And This Year's Oscar Goes to Social Issues
Hollywood Is Pushing Hot-Button Topics, but Does America Care?

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."

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."

More than sparking a social trend, "movies reflect more how people are starting to think," said Patricia King Hanson, executive editor of the American Film Institute's Catalog of Feature Films. The cinema may not be the first artistic venue to ever mention a societal trend, "but as movies come into fruition, that's when there's kind of a rumbling going on that's starting to grow."

Hanson cites a number of films that brought topics into public discourse: "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932), about harsh treatment in prisons; "The Lost Weekend" (1945), about alcoholism; "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), about anti-Semitism; "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), about the Cold War's mutually assured destruction; and "The Panic in Needle Park" (1971), about drug addiction. She puts "Brokeback Mountain" into this category: "There are homosexual couples, homosexual relationships, and always have been, but now it's out there at the movies."

"In 'Network,' Faye Dunaway says, 'They're articulating our rage,' " Hanson quotes. "That's what these movies are doing. They're articulating what's already out there."

Because of their power to "ride the crest of what people are starting to think," such films tend to be remembered as having a greater impact than they actually did at the time, Hanson said. "From a historical perspective, it's not so much that these movies change society as they reflect what's already changed. And then people look back and go, 'Oh, that had such a big influence.' "

The movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), about an interracial relationship, is one of those, Hanson says. "I'm not sure how much it changed things. But it was probably the first movie that seemed like it was okay for a white woman to marry a black man -- at least if you were marrying Sidney Poitier and your parents were Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn."

"Movies are the storytelling medium of our generation," said Peter Lalonde, whose Christian production company Cloud Ten Pictures made three movies based on the "Left Behind" books. "I believe it's through film that our culture and values are passed along. Who's the good guy, who's the bad guy, what's right, what's wrong. In other generations, that was passed on by family. If you want to go way back, it was done around campfires, and then around the dinner table. Now it's through movies, like it or not."

Almost all filmmakers consciously try to manipulate their audiences, some more successfully than others, Lalonde said. "You paint anyone in the light of a protagonist, put music in the right spot, and you are influencing people. It happens in our movies. To take an extreme event, people decide to change their faith after seeing one of our movies," he said. "Or take 'Jaws.' I still know guys who won't swim in their swimming pool."

None of this year's Oscar nominees strikes Lalonde as especially visionary, but he gives credit to "Brokeback Mountain" for expanding the portrayal of a stereotyped group (though he notes, "I won't see 'Brokeback Mountain.' I'm not opposed to it; that's just my choice"). This puts Lalonde in mind of another group often caricatured: Christians.

"There was a good time in the '70s or '80s when portrayals of Christians were almost always in a negative light," he says. "You had your greasy-haired preacher, your child molester. And I think there was a time when that was true of homosexuality as well. It was so far off the mainstream, it took some time for it to come into the center. Both have moved more to the center now."

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