The Theater Stages an Oscar Comeback

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

With the victories of Denzel Washington and Halle Berry for best actor and best actress, last year's Oscars were quickly dubbed the "Black Oscars" because it seemed as if Oscar had finally broken the racial barrier and made a statement about the long-delayed recognition of minorities. Most years, the Academy Awards are a haphazard affair, a grab bag of winners who don't accrete to any larger social significance.

But even before they are awarded this evening, this year's Oscars may already qualify for a rubric. They may be considered the "Theatrical Oscars" in tribute to the fact that the leading contender for best picture, "Chicago," had its origins on the stage and that two of the leading contenders for best director, Rob Marshall ("Chicago") and Stephen Daldry ("The Hours"), have strong stage pedigrees. Similarly, three of the top candidates for best orginal and adapted screenplay are distinguished playwrights, Ron Harwood ("The Pianist"), David Hare ("The Hours") and Kenneth Lonergan (one of three writers credited on "Gangs of New York").

Two or even six swallows do not a summer make, and one certainly doesn't want to impute more to this than it can bear. But the prominence of theater names on this year's Oscar roster suggests a trend that may portend a change in the movies we are likely to get.

For years, Hollywood has subsisted on special-effects-driven extravaganzas targeted to young, largely male audiences, and the most highly regarded filmmakers are the ones who -- Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron, for example -- pioneered and perfected these sorts of pictures. Even so, the most-honored pictures in recent years increasingly have relied on old-fashioned devices like strongly drawn characters, sharply written dialogue, indelible performances and provocative ideas. In short, they rely on the devices of the theater and literature.

In a way, this is a return to form for the movies. In their earliest days, most films were adapted from popular novels and plays. As movies grew in popularity, literary sources gave the new medium status and respectability that helped attract more middle-class patrons to the already large working-class audience.

Operating within the imperatives of silence, the movies created their own nonverbal syntax, but when sound was introduced in the late 1920s, Hollywood immediately recruited writers from the East, many of them playwrights and novelists, to provide the new dialogue, and the movies reverted to their wellsprings. Of the early best-picture recipients, virtually all are literary or stage adaptations, and several -- "Broadway Melody" and "The Great Ziegfeld" are two examples -- are about the inducements of the stage.

All this may seem rather quaint today. For decades now, Hollywood has prided itself on developing a vocabulary that depends on the inherent elements of film -- composition, mise-en-scene, montage, etc. -- rather than on elements borrowed from other arts, which is one reason why the movies elevate the director over the writer. Filmmakers who came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s and spearheaded the movement toward a pure cinema grew up with the movies and at the movies. They were film brats with sensibilities largely shaped not by the books they read or even the lives they lived so much as by the movies they watched. When they became directors, Spielberg, Lucas, Cameron and others, like Martin Scorsese, who is nominated this year for best director for "Gangs of New York," took their storehouse of movie knowledge and created both a highly allusional cinema of images often borrowed from previous films and a highly visual cinema that didn't resemble the stage in any way. When you think of their films, you think of physical pleasures, not verbal ones.

Oddly enough, while the movies were shucking the influences of the stage and novel, theater and fiction were absorbing the influences of the movies. Novelists deployed cinematic devices like crosscutting or jump-cutting and used cinematic narrative structures that emphasized scenes and action rather than psychology. Playwrights also inched toward the freedom of the movies, using lighting to create analogues for fade-outs and fade-ins and elaborating sets that permitted them to zip from one place to another and one time to another. It was as if these more traditional media, no longer able to compete with the gratifications of the movies, had capitulated.

But those gratifications came at a price, especially considering the kinds of movies that get Oscar recognition and not just box-office grosses. Even the most fervent movie lovers, not just curmudgeons, have acknowledged a general attenuation of emotion, of gravity, of intellect in the vast majority of American films during the Spielberg era; even Spielberg himself has seen the need to pay penance with "Schindler's List" and his more recent films of ideas, "A.I." and "Minority Report." The movies had become so cinematic that they had begun to lose touch with humanity and with the sorts of human values that have traditionally been the reserve of dramatic theater and high literature. In effect, the movies had been gaining young audiences but losing their soul.

Over the last several years, Hollywood has been slowly fighting its way back to its old and old-fashioned human values, in part because movies devoid of soul can turn off viewers and in part because an expanding older audience seems to desire the old values. In doing so, it has had to go to the repository of those artistic values that aren't recognizable to the generation weaned on movies and comic books. It is people like directors Marshall and Daldry and Baz Luhrman ("Moulin Rouge") and Sam Mendes ("American Beauty") who are theatrically trained and have theatrical sensibilities, who love words and people and ideas -- the things that the movies have forsworn for size and stimulus.

It is a wonderful irony. After years of putative filmmakers religiously studying old movies and davening at film schools, it turns out that the hot new directors are guys with sawdust in their veins and footlights in their eyes -- guys from the old school.

Oscar contenders are, as noted earlier, typically more literary than general movie fare. "Spider-Man," as good as it is, wasn't going to get a best-picture nomination. But this year, the nominees are especially literary. All five best-picture aspirants -- "Chicago," "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "The Pianist" and "The Two Towers" -- are book or stage adaptations, and all wear their antecedents proudly. Other critically hailed films, like "About Schmidt," are similarly literary in their sensibilities, and "Adaptation," whose screenwriter, Charlie Kaufman, is nominated for an Oscar, goes them one better. It is a Pirandellian examination of what a movie adaptation means and what gets lost. It's not only literary; it's about the relationship between film and literature.

Obviously, Hollywood isn't going to stop making special-effects blockbusters, and the culture of movies in which all of us have grown up isn't likely to recede. If anything, it is likely to grow now that we are all hard-wired with past movie images. But what is hopeful is that these theater veterans and book lovers seem to bring to their movies a sensitivity to ideas and feelings and a belief in the primacy of words and performance. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that Hollywood would bankroll an expensive musical like "Chicago" or a relentlessly somber drama like "The Hours." Now they are vying for the Oscar. That return to tradition is what tonight's ceremony is likely to honor. If the theater was once cinematized, the movies are now in the process of being theatricalized. It couldn't come a moment too soon.

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