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The Oscars: Just Another Tawdry Trade Show?

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As a theologian and an Episcopal priest, I look at the Oscars from a particular point of view. I want really deep human meaning as well as entertainment. Cinema is not only a money machine; it's an art form. Oscar has a huge problem right now but doesn't seem aware of it. Its major task is not finding the ideal host for its famous telecast. Instead, it's whether it can find its soul again.

In my youth I worked in the motion picture industry in Hollywood and was, in fact, a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The last year I voted, in 1951, the choice for Best Picture was "All About Eve." I voted for it although it had tough competition from that other classic "Sunset Boulevard." I also voted for Judy Holliday as Best Actress over Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson.

How would I have voted this year if I were still working in the industry? "The Artist" was awarded Best Picture. My choice was "The Descendants," which eschewed easy sentimentality for sharp, biting contemporary relevance. "The Help" was a controversial piece of business. Based on the spectacularly popular novel, it tells the story of black maids and a white helper in the Deep South during civil rights years of waking up to change prejudice and discrimination. Actress Octavia Spencer, whose performance as Minny Jackson was hailed by the New York Times as "deliciously subversive," entered the pantheon of actors of color in major Hollywood films.

In my opinion, she should have been joined as an Oscar winner with actress Viola Davis in "The Help." Instead the Oscar for Best Actress went to Meryl Streep for "The Iron Lady," a cinematic biography of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Alas, while Streep's performance in the film is fine, though oddly a bit of a caricature (assisted by makeup), the film itself is not. It is akin to an embarrassment. However, it opens the door for a really great film about the vagaries of aging that hopefully will engage one of the best directors in the business before long.

If asked what do I look for in a good or solid film, I am inclined to say a story, real people, a high professional level, an authentic point of view, and yes, something original that touches the heart and opens the mind and carries meaning into the scope of things. Where have I found these in movies? Let me count a few from some Oscar winners of the past that, in my view, succeeded tellingly.

Gregory Peck starred in a magnificent film "To Kill a Mockingbird" that won him a Best Actor prize in 1963. It remains probably the best cinematic treatment of racism. In 1967 Fred Zinnemann's "A Man for All Seasons" became an all-time classic. It included Paul Scofield's acting performance. There was an abundance of excellence that year including Elizabeth Taylor's historic role in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Nineteen-seventy brought "Midnight Cowboy," 1973 "The Godfather," 1976 "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." One of my preferred movies of all time arrived in 1978's "Annie Hall," a gift from Woody Allen. In 2000 came another masterpiece, "American Beauty," directed by Sam Mendes.

Oddly enough, Hollywood's "religious" films have often failed to convey meaning as much as spectacle. A number of movies have portrayed clergy. One of the most successful was "Going My Way," starring Bing Crosby. One critic remarked: "No stuffed-shirts or pietists are these padres; they are thoroughly honest and real. Their natures are as normal as a nipper's and their wits are as spry as a wag's." Karl Malden starred as what was described as "a fighting priest" in 1954's classic "On the Waterfront." However, another critic said that actor Montgomery Clift was ill-cast as a Roman Catholic priest in "I Confess." He wrote that Clift "was ill-advised to portray the priest as a sort of bemused juvenile, plainly too abstracted to lead one lamb, let alone a flock."

Ingrid Bergman played a Roman Catholic nun in "The Bells of St. Mary's" She swung a baseball bat in the movie. Deborah Kerr was an Anglican nun in "Black Narcissus" but instead of swinging a baseball bat, she just went batty. The cardinal sin in any "religious" movie has always been any tendency to be "preachy." Leo McCarthy, the director of "Going My Way," was commended by one critic for doing his work "reverently without making it mushy with sentimentality. In it he preaches no sermons, propounds no theological dogma." Or, as the trade paper Variety said in a review of 1950's "Stars in My Crown": "There's no Holy Joe-ing in the story."

In 1947 "The Bishop's Wife" appeared on the screen. The story deals with an Episcopal bishop whose impelling desire is to build a cathedral. To further his aim, he neglects his wife and children. An angel is sent to restore the bishop's vocational balance and the family's serenity. But the angel falls in love with the bishop's wife. David Niven portrayed the bishop, Loretta Young his wife, and Cary Grant the angel. A critic noted: "This is a development that may well have embarrassed God; it embarrassed me; but it did not embarrass the makers of this movie." The critic pointed out that the angel falls from grace as well as for Loretta Young.