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Oscar misses the big picture

RICHARD SCHICKEL is a film critic for Time magazine and the author of "Elia Kazan: A Biography."

HOMOSEXUALS treated with tender respect and understanding. An Israeli undercover operative haunted by the deaths he must deal out to Palestinian terrorists. McCarthyism condemned in a drama that draws strong inferential comparisons between the assaults on civil liberties then and now. A great American city teetering on the edge of chaos in part because of its brutal and racist policing.

Never before have the nominees for the best picture Academy Award been so exclusively devoted to liberal dreams, liberal nightmares. And there is a buzz of consternation among the experts. It’s not just that the content of the best picture contenders (and most of those in the other major categories) has so little popular appeal. It’s that “event” TV shows (the Golden Globes, the Emmys, even the Olympics) have, like the Oscars in recent years, been losing audiences.

To make matters worse, the movie box office swooned last year as well -- attendance down by 6.2%, receipts down by 8.4%. Finally, the motion picture academy chose Jon Stewart to host this year’s program; while he’s a delight to the enlightened, he’s not exactly beloved in the red states where, let’s face it, most of the mass audience restively resides.

To counteract these trends, Sunday’s Oscar show needs, according to the consensus, a big picture -- something romantic and/or spectacular (“Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings”) and basically nonpolitical that the public has seen, loved and can root for. Without it, the show is bound to tank.

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But with one modest exception, no such film is available this year. Four of the nominees for best film have grossed only in the $22-million to $55-million range, which means they are distinctly a minority taste -- and probably have yet to turn a profit. The exception, “Brokeback Mountain,” is a tidy success; it will have taken in about $75 million by Oscar night. But even so, it ranks only 33rd last year, far behind the real commercial winners such as “The Revenge of the Sith,” “War of the Worlds” and, lest we forget, “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” none of which, shall we say, had Oscar written all over it.

So far, the commentary on this has been apolitical, perhaps justifiably so. It’s more than possible that folks in Kansas just don’t want to see Truman Capote lisping around their state, gathering material for a book published 40 years ago -- not when Willy Wonka is on offer. What’s interesting is why, with the exception of “Brokeback Mountain,” this indifference extends so widely.

It could, indeed, be a red state/blue state thing. Conservatives have been arguing for years that Hollywood’s “ultra” liberalism puts ordinary people off; that a day of commercial reckoning will someday arrive. But that’s a dubious proposition. I’m convinced that last year’s downturn in attendance is almost completely attributable to the fact that it is cheaper and more convenient to wait and see routine films at home, on DVD, than it is to see them theatrically.

Moreover, it has never been proved that the perceived liberality of Hollywood’s morals or politics has any large effect on moviegoing. Decades ago, people went right on seeing racy movies, no matter how much the religious fundamentalists railed at Mae West.

It’s the same now. Last year’s winner for best picture, “Million Dollar Baby,” took up a much more controversial and divisive issue -- euthanasia -- than any of this year’s nominees and was not punished. People responded to its generically rooted story, its modesty of voice, its strong characters and the fact that it was directed by and starred the iconic Clint Eastwood.

As important for its commercial success, it was released by a major studio, meaning it eventually played in thousands of theaters, not hundreds, and had the kind of advertising and promotional campaigns a small-scale, non-studio picture can only dream of.

Until recently, every major studio tried to have a potential Oscar nominee ready for late-in-the year release. If it won in a major category, it could make money, and its creators could feel good about themselves the morning after.

But the rise of Miramax, the studios’ “classic” divisions and the other independent companies for whom Oscar nominations were part of the business plan freed the studios of that responsibility; freed them to do what they think they know how to do -- fashioning “tent poles,” the only ambition of which is to gross north of $200 million. This year, among the five nominees, only “Munich” is a traditional release.

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I don’t say that the big studios are never again going to make an Oscar contender -- some fabulous spectacle with which the mass audience can make an emotional connection. But I think the majority of contenders from here on out are going to be low budget, largely lacking bankable stars and are going to play to a minority -- to those who define quality in movies in political terms.

They are (perhaps) a majority of the audience in L.A. and New York. They are assuredly so in the motion picture academy. So one begins to wonder: How far distant is the day when the Oscar show is no longer the great rite of the early American spring but has become instead a cablecast -- the Pinot and Prius People’s Choice Awards?


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