The Oscars began life as a marketing campaign on the part of the major Hollywood studios. Awards were negotiated behind closed doors with an eye toward advancing the film business and keeping everyone happy. Over the years, they have risen and fallen in significance based on many factors, and they do provide an important cultural touchstone right up to this day. But it would be wrong to assume that the cultural touchstone they provide has much, if anything, to do with what the highest cinematic achievement is in a given year. The Best Picture rarely tells us what the best picture is. But it very often gives us a valuable glimpse into what our society is going through at the time of the award. In other words, it is the best picture that captures something we really are prepared to hear at the moment.
Consider last year's winner, Argo. It was a fun, entertaining story confirming that good old American guts and ingenuity, combined with a key assist from the dream factory itself, could defeat threats posed by nameless beards in turbans. I'd suggest that was something a great many of us were all too eager to hear far more than the much less optimistic and questioning story of Zero Dark Thirty.
There are many examples of this. Seventy years ago, during the depths of WWII, Leo McCarey's pleasantly innocuous Going My Way buoyed the spirits of a war-torn nation far more than superior, morally ambiguous films like Double Indemnity or Laura. In 1967, we appeared ready to reject feel-good tripe and deal with serious adult issues. Hence, In the Heat of the Night bested old-school bathos like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle. But we weren't prepared to embrace the anti-hero in Bonnie and Clyde or the terror of an uncertain future in The Graduate. In 1967, there was a limit to how far we were willing to go.
Since every blogger on the web has already predicted this year's winners and losers, I thought I'd take a stab at describing what a win for each contender would say about our current society.
(Please note that since my two best pictures of the year, Prisoners and Inside Llewyn Davis did not get nominations, clearly we are not ready to accept doubt or failure as important cultural themes at the present.)
In reverse order of likelihood:
Philomena: It would mean that we like the British. We only reserve that for actors. When it comes to stories, we've got plenty of miscarriages of justice right here on American soil, thank you very much.
Dallas Buyers Club: It would mean that as a society, we were eager to accept the fact that prejudice and bureaucracy prevented us from quickly addressing the biggest health epidemic of the '80s and '90s. Perhaps when we are eager to confront the health care crisis of 2014, we'll be in a better position to recognize DBC.
Her: It would mean that we were prepared to accept the fact that the microchip is one of the five most important inventions of all time. Wait, I think we have accepted that. OK, it would mean that we would accept the fact that we should ALL, myself included, shut off the damn smart phone every once in a while. I loved Her, but I'm not ready to do that.
Captain Phillips: This has some of the Argo spirit, but without Alan Arkin and John Goodman roaming around to make it funny. So it might mean that we are eager to accept American guts and ingenuity can still triumph, but what we are triumphing over has an actual name and face and set of problems that are not easy to overlook. And, as much as I hate to admit it, I think sometimes we do like to overlook other people's problems.
The Wolf of Wall Street: This would mean that there are still a lot of us who believe the problems of the very rich matter a lot more to the general public than they probably should. But that has been going on since the days of Oedipus (though I don't think that when he was killing Dad and bedding Mom, Oedipus was anywhere near as scuzzy as Jordan Belfort.)
Nebraska: Since this was my highest ranked movie that actually got nominated, I'm sorely tempted to say that a win for Nebraska would say that we are really smart. But what it might suggest is that the romanticized notion of small-town America is perhaps giving way to a more balanced, nuanced vision of who we are.
Gravity: This would essentially say that we favor style and packaging over substance. Or that our guts and ingenuity will triumph over any scientific principle. Climate change deniers will rejoice.
12 Years a Slave: This would really and truly say something. After all, what was the last Best Picture to deal in a significant way with racial prejudice? Unless you count Driving Miss Daisy, you'd have to go back to the aforementioned In the Heat of the Night. Best pictures have dealt with various forms of prejudice (Gentleman's Agreement, West Side Story), but we still, in 2014, are hesitant about directly confronting prejudice aimed at African Americans.
American Hustle: I liked this movie a lot. It was 4th on my list. I think it will win, but not because of its cinematic quality. What it will say is that we seriously distrust the ability of politicians and government entities to get things right, and that at its core, America is still reliant on and confident in the guts and ingenuity of the little guy to triumph in the end. It strikes me as an enormous fantasy, but, after all, isn't that why we go to movies?