Sort of Sixties Inspired



by John Tyler Connoley


March 14, 2006



Every year I measure the mood of American society, using the Academy Awards as my barometer. It's not very scientific, but it seems to work as well as any of the CNN or NYT polls, which politicians and pundits worry so much about. George Clooney may think the movie industry is "ahead of the rest of America," but the fact is Hollywood executives follow the country's lead, letting the American people vote with their dollars. And the Academy Awards are a pretty good window into the American mind.

This year, according to Oscar, the nation is more socially conscious than it has been for quite some time. It's also more casually diverse -- though the repercussions of past racial and sexual intolerance still rock the boat.

2005 saw a renaissance in socially conscious cinema. Everything about the 78th Academy Awards pointed to that fact. Small-budget, independent films tackled subjects as varied as race-relations in Los Angeles, the psychological toll of fighting terror, the inner lives of thugs, the stranglehold of big pharma on developing countries, and the crippling effects of life in the closet. And the viewing public (and the Academy) rewarded them handsomely for their efforts.

Earlier this year, George Lucas looked at the numbers and signaled the death of the blockbuster movie. He said, "Those movies can't make their money back anymore. Look at what happened with King Kong." That film had a budget of $207 million, and made $217 million domestically (netting only $10 million). It also won no major awards this year. On the other hand, Brokeback Mountain and Crash, the two biggest winners of the night, together netted $112.5 million domestically.

These three films represent Hollywood's shift in focus away from blockbusters and toward socially conscious cinema. King Kong is a flashy remake of the classic girl/ape love story, which has nothing to say on the subject of girls, apes, or the existence of dinosaurs on lost islands. It also won no major awards. Crash, which won two major awards, is an artsy, multi-character diatribe on the eternally terrible race relations in Los Angeles. Brokeback Mountain is a Romeo and Juliet-style tragedy where prejudice against gay relationships keeps the lovers apart and brings a pox on both their houses -- and it also won two major awards. At this year's Oscars, social consciousness was king.

The gowns at the awards ceremony even reinforced this notion. The look this year was 1960s redux. High-waisted empire silhouettes (with the addition of long trains and lots of cleavage) were all the rage. As one friend put it, "All the actresses looked like they were pregnant." The hair, too, was piled high in beehives and French twists, reminiscent of Barbra circa 1968 -- but with less lacquer, to suit our post-ozone-hole age. It was as if the women of the Academy were looking to their politically active heyday for inspiration on how to dress, trying to recapture the look of sixties underground cinema along with its message.

The men also took their cues from the sixties -- from the cowboys of Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line, dressing like "real men" with no fancy flourishes or girly, necktieless shirts. Joaquin Phoenix, of course, dressed all in black, as befits the man who would be Johnny Cash. The only sign of male flare was Terence Howard's diamond broach, which stood out like a drag queen at a GOP convention.

However, notwithstanding the march of the penguin suits, this year's Oscars were also significant for the casualness of their diversity. The winners were all over the cultural, racial, sexual, and even geographical map. By my count, acceptance speeches included Spanish, Chinese, Xhosa, French, and English. Reese Witherspoon represented white rural women who are "just tryin' to matter," and Three 6 Mafia represented black urban men who find "it's hard out here for a pimp." Colleen Atwood took home the Best Costume award for designing Japanese Geisha costumes, while Ang Lee took home Best Director for portraying Wyoming ranch hands.

The only unsettling moment in an otherwise easygoing diversity-fest was the reaction to the Best Original Song. When Three 6 Mafia won, African American audience members stood and cheered wildly, reminding us that even an Oscar for Original Song can be socially important if it's Three 6 Mafia beating two very white women. Then the camera cut to John Stewart who looked a little dumbfounded, chuckled, and said, "That's how you accept an Oscar!" It was clear he didn't get what all the excitement was about, and that Crash probably did have something relevant to say about race.

Another unsettling moment came after the Oscars were over, when commentators, bloggers, and water-cooler pundits almost universally blamed the Best Picture "upset" on Hollywood homophobia. No one seemed capable of imagining another explanation. It was a reminder of why so many men live in self-imposed closets like Ennis Delmar in Brokeback Mountain, believing the lie that if they come out they'll certainly be bashed by a universally hostile society. Despite Brokeback Mountain tying for first place and Seymour Hoffman winning for Capote (and despite Brokeback's box office success), the assumption still remains that America hates gay characters.

These two moments also help explain why Brokeback Mountain and Crash did so well at the box office and at the Academy Awards. Both movies portray a gloomy vision of American, and both tapped into an undercurrent of discomfort around race and sexuality that still troubles our nation. They remind us that the deep wounds of prejudice have not yet healed. They also demonstrated two different ways of dealing with those wounds.

The Crash win for Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain is evidence that stereotype and punditry still have a foothold in our culture. There are still those who believe they can harangue their friends and neighbors into a place of tolerance. And there are still those angry (or guilty) enough to applaud a good harangue when they see it.

However, Ang Lee's win for Best Director gives me hope that it doesn't have to be that way. Ang Lee is a director who has crossed a multitude of genres and cultures in his filmmaking. Although he's a straight man who grew up in Taiwan, his first major film, The Wedding Banquet, was about a gay couple living in America. Since then, Lee has continually represented a vision of filmmaking in which stories and characters matter more than genres or stereotypes. He also has an amazing talent for making socially conscious cinema that is thoroughly watchable -- good stories that tell the truth, instead of pedantic speeches dressed up with plots. His win for Best Director, and Brokeback Mountain's tie with Crash, help me believe that the dawning renaissance in socially conscious cinema will be like the Oscar actresses' hair this year -- sixties inspired, but more natural.




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