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To Pursue Youth, Even Mainstream Tries to Be Cool

March 26, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — Conventional wisdom is that the Academy Awards, the 72nd edition of which will be held tonight, don't honor the best film of the year. Like the equally blindered Grammies that marginalize daring, original music while favoring the middle of the road, the Oscar goes to the best mainstream film of the year, the most acceptably artistic without also being disturbing. That's why "How Green Was My Valley" won over "Citizen Kane," why "In the Heat of the Night" won over "Bonnie and Clyde" and, more recently, why "Titanic" won over "L.A. Confidential." The rule of thumb has been that a complex, challenging film will lose out to a simpler, more earnest one that advertises its seriousness in every frame.

But this may be changing. The most earnest films among this year's nominees, "The Green Mile" and "The Cider House Rules," will almost certainly not take home the statuette, though one probably would have been the winner even five years ago. Instead, this year's likely winner is "American Beauty," which is certainly serious but isn't heavy-handed about it. It wears its seriousness lightly.

Cynics may chalk this up to an aberration: an unusually strong film in an unusually weak field. But aesthetics have never governed the Academy Awards, or, put another way, aesthetics in Hollywood have never been about aesthetics as taught in college. While the Oscars are intended to reward merit and present Hollywood's best face to the public, they are, above all, a calculus of the things Hollywood values socially, which then get transformed into artistic values. But this year there is something new in Hollywood's social calculus: hipness.

Not just in Hollywood but throughout America and virtually the entire Western world, hipness is in. Everywhere, people of a certain social standing find enormous cachet in showing they are with it: They know who and what is hot; they have the right ironic attitude; they don't buy into tradition unless they do so self-consciously, to make some statement; they are, in effect, above it all or, rather, beyond it all. Hip is suddenly hip.

No doubt much of this is an extension of the ever-intensifying obsession with youth. Part of being young has always been about being hipper than everyone else, and now, for aging baby boomers, hipness is an elixir that makes you seem young. Yet, the new hipness is not just a matter of youth. It is a matter of the whole postmodernist ethos that, after decades of deception and inauthenticity, only fools take things at face value. From this perspective, which permeates our lives, the world is a kind of joke. Either you get it or you don't, which is to say, either you're hip or you're not.

Hollywood has long fancied itself as hip, but in the past there were other, more important considerations that came into play, and continue to come into play, when the academy selected the Oscar winner. In a community in which money has always meant power, a winner invariably has to have scored at the box office to demonstrate that it connected to the audience. But, with a few exceptions like "Titanic," when a movie has made too much money, it is likely to be viewed as vulgar and playing to all the worst preconceptions about the movie industry. A domestic box-office gross of around $100 million--about where "American Beauty" is--seems right.

Then there is artistic pretension. In a community that likes to think of itself as high-minded and not merely mercenary, and one in which cinematic genius is almost as totemic as money, a winner invariably has to have won admiring reviews to prove its artistic pedigree and confirm the academy's own taste. But here, again, a movie that is too intellectual or too difficult can be perceived as artsy and off-putting and likely to alienate the academy from the general audience. A movie that is accessible but serious--what the conservative cultural critic Dwight MacDonald called "midcult" after "middle culture"--is the appropriate level for a best-picture candidate.

For a long time, the Oscars were basically a balancing act between money and midcult, an attempt to find the film that best satisfied these two social imperatives. Occasionally, the academy felt the need to display its social conscience with a film like "The Life of Emile Zola" or "Gentleman's Agreement," but it wasn't until the 1970s, in the aftermath of the civil-rights movement and in the heat of the Vietnam War, that social consciousness became a factor in the Oscar calculus. A community that saw itself as socially committed now preferred movies that were socially committed, too--big, noble, movies like "Gandhi" or "Dances With Wolves" that showed how engaged this supposedly superficial group actually was. It was as if the academy weren't giving Oscars but the Nobel Peace Prize.

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