Every year I trot out the old saw about values and lessons being the main determining factor in the choosing of Best Picture winners by Academy voters. People recognize strong stories, first-rate artsy elements and high-level craft, but more often than not the tipping factor is a film “saying” something that the Academy recognizes as fundamentally true and close-to-home — a movie that reflects their lives and values in a way that feels agreeable.
Ordinary People beat Raging Bull because the values espoused by the former (suppressing trauma is bad, letting it out is good, wicked-witch moms are bad) touched people more deeply than the ones in Raging Bull. What values did Martin Scorsese‘s film espouse? Art-film values. Great goombah acting values. Black-and-white cinematography values. The only value that resulted in a big Oscar was Robert De Niro‘s commitment to realistic performing values — i.e. putting on 50 or 60 pounds to play fat Jake LaMotta. But there were no values in the film at all. What, it’s a bad thing to beat up your brother in front of his wife and kids?
American Beauty won the Best Picture Oscar because it said something that everyone (particularly workaholic careerists) believes to be true, which is that we spend so much time and energy running around in circles that we fail to appreciate the simple beauty of things.
Casablanca won because it said the right things about nobility and selflessness just as the U.S. was about to enter World War II. And because it was very well made and performed and had obvious romantic appeal, etc.
Gone With The Wind won in part because it presented the Civil War trials of Scarlett O’Hara as a metaphor for what the U.S. had gone through during the Great Depression, and said that if you don’t have gumption life will run you over and trample you down.
I’m not saying each and every Best Picture winner has won because of the values factor, but it does seem to explain the triumph of Dances With Wolves over Goodfellas (respecting and understanding other cultures and creeds is a spiritually nourishing thing vs. life in the Queens mob in the ’60s and ’70s was volatile and tacky and bloody). And Crash‘s victory over Brokeback Mountain (a values rebellion due to the over-70 Tony Curtis contingent being unable to stomach the idea of the iconic American cowboy figure being messed with). And Kramer vs. Kramer beating Apocalypse Now (learning to be a good dad vs. “the horror” in a psychedelic Vietnam).
So what values are espoused by this year’s Best Picture contenders?
The Social Network doesn’t espouse as much as observe and frame a particular social world that’s evolved over the last six or seven years. It says that (a) geniuses aren’t very good with the social graces and that they also have trouble with loyalty if it gets in the way of a better business plan, and (b) what this particular genius wanted all along was a Rosebud-y girl who dumped him.
The King’s Speech says the nobody is so high and mighty that they can’t be helped by a good tutor who talks plain and straight and can cut through the pretense and the bullshit.
127 Hours says that arrogance and thoughtlessness invites tragedy, and that survival is a duty that must be obeyed, even if it means a huge sacrifice. The glories of life are worth what whatever it takes to simply stay alive.
Black Swan says that the performing life is tough and that self-doubt can metastasize like a cancer if you don’t face it.
What does Inception say? The Kids Are All Right? Another Year? The Way Back? Blue Valentine?