During last year's Oscar race, the only topic that was even vaguely controversial was whether it was possible, or fair, for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" to win all 11 of its nominated categories. (It did.) This year, as if in backlash against the dreamy-landscape-hobbit thing, Hollywood has honored feature films about genocide, abortion and euthanasia (as well as mental illness, artistic angst and alcoholism, but those are pretty much old standards, aren't they?).
Every year, there are a few successful films with a social conscience or a political agenda -- from "Birth of a Nation" to "Philadelphia" -- but rarely has there been so much limelight spilled onto such a wide assortment of hot-button topics.
The two most overtly political films in the running, "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," were virtually ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But "Hotel Rwanda" and "Vera Drake" gathered more nominations than predicted, bringing their issues -- the role international complacency played in the Rwandan genocide and the danger of illegal abortion -- onto a much different stage.
In both cases, filmmakers are taking full advantage of the moment. Don Cheadle, the star of "Hotel Rwanda," was not available to comment on his best actor nomination because he was on a fact-finding mission in the Sudan, hoping to draw attention to another African tragedy that the world has largely ignored.
Directed and co-written by Terry George, "Hotel Rwanda" was clearly a consciousness-raising film -- its premiere was a benefit for Amnesty International, after all.
Fine Line, which produced "Vera Drake," attached the film to abortion rights groups, including Planned Parenthood, from the beginning. With nominations for lead Imelda Staunton and director Mike Leigh, New Line plans to relaunch its marketing campaign for the movie and its message -- that as long as there are unwanted pregnancies, there will be abortions, so perhaps it is best not to leave them to the well-intentioned but medically imperfect techniques of women like Vera Drake. "Vera Drake" also earned a nomination for Leigh for best original screenplay.
Thus far, reaction from anti-abortion groups has been limited, although an outreach coordinator for Operation Rescue is trying to mobilize members to protest outside the Kodak Theatre on Oscar night. "We picketed the year 'Cider House Rules' [another film with a view of abortion] was up, so there you go."
Not all the political controversy was intentional, or even predictable. When he made "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood was focused on statements about love, friendship and devotion. Some critics, however, say he is irresponsible in his depiction of the disabled. Eastwood said that his movie is not trying to deliver a message, it is simply "telling a story."
The Spanish film "The Sea Inside," about a disabled man's efforts to take his own life, has led to spirited debate. It earned a nod for best foreign language film.
Early fears of postmortem charges of pedophilia against "Finding Neverland" subject J.M. Barrie were never realized. But "Sideways," essentially a buddy road movie, got more than a few lectures in letters and editorials from people who fear that the film idealizes alcoholism, womanizing and depression (not to mention the mixing of wine and antidepressants).
This is, of course, one of the main roles of film -- to spark national conversations, which, as we know, are often loud, messy and complicated.
Movies from "Philadelphia" to "Braveheart" to "Born on the Fourth of July" have been protested over the years. Celebs have also used Oscar to make a point -- from Jane Fonda's 1969 Black Panther salute to Michael Moore's 2002 acceptance speech for best documentary, cut short in the middle of an antiwar diatribe.
The academy has long had a reputation of shying away from controversy, especially during voting time. This year's surprising omission of "Kinsey" from all but the best supporting actress category (Laura Linney) might support that; director Bill Condon has said often that he feared people's prejudice against Kinsey and his methodology (not to mention his varied sexual life) would keep them from seeing the film.
But it's hard to make the argument stick this year, when a film about a hand-washing, phobia-riddled, breast-obsessed, filmmaker/business tycoon who dated 15-year-olds turned out to be the least controversial film of the lot.