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The Oscars: Best picture is best bellwether

Whichever of the five nominated films walks away with the academy's top prize tonight helps Hollywood gauge which way the biz blows.

February 22, 2009|Kenneth Turan | Film Critic

Tonight's Oscar ceremony will be the 81st in the award's venerable history, and like people who've reached an advanced age, the institution has had a hard time getting respect in a contemporary culture that cares mightily about being up to the minute and ahead of the curve.

It's difficult to read anything about the Oscars these days without coming across attitudes that are either blase or outright dismissive. The awards are derided as meaningless and out of touch, too cut off from the films that real moviegoers (code for those 25 and under) are determined to see. Who could possibly care enough, cynics carp, to so much as turn on the TV and watch this antediluvian event strut its hours upon the stage.

Aside from my house, where the Oscars remain must-see programming, the one place where the Academy Awards continue to mean a great deal is within the movie business. In fact, the prizes, especially the one for best picture, seem to mean more this year than ever.

I say that because it's been another bitter awards, with partisans of the five contenders eager to bad-mouth whomever they saw as competition. When Entertainment Weekly wrote about the race in the Feb. 13 issue, the cover line got right to the point: "Battle For Oscar: Now It's Getting Ugly."

Movie people care about the Oscars in part because they understand that when you vote for a best picture candidate, you are voting for more than an individual film. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you are voting for the philosophy of filmmaking, the attitude toward cinema, your particular choice represents. In this day of the disappearing dollar, attitudes that don't earn the respect of Hollywood might be facing the dustbin of history. Though one of the oldest cliches of moviemaking is, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union," sending a message is exactly what voters end up doing.

I wanted to examine the five best picture candidates from that point of view. Rather than focusing exclusively on personal favorites or trying to predict which nominee might win, I wanted to analyze what it would say about Hollywood values if a particular film came out on top. Here's what I came up with:

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'The Reader'

Despite its considerable pedigree, including producing credits for departed filmmakers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, this "We're not a Holocaust drama" drama is widely perceived as being the fifth film on the list.

Unlikely though it is, a victory for "The Reader" would be a sign of respect for Pollack and Minghella (both gentlemen passed away in 2008). It would also be a tribute to the persuasive power of Harvey Weinstein, who knows, as few people do, where the buttons are in the academy and how to push them. And finally, it would be a sign that touching on the Holocaust, however tangentially, is still a way into the hearts and minds of academy voters. The old ways die hard, especially in Hollywood.

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'Milk'

I was surprised and not surprised when this film made the final five. Sean Penn's remarkable performance aside, "Milk" couldn't be more earnest and conventional. This is not necessarily a bad thing with the academy, but with other, equally conventional films such as "Defiance" falling by the wayside, "Milk" must be benefiting from the power of other factors. And it is.

For one thing, people who were passionately opposed to Proposition 8 and who allow political concerns to influence their votes will feel they are sending a message with this choice. The other factor in "Milk's" favor, frankly, is guilt and the desire to make amends. Actors often get their Oscars years after the film they should have won for, and regret at unjustly bypassing "Brokeback Mountain" three years ago may lead to "buyers' remorse" votes for this film.

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'Frost/Nixon'

If there are two things the business appreciates it's impeccable professionalism and longevity, and this film by Ron Howard -- who's remained well liked during his half century on center stage -- epitomizes both qualities.

Working with longtime producing partner Brian Grazer, Howard not only expertly coordinated the work of actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, screenwriter Peter Morgan and cinematographer Salvatore Totino, he produced the best classic Hollywood effort to make it into the final five. If he didn't already have a best picture winner in "A Beautiful Mind," this film would have a stronger shot at victory.

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'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'

My reader mail on this film has been divided right down the middle, with viewers either transported to higher realms or bored to tears. But like it or loathe it, "Button" presents that rare situation where what it stands for is more valuable than what it is.

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