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Oscar Plays It Safe

Why the Academy Goes Bland in Turbulent Times

If you were to anthropomorphize the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that votes for the Oscars, you would probably wind up with an older white male who’s fairly dim and spineless, and who has an older male’s predilection, particularly in recent years, for young hotties. Think Gordon Jump on “WKRP in Cincinnati.”

Frustratingly little information is actually available about the Academy’s demographics. We know there are 5,808 voting members and 6,534 overall members. We know that criteria for membership includes an Academy Award nomination, or “film credits of a caliber which reflect the high standards of the Academy,” according to the Academy’s Web site. There’s obviously more to it than that, because the site also lists members who have died since last February and not all of them are household names. Arthur Alsberg wrote a lot for television but his only filmic contributions were four Don Knotts comedies in the late ’70s. Esther Stephenson was a script supervisor on only five films. The Academy’s exclusive but not snobbish.

Once you’re in, you’re in for life, which is why we assume the Academy’s demographics skew old. There are more men than women in the movie industry and most of these folks are white. As for dim and spineless? Just look at the voting record. The general rule is that during years of political turmoil — like this one — the Academy staunchly defends the right of every filmmaker to be as bland and long-winded as possible.

Controversy, what controversy?

Take the early 1950s. It was the coldest part of the Cold War, and few towns were hit harder than Hollywood. If you took the fifth before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), you were immediately blacklisted; if you named names you were eventually shunned. Few escaped with work and self-respect. In such a divided and fearful community it’s not surprising that the Academy was divided and fearful as well. Two years in a row, 1951 and 1952, the best director came from a picture other than the one that won best picture, and in those cases the best picture was fairly light and harmless.

In 1951, with such gritty works as “A Place in the Sun” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” in the running, the award went to “An American in Paris,” which, while light, at least has the distinction of being great. (I’d vote for it.)

But 1952 was an embarrassment. The best nominated picture that year was “High Noon,” in which Marshall Wil Kane (Gary Cooper) is abandoned by everyone in the town he’s trying to protect. “Where are the others?” one man asks. “There are no others,” Kane replies. These lines were written by Carl Foreman, who refused to testify before HUAC and saw most of his friends and colleagues abandon him as a result. The film is a metaphor for the McCarthy years and is now considered a classic. But in 1952 it lost to….“The Greatest Show on Earth,” a fluffy, overlong melodrama about the lives and loves of members of the Ringling Brothers Circus, starring a young Charlton Heston. It was like awarding the winning entrée at a bake-off to cotton candy.

Playing it safe

Turbulent 1968 began with the Tet offensive, ended with the election of Richard Nixon, and in-between the country suffered through riots, the violence at the Democratic convention, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Attuning itself to the zeitgeist, the Academy ignored films like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” neither of which got nominated for best picture, and awarded the big prize to…“Oliver!,” a musical that was, according to its tagline, “much much more than a musical!” Yes, much much more.

Twenty years later, the Academy showed the world just how white it could be. Abroad, communism was collapsing, but at home racial tensions were rising. It was the year of the Central Park jogger, Public Enemy and Spike Lee’s film “Do the Right Thing,” which was the cinematic equivalent of James Baldwin’s essay “The Fire Next Time”: a bomb tossed at white America. The Academy ducked. It didn’t even nominate “Do the Right Thing,” or “Glory,” which is the kind of epic picture it usually celebrates, for best picture. Instead, the big prize went to us “Driving Miss Daisy,” a film about the relationship between a southern white matriarch and her black chauffer.

Now best pictures usually match up with best directors, but “Daisy” director Bruce Beresford wasn’t even nominated. A best picture winner whose director wasn’t nominated? That hadn’t happened since 1932. So why did it occur in 1989? Probably because there was no front-runner among the other best-picture nominees — “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Dead Poets Society,” “Field of Dreams” and “My Left Foot.” Those films canceled each other out, while elderly voters, happy to see themselves on screen, flocked to “Daisy.” We’ll never know for sure because the accounting firm that tabulates the results, Price Waterhouse, doesn’t release vote totals. To do so, to admit that, say, “Driving Miss Daisy” won with 22 percent of the vote, would destroy the illusion of the word “best.”

Taking a stand

Were there any years when the Academy took a stand and reflected rather than deflected divisive national politics? A few. Sidney Poitier’s best actor statuette was awarded the year after Birmingham and the March on Washington. One could also point to “In the Heat of the Night” winning best picture for 1967. Of course by the time it was awarded, two days after the assassination of Dr. King, the story of a black northern detective and a bigoted southern sheriff solving a crime together was already beginning to feel nostalgic.

But it was World War II that really went over big with the Academy. While organizations like “America First!” argued for neutrality, the Academy gave tacit approval to the Allies. From 1940 to 1942, every best picture winner (“Rebecca”; “How Green Was My Valley”; “Mrs. Miniver”) was set in England.

Once the U.S. was in, the Academy went whole hog. Two years in a row the best-actor statuette honored real-life patriots: Sgt. York, a backwoods, sharpshooting hero of WWI, and patriotic song-and-dance man George M. Cohan. “Casablanca,” which won best picture in 1943, personalized the America dilemma: from tough, cynical isolationist (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) to tough, cynical participant (“Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”).

Even after the war, best pictures were about the war: 1946’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” concerned returning veterans; 1947’s “Gentleman’s Agreement,” about a gentile reporter posing as a Jew to expose American anti-Semitism, wouldn’t have been made without the horrors of the Holocaust.

But 2004 ain’t no World War II, and in this divisive political year the Academy will most likely look for something overlong and non-controversial. WWGJD: What Would Gordon Jump Do? That’s the key. This is bad news for “Sideways” and “Kinsey” and “Million Dollar Baby” but good news for Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” Good news for us, too. It beats hell out of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

—Erik Lundegaard may write about movies for The Seattle Times, MSN, and MSNBC, but after seven tries he has yet to win his own Oscar pool. This piece was originally published 1/26/05 on MSNBC.com.