05/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movies Are America


John Wayne would never have accepted Brokeback Mountain. Gay cowboys? Wayne had a cow when Kirk Douglas did Spartacus. So he would have missed the message, the love, not to mention the heartbreak. He wouldn't have cared. It's doubtful if the Duke would have gotten Avatar, a movie so monumentally phenomenal it doesn't need a best picture Oscar to prove its greatness, because even with all the nominations for "best picture," there is not one other entry that comes close to matching it. James "king of the world" Cameron has now lived up to his self-anointed proclamation, the filmmaker now in a class beyond awards.

I was born in red state Missouri and raised on a family that loved John Wayne. I've lived the rest of my life much happier in blue states, New York and California, landing now just outside Washington, DC, a member of the Beltway crowd. But the movies of John Wayne were a huge part of my movie going experience as a kid. Old Hollywood, that's what I remember come Oscar time, as we celebrate the brilliance, the magnificence and the creation and splendor of what movies have evolved to today.

As for all the trumped up controversy over Avatar, a sort of revisiting of O'Reilly's war against Christmas mania, substituting movies instead, well, it's obvious that conservatives don't have much respect for the American people or the resiliency of the human spirit. There's not a person of independent movie-going age that can't distinguish crap from cinema brilliance without the right-wing distinguishing the difference for them. Why Republicans hate, no let me rephrase that... Why conservatives are afraid of movies I'll never understand. It's got to be their basic disrespect and doubt, their distrust of the American spirit itself.

Movies used to give us our history. Today it's Tom Hanks on HBO, with his new series Pacific something I can't wait to see.

The classic movies taught us about war. One of my all-time favorite movies is In Harm's Way, with Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Henry Fonda, Patricia Neil, Burgess Meredith, the cast list is endless. Directed by Otto Preminger, it is an amazing look into war, soldiers, humanity and tragedy. But could it have gotten made today? "Rock" is safe enough, John Wayne playing the solid star, taking his lumps after Pearl Harbor, ending up back in the center of the war. Neil, the ballsy nurse who makes the first move on "the Rock," because he's just too busy to think about broads, especially since the first one he loved got away. A wayward son, now running PT boats enters, but on the political side of the Navy, with things eventually turning into a big time military soap opera.

Of course, Preminger's exit music and visuals are just as important as the ending of the movie, but he was the best of the best, so you'd expect that in 1965. The rub comes when Kirk Douglas' character rapes the fiance of Rock's son, she ends up getting pregnant, then kills herself.

Can you just imagine a studio releasing that today, with the sensitivities of everyone -- Rush, Sean and right-wing radio, not to mention the ultra-political military propaganda wing of the Republican Party -- having a conniption about the image of the U.S. soldiers?

Back in 1965 we trusted people to be able to separate the story lines, with Rock the good guy, Kirk the bad boy, without having it brush the entire military as villains ready to rape an unsuspecting Navy nurse. Today, conservatives don't trust the American public to know, let alone distinguish the difference.

Conservatives are basically afraid of anything that challenges their world view, while liberals aren't afraid of anything, except maybe fear itself or the installation of that fear by powers who have decided Big Brother knows best.

It's interesting how raping a woman, who becomes pregnant and commits suicide, infuriates the Duke's character, Rock, but gay cowboys would have freaked the film star out to the point he likely wouldn't have been attached to the movie at all. Of course, I'm guessing here, but it's a very educated guess. Manly violence towards a woman is damnable, but acceptable, while love between two men beyond the pale. If the Duke would have been aware of all the gay men right under his nose he would have lost his mind. Burt Lancaster a bisexual? Never.

The opening and contracting of the culture war goes on, with the through line being that movies touch a thread in our soul that is meant to connect to our prejudices and fears, touch that place we each have inside us that sometimes not even our loved ones can tap. The best of movies release the pressure, if only slightly, making us open, if only for a darkened two hours inside a movie house, to possibilities our little brains can't accept in the light of day.

Movies can absolutely work miracles.

Movies mean everything, they are America.

Movies make dreams come true. Just ask Jeff Bridges, whose labor of love, Crazy Heart, is winning hearts everywhere.

Maybe it's because I started out in the performing arts and Broadway, but I believe movies give people a way to believe you can get out of where you're stuck. They take you into worlds you'll never see or think you won't, give you insight into people you'll never meet or think you can't. But around Oscar time, we're usually treated to a step back in time so we can remember where movies started, the history, the glamour, the glory.

It starts every year and when it does I can't wait. The month-long Oscar fest at Turner Classic Movies, as the station rolls out every top rated film in the vault. Robert Osborne should get an honorary Oscar. His interview with Lauren Bacall, which aired last week, is one for the books.

You've got to wonder if many of them would have gotten made today. Gone with the Wind wouldn't have a chance. There's The Bad and the Beautiful, a favorite of mine... but aren't they all? The Joker is Wild, Lawrence of Arabia; there are so many in their vault. Then there is The Godfather, available elsewhere, and all the sequels, Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, with Network having particular meaning this year. There's "Out of Africa" which you knew in a moment would win. Vintage Woody Allen is rolled out as well. The list goes on... there's Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and all those glorious musicals, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Ginger, Debbie... okay, I'll stop now.

In the end it all gets down to your personal favorites, most of which hit you somewhere in your soul, or your imagination, or even where you live, a private part of yourself that no one knows, places where you dream that you can't share and no one else has the key.

Living in St. Louis, Missouri, dreaming of a better life, a way to fulfill my artistry, the greatest adventure of my life, Rocky hit me one fine Saturday afternoon in the same way. It struck something in my soul that said, you too can get out and find a spot that is yours. In the end, it became as much about how Sylvester Stallone got his hit made as anything the movie showed me on screen.

The American dreamer giving everything time and time again to achieve that which makes her heart beat, her mind thrill and her soul soar. That's what movies are all about at their best. Reaching inside the viewer's soul and stirring the individual to action in her or his own life. That's where movies work their real magic, a change so profound as to alter someone's life. Anything is possible in the movies. The characters can overcome anything to win against great odds. Movies aren't simply the story of America and Americans. Movies are America itself. Dream big, live the dream, make it happen.

When watching a movie you believe you can do anything and sometimes it even
turns out you can.

Taylor Marsh is a political analyst out of Washington, D.C.

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