Oscars Tilt to the Mainstream

Brent Bozell

2/5/2010 12:01:00 AM - Brent Bozell

Two years ago, Time critic Richard Corliss wrote an article that clearly must have resonated at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Oscar telecast was sinking in the ratings, he wrote, because the nominees were largely unwatched by the masses. It used to be that the Best Picture prize went to mainstream box-office hits. "Now when the nominations come out, people try to catch up with the finalists, but it's almost like homework."

The 2010 Oscar nominations clearly signal that Hollywood is trying to return to a broader vision of the Oscars, as something more than an insular critics' circle that likes only the self-consciously arty and obscure. That signal came most obviously with the announcement that there would be 10 nominees for Best Picture. That list hadn't seen 10 nominations since 1943, when the winner was "Casablanca."

Arty films that almost nobody has seen are still there -- like "An Education." But arty blockbusters are there as well, like "Avatar" -- current box office gross: $601 million -- and the animated film "Up," with $293 million. (By contrast, two years ago, the Best Picture box office leader was "Juno" -- at $85 million when the nominations came out.)

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The biggest surprise for many Oscar watchers this year was "The Blind Side," which has grossed $238 million. When it came out, the snooty critics hated it. It was "utterly conventional," and even worse for critics, it was a "feel-good" movie. When the finalists were announced and "The Blind Side" was on the list, the attacks started all over again.

Hours later, National Public Radio critic Bob Mondello couldn't resist sneering at Sandra Bullock, who was also nominated for Best Actress for the film. "I would not have guessed that you could get an Oscar nomination for being annoying for two hours."

NPR's Linda Holmes followed that insult minutes later by relating the outrage of what she called the "defenders of cultural quality. ... It takes Best Picture, they worry, from a showcase for serious movies about self-discovery to a swamp of mass-produced, populist dreck." But "The Blind Side" is about self-discovery. It's about a large black teenager who discovers he can be a football star. What in the world is wrong with that?

It's because this too-quiet black character was loved and housed by white Christian people -- and critics hated that. Take Melissa Anderson of the Village Voice, who scowled that this movie "peddles the most insidious kind of racism, one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them."

On NPR's talk show "Tell Me More," host Michel Martin suggested, "This is yet another black child who needs white people to save him or her." Boston Globe critic Wesley Morris complained, "Yeah, I mean, it's 'Diff'rent Strokes,' it's 'Webster.'" But when Martin noted the racial roles were reversed in the 2008 movie "The Secret Life of Bees" -- black beekeeper sisters save an abused white girl -- Morris thought that was a work of underappreciated genius.

The elitists never gave "The Blind Side" a break. What fascinates here is that this is not a work of fiction. It's a true story about Michael Oher, now an offensive tackle for the Baltimore Ravens. NPR's Mondello dismissed the film when it came out in November, and his review of this so-called "populist dreck" wasn't even put on the radio. He called it a "feel-good fantasy for white liberals" that trafficked in racial stereotypes. A "fantasy"? Here's his spin: Its story is "contrived, storybook sweet, credulity-straining and -- um, true."

One reason the elitists are so upset is that they thought the makers of "The Blind Side" were only aiming for a "crowd-pleaser," not an Oscar contender. But obviously, many moviegoers are tired of the overt Oscar-mongering of holiday-season movies, which has become "utterly conventional" as well.

Why would anyone suggest, by default or design, that crowd-pleasing is the opposite of artistic? Why would the critics suggest that a movie that's inspirational is clearly inferior to a movie that "dares" to be demoralizing and grotesque? Why would Hollywood only want to be known as a nightmare factory?

Those Oscar folks who suggest that the word "Best" should never be associated with a "feel-good" movie -- and that a movie loved by the masses can't possibly be an artistic triumph as well -- need to visit Planet Reality. "The Blind Side" shows there is some common sense, however. Even if this were simply a ploy for ratings, Hollywood is sending a message that it doesn't hate and dismiss its audience as the ignorant masses.