The Alternative Oscars

Will Smith, right, with his real-life son Jaden Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness."
Columbia Pictures
This column was written by Peter Suderman.

On Sunday night, Hollywood will roll out the red carpet and rev up their limousines for the 79th Annual Academy Awards. The four-hour long nationally televised ceremony gives us what is perhaps Tinseltown's most honest depiction of itself — by which I mean the most glitzy, ditzy, and shamelessly shallow. At their core, the Oscars are a way for the movie industry to publicly congratulate itself for its brilliance and generosity — for really, who needs attention more than movie stars?

Thus, each and every year they lavish themselves with a night of $40,000 gift bags, super-stretch Humvees, and dresses that cost more than your home. They fill a stage with theme-park quality set-pieces and find a host who'll tell corny jokes that flatter the industry's top players into thinking they have a sense of humor about themselves. They trot out starlets barely old enough to have graduated from college wearing enough jewels to pay off the national debt. It's as if someone gave a high-school dance committee a Trump-sized fortune, a network TV deal, and a massively inflated sense of self-importance and said, "Go all out!"

And oh yes. There will be awards given out too — though from all the surrounding hoopla about designer evening wear and who's walking down the carpet with who, you'd be forgiven if you forgot. This is Hollywood's true image of itself: unlimited indulgence and luxury for the privileged stars while the rest of the world serves as fawning spectators. The awesome narcissism and vapidity of the evening seems to suck any possible meaning away — it's a black-tie black hole.

But what about the movies? The Hollywood elite often seem to care for them only as launching pads for personal glories, but there's a nation of moviegoers who don't care for the sequins and tabloid drama. Many of these can look to critics' polls for more careful consideration of the year's movie offerings, but as Rod Dreher has explained, professional movie critics increasingly cater to a novelty-seeking cinematic elite that, for better and for worse, doesn't entirely reflect mainstream taste. Moreover, mainstream critics, on the whole, don't tend to prize conservative values, and with a few exceptions, their taste in movies tends to reflect this.

That's why American Film Renaissance (AFR) intends to provide some balance. The group "was created to spearhead a revival of timeless American values in film and to serve as a forum for voices and ideas often marginalized or denigrated by the contemporary artistic community," and today it releases its own movie poll. Not surprisingly, the results are somewhat different from both the critical mainstream and the awards-season standbys.

"The Pursuit of Happyness," a serious but uplifting drama based on a true story about a down-on-his-luck salesman (Will Smith) who becomes a stock broker, took the top spot in two categories: Best Movie and Best Hero. "Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration," placed first in the Best Documentary category, and the raucous comedy "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhastan" was voted Best Time at the Movies.

AFR's website states that its founders "love the movies, but [are] not so fond of films that wallow in victimhood and self-pity or that portray America, business and religion as the roots of all evil." "Happyness," which received generally favorable reviews but only one Oscar nomination (Best Actor for Smith), is a big-screen rarity: a slickly produced Hollywood film with a major star that places high regard on values like fatherhood, individual achievement, and capitalism. Captivating and finely acted, it eschews the sentimentality of most movies that get labeled "inspirational," instead choosing to remain hopeful while recognizing the harsh realities of life.

By creating two categories for overall film — Best Movie and Best Time at the Movies — AFR's list recognizes the growing division in Hollywood between entertainment and art. Somewhat disappointingly, only one film — "Apocalypto" — appears on both lists. This idea, that there are movies that are good and movies that are fun, but rarely both, is increasingly problematic for Hollywood each year come Oscar time. One of the primary goals of the Academy Awards is, of course, to get publicity — and thus to sell more movie tickets. But when the Oscars are dominated by little-seen independent films with grim messages, ratings tend to sink. Perhaps if Hollywood revived the idea of making movies both audience friendly and award worthy, the problem would be solved.

The most peculiar entry on the list is "This Film is Not Yet Rated," which snuck into the fifth-place spot in the documentary category. The film, which desperately wants to be a racy, hot-topic expose, is essentially a crude, often-vulgar complaint against the ways in which the MPAA's movie-rating system penalizes filmmakers for graphic sexual material. It makes a few fair points about the inconsistencies in the system (some of which the MPAA recently announced it will address), but basically argues that private actions that prohibit the distribution of explicit content somehow constitute an unfair threat to artistic freedom — a weak, childish argument if there ever was one.

Perhaps this is merely a reflection of the poor and politically unbalanced state of contemporary documentary filmmaking. With few exceptions, documentaries tend to be badly distributed, little seen, and, as a result, unprofitable. What little revival the format has seen in recent years has come almost exclusively from films like "An Inconvenient Truth" and the work of Michael Moore that are little more than liberal-activist screeds. Some conservative filmmakers have valiantly attempted to remedy this situation, but most of these efforts have been mediocre at best, and none have yet to find a major audience.

Indeed, although there are a few bright spots, conservatives have made few inroads in the entertainment industry. Groups like AFR should be commended for their efforts, but perhaps the trick lies not in creating "conservative films," but rather in finding and supporting filmmakers who are both sympathetic to conservative ideas and talented enough to work within the Hollywood mainstream. After all, Hollywood rarely markets its movies as explicitly "liberal films," and, as the pageantry of the Oscars shows, the films themselves can be almost an afterthought. No, the movie industry may consistently pull the lever for the bluest of the blue state candidates, but the color it cares for most is green. When conservatives stop scolding Tinseltown for its ideological flaws and start leading it down the path to longer limos, more expensive evening wear, and bigger jewels, the dream factory will come calling.
By Peter Suderman
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online