Oscar Gets Serious

This is the one day of the year, amidst the glitz and glamour and all the hopes for a golden statuette that Hollywood takes itself most seriously -- very seriously if the nominated films from 2005 are any indication, reports CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Jerry Bowen.

"I think anytime you have five Best Pictures nominees and they're all on substantial subjects and there are two more, "Syriana" and "The Constant Gardener" that did not get nominated. They're also substantial and politically charged," says New York Times film critic Caryn James.

She adds, "We are after all a country at war. And I think what you're seeing after several years of this is movies responding to a kind of concern in the country: a willingness to look at more substantial issues."

The Best Picture nominees include two films with gay-central characters. There's "Brokeback Mountain," director Ang Lee's movie about two cowboys in love.

And "Capote," about Truman Capote at the time he wrote "In Cold Blood."

"Good Night and Good Luck" is the politically charged story of CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow's exposé of communist hunter senator Joseph mccarthy.

Steven Spielberg tackles Middle East politics in "Munich," a tale of revenge for the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes.

And "Crash" is a raw look at racial conflict in Los Angeles.

"Syriana" and "The Constant Gardener," both nominated in other categories, focus on international espionage and corporate exploitation.

"I don't think it's a coincidence. I actually think that audiences are into these serious issues now," says Michael Barker, who runs Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed "Capote." He says all the awards attention is vital for these small, serious films.

"It's very important for a film like 'Capote.' It gives real posterity to a film. It gives the film a profile that makes a mainstream audience more attracted to the film," Barker says.

George Clooney thinks so, too. No one's been more visible on the awards circuit -- with three Oscar nominations for Supporting Actor in "Syriana," and for directing and writing "Good Night and Good Luck."

"What it means to us is that we get to keep making films like these, and they're hard to make, hard to get made. It buys you one more film that you can do where people, you can say 'Listen, last time it worked out OK, we were right about the last one,'" Clooney says.

Sharing the screenplay nomination with Clooney is "Good Night and Good Luck's" producer, Grant Heslov.

"All the films that have been nominated this year for the most part are, have something to say either politically or socially in a fairly big way," Heslov says.

But Heslov and Clooney don't think Hollywood is a force for social change as much as a reflection of our national mood.

"I don't think that we are the first responders. I think that we, you know, that we're more a mirror than we are a, you know, leading the way," Heslov says.

Caryn James, the film critic, agrees.

"I think films always respond to something that's out there in the country. There's no little back room where George Clooney and Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg get together and say, 'Let's make social change.' They're trying to reach an audience and they're addressing issues that are out there," James says.

Hollywood has made politically-charged films since D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" in 1915. The current crop reminds some observers of the late 60s and 70s and films like "Easy Rider" and "Coming Home."

"You saw a lot of films that were more serious and more politically engaged coming out of the Vietnam era," James says. "So I think basically you have a similar kind of situation where it's the country really asking a lot of questions about where we are politically, about the government.

"And the films may not be addressing those directly, but they're tapping into that concern that people have about the direction of the country," she says.

Not surprisingly, the voice of red state America, conservative talk radio, has some concerns of its own.

"If the question is, 'Are these movies typical of how mainstream Americans feel?' No," says radio host Larry Elder.

What they are typical of, says Elder, whose show is nationally syndicated, is a Hollywood bias.

"I do consider them to be message films, and the messages are, by and large, liberal messages. But that ought not surprise anybody. Hollywood is overwhelmingly liberal," Elder says.

Not so, say the Oscar folks. Sid Ganis is president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"We wanna make movies that are entertaining. We wanna make movies that are informative. We wanna make movies that make money," Ganis states bluntly. "That's the motivation -- entertaining, informative and of course, you know, a return on the investment. So, is Hollywood pushing a gay, liberal front? I, I, I would doubt it very much."

Most of this year's nominees have turned a profit already, but there's not an 800-pound gorilla in the bunch. No huge draw like "Titanic" or "Lord of the rings." And that has some in this town thinking Sunday's Oscars might not be a huge draw either -- that America won't care about a show that honors movies they haven't seen.

"Brokeback Mountain" is the most successful of the nominated films, taking in $75 million at the box office. But that ranks just 29th among all the films released last year. And "Capote," which has earned the least, ranks 104.

Sony Pictures Classics' Barker says you shouldn't hold these smaller films to the same standard as the big budget films like "Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith," the year's number one movie.

"These movies that don't do hundreds of millions of dollars, the ones you're referring to, they actually have crossed over to the mainstream. They're not, they're just not doing blockbuster movie business. And when you look at their budgets and you look at the release of these films and the grosses that occur in these films around the world, they're actually very successful," Barker says.

Larry Elder doesn't see it that way.

"I think the lack of box office success of all of these films says something about what mainstream America wants. And what they, what they don't want, is to have a message pounded into their face all the time: you're a racist. You're a bigot. You're a homophobe," Elder says.

From the beginning, profitable entertainment has been Hollywood's top priority, not message movies. "If you want to send a message," the legendary Sam Goldwyn supposedly said, "call Western Union."

"I think people are gonna be, as they always have, looking for how they can make the most money for the budget they have. And in the end, it's really about making money. Not about getting awards," Barker believes.

In Hollywood's year of the serious films, it's still about the bottom line. Taking home Oscar is wonderful. It's what you take to the bank that counts.

For More Information:
"What Caroline Knew" by Caryn James is published by St. Martin's Press, stmartins.com