- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Take some violent, esoteric films with historically little popular appeal.

Stir in foreign-born acting-award winners ranging from relatively to completely obscure. Drizzle on some lingering public resentment at Hollywood over the recently ended writers strike.

What have you got?

A recipe for the lowest-rated Oscars ever.

With an average 32 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, ratings for Sunday night’s three-hour telecast of the 80th annual Oscars were down about 1 million viewers from the previous low in 2003, when the awards show aired soon after the nation entered the war in Iraq.

If viewers stayed away in droves from the Oscar telecast, chances are it had something to do with this year’s best-picture nominees — from which (with one exception) audiences already had stayed away in droves during their theatrical runs.

“No Country for Old Men,” a bloodstained drug rampage through Southwest Texas won the best-picture Oscar against such mood-elevating competition as “There Will Be Blood,” an oh-so-dark — and oh-so-lengthy — epic about greed and rage in the infant oil industry, and “Michael Clayton,” a film about corrupt lawyers (daring premise, that) whose story hinges on a manic-depressive lawyer who has gone off his meds.

“Atonement,” a tragic period romance set in the 1930s about a false accusation that changes the course of two young lovers’ lives, actually has a happy ending — and then takes it back and replaces it with a sad one.

Only one of this year’s best-picture nominees, the critically praised indie smash “Juno,” with its newcomer Canadian star and best-actress nominee Ellen Page, 21, earned box office of more than $100 million, a benchmark figure for top film success.

As Oscar host Jon Stewart aptly cracked of the sole crowd-pleaser among the depressing best-picture nominees, “Thank God for teen pregnancy.”

“The only movie that was up for best picture that had true pop-culture appeal was ‘Juno,’ ” says Austin-based film critic Harry Knowles, who runs the much-read online site Ain’t It Cool News. “As much as critics and movie fans loved ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘No Country,’ those movies didn’t capture people’s imaginations, which is sad.”

All four of this year’s top acting prizes went to foreigners. The best-supporting-actress award went to Brit Tilda Swinton. A lanky, near-androgynous character actor of aristocratic birth, Miss Swinton is not merely foreign but looks downright otherworldly — quite a bit, in fact, like David Bowie’s lonely extraterrestrial from the “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

Marion Cotillard, a virtually unknown French performer, earned the best-actress prize for playing tragic chanteuse Edith Piaf in a largely unseen film that was shot entirely in French with English subtitles. Best-supporting-actor winner Javier Bardem gave one of the night’s most moving acceptance speeches — in his native Spanish.

Part of the reason for the mass indifference to this year’s Oscars may be that the public already was sated with drama, suspense and superstars — thanks to Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“There is a lot going on in our country from a political standpoint,” says Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles. “That has captured the public’s attention. You have a historic race for the Democrats between a woman and an African-American. That’s a lot more interesting this year than who is going to win best picture. That is what people are talking about.”

The hangover from the protracted writers strike didn’t help matters.

“Times are kind of hard for people all over the place,” Mr. Knowles says, alluding to the sputtering economy and consumer pessimism. “To a certain degree, when they hear Hollywood on strike … they see it as whining; they don’t understand the issues. I think the strike sort of took away a lot of the bluster and the pre-hype for the Oscars.”

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