As I’ve written before, movies are not telegrams, neatly-packaged envelopes containing pithy messages. They’re more like Rorschach tests. So are the Oscars, and interpreting them as sending any kind of straightforward political message is a fool’s errand.
Los Angeles Times movie columnist Patrick Goldstein tried anyway, labeling the victory this year of The King’s Speech (pictured) over The Social Network as “the triumph of Hollywood conservative values.” He’s not the only pundit this Oscar season to suggest there’s something reactionary about the Academy’s favoritism for Tom Hooper’s comforting, traditional Anglophilic, pro-monarchist period piece over David Fincher’s prickly, timely, formally and structurally unconventional drama about the young, wired, and litigious. But Goldstein takes it a step further, using the King’s Speech sweep to assert that, while Hollywood may be full of liberals, they’re not ideological robots bent on cramming liberal propaganda into movies.
It’s overly simplistic to say that The King’s Speech is a politically conservative movie. After all, it’s about a colonial commoner who insists on having the king treat him as an equal. Then again, that commoner demands egalitarianism only from the man, not the institution, which his actions serve to support. While the movie’s storytelling and technique are old-fashioned, its message is mixed. Same with the movie it beat, The Social Network, which had a contemporary topic (Facebook) and an unorthodox narrative structure but which also told a fairly familiar story of friendship, greed, and betrayal.
Even the Academy’s documentary branch, arguably the most overtly political segment of the Oscars, offered a mixed message this year. Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop was the most formally daring and brazenly entertaining of this year’s nominees, but the prize went to Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, a more traditionally-made talking-heads doc with a much more politically urgent subject, the failure to hold anyone accountable for the 2008 financial crash.
What seems to throw Goldstein and other commentators is the distinction between movies that are aesthetically conservative and those that are politically conservative. As I wrote here a couple years ago, form really does not equal content. So we shouldn’t be surprised when an industry supposedly full of dogmatic liberals produces movies that aren’t easily pigeonholed as liberal or conservative, or that the movies those supposedly rigid ideologues choose to honor are a complex mix of left and right, classical and innovative. If anything, we should be thrilled that the Academy chose a slate of movies (including Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, and True Grit) that resonated with mass audiences precisely because they were unpredictable.