The Oscar nominations announced Tuesday illustrate Hollywood's profound, almost pathological discomfort with the traditional religiosity embraced by most of its mass audience. At the same time, the odd choices for major awards suggest the enormous distance the entertainment industry has traveled from its own populist past.
By excluding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ from all high-profile nominations, the Academy Awards voters shut out one of the year's biggest box-office hits that also won its share of enthusiastic critical praise -- and even swept to victory as "Favorite Drama" in the public voting for the People's Choice Awards. Industry apologists might explain the failure to acknowledge The Passion in any significant way (it did win well-deserved technical nominations for makeup, cinematography and musical score) as the result of the controversy the film provoked when some Jewish leaders denounced its allegedly anti-Semitic elements.
But far greater religious controversy didn't scare away the Academy 16 years ago, when its members honored Martin Scorsese with a surprise best-director nomination for The Last Temptation of Christ, despite impassioned condemnation of the film by many of the same mainstream Catholic and Protestant groups that enthusiastically supported The Passion. Moreover, The Last Temptation made no impact on the moviegoing public to compel Oscar attention -- earning a paltry $8 million domestic gross compared with the staggering $370 million for The Passion.
The popular success of Gibson's movie actually echoed an older tradition of biblical blockbusters: Between 1949 and 1959, six religious-themed pictures (Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, The Robe, The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur) each became the nation's top box-office hit in the year of its release, while drawing significant Oscar attention. Ben Hur, in fact, set a record that lasted for nearly 40 years with its 11 Academy Awards.