Oscar bids reflect industry's discomfort with religion

Posted: Jan 25, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

In other words, Hollywood once chose to praise movies that eloquently affirmed the religious convictions of the mass audience. But in 2005, top nominations went to films that went out of their way to assault or insult the sensibilities of most believers. Both Million Dollar Baby (nominated for seven awards, including best picture, best director, best actor and best actress) and The Sea Inside (nominated for best foreign-language film) portray assisted suicide as an explicitly and unequivocally "heroic" choice. Their success suggests that if Hollywood ever gets around to making "The Jack Kevorkian Story," it, too, would become an automatic candidate for major awards.

Meanwhile, Vera Drake (nominated for best actress, best director and best original screenplay) portrays abortion in a positive, almost sacramental light, while Kinsey (nominated for best supporting actress) ridicules the religious orthodoxy of the main character's father and portrays all conventional inhibitions about sexuality as outmoded, ignorant and destructive.

At the same time, the Spanish-language film The Motorcycle Diaries earned significant recognition for best adapted screenplay with its nostalgic, deeply affectionate portrayal of the idealistic young man who became the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. For Hollywood, it seems, a murderous, anti-American Marxist guerrilla counts as less controversial than Jesus Christ.

Most of the public debate about this batch of Oscar nominations will naturally center on the complete shutout of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 -- with the entertainment elite declining an obvious opportunity to assert their identification with the left side of the political spectrum.

And this reluctance to celebrate the most unapologetically liberal film of the year may help the Academy avoid offending the majority who voted for President Bush, even while other Oscar nominations risk alienating that even larger segment of the public committed to faith-based values that have been needlessly ignored or assaulted by the most praised products of show business.