who must come to terms with his past to find happiness. Not much ambiguity here, either.
"A Few Good Men" is a similar Clinton allegory set in the military. It's the story of a young, Ivy League-trained lawyer who didn't serve in combat and is considered soft--not simply for avoiding the military fray but for ducking conflict in the courtroom. (Defense lawyer Tom Cruise plea-bargains his cases, this film's version of smoking but not inhaling.) In the film, the military is depicted as multicultural and its mission is defined as defending the weak, not conquest.
By showing that government works, the movie glamorizes the nation's capital and its workings--a sharp contrast to the prevailing ideology of the Reagan era. In "A Few Good Men," Cruise is even assisted by a woman who often berates him in private (Hillary?), and a more experienced male partner, who mostly just sits in the background nodding supportively (Al Gore?).
The nominations for best actor reflect a similar trend toward reversing traditional stereotypes. It used to be that the academy frequently honored men who played strong, somewhat conventional roles, particularly if the actor played a real-life person--George C. Scott as "Patton" or Gary Cooper as "Sgt. York."
Now, of course, as the cultural mood changed just ahead of the political mood, the trend is toward honoring actors who play less macho, "diminished" men--whether that status is caused by a disability (Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man" or Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot") or insanity (Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs"). So one of the three actors who play "Clintonian" characters repudiating their macho, violent pasts--Al Pacino, Stephen Rea or Clint Eastwood--has a strong chance at winning.
The awards for best actress have also modified old patterns. If Hollywood once recognized actresses who portrayed victimized women (everything from Jane Fonda in "Klute" to Jane Wyman in "Johnny Belinda"), it now tends to honor stronger character types who embody cultural trends--a drift borne out with this year's nominees, who play everything from a committed mother who forces a medical breakthrough, to a woman who tries to get herself to Washington in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.
Of course, a feminist critic of Clinton might note that, for all the talk in political circles about diversity and "feminized" males, this is still an Administration overwhelmingly dominated by men. That goes for the Academy Awards as well. Although strong women can now win the best-actress award, only one of the five nominees for the all-important best-picture honor--"Howard's End"--features women in anything but minor roles. That's a not-so-subtle reminder that it's still a man's world.
Thus, if the nominations for best picture mirror popular sentiment about gender roles, they're sadly saying this: The public will definitely accept a strong woman such as Hillary Rodham Clinton in a leading policy-making role. As long as she does it in England, circa 1910.