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THE OSCARS

A Twist on Hero Worship

Commentary * The academy has long honored films with traditional heroic themes. This year's best picture nominees all deal differently with the idea of valor.

March 21, 2001|STEPHEN FARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Oscar smiles on heroes.

Movies that have won the Academy Award as best picture have almost invariably emblazoned stirring, straightforward notions of heroism. From Fletcher Christian standing up to the tyranny of Capt. Bligh in 1935's "Mutiny on the Bounty" to Oskar Schindler risking his life to save Jewish victims of the Holocaust in 1993's "Schindler's List," Oscar movies have served up true-blue champions fighting the good fight.

This year the five movies nominated for best picture all celebrate heroism, but they enshrine intriguingly different forms of valor, which suggests how our understanding of what makes a hero has expanded since the days of "Mutiny on the Bounty." The contenders range from an old-fashioned sword-and-sandals epic ("Gladiator") to a soulful martial arts extravaganza ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), a couple of hard-hitting social-problem pictures ("Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," both directed by Steven Soderbergh), and a whimsical fairy tale ("Chocolat").

Despite their diverse styles, all of them ponder the parameters of heroism. And in this regard they perpetuate a proud Oscar tradition.

Past Oscar winners have sometimes spotlighted closet heroes like Rick in "Casablanca," who wore a mask of cynical detachment but ended up marching off to defend the Allied cause, or C.C. Baxter in "The Apartment," who started out as a weasel but finally thwarted the sexually exploitative behavior of his leering bosses. More often, though, they have paid tribute to unabashed martyrs like Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons" and William Wallace in "Braveheart."

Even many movies that might seem to be exceptions to this rule of Oscar heroics only sport a veneer of pessimism. Everyone remembers the sadistic Hannibal Lecter from "The Silence of the Lambs," but he was really a secondary character in that 1991 movie; the hero was Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, who trafficked with the devilish Hannibal to save the victim of a serial killer.

And in last year's Oscar winner, "American Beauty," although Kevin Spacey's Lester Burnham began as a corporate drudge, he freed himself from that stunted life and, in the movie's climactic scene, demonstrated his nobility by gallantly refusing the advances of the nubile teenage cheerleader who threw herself at him. At the very last moment, he embraces life--an existential hero, perhaps, but still a hero.

Movies that are genuinely dark, antiheroic but nonetheless piercing dissections of human foibles rarely even get nominated for Oscars, much less win. The faithful film version of Edward Albee's scathing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" did get nominated for a near-record 13 Oscars for 1966, but it inevitably lost the big one to "A Man for All Seasons." And brilliant black comedies like "To Die For" and "Election"--which brandish an unvarnished, unredeemed vision of ordinary people's cruelty and corruption--never make it into the exalted best picture category.

*

All five of this year's nominees contemplate loftier human potentialities, though some of them accentuate soaring victories while others chronicle more agonized struggles to transcend the dark side.

"Gladiator" is closest in spirit to the square, stalwart epics of years past. It honors traditional manly virtues of courage and loyalty. Not only is Russell Crowe's Maximus the bravest fighter in the Roman Empire, but he is also selflessly devoted to his family. Of the five nominated movies, "Gladiator" is the only one with an unblemished hero. Maximus has no flaws; he is the essence of uncomplicated virility, and the film is so rousingly made that it seduces us into cheering its glorification of the warrior-prince.

"Chocolat" represents a dramatic contrast. First of all, its hero is a woman, the pastry chef Vianne, played by Juliette Binoche. Besides, she epitomizes virtues that are 180 degrees from the manly fortitude embodied by Crowe's Maximus. Proudly flaunting her child out of wedlock and her disdain for traditional religion, Vianne is the bohemian hedonist as torchbearer; we are meant to admire her sexual audacity and her tolerance for society's outcasts. She is very much a heroine in the freethinking liberal mold, whereas Maximus appeals to warmongering chauvinists and pious devotees of family values.

Some critics have argued that "Chocolat" is just as simplistic in its celebration of liberal feminist values as "Gladiator" is in its lionization of conservative macho posturing. But this is a bit unfair to Lasse Hallstrom's film, which has a note of ambiguity missing from "Gladiator": Vianne is not quite the paragon she initially appears to be. As the film continues, we perceive that she has an almost pathological terror of commitment.

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