If you’re tired of watching the Republican debates, tune in Sunday night to the Academy Awards. The night will show off beautiful eye candy for both men and women, diversion with glitz. We once worried about protecting the children from “inappropriate” movies, but now the candidates talk about condoms and abortions and adultery scandals. With pop culture awash in sex and violence, movie themes can hardly shock. This year’s crop of Oscar movies is mild indeed.
One film critic finds the movies nominated for Academy Awards hold a lot in common with the candidates: small men reflecting a diminished America. “The days of American specialness and bigness whether you’re talking about Cecil B. DeMille or Henry Ford or Gen. Douglas MacArthur are pretty much gone, and voting for Tweedledum or Tweedledee in November won’t bring them back,” writes Andrew O’Hehir on Salon.com. “Our economy and society aren’t what they used to be, and neither are our movies.” This is depressing, but hardly earthshaking, and we have to concede he’s on to something about what pop culture and politics tell us about ourselves. The men leading both the political and entertainment culture do seem smaller than life size. Ronald Reagan’s “morning in America” becomes mourning in late afternoon.
For all of his good looks and emotionally affecting moments in “The Descendants,” George Clooney is ultimately a lightweight in his portrayal of a man who cries about being a lousy father and a cuckhold besides. No George S. Patton here, or even a Vito Corleone or a Rhett Butler. In his hokey, colorful flowered Hawaiian shirt, he’s supposed to be playing against type, a personality analogous to a lady’s cocktail served in a coconut topped with a tiny pink umbrella. His real-life image on camera never suggests the masculine charisma of Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable.
Alas, ours is the age when the New York Times tells us on the front page how hopes for the economy rise with the male shopper who buys women’s accessories, bracelets called “wrist bands” and purses called “holdalls.” They’re not talking about gay or transvestite shoppers, either.
A majority of the movies nominated for Oscars this season are about vulnerable boys and wounded men, except for “The Help,” which is social criticism featuring women, and “War Horse.” (At least the horse is a stallion.) “The Artist” basks in the inevitability that Mitt Romney once enjoyed and is a better bet to win best picture than Mitt is to win Tuesday’s Michigan primary. The movie is a parable looking for a lesson to illustrate, a tale about Hollywood in radical transition from the silents to the talkies and about a faded star who must retool or fail.
Robert Gould is up for an Oscar for set decoration for “The Artist” for authentic renditions of Hollywood in its silent movie days. His father was an assistant director of the 1950s television hit “Leave It to Beaver,” so he is well acquainted with radical changes in tastes and technology. Hollywood doesn’t yet know whether it will survive the proliferation of alternate forms of entertainment on the Internet and on home screens, and movie theater attendance is down by more than 4 percent. Higher ticket prices and foreign audiences make up some of the box-office losses, but the decline is significant. During the Depression, customers flocked to see escapist fare such as “Grand Hotel” and “It Happened One Night,” but the whining self-pity in some of the current movies can’t draw flies.
There’s still a lot of money to burn in Tinseltown, as suggested by the fundraiser for President Obama last week where “guests” paid $35,800 to dine with the president and people such as Mr. Clooney and Jim Belushi. If Mr. Obama disappointed them in talking about the continued use of Guantanamo Bay and the fact that American soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, he mainly struck his class warfare theme, at which he excels. This thrills the limousine liberals of Hollywood.
We rightly associate Hollywood glitterati with left-wing politics, but it was not always so. Steven J. Ross, in a new book, “Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics,” tells how the longer history belongs to conservatives. It was Louis B. Mayer (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who initiated the political activism of Republicans in the 1930s, and this led on a straight line to Ronald Reagan, who famously said, “I don’t know how anybody can serve in public office without being an actor.” That sounds about right. But if none of the current crop can give a performance worthy of an Academy Award, they’re a lot like the leading man in “The Artist,” who faces a career crisis and needs to stage a comeback. Pity they can’t dance.
Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.