The past is always prized

Special to The Times

It turns out that the Oscars, in their own prestigious way, are just as escapist as the rest of the movie industry. How else do you explain the fact that 46 of the previous 74 best picture winners have been period pieces, taking us back in time through one genre or another, beginning with the first honoree, "Wings" (1927), the silent World War I aerial drama, and more recently with last year's controversial biopic "A Beautiful Mind"?

What's more, there have been only four contemporary best picture winners in the last 20 years: "Terms of Endearment" (1983), "Rain Man" (1988), "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991) and "American Beauty" (1999).

No wonder the period piece has been synonymous with Oscar's "prestige picture" since the early 1930s, thanks in large part to those two impresarios of literary taste, MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg ("The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and "Mutiny on the Bounty") and producer David O. Selznick ("David Copperfield" and "Gone With the Wind"). Their legacies remain with us today, which helps explain why academy voters are still impressed with films that help us escape the here and now.

And this year's diamond jubilee contest will bring the number of period best pictures to 47, because all five best picture nominees could be considered period pieces, marking only the fourth time this has occurred. The other occasions were 1962 ("Lawrence of Arabia" won), 1984 ("Amadeus") and 1998 ("Shakespeare in Love").

So which will it be? "Chicago," the front-running razzle-dazzle musical about tabloid stardom and judicial corruption set in the 1920s? "Gangs of New York," which chronicles the brutal Irish immigrant experience during the Civil War? "The Hours," with its spiritual ties to Virginia Woolf spanning the '20s, the '50s and 2001? "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," which further explores the absolute corruptibility of power that leads to war in imaginary but ancient Middle-earth? Or "The Pianist," in which one artist survives the Holocaust with only his music to sustain him?

"It's rarely about the best picture ... it's about reaching a consensus and giving the illusion of importance," explains critic and historian Emanuel Levy, author of "All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards" (Continuum). He says that all five best picture nominees represent one Oscar tradition or another: "Chicago" falls into the category of "safe and innocuous entertainment"; "The Pianist" can be classified as "noble and heroic"; "Gangs of New York" and "The Two Towers" are "ambitious and artistically audacious"; and "The Hours" is "the kind of artsy literary cinema" that holds its own sway with academy voters.

Levy views Hollywood's long-standing fascination with the period piece and its success rate in the top Oscar category as a practical matter. "My theory is that it's easier to relate to problems when they are set in the past. This way the filmmaker is not pressured to take a stand and audiences are not directly confronted with a social issue. You don't take any risk in alienating any segment of the public. Look at 'Far From Heaven.' [Director] Todd Haynes is not interested in the '50s, but he knows that it is easier to get a film made in the racial and sexual past. This also creates the illusion that the problem, say racial strife, no longer exists."

In looking ahead to next year's best picture Oscar race, Levy thinks the field will once again be dominated by period pieces, citing "The Return of the King," the final installment of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy; "Cold Mountain"; "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World"; "The Alamo"; and "Seabiscuit."

"Chicago" screenwriter Bill Condon thinks that there is "this subliminal thing with the academy being the first group to decide which movies will last through time. Period movies seem timeless and they don't date as quickly, which of course is not true. Often very stodgy period movies have been nominated and then you look back 20 years later and it's the contemporary ones that still seem fresher."

As for "Chicago," Condon contends it has a dual function in this post-Sept. 11 culture: Like all musicals, it leaves viewers in a feel-good mood; however, it also prides itself on being an anti-musical because of its cynicism and lack of a love song. "In 1975, the original Broadway production by [Bob] Fosse was like a poison dart thrown at the audience, whereas the movie is almost like a love letter to the theater and how it can transport you."

Given director Martin Scorsese's predilection for period pieces ("Raging Bull," "GoodFellas," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "The Age of Innocence" and "Kundun"), it's no wonder that "Gangs of New York" became such a personal obsession.

"For me, the present is just too cluttered to process and understand, so there are very few contemporary scripts that I'm attracted to," he explains by phone from his Manhattan office. "I'm drawn to the past because it's really the only way to learn about the present -- who we are, where we come from. That's why I'm so interested in film preservation. Whether you like a film or not, it represents our society at a certain point in time. It's especially important that young people not live in a vacuum. Filmmakers need to understand the past, so they can take it, break it, redo it."

The modern connection

But whereas the past was once depicted as a foreign country in older movies, period pieces today strive for more contemporary relevance. Or, as "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann likes to say, we crave universality in the 21st century and can only examine the human condition from a distance.

In the case of "Chicago," for example, there was an attempt to wear the period very lightly. "Just a simple thing like casting Queen Latifah as the matron of the prison ... there wouldn't be black women in the prison," Condon adds. Or how it retains the vaudeville metaphor in all the numbers without being so literal.

"Chicago" director Rob Marshall remembers discussions early on about whether they needed to somehow connect the movie to the O.J. Simpson trial. "It was like, 'Please, we don't have to be that heavy-handed and on the nose.' It's very clear how contemporary it is, but I must say it was very smart for Bill to insert the line that [this] was the 'trial of the century.' "

On the other hand, Scorsese felt compelled to interject Sept. 11 into "Gangs of New York." " 'Gangs' is a template for the whole multicultural experience, and 9/11 gave it even more relevance," he says. "Even when we were researching 'Gangs,' we were so amazed to find that the more we learned, the more relevant it became. The ending was altered during the editing to reflect the events of 9/11, although while we were shooting, we realized there was contemporary importance of the multicultural experience not only here in New York, but around the world, with people of different nationalities struggling to live together."

Meanwhile, "The Pianist" also resonates at a time when we're forced to confront our worst existential fears at the start of the 21st century. "Everybody today is asking themselves what is the meaning of survival, what does it mean to be a human being, and where do you look for hope in your society?" says Focus Features co-president James Schamus.

"The Hours" producer Scott Rudin says, "The period pieces that you're seeing now don't have that antique, musty feeling. They're smart, youthful, muscular movies." He adds that the challenge of "The Hours" was evoking contemporary echoes in the two period sections and interjecting a "Bloomsbury visual palette in the contemporary story."

In terms of period pieces dominating the Oscars, Rudin says, "one of the things you can't ignore is the number of craftspeople who are voting on the nominations. There's an appreciation of period pictures because the craftwork -- the cinematography, the production design -- is a lot more visible and much more obviously impressive than in a contemporary movie.

" "Don't forget also that they are a lot of fun to make," Rudin says. "One of the most rewarding things you can do is create another world -- to take people out of the world they're in. And I think people really enjoy them, and they're tremendously challenging and pleasurable to achieve."

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