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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)

Jake Gyllenhaal, up for Best Supporting Actor as a gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," thinks it is a reflection of the time, how the films this year represent "a search for truth. I feel we're all looking for answers."

Emanuel Levy, professor of critical studies in the UCLA Film School and author of the book "All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards," said he thinks the tremors of a post-9/11 world have just caught up with Hollywood in this year's Academy Award races. Levy said that when society faces a divisive issue, such as the war in Iraq or the response to terrorism, critical movies emerge, but not immediately.

There is an expression in Hollywood that the studios make movies about what people were talking about last year. There is always a lag between idea and premiere. "Munich" took six years to reach the multiplex. "Brokeback Mountain" took eight. "Syriana" is based on a book written during the Clinton administration. (And in terms of a movie specifically about the 9/11 terrorist attack, Oliver Stone is now at work on one, due in theaters this summer, five years after the events.)

"It reminds me of the cycle of films about Vietnam that did not appear during the Vietnam War," said Levy about "The Deer Hunter" (1978), "Apocalypse Now" (1979), "Platoon"(1986) and Sylvester Stallone's Rambo franchise (which began in 1982, seven years after the fall of Saigon).

And as powerful as the 1993 AIDS message film "Philadelphia" may have been (Tom Hanks won a Best Actor award), it was released more than a decade into the epidemic, by which time almost 200,000 Americans had died of the disease.

"Hollywood is a lagging cultural indicator," said David Horowitz, a conservative critic and president of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. "It does not foreshadow trends -- it comes in very late. The reason is, it has a certain institutional conservatism, which is, 'Hey, we're risking a hundred million dollars here.' " Hollywood, he said, "is not a brave town."

Levy points to a tendency for filmmakers to take politically loaded messages out of their contemporary context and put them in history -- think "Good Night, and Good Luck" (set in 1953-54), "Brokeback Mountain" (set in 1963) and "Munich" (1973).

That was the case, for instance, in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War, when the Best Picture award went to "Patton," set in World War II, over its competitor "M*A*S*H," set in the Korean conflict of the 1950s.

In the conservative magazine National Review, in a piece titled "Phony Baloney -- That's what George Clooney and the rest of the Oscar crowd have served up," columnist Mark Steyn observed, "That's why Hollywood prefers to make 'controversial' films about controversies that are settled, rousing itself to fight battles long won."

But others argue for film's influence on society. "You can't tell whether a film like 'Brokeback Mountain' or 'Transamerica' is changing minds today. You'll see the results in five or 10 years," said Craig Detweiler, chair of the mass communication department at Biola University, a Christian college outside Los Angeles, and a screenwriter. "Art works on you in subtle and subterranean ways."

Detweiler sees movies as a place for society to work through its anxieties. In the 1960s, for instance, "from 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' to 'Midnight Cowboy,' you were presented with characters and situations that were new, that were unexplored, that were a little bit scary and awkward for people to process."

Detweiler says films shift the culture only in small ways. Like "when Clark Gable showed up in 'It Happened One Night' not wearing a T-shirt, it decimated the undergarment industry," and "after 'Top Gun,' you experience a temporary bump in people applying to be Navy fliers."


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