Of Oscars, Movies and Messages

Wes Studi, Na’vis’ chief Eytukan in Avatar

Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn reputedly said: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The MGM chief and others view Hollywood as a dream factory merely cranking out escapist entertainment, like cinematic sausage. They also believe the annual Academy Awards show should be a sacred ceremony celebrating celebrity, promoting pictures, unblemished by partisanship, politics, controversy.

As author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-founder of the James Agee Cinema Circle, which annually awards the “Progies” for Best Progressive films and filmmakers, I disagree. When movies are topical, with social conscience and consciousness, they’re even more dramatic. What’s more electrifying than people fighting for their rights? Injecting current events into comedies makes them more pointed, absurd, satirical, ironic, funny.

Consider these politically aware classics, Best Picture-nominated in the early 1940s. Frank Capra’s beloved filibuster masterpiece Mr. Smith Goes to Washington starring Jimmy Stewart as an honest senator battling corrupt politicians remains relevant. John Ford’s pro-labor The Grapes of Wrath , based on John Steinbeck’s novel, starring Henry Fonda, places the Joad family’s struggle for survival in the context of the Depression’s unionization movement. Orson Welles’ anti-tycoon Citizen Kane attacks capitalism. As Nazism conquered Europe, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator cut Hitler and Mussolini down to size through ridicule, standing up for the oppressed.

Once America entered World War II, Tinseltown produced anti-fascist morale boosters, many written by La-La-Land leftists (later blacklisted), such as Dalton Trumbo (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo starring Van Johnson), Albert Maltz (Pride of the Marines starring John Garfield) and John Howard Lawson (Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic , both starring Bogie).

This year’s Best Picture contenders also include movies making cinematic statements. I asked Avatar’s Wes Studi, who portrays the Na’vis’ chief Eytukan, if James Cameron’s epic was an anti-colonial, pro-indigenous film. Studi, a Native American who starred in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans and 1993’s Geronimo , replied: “Avatar’s real point is that the progressive ‘Sky People’ join the Natives, and together they’re able to win,” defeating an imperial enemy reminiscent of airborne Americans in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now .

When Avatar’s gung-ho Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) suits up in the hi-tech Amplified Mobility Platform, he looks like explosives disposal expert Sgt. William James (Best Actor nom Jeremy Renner) wearing his Kevlar bomb suit in another Best Pic hopeful, The Hurt Locker , an Iraq War drama directed by Cameron’s ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow (they’re also vying for Best Director). Likewise, Avatar’s Na’vis recall Locker’s Arabs, including an Iraqi boy peddling bootleg flicks  blown up by IEDs. (After a screening of Bigelow’s “war is hell” saga I told her she’d finally found the real reason why Bush invaded Iraq: Fighting DVD piracy.)

Ed Asner

District 9’s plot is triggered by an alien spaceship’s arrival over South Africa; the Peter Jackson-produced futuristic thriller is considered an anti-apartheid allegory.  Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds rewrites WWII history: An elite unit ofDirty Dozen -like Jews kick Nazi butt. German Col. Hans Landa (Best Supporting Actor nom Christoph Waltz) is the man you love to hate; Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) is chilling as the hunted Jew turning the tables on her persecutors in this anti-Hitler revenge fantasy. Call it the “Dreyfus Affair” — Tarantino-style.

Dreyfus isn’t the sole woman character in this year’s Best Picture competitors to stand up (each of the following also earned Best Actress nominations). As Harlem’s abused, impoverished Precious, Gabourey Sidibe finds the strength to leave her cruel mother (Best Supporting Actress nominee Mo’Nique) and pursue an education, with support from female classmates, their dedicated, lesbian teacher (Paula Patton) and Mariah Carey’s social worker, in this scathing look at urban misery. Carey Mulligan similarly discovers higher learning’s value in An Education , as her British schoolgirl turns her back on a charming, older Lothario, attending university instead. Sandra Bullock confronts prejudice as a strong-willed Southerner taking a Black student football player under her wing in The Blind Side

Tinseltown tackles age-ism in the animated feature Up , about a 78-year-old who still has the spirit of adventure. He’s given voice by 80-year-old Ed Asner, whose clashes with Pres. Reagan over El Salvador while Asner was Screen Actors Guild president caused cancellation of the outspoken activist’s Lou Grant CBS series. Asner, now touring America in the one-man show FDR, says: “Why tell a story if it doesn’t have a message? Comedic or dramatic, there has to be a point of view, which usually implies something… We all share a common view of what man should have and strive for… Unfortunately, too many people feel some men should not be entitled to that same striving.”

Best Pic contender Up in the Air , starring another Hollywood liberal lion, Best Actor nom George Clooney, deals with the timely topic of layoffs and includes footage of actual unemployed workers. Besides Best Picture, Oscar also gets topical in other categories. In Julie & Julia, Best Actress contestant Meryl Streep reveals TV’s French chef, Julia Child, opposed Sen. Joe McCarthy’s 1950s Red Scare witch-hunt. Colin Firth is up for Best Actor kudos in the gay-themed A Single Man . Morgan Freeman is Best Actor nominated for depicting Nelson Mandela in Clint Eastwood’s anti-apartheid Invictus, which also earned Matt Damon a Best Supporting Actor nod. Damon’s rivals include Woody Harrelson, who portrays a contemporary Army casualty notification officer in the anti-war The Messenger. Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, In the Loop , starring James Gandolfini, satirizes the Iraq War lead-up.

Best Documentary Feature nominee Burma VJ is a thrilling account of Myanmar’s “Saffron Revolution,” as Buddhist monks lead an uprising against the military junta’s Rangoon goons. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers documents activists leaking Defense Department top secret Vietnam details to media outlets during the Nixon era. The Cove is a save-the-dolphin doc set in Japan featuring Flipper’s former trainer-turned-animal rights activist. Muck-raking Food, Inc. lambastes America’s industrialized, corporatized food production system.

Surprisingly, one of 2009’s most progressive docs, Michael Moore’s Capitalism, A Love Story , was unrequited by Oscar. Perhaps this is payback for Moore’s 2003 Bowling for Columbine Oscar acceptance speech, boldly proclaiming as the Iraq War began: “Shame on you, Mr. Bush!” In 2008, when Sicko , which praised Cuban healthcare, was also up for Oscar gold, Moore joked the Motion Picture Academy should invite Fidel Castro to the ceremony to boost ratings.

Sasheen Littlefeather at 1973 Oscars

Moore actually has a point. The annual Academy Awards ceremony is supposed to be a red carpet ritual of glitz, glamour, stretch limos, swag bags, A-list parties and egos gone wild, with Tinseltown slapping itself on the back on live television. But it’s often dull, with declining viewership. What’s more dramatic – and dare I say entertaining? Watching celebs thank agents, hairdressers, etc., audiences never heard of, or seeing a Native American denounce Hollywood’s racist depiction of Indians, as buckskin-clad Sacheen Little Feather did in 1973, declining Marlon Brando’s Godfather Oscar on his behalf. She and Brando gave America’s indigenous people a chance to air their grievances before millions of viewers on live TV.

Using the Oscars to make political speeches began by 1937, when Gale Sondergaard won the first Best Supporting Actress award for Anthony Adverse . In her acceptance speech on live radio Sondergaard spoke out for Loyalists fighting Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. When the Vietnam film Hearts and Minds won 1975’s Best Documentary, during his televised acceptance speech producer Burt Schneider read a telegram from Vietnamese Communists, dumbfounding America, provoking conservatives Bob Hope and John Wayne to repudiate him during their sacrosanct ceremony.

Now that’s entertainment!

Let’s hope March 7th the Oscars is more than another screwy ballyhooey self-congratulation and self-promotion exercise   and artists make more daring social comments. And that films making cinematic statements win those coveted golden statuettes. Here’s looking at you, kid – and at eye opening movies about war, racism, unemployment, fascism, poverty, sexism, animal rights, gay rights, McCarthyism, age-ism and more. Hooray for Hollywood – and Tinseltown topicality!

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Rampell is a L.A.-based film critic/historian and author. Michael Moore is on the cover of Rampell’s book Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States.

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