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Box-office gold won't buy Oscar

The academy rarely honors commercial hits as best picture. Does that make it elitist?

February 25, 2007|John Horn and Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

Regina Woods believes Eddie Murphy deserves to win an Oscar. But not for playing crooner James "Thunder" Early in the acclaimed musical "Dreamgirls." Woods says Murphy should collect an Academy Award for playing the morbidly obese Rasputia, among two other lowbrow roles, in the critically hammered "Norbit."

"He's a comedian," Woods, 28, said as she headed into a recent screening of "Daddy's Little Girls."

If Woods is any indication, the movie patrons at the Edwards Long Beach 26 and the tuxedo-clad Hollywood players who will congregate tonight at the Kodak Theatre have different ideas of what makes a great movie.

The suburban multiplex has booked no fewer than 18 daily showings of "Ghost Rider," a film with such lowly critical prospects it was released without being shown to film reviewers. Inside the Kodak at tonight's 79th annual Academy Awards, Ryan Gosling will be up for best actor for "Half Nelson," a movie whose total theatrical gross over four months, $2.7 million, is less than "Ghost Rider" collected in its first hours of release.

The disparity between movies the public embraces and those Oscar voters revere has grown dramatically, leaving the award ritual open to charges it has become elitist and potentially superfluous.

The chasm between mainstream and Oscar isn't always as wide as the Grand Canyon, but in recent years there has been little overlap between box-office blockbusters and best picture winners.

"The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" took home the top Oscar three years ago, but the accolade for that global hit was far more the exception than the rule.

Of the top 20 hits in the last 30 years, only two films, "Titanic" and "Forrest Gump," took home Oscar's top prize. Many of those chartbusters -- including "Jurassic Park," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Lion King" -- weren't even nominated for best picture.

Some of the most admired and influential films of all time didn't win that honor -- not "Star Wars," not "Citizen Kane," not "Singin' in the Rain" (which wasn't even nominated).

As Woods sees it, the academy should be honoring "just the basic movies that you'll sit home and watch with your kids. The simple movies. The simple movies deserve a chance too."

She also sees an opportunity for some kind of "American Idol"-style audience participation. "The executives are voting. The Oscars are for show. It's fun to watch, but I would be more into it if I were able to participate in it."

In tonight's best picture clash, only one movie -- the mob drama "The Departed" -- has grossed more than $60 million at domestic theaters.

When Oscar nominations were announced last year, none of the movies in the best picture contest ("Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Crash," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Munich") had even grossed $55 million.

Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which has four nominations, including best picture and director, has sold less than $12 million in tickets to date. That translates into roughly 1.8 million moviegoers -- or about a fourth of the audience for last year's "Emily's Reasons Why Not," an ABC comedy so disastrously unpopular it was canceled after just one episode.

"I don't think the Oscars reflect the taste of the general public," said Alex Bahu, a real estate agent from Lakewood who was headed into the spy thriller "Breach."

Telecast needs viewers too

Few of those interviewed outside the multiplex on a recent weeknight could name the five best picture nominees -- for the record, they are "Babel," "The Departed," "Letters From Iwo Jima," "Little Miss Sunshine" and "The Queen" -- a potential problem for the Oscar telecast, which has tended to draw its biggest audiences in years when a huge box office hit like "Titanic" can deliver a built-in cheering section.

When the 5,830 Oscar voters pay tribute to smaller, artier movies, television viewers tend to stay away.

Ratings for the last two Oscar broadcasts -- in which the best picture winners were "Million Dollar Baby" and "Crash" -- have declined from the previous year.

In 2004, the ceremony attracted an average audience of 43.5 million, but that number slipped to 42.1 million in 2005 and fell to 38.9 million last year. (The show is still a ratings juggernaut, easily exceeding the audience for such popular prime-time series as "American Idol," "Grey's Anatomy" and "CSI.")

"The problem with all of these award shows is that you have to be rooting for someone you like," says Dean Devlin, producer of the box-office hits "Independence Day" and "The Patriot," who wants the Oscars to add a category recognizing more mainstream movies.

"But when the movies become narrower and narrower, you don't have that rooting interest," he says. "The award shows become more of an intellectual exercise."

Any number of filmmakers and producers say that's just fine. The Oscars, these people say, are not supposed to be a popularity contest and shouldn't become one.

High-minded storytelling

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