Pity the film scholar who tries to discern something about our times from surveying this list of best picture nominees 10, or 30, or 50 years from now. The substance of popular movies is almost never coincident with the events on the front page, and it would be a huge mistake to try to sew these films together into an argument that they somehow represent an Obama-era paradigm shift. For one thing, the presence of the fifth (and most surprising) best picture nominee, The Reader, proves only that the appeal of Holocaust-themed dramas to a large bloc of Academy voters transcends time, space, politics and fashion. For another, it’s not in the nature of movies to reflect the times so quickly: it took 15 years of development and rewriting as well as the invention of new technologies to make Benjamin Button possible, and although Milk came together with remarkable speed and focus under its producers Bruce Cohen and Dan Jinks, the idea of making a biopic about Harvey Milk, who was killed in 1978, has been around for so long that at one point, Dustin Hoffman, now 71, was touted to play the role that eventually went to Sean Penn (who is 48).
I disagree with him about one thing, though. While I agree that you can’t see these films as necessarily reflecting the Obama shift, you certainly can put the love of Slumdog squarely on the now. And the reason is that I have never seen this kind of enthusiasm for a politician and for potential change. I have never seen mass dancing in the streets when someone was elected. I have never seen so many smiles. While it is true that “they” didn’t seem to consider the economy at all when they made their choices (how many of them were really hit THAT hard?), it is clear that these things do not exist in a vaccuum. The only way, in fact, to explain the Oscars is to look at them as time capsules. You have to, otherwise you are faced with the grim reality that they mostly have bad taste but for a few eruptions here or there when they really aligned with greatness.
I see the choice of Slumdog in keeping with the post-Obama euphoria and I don’t know how you watch Milk and not think of Prop 8. I agree with him that a movie like, for instance, Million Dollar Baby could come out any year and be as popular. I think Slumdog could come out any year and be popular, just not THIS popular. This is what I think today. I might change my mind.
And as for painting “The Academy” with one brush, I also agree with that and I think it’s a trap we all fall into. And the only thing that stops me from utterly abandoning that illogical line of reasoning is when Dave Karger turns around and makes a great prediction based on the “they” hypothesis. When he said last year, “they’ll want to give Michael Clayton something so Tilda Swinton will get the Supporting Actress Oscar.” I thought, at the time, no way anyone can say “they” will do this or “they” will do that. But he was right.