The New York Times, March 26, 2000
Week in Review
2000 Oscars: The U.S. Needs More Prozac
By Bruce Kluger
mood ring for the body politic, especially those films that
earn Oscars. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
captured the bittersweet hopefulness of post-war America.
Mary Poppins (1964) was a timely diversion for a nation
smarting from the conflict over civil rights. And didn't the
country emerge from the contentious Watergate era with
a little Rocky (1976) in its soul?
This year's Academy Award nominations include a
melange of comedies, dramas and absurd flights of fancy
films, the country appears to be a mess. As the winners strut to the podium tonight,
here's what that little man of gold might be saying about America:
Americans live for head games. Seventeen Oscar nominations went to movies
that demonstrate the national obsession with nuts. The Sixth Sense puts forward
the notion that being dead is all in the head. The Matrix proposes that the human
mind is just a mainframe, and almost as complicated as Windows 2000. Being John
Malkovich says that the antidote to empty-headedness is day-tripping in someone
else's skull—preferably a movie star's. Then again, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
recommends the best no-frills remedy for being in a bad head: decapitation.
There's no family like a dysfunctional family. Once upon a time the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored movies about tightly knit clans—from the
Von Trapps to the Corleones—by bestowing on them enough Oscar gold to gild the
Shrine Auditorium. This year, no less than 12 nominations have gone to films about
fractured families, either drowning in ennui (American Beauty), wandering aimlessly
(Tumbleweeds) or desperately administering to unraveling family ties (Magnolia). It
was the kind of year that made the household friction in 1980's Ordinary People
seem like a day at the Cleavers.
Where is love? Of this year's nominees, only one movie, The End of the Affair, is
a bona fide love story, and an illicit one at that. However, two of the five live-action
shorts tell the tales of first kisses and unrestrained ardor. The lesson this teaches
is simple: Passion and romance are fine—just keep it short, O.K.?
When in doubt, lie. As much as it is said that truth and justice are the American
way, this year's Oscar contenders confirm just the opposite—that the country is
fascinated by secrets and lies. Fourteen Academy Award nominations went to films
that flaunt duplicity, whether corporate (The Insider), sexual (Boys Don't Cry) or
political (Election). Matt Damon, meanwhile, embodies all that is fraudulent about
humanity in the nerve-racking thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley. But he looks great,
Heroism is dead. Historically, the Academy has exalted heroes—from Mr. Smith to
Norma Rae to Babe the Pig. But this year, Oscar was hard-pressed to come up with
any character worth canonizing. Indeed, the only candidates that come close to
qualifying as role models include an ape man (Tarzan), a plastic cowboy (Toy Story
2), a talking mouse (Stuart Little) and a Cuban fisherman in the animated short
version of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea. Whether the furry-chested Austin
Powers deserves to be added to the list is your call.
The slammer is the place to be. While two Oscar-nominated films feature leading
characters who set out to see the world—either on a whim (The Cider House Rules)
or on a tractor (The Straight Story)—twice as many movies take place in a
penitentiary (The Green Mile, The Hurricane, Life and the documentary The
Wildest Show in the South: The Angola Prison Rodeo). Is this such a bad thing?
Not really—but as any kid or studio marketing manager knows, prison flicks
produce some pretty lousy action toys.
Taking responsibility for its behavior isn't really America's strong suit.
Clearly, this has been the nation's least attractive quality in recent years. But that
shouldn't bother anyone. In fact, if ever Americans are feeling overwhelmed by the
way their bad manners appear to the rest of the world, they can comfortably heed
the advice of the Academy Award-nominated song from the South Park movie: