By Thane Peterson For me, one of those little ah-ha moments during the Academy Awards on Mar. 24 came as Ron Howard strode to the stage to claim his prize as Best Director. For a split second, the camera caught David Lynch, director of Mulholland Drive, giving a consolation hug to Robert Altman, director of Gosford Park. The irony is that most film buffs -- me included -- would have given the award to Lynch, with Altman as runner-up. Of course, everyone else predicted that the Oscar would go instead to Opie -- the prepubescent character on the old Andy Griffith show with whom Howard will forever be identified. And it did.
It's axiomatic that the Oscars are almost never about simply recognizing the best work of the year. The highest-profile awards are usually more about politics, the Zeitgeist, settling old scores, righting past slights and oversights, and giving belated kudos to beloved Hollywood vets. This year, the more than 5,000 members of the Academy did a collective mind-meld and came up with a lineup of winners that aims to absolve Tinseltown of some of its past hypocrisies and biases in a way that makes the movie business look virtuous.
The primary example, of course, was the plethora of honors belatedly bestowed on African Americans. Halle Berry became the first woman of color in the awards' 74-year history to be named Best Actress, for her performance in Monster's Ball. And Denzel Washington, who had won as Best Supporting Actor back in 1989, got the nod for Best Actor for his work in Training Day.
SLOPPY DRAMA. It was predictable that African Americans would get plenty of recognition in the broadcast, since Sidney Poitier was getting a special award on the 39th anniversary of becoming the first black man to be named Best Actor. In fact, my friend and movie adviser Sheryl Larson and I agreed before the show that Washington would win for just that reason (though we also incorrectly predicted that Sissy Spacek would win Best Actress).
Don't for a minute think that Washington's award is about the quality of his performance. In fact, he shouldn't have won for Training Day, a violent, sentimental, sloppy police drama in which he played a corrupt cop. Washington is a fine actor, but there's no way he could have raised this role much above the level of a standard-issue TV detective show -- and he didn't. His main competition was thought to have been Russell Crowe, who, to my mind, should have won for his brilliant portrayal of a schizophrenic math professor in A Beautiful Mind.
Crowe never had a chance, because Hollywood had other agendas. He won the Best Actor award last year for Gladiator, and there was no way Hollywood was going to elevate an upstart Aussie to the ranks of American icons like Spencer Tracy by giving it to him two years in a row. At least not this year. Americans had to win most of the big awards in the patriotic post-September 11 environment -- and Hollywood solved two problems at once by recognizing a great African-American actor.
TOUCH OF CLASS. Never mind that giving Washington the award for a mediocre movie like Training Day was almost an insult to him and to movie audiences alike. The voters knew that he probably should have won for past performances in Malcolm X or Hurricane. But those roles were too politically charged. Making Washington and Berry winners this year allowed Hollywood to shrug off its past racism while avoiding the harsher reality of really confronting the past.
It was left to the dignified Poitier to raise the tone of evening. He paid tribute to the white, mainly Jewish directors and producers who championed his career back in the years when it was unpopular -- maybe even dangerous professionally -- to do so. He also acknowledged that he stood on the shoulders of scores of talented black actors who were never allowed to play much beyond racial stereotypes.
Next to Poitier's speech, the classiest moment was Robert Redford's overdue Lifetime Achievement award. By founding the Sundance Institute 20 years ago to promote independent films, Redford has probably done more than anyone else to raise the quality and diversity of American movies. The boom in small, interesting films over the past decade is largely attributable to him and his Sundance Film Festival. This year's In the Bedroom and Memento are examples of fine films that might not have been made 10 years ago.
FINANCIAL FOLLIES. As usual, though, Hollywood had a hidden agenda. It badly wants to assimilate independent film-making, and Redford's award was one small step in that direction. That's worrisome, because when Hollywood assimilates something it often ruins it.
In fact, it's having trouble enough keeping its own house in order, at least financially. In the March-April issue of Film Comment magazine, former industry exec Roger Smith analyzed 2000 results of the six major studios -- Warner Bros./New Line, Disney/Miramax, Universal, Paramount, Fox, and Columbia/TriStar. He figures the big studios had collective operating profits of just $2.3 billion on revenues from movie and TV production of $34.8 billion, a measly 6.5% operating margin.
Exorbitant star salaries aside, what's eating up Hollywood's profits, Smith argues, is heavy spending on marketing to pump up lousy blockbusters like Pearl Harbor (which didn't win any major awards). It cost $135 million to make, then required a rumored $125 million marketing budget to dredge up an audience.
PEARL HARBOR II? The trouble with this big-budget approach is that movies aren't very adaptable to mega-branding, because they're usually one-off projects. A studio makes one, markets it, and then makes another entirely different one, building very little brand equity in the process (how many people remember which studio made the last movie they saw?). Sequels give more bang for the marketing buck, but they work only with certain formulas. Try to imagine Pearl Harbor II.
One way to boost profits would be to embrace the cost-structure of independent films -- while marketing them more aggressively and juicing up their story lines (just a little!) to make them more commercial. This is the Miramax approach, and it works reasonably well except that studio execs always seem to diddle with the movies a little too much -- until they start to lose the "independent" qualities that made them attractive in the first place. It's an old story that the entertainment industry can never quite bring itself to trust enough in individual artists to give them free rein.
That's why it would have been a fine moment if David Lynch had won the Best Director award for Mulholland Drive. Lynch is a quintessential auteur who has long fought for complete artistic control (final cut) over his productions. Mulholland Drive is dark and odd and hard to categorize (see BW Online, 10/16/01, "David Lynch's Weird, Wired World"). But it's a far more original and memorable movie than A Beautiful Mind, which, despite wonderful performances by Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, is conventional and uncontroversial.
Yet even David Lynch has to struggle to get financial backing. Mulholland Drive was originally made as a TV pilot for ABC but was rejected as uncommercial. It took Lynch 18 months to round up money from France's Canal+ so he could do more filming and make it into a movie. It would have been sweet irony if Lynch had won for Best Director on a blockbuster Oscar show brought to us by the broadcast arm of Disney, good old ABC. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online