And This Year's Oscar Goes to Social Issues

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Best Picture nominee
Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Best Picture nominee "Brokeback Mountain," a love story about two gay wranglers in 1960s Wyoming who don't dare reveal their relationship. (By Kimberly French -- Associated Press)
By William Booth and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 5, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- The awards season in Hollywood is by its very nature a self-congratulatory affair. But this year, the filmmakers say their serious, somber movies really do matter -- not just as entertainment or art, but politically, socially. Hollywood thinks the movies are important again.

Ang Lee, director of "Brokeback Mountain," speaks of "the power of movies to change the way we're thinking." Steven Spielberg, director of "Munich," has called this year's Oscar-nominated films "courageous" for the risks they took with stories about racism, terrorism, government and corporate crime, and homosexuality. Mark R. Harris, a producer of "Crash," said "this movie has changed people's lives."

But not everyone who thinks about the role of movies in society is convinced of their ability to create lasting social change.

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, on a panel titled "Brave New World: Entertainment and Social Change," Robert Redford expressed his skepticism, saying: "I don't know how much films actually impact social movements. Fashion, perhaps?"

He went on, "Did 'All the President's Men' really change journalism? Did the film impact anybody but maybe a bunch of young journalists who got into journalism for the wrong reasons because they thought there was glamour there? I don't know."

Redford was answered on the panel by Dan Glickman, the former Clinton administration agriculture secretary and now head of the Motion Picture Association of America, the lobbying organization that represents the major movie studios, who pointed to "North Country." The film, about the struggles of women in a Minnesota mine, was released last October to coincide with the efforts in Congress to pass the Violence Against Women Act. "North Country" was screened for members of Congress, and Glickman said that "hopefully, the screening of the movie had some kind of an effect on the process."

"It's our job as filmmakers to reflect the world right now, and this year has proven that you can make these movies and make them not taste like medicine," said Charlize Theron, who is nominated for an Academy Award for her role in the movie as a defiant victim of sexual harassment.

"North Country," as well as "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Syriana," were financed by Jeffrey Skoll, a Canadian and the billionaire co-founder of eBay, who has taken his profits to Hollywood to make movies that first and foremost contain what he calls "a message for social change." He believes that "North Country" had a direct impact on policy.

But did it really? The Violence Against Women Act, up for renewal, already had overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. It won approval in the House by a vote of 415 to 4 on Sept. 29 -- three weeks before the movie was released in theaters.

"They've been few and far between, but some movies have made a difference," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, whose group partnered with Skoll to use "North Country" to educate audiences on sexual harassment. Asked what movies had made a difference for women, Gandy pointed to "Norma Rae" and, "in its own way," "Thelma and Louise." As for "North Country," Gandy said, "it's too early to tell."

What is motivating filmmakers and voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? In a director's roundtable published by Newsweek, Spielberg said: "I just feel that filmmakers are much more proactive since the second Bush administration. I think that everybody is trying to declare their independence and state their case for things that we believe in. No one is really representing us, so we're representing our own feelings, and we're trying to strike back."

Felicity Huffman, nominated for Best Actress for her role as a preoperative male-to-female transsexual in "Transamerica," said, "Politically, we're more on the right than ever, but maybe socially, we're moving toward more understanding and healing."

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