Out of touch and proud of it

George Clooney with his Oscar“I'm proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.” That’s George Clooney speaking, as he clutched his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at the 78th annual Academy Awards. He was replying to the charge that Hollywood is out of touch with the real America.

“Guilty as charged” was the only plea that Clooney could have made. This year the Academy was besotted with confronting, challenging, nose-thumbing films. The nominees for the major awards were clearly meant to rattle the cage of middle America. They focused on racism in Los Angeles in Crash, homosexual love in Brokeback Mountain, evil multinationals in The Constant Gardener, gay writers in Capote, and terrorism in Munich.

As a result, the gala Oscar night was watched by the lowest number of viewers for in 20 years. It seems to have been a message to Hollywood that Americans dislike films which undermine traditional values. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research the Oscars had an average audience of 38.8 million viewers in the United States -- down 8 per cent from last year.

But instead of accepting the jury’s verdict, the Hollywood media, trade magazines and blogs resorted to the blame game. On the next day they were blaming middle Americans not for being open-minded, host Jon Stewart for his lacklustre performance, the format for allowing background music during the acceptance speeches, and the presenters for their lame jokes.

The gazillion movie clips celebrating Hollywood’s past achievements received a caning from nearly everyone. Stewart jokingly appealed to the viewers: “We are out of movie clips. Please send clips. We have another three hours left.” Gil Cates, the producer of the Oscars, defended the movie clips in an interview with Variety, the Hollywood trade magazine: “People have a heritage in film, and it's nice to be reminded of that heritage.”

But reminding viewers of past greatness did not draw high returns. Instead, it invited hand-wringing about Hollywood’s future. The top five box office hits of 2005 through to March 2, 2006 grossed five times more than the five big Oscar winners – Best Actor and Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Actor and Best Motion Picture. It must be the first time that the Best Documentary has grossed more than the Best Motion Picture -- and one made by the French about penguins, to boot. Here are the figures for box office receipts in the US (for 2005-to March 2, 2006):

 Top 5 Oscar winners  Gross Top 5 at box office  Gross 
Best Actor
George Clooney
Rated: R 
 $49,452,704  Star Wars 3
 Rated: PG13   
The Constant Gardener
Best Supporting Actress
Rachel Weisz
Rated: R   
 $33,579,798  Harry Potter & Goblet
 of Fire

 Rated: PG   
Walk the Line
Best Actress
Reese Witherspoon
Rated: PG13   
 $117,740,137  Chronicles of Narnia
 Rated: PG   
Best Motion Picture
Rated: R
 $53,404,817  War of the Worlds
 Rated: PG13   
Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Rated: R
 $23,886,562  Wedding Crashers
 Rated: R    

 $278,064,018    $1,401,045,448

Source: Nielsen EDI and Variety

And if you compare the movies according to their Movie Picture Association of America ratings, the top five box office hits included only one R-rated movie, while the top five Oscars had only one PG13-rated movie. The correlation between ratings and box-office success was first presented in a report by the Dove Foundation in January of 1999, “The Profitability Study of MPAA-Rated Movies”. A 2005 update showed that G-rated movies are 11 times more profitable than R-rated movies.

A conservative think tank, Family Research Council, has commented that the Oscar winners “are far less concerned about entertaining people than they are with trying to shape the culture and advance a political agenda”. And in fact, several of these admitted that shaping society was their main motivation. Diana Ossana, winner of Best Adapted Screenplay, for Brokeback Mountain, said: “The duty of art is to send light into the darkness of men's hearts”. Paul Haggis, winner of Best Original Screenplay, for Crash, quoted the playwright Bertolt Brecht: “art is not a mirror to hold up to society but a hammer [with] which to shape it.” But Brecht was a hard-core Marxist, not the sorta guy they drink with in Milwaukee.

The pre- and post-Oscar media coverage did not have the energy of previous years. Debates amongst bloggers were not prolonged to days and weeks, but lost steam as other issues hit the front page. Conservative blogs debated alternative events to the Oscars and publications such as National Review featured several parodies. The liberal leaning publications and blogs, on the other hand, focused on the “America is still not ready for a gay love story” lament and were upset that racial tolerance in Crash had trumped gay acceptance in Brokeback Mountain. They accused the Hollywood establishment of moral cowardice.

In his opening words Jon Stewart jokingly said that Americans view Hollywood as too liberal and out of touch -- basically a “shorefront Sodom and Gomorrah”. The joke fell flat and Stewart quickly changed the subject. But with this year’s 8 per cent decline in Oscar viewers and a 9 per cent decline in movies attendance for 2005, Stewart might have a point.

Diane Bryhn is a freelance journalist in New York.


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  • Diane Bryhn