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Oscars honor a year of socially relevant films, but...
They forgot about the war

By Paul D'Amato | March 10, 2006 | Page 9

A NUMBER of interesting small movies with big social themes were featured at the 78th annual Academy Awards.

Crash, a film that explores racial division and animosity, won best picture; Brokeback Mountain, about the difficulties of a gay relationship between two cowboys, won its director Ang Lee an Oscar.

Good Night and Good Luck, about journalist Edward R. Morrow's courageous crusade against Sen. Joe McCarthy, was also up for best picture.

Philip Seymour Hoffman won best actor for his starring role in Capote, the story of how Truman Capote wrote is famous work In Cold Blood; and Reese Witherspoon won best actress for her fine performance as June Carter in Walk the Line, the story of Johnny Cash's rise to fame.

Rachel Weisz won best supporting actor for The Constant Gardener, a film adapted from a John Le Carré novel that exposes the corrupt practices of the pharmaceutical multinationals in Africa. In her acceptance speech, she praised people who risked their lives in the pursuit of justice.

George Clooney, who was nominated for best director for Good Night and Good Luck won best supporting actor for his role in the Middle Eastern political thriller Syriana.

The opening monologue by awards host Jon Stewart of Daily Show fame had its predictable fare of good-natured jabs at the film industry and Hollywood culture, and there were some very funny Daily Show-style parodies of political attack-ads promoting different films and actors to the Academy.

Stewart wryly noted that the evening's theme, "return to glamour," was refreshing because "for too long Hollywood has done without." In his opening monologue, Stewart chided his audience about how people say Hollywood is "out of touch," an "atheistic pleasure dome" where "innocence" is "obliterated in an endless orgy of sexual gratification and greed."

"I don't really have a joke here," he concluded. "I just wanted you to know that a lot of people are saying that."

Soon after, when George Clooney came up to accept his Oscar, he answered Stewart, saying that being out of touch "was probably a good thing."

"We were the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered; we talked about civil rights when it wasn't popular."

Clooney then praised Hollywood for giving Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind in 1939--the first African American to receive an Oscar, concluding, "I'm proud to be part of Hollywood, proud to be part of the community and proud to be out of touch," a statement that brought Clooney lots of applause.

While I'd prefer to see Clooney than Charlton Heston at an Academy Awards ceremony--and Good Night and Good Luck is certainly a good film--Clooney's self-congratulatory praise of Hollywood was more than a little selective. Clooney conveniently avoided the sticky fact that Gone with the Wind sanitizes slavery and promotes classic racial stereotypes of the submissive, simple-minded slave.

Ironically, Clooney's film is about a man who stood up to McCarthyism--something that very few people in Hollywood were willing to do. The studio heads fell into line after the 1947 HUAC investigation fingered 19 Hollywood directors, actors and writers, including Dalton Trumbo, for holding left-wing views.

After the Hollywood Ten invoked their First Amendment rights, refusing to cooperate with HUAC, the studio heads announced that the Ten were fired and would not be rehired unless they recanted. All were found guilty of contempt and six got 12-month sentences. Over the next several years hundreds were blacklisted from Hollywood, their careers destroyed, for having left-wing or "communist" affiliations, alleged or otherwise.

Perhaps this should be the topic of Clooney's next film.

We can't forget the limits of Hollywood. Certain liberal politics, moreover, are accepted, while other ideas are not.

I am reminded of the 1977 Oscars, where Vanessa Redgrave, who that year had narrated a documentary on the Palestinians and had starred in Julia, a film about a German woman murdered for her anti-Nazi activities, criticized Zionism in her Oscar speech. In Hollywood, this is equivalent of farting in church.

Later in the evening, screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky, to thunderous applause, proclaimed that he was "sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda."

Stewart threw in a few barbs against President Bush and Vice President Cheney and later made a funny joke about the giant Oscar hovering above the stage set, asking the audience if "democracy" would break out everywhere if they all pulled it down.

But few Hollywood stars took Stewart's lead. Crash producer Cathy Schulman thanked members of the Academy "for embracing our film about love and about tolerance, about truth," and there were a few other similar statements. But notably, not a single person said anything against the war or any other policy of Bush--a president with approval ratings now barely above 30 percent.

Having said that, there's not doubt that the Oscars gave a nod to a long list of socially relevant films that are well worth seeing on DVD.

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