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Barbara Hannah Grufferman

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Oscars Best Picture Nominees: Less Violent, More Intelligent?

Posted: 02/26/2012 2:12 pm

Call me a wimp, but after seeing "The King's Speech" (which deservedly won "Best Picture" in 2011), my husband and I were thrilled there was a movie we could actually watch without squirming, putting fingers over eyes and ears simultaneously, or turning it off and/or leaving the room/theater since the third installment of "The Lord of the Rings." Sure, the soon-to-be crowned King blurted out a few curse words, but we were able to watch this movie without risk of trauma, shock or boredom.

That's not to say "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was perfect (I think all three were superb, but my husband would completely disagree), or lacking in violence (lots of Orcs chasing our heroes and an excess of battle scenes) and that the movies which were nominated for "Best Picture" at the Academy Awards during the last few years were anything less than fantastic (but then again, I can't comment since I haven't seen most of them). The issue I have with so many movies today is that there is an incredible amount of gratuitous violence, gore, horrendous behavior, and just plain old nasty stuff.

I've never seen "Gladiator" (the title alone says it all), "The Departed," "Slumdog Millionaire" (I was forewarned about THAT scene), "No Country for Old Men" (not in a million years), or "The Hurt Locker" (as much as I wanted to support this wonderful director, I just couldn't do it). Their reputations preceded them. People have chided, scolded and mocked me (mostly mocked), but I stick to my guns: if a movie has an R rating and it's not because of sex or language, it's off my list (although, I've been fooled more than once by a PG-13 rating).

Call me an old fogey (I really hope you won't), but I truly long for the kind of movie that won "Best Picture" when I was growing up, the kind that would make me forget about my (and the world's) troubles for awhile -- even make me feel good. While it shocked me when I read recently that "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989) was the last movie to win "Best Picture" with a PG (or lower) rating, in truth, I wasn't surprised. We've been moving toward increasingly graphic displays of violence for a very long time. It's no wonder that my two daughters -- ages 14 and 17 -- can comfortably watch a typical episode of "NCIS," even when David McCallum (oh how I loved him in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.") dissects a body to uncover that one piece of forensic evidence that will neatly tie the bad guy to the scene of the crime. We're raising a whole generation of kids who completely understand that the blood and brains they see on the screen are "not real" and that over-the-top violence is a necessary ingredient to hold onto the audience. I'm not there.

Take a look at the movies that were nominated for "Best Picture" in 1956, the year I was born. The winner was "Around the World in 80 Days," one of my all-time favorites, and the other nominees included some of the best movies ever made (well, my opinion): "Friendly Persuasion" (who didn't love Gary Cooper?), "Giant" (Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor AND James Dean? A perfect storm), "The King and I" (Yul Brynner was born to play this role) and "The Ten Commandments" (it was the first time I realized that God spoke English -- a big relief).

In the ensuing years, some of America's best-loved movies were made, all of which won the "Best Picture" award: "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Gigi," "Ben-Hur," "West Side Story," "Lawrence of Arabia," "My Fair Lady," "The Sound of Music" (which beat out one of my favorite movies of all times, "Doctor Zhivago"). My daughters were raised on these movies (and many more like them, especially the musicals such as "Oklahoma," "Showboat," "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Doctor Doolittle"), and while they all seem a bit dated, none of these wonderful movies have lost their luster or ability to engage viewers of all ages.

In 1966, when I was just eight years old, I experienced my first Aha! moment from a movie. My mother took me to see "A Man for All Seasons," which won "Best Picture" that year. This near-perfect movie beautifully depicts the epic intellectual battle between two fascinating men: Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More. I learned that we must follow our own hearts and be true to what we believe is right, no matter what. It continues to guide, and define me. Other than Henry VIII having some heads chopped off (including an inconvenient wife or two), this movie was devoid of any unnecessary violence. The impact was made with the words, the acting and the story. Here's a snippet to move you, as it moved me:

Lest you think I'm a total wimp, full disclosure -- two movies in my "Top Ten" list have enough blood to last me a lifetime, but, in these cases, the violence is integral to the story lines: "The Godfather" and "The Godfather, Part II." They have become my "gold standard" movies, to which all others are compared (except animated or musicals ... they have their own "gold standards"). I've seen them so many times that I know exactly when to cover my eyes.

Based on what we saw last year, and the nominees for "Best Picture" this year, a trend seems to be emerging. The movies that were nominated in 2011 (such as "True Grit," "The Social Network," and "The Kids Are All Right") all told a good, solid story, minus the violence or gore (well, except for "True Grit"), underscoring my belief that Hollywood can, in fact, still make terrific crowd-pleasing movies without the over-the-top shock value. Just look at two of my favorites from last year: "Toy Story 3," which had the charming distinction of being nominated for "Best Picture" without any of its predecessors being nominated (even though I thought both of those deserved awards too), and "The King's Speech," which had all the necessary attributes of a successful, enjoyable, memorable film -- history, great acting, heart-wrenching story, love, friendship and a happy ending. I'm feeling unusually encouraged because a few of the movies that were nominated for "Best Picture" were genuinely enjoyable. "Black Swan" is a different story.

This year, of all nine "Best Picture" nominees, my husband and I have seen seven of them, and there's no doubt we could have seen the other two ("War Horse" and "The Tree of Life") as well. The sheer fact that "The Artist" is considered the front-runner fills my heart with hope that Hollywood and the American people have grown weary of films with gratuitous violence and gore, and are yearning for a kinder, gentler form of entertainment.

As I tune into the awards tonight, I will have only one question for the Academy (which is the same question I ask most years): Where's Johnny Depp?

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