FAIRY TALE: Look for Hollywood to vote for escapism and Slumdog this year.
It's like a fairy tale for Hollywood liberals. Their candidate has won the presidency, rising from an improbable background and overcoming ruthless adversaries to achieve his dream. Or maybe it's like a game show, in which the young hero rises from a background of brutally picturesque poverty and gets every answer right, winning fame, fortune, and love.
In other words, Slumdog Millionaire will win the Academy Award as Best Picture this Sunday, and Danny Boyle will win for Best Director. (The film also has a better than average shot at Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Editing.) Slumdog epitomizes "Yes We Can," but it doesn't pressure politics-weary audiences into feeling they should actually do something. It might touch on genuine misery, but that's in a subcontinent far, far away where fantasy scenarios make everything turn out fine.
So enough with the doom-laden days of last year's No Country for Old Men — the Academy wants respectable escapism this time around. Which means that Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon will go home empty-handed. (At least it did better than Oliver Stone's W., which didn't receive a single nomination.) As for why Wall•E and The Dark Knight got snubbed in the Best Picture category (though the late Heath Ledger for Best Supporting Actor in The DarkKnight is your safest Oscar bet), it wasn't just because they represent get-no-respect genres. It was because they confront annoying real-life issues like environmental disaster and the War on Terror.
Neither will the Holocaust-ish melodrama The Reader have much chance at the big prize. It's just too heavy, even if it does explain away Nazi genocide as a misunderstanding brought about by learning disabilities. Kate Winslet, however, will take the Best Actress statuette: she may play a member of the SS, but she humanizes the monster by sleeping with a 15-year-old geek. Besides, she looks great both naked and in latex old-age make-up. (In other words, it's a brave performance.) And everyone's tired of her complaining about not winning anything.
So why not Benjamin Button? Maybe because its platitudes and its solipsism, the product no doubt of screenwriter Eric Roth (who also wrote Forrest Gump), are too escapist and evoke too much the sensibility of the previous administration. On the other hand, its depiction of transience and mortality, the contribution of director David Fincher (and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who somehow got squeezed from the credits), tilts too far to the dark side. So it's a lose-lose situation, despite 13 nominations.
As for Gus Van Sant's Milk, I was tempted to give it the nod over Slumdog. The latter has, after all, been accused of underpaying the slum kids in its cast. I was thinking also that people are feeling guilty over the passage of anti-gay Proposition 8 and might want to make amends by rewarding a film about the defeat of a similar bill 30 years ago. And you could argue that the career of Harvey Milk likewise parallels Obama's (though with a chilling conclusion). But why dwell on the past? All the same, I suspect Sean Penn will beat out Mickey Rourke's turn in The Wrestler for Best Actor, despite the feel-good drama (or feel-bad? — some of his recent public statements have been a little rocky . . . ) of Rourke's comeback.