Last updated: February 21, 2009 1:59 am

The Oscars as an indicator of global dreams

For film fans the season of holistic hoopla is back. At the end of each February a couple of hundred people, in a kingdom called Los Angeles, compete to get their hands on a small number of gold-plated nude males. Each of these males clasps a downward-pointed sword, which to the fanciful, or the cynical, might suggest he is trying to stab himself in the feet: a not unknown Hollywood habit in testing times. My interpretation, though, is that the statuette is frozen in the act of pulling a sword from a stone, an Arthurian rite of cyclical re-empowerment that says to the world each year, “We are the king of awards. We are the supreme film-world gong and guerdon.”

How does that claim prove itself? How does that supremacy go forth and manifest its message? What, in sum, does the stardust Oscar scatters on films and performers tell us about those films and performers, and the significance of their anointing?

Each year at Oscar time we meet to acknowledge the power of certain dreams, called movies, at certain seasons in history. Take last year. Who could doubt that the grim tormented roll call of winners – led by No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, with even that anguished wartime sparrow Edith Piaf picking up, through Marion Cotillard, a Best Actress award – told us something about a world besmirched by war, tension and enmity?

Contrastingly, some eras in the world’s or west’s history have used Oscar night to assert optimism or promote escapism. When My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965) or Chicago (2002) won Best Picture, planet Earth, through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was saying: “Let’s have some fun. We have earned it. Or even if we haven’t, let’s have the fun.”


Frank Langella in ‘Frost/Nixon’

The Academy Awards have a more sweeping, even subtle, role than we may suspect as an indicator of global dreams, fantasies, fears and wishes. If the voting academicians are not us, they are a good surrogate, an electoral college of all ages and personalities, delighted or dismayed by the same movies each year. Pressing upon them are the same real-life anxieties, social or political. Teasing or tempting them are the same hopes. The films they vote for, and the filmmakers and performers, are determined by what is in their heads, which is shaped in turn by the times they live in.

With Oscar we can talk of arcs and trends, not just tell-tale years. Consider the startling illustration of the 1970s and 1980s. Through the history of the Best Picture award, we learn about America’s outward and inward gaze in two contrasting decades. In the 1970s the US was an introspective country traumatised by Watergate and tormented by its inability to replace, in the White House, a dominant villain (Nixon) with a dominant hero. First with Gerald Ford, then with Jimmy Carter, US governance stuttered at home and abroad. As the situation vacant sign stayed up outside the inspirational leadership office, America stared inward at its failure to bounce back from Vietnam and Nixongate. Small wonder that every Best Picture winner but one in that decade, which included The Sting, Rocky, Annie Hall and Kramer vs Kramer, was a stay-at-home movie set in America, many of them whimsically pondering small-time or big-time triumphs and comebacks. Even in that one exception, The Deer Hunter, the first and final acts were set at home.

Now look at the 1980s. Ronald Reagan entered the White House. Suddenly America was dealing at the international card table and doing so, it seemed, with reach and confidence. Oscar raised his gaze and game. Two domestic chamber-movies apart – Ordinary People (1980) and Terms of Endearment (1983) – the Academy spent the bulk of the decade hopping countries and continents, and even time zones, like a conqueror on a royal progress. If it was 1981 it was Britain (Chariots of Fire). If it was 1982 it was Raj-era India (Gandhi). 1984, Mozart’s Vienna (Amadeus). 1985, early-20th century Kenya (Out of Africa). 1987, China (The Last Emperor). In 1986, admittedly, there was Vietnam (Platoon), not exactly high among America’s favourite getaway spots. But every rule needs its exception. Every self-respecting banquet has its version of Banquo’s ghost.

America/Hollywood eventually ran out of expansionist puff. Reagan’s world reach proved, by the late 1980s, a little too good or gung-ho to be true. The Iran-Contra scandal blew up in his face: foreign-policy idealism was tarnished by secret dealmaking. Unsurprisingly Oscar decided that America’s backyard was, after all, a warm, safe place. Simple tales of simple folk, or endearing innocents, became Best Picture honorees: Rain Man (1988), Driving Miss Daisy (1989). In 1990, Dances with Wolves, touchy-feely to the point of delirium in its one-nation tale of whites bonding with native Americans, ushered in eight years of domestically focused saviourship under President Bill Clinton. And in 1994 came the ultimate Messianic Innocent movie to be named Best Picture, Forrest Gump.

Has Oscar taught us things about society and history? Yes. Does it still do so? Yes. If last year’s winners were dark and dystopic, this year’s Best Picture nominations share a battle-scarred optimism. All five films – from The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button to Slumdog Millionaire via stories of Nazi redemption (The Reader), presidential contrition (Frost/Nixon) and the legacy of a martyred gay politician (Milk) – tunnel through gloom towards the light of hope. It seems hardly coincidental at a time when George W Bush is exiting stage right while Barack Obama enters stage liberal-left.

The west is reliving the transition between the 1970s and 1980s, with hope pinned this time on a Democrat preaching national and global togetherness rather than a Republican promising to face down superpowers and restore US supremacy. That Reaganite script went into production for a second, catastrophic, time with President Dubya. Note that W the movie, for all its strengths, is nowhere in sight among Oscar nominations.

This year’s Best Actor shortlist emphasises the resilience of outsiders, mavericks, individualists. Mickey Rourke, another American to wear that frayed but indestructible Clintonite label of comeback kid, is a contender, starring in a feelgood slugfest with minor tragic trimmings. Rourke’s main rival is Sean Penn, playing the man who brought gay tolerance to California in Milk. (Yes, there was a time when even California needed it.) In the Best Actress category, Kate Winslet (pictured) is the bookies’ favourite, though some critics have castigated The Reader for its readiness – again tuned to the zeitgeist – to diminish the horrors of Auschwitz by insisting on the redemptive fallibility of some, at least, of its enforcers.

Forgive; befriend; call back the dawn of hope. The Curious Tale of Benjamin Button, topping this year’s nomination tally with 13, including Best Picture, presses the rewind button almost literally. An old man grows younger by decades over three hours of screen time. Since he is played by Brad Pitt, we stay in our seats for the final blaze of returning incandescence.

No one can claim – not even an FT film critic bent on whipping his thesis to the finishing post – that Oscar voting is entirely down to sociocultural factors. There may be economic or industry-related reasons why filming abroad is favoured, one year, over domestic shoots; or why independent films are more prominent, for a period, than studio films. The biggest influence of all on production slates is probably chance. A bestselling book reaches the shops; a popular computer game pleads, “Turn me into a movie”; a capricious star wants to play a role and has the clout to do so.

But even with these serendipities there may be hidden shapes and patterns, wormholes connecting the accidental to the time or social climate in which it happens. A successful computer game is a success because it hits a generational nerve: youngsters like what it says to them in the battle fray of contemporary life. A bestselling novel likewise. It doesn’t shin up the charts without some urgent if unstated reason related to the time in which it is published.

Of course the best Oscar prizefights, or the most exciting, are those in which two eras, or social or cultural belief systems, go head to head. Critic Mark Harris wrote a smartly argued book last year, called Scenes from a Revolution, about the 1967 Oscar race. He saw it as a turning point in Hollywood and America. The young braves went up against the old chiefs, the first armed with Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn) and The Graduate (Mike Nichols), the second stomping into battle with Doctor Dolittle (Richard Fleischer) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (Stanley Kramer). While Penn and Nichols waved the new-age guerrilla weaponry of subversive violence and satirical comedy, Fleischer and Kramer fought back with a musical comedy as big as a siege machine and a race-issues movie that bullhorned its old-fashioned liberalism for the hard of hearing.

In the end none of those was picked. Happy to settle a fight with a compromise, the Academy gave the Best Picture Oscar to the outsider fifth nomination. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night was a cross between old-style message cinema and youthful impudence of theme and treatment. Even today audiences gasp when black detective Sidney Poitier smacks white southern gentleman Larry Gates across the face.

Poitier was there years later, of course, on a famous Oscars night. In his unofficial role as Saint Sidney of Showbiz Racial Integration, he looked on from a VIP box during the 2001 ceremony. When two black stars, Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, won the main acting prizes that year, everyone proclaimed the dawn of a new America or at least a new Tinseltown. Six months later the twin towers were destroyed and all bets were off about everything. Hollywood had no time to think about equality or fraternity, only about circling the wagons to defend America against all things un-American.

Now, better late than never, we have Barack Obama. Hooray for the USA; hooray for the world. Hooray, not least, for Hollywood. Halle and Denzel, and Sidney before them, got it right. They can say, and so can Oscar himself, “We told you so. We just got our timing a little wrong.” The statuette without limitations has proved again that it knows more, and sees further, than we think.

The 81st Academy Awards ceremony takes place on Sunday

Costumes from this year’s Oscar nominations

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