The Exceptional norm

The secret rules governing why the Oscars always go to the blandest movies.

Despite the undeniable entertainment power of sequins, cleavage, and appalling musical numbers, the Oscar ceremony tends to be dull. Sure, there are surprises (who thought Marisa Tomei was going to beat Judy Davis and Vanessa Redgrave for Best Supporting Actress in 1991?), but even the upsets happen within such a narrow range of possibilities that it's hard to get really emotionally involved or excited. Hollywood uses the Oscar ceremony to present a carefully manicured image to the world at large. If a movie doesn't fit that image, it won't be considered. Here are the award establishment's three rules of thumb:

THE IDEAL OSCAR movie is the moral equivalent of There's Something About Mary or Caddyshack. Just as these lowbrow comedies stick to fundamental body humor to make sure they appeal to a wide audience, Oscar movies adhere to basic, sweeping moral ideas that everyone can understand and no one can disagree with. For example, Gandhi (Best Picture, 1982) can be summed up as "Violence is bad," while Driving Miss Daisy (Best Picture, 1989) amounts to little more than "Racism is bad." Which is not to say that the movies themselves are therefore bad—usually they're decent, workman-like movies that just happen to be free of the ambiguities that make life and art exciting.

This year the leading contender is Saving Private Ryan, which asserts that "War is bad" while taking pains to assure that we, the audience, understand that soldiers are good. Saving Private Ryan articulates this moral with impressive success—the opening combat scene is truly horrifying. In contrast, Unforgiven (Best Picture, 1992) had a lot of hokum about how awful violence was as the movie waited eagerly for Clint to mow down the bad guys in an orgy of gunplay. This disconnection between overt and covert message is almost impossible to avoid; movies, by their very nature, eroticize their subjects. So it's nothing short of astounding that Saving Private Ryan's violence sickens rather than arouses. Whether this makes the standard war-movie claptrap of the rest of the film forgivable or more offensive is hard to say.

LIKE AMERICA IN GENERAL, Oscar is uncomfortable with sex. A movie with queasy-making violence—be it Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, or Saving Private Ryan—invariably gets nominated. Movies with queasy sexual content—such as Blue Velvet or this year's most controversial movie, Happiness—get completely ignored. (Besides, what kind of Oscar-friendly moral can you draw from Happiness? "Even serial pederast rapists have their good qualities"?) Blue Velvet was above and beyond the most influential film of its time, with a far wider impact than 1986's "Best Picture" (Platoon)—but it was ignored in favor of, among others, Children of a Lesser God ("Deaf people are people, too"). It's hard to believe there was a time when a movie like Midnight Cowboy (about a naive hustler who sells himself to men and women) could not only get nominated, but actually win, despite an X rating. (Of course, that was in 1969; in its recent re-release, the movie was downgraded to an R.)

In the '90s, the kinkiest nominee was The Crying Game in 1992—a movie that, significantly, made a surprising amount of money. Let's not forget that even though the main character fell in love with a gay transvestite, he had the good taste to vomit upon discovering that his girlfriend had a penis. A little revulsion made the subject matter more palatable to a mainstream audience; Hollywood could therefore embrace the film without breaking its unspoken rules.

OSCAR LOVES MONEY. Once upon a time, the academy might have given the award to a worthy movie that wasn't selling well, in the hope that the Oscar might improve its box office. Now, bad box office is seen to mean that the movie isn't as good as everyone thought. The Thin Red Line opened shortly before the nominations were made this year, and the reputation of director Terrence Malick may have had more to do with it being a candidate than the film itself. This was the case when The Godfather, Part 3 was nominated in 1990—one wonders how many academy members had actually seen the movie before they nominated it. The Thin Red Line, on the other hand, is a complex and beautiful (if overlong) movie, worthy of consideration; but if it had come out earlier and its mediocre box office had been apparent, the movie probably would have been set aside.

Only the hope that something will go wrong livens up the Oscars. Maybe someone will get cranky and refuse to play along, or maybe something will just screw up. But things seem to get more controlled every year. The best we can hope for is a strange juxtaposition like Elliot Smith and Celine Dion performing nominated songs back-to-back. Moments like that crack the homogenous facade of the Oscars and suggest the strangeness of the world better than the movies themselves.

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