by Steve Wagner
I may be in some cold, deep water here (take the pun as you wish).
I’ll begin by saying I thought this would be a fairly easy take on the subject of Oscar Best Pictures many of us love to revile…I would just need to be all “Blockbuster Baaad,” and “Art Film Goood.,” with a few fancy words from the thesaurus, and I’d be in business. Then I watched Titanic and L.A. Confidential back-to-back. Then Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction. Then Dances with Wolves and Goodfellas.
Well, each film is still absolutely entertaining, as powerful today as when they were first released. In fact, each film (save L.A. Confidential) has been included in the American Film Institute list of the 100 Best Films of all-time. Only Dances dropped off the list in the most recent (2007) register—the others are holding strong. These films are all undeniable classics, and yet one will hear serious derision cast in the direction of the more commercially successful—Dances, Gump, and Titanic—while extolling the virtues of the other three and bemoaning their loss of Best Picture to those artistically inferior blockbusters.
But why, really, do we hate on these films, the ones that usually set the box-office records and win all the awards? Why does it seem to us that these “blockbusters” are somehow pandering to a mass-audience that lacks the smarts to tell good cinema from bad? Why don’t we “get” what millions of our family, friends, and neighbors seem to see in these films?
Perhaps we (and when I say “we” here, I’m looking at you, smart guy. And I’m looking in the mirror as well) fall into these binary debates because these enormously successful movies—the ones that so often take home the Best Picture statue—appear to be symbolic of directorial excess, simple-minded story lines, and narrative manipulation in the service of the all-mighty dollar. And we are, for all the understandable ethical reasons, rightly sick to death of such things.
Those of us who take film seriously—who pride ourselves on seeing through the veils, who seek unique voice and perspective in our film and media—have a sort-of inbred distrust of anything that smacks “commercial” or “formula,” and this is a healthy force-field. Life’s too short, you know?
But I think there is something else at play here, and it is this: In our quest to be high-minded, properly critical, culturally responsible, and to see Art being taken more seriously than Commerce, we often miss the most obvious—and culturally healing—element intrinsic in films like Titanic, Forrest Gump, and Dances with Wolves.
Think about it. Why did The English Patient beat Fargo? Why did Ordinary People beat Raging Bull? For that matter, why did Casablanca beat For Whom the Bell Tolls? Based on the classic Hemingway novel, Bell was the top-grossing film of 1943, and was nominated for nine academy awards. It only won Best Supporting Actress.
Casablanca, on the other hand, was expected by the studio to be just a solid B-Picture—even with its A-list cast—but though it got off to a slow start, its audience kept building organically until, in the end, Bogart’s first stab at romance was nominated for eight academy awards, and won three big ones: Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. Even in the midst of a world war, Oscar voters decided they appreciated the story of a man who selflessly does the right thing for the woman he loves over the story of a man who—hero and protector though he may be—is primarily concerned with blowing up a bridge for a political cause. This is the same reason Shakespeare in Love inexplicably beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture in 1999. As much as we value Valor, we love the transformational effect of Love even more.
Though there are of course exceptions, what we keep seeing is the film that speaks the language of the heart enjoying the larger audience, and this may be hard to understand—or respect—when one is only thinking with the mind. This is actually a smart-people problem, not the other way around. And it’s a blind spot where men often don’t understand what women find compelling, and why.
Consider Titanic. The 1997 James Cameron epic is essentially the most successful film in both box-office and Oscar history, and yet it is certainly a lightning-rod for criticism; it’s the poster-child of the bigger-is-never-better school of thought. It is assailed for clunky dialog, predictable characters, over-wrought drama, and that damn song we’ve been extremely sick of for fifteen years. I get it. But to look at Titanic objectively, we have to consider a number of important facts on the ground.
It cost a record $200 million, it takes us inside the actual Titanic, recreates the period in perfect detail, frightens us out of our wits, teaches us countless pertinent facts, and tackles issues of class, politics, and commerce. All on a vast and intimidating canvas (the northern Atlantic) involving VERY BIG THINGS, like icebergs and ocean liners. So far, quite impressive.
It is also, let’s not forget, very depressing, with a foregone conclusion. For this story to be humanized—it isn’t a documentary, after all—it needs to be balanced emotionally. Not to mention that no studio or investor would touch the film with a 1,000 foot cruise ship unless it had something uplifting to harmonize the experience for the viewer. This is why James Cameron pitched the film as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” and it is why Paramount and 20th Century Fox gave him $200 million to make it.
To be clear, Cameron’s script for Titanic is hardly Shakespearean, in fact the Bard would likely turn over in the Earl of Oxford’s grave if he saw the film. To a large degree, though, it primarily seeks to teach us the nuts and bolts story of the sinking itself, and there are a helluva lot of rivets on this boat. More importantly, the structure is respectful of the actual viewing experience. The story of Jack and Rose allows the audience to breathe, to take in all of the dense information, to ready themselves for the next intense turn of events.
As a device to guide the viewer through a difficult story, a parallel exists in the “family narrative” within Oliver Stone’s JFK. Like Titanic, the story of the Kennedy assassination is steeped in shifting, complex information, historic resonance, and seriously tragic results. It is a murky world. Stone’s employment of the private conversations between Jim Garrison and his wife allows the audience to catch up with the film, gives them something to relate to, and prepares them for the next chapter. Yet, the mere presence of romance as a structural tool isn’t itself sufficient if you want to win Best Picture. For that, you need what Jack and Rose have, or, more accurately, what Jack gives Rose.
Their love affair functions as cultural metaphor, conveys factual information, and involves us personally—it lets us in. And though the dialog in Titanic may feel forced at times, the chemistry between Leo and Kate is anything but. Such is the power of young love—first love—and it is one of the most effecting, not to mention tried and true, narratives of the mythic tradition, beginning with fairy tales. Its universal appeal can rub up against over-familiarity, and feel like pandering. But with the addition of personal growth, self sacrifice, or great loss, it becomes weighty stuff.
But, we savvy cinephiles cry, L.A. Confidential didn’t need to pander to be brilliant. It didn’t need pull the strings or trick us into a manufactured emotional response. L.A. Confidential should have won Best Picture! Just like Pulp Fiction, Goodfellas, and arghhh! What were they thinking!
Here’s the thing: These films do all contain familiar mythic narratives, archetypes, and tropes, however skillfully they are employed. They are no less cynical, if you will, in this aspect than Titanic, or Forrest Gump, or Dances with Wolves.
L.A. Confidential is awash in crime-noir stereotypes: You got your good cop and your bad cop; you got your hooker with a heart of gold. Heroic dead cop father? Check. Duplicitous partner? Top-level corruption? Check, check.
The dialog, as juicy as it often is, also leans somewhat towards parody, if only because it often seems so self-aware (“I’ll send ya up on a kiddie-raper beef”…”You look better than Lana Turner”). The burping, tommy-gun prose of the James Ellroy novel rings a bit more contrived on the screen than on the page; in some scenes—like with a bad Mamet or Coen film—you begin to wonder, “Did everyone really talk like this?”
And what about that sizzling love story at the heart of L.A. Confidential? No, not her, silly…I mean the one between Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe. Now, there’s an emotional arc for ya! I was moved to tears by the way they found their love (and I’m not being funny here in the least). C’mon, you know it was more moving than the forced triangle that centered on Kim Basinger, no matter how good she looked, and I think we can all—men and women alike—agree she looked really, really good.
Basinger won supporting actress because she fit the role perfectly and was such an effective emblem for the illicit passion that is the film’s bread and butter. And she does look really great on the poster, even better than Leo looks on his if you ask me. But she is merely the prize here, not the protagonist. She is the portal through which we learn more about the male characters; their duel over her masks the true resolution of the story, which is the union of fractured male energies.
But enough Freudian blather. You know I’m just having fun, right? But the irony is there. A lot of the things we think we hate in movies like Titanic are echoed in what we think we love in movies like L.A. Confidential. They are the conceits of their particular genres.
I say all of this as someone who absolutely adores L.A. Confidential. I consider it to be a modern classic, the best crime-drama since Chinatown (though ultimately not in quite the same league as Polanski’s masterpiece). Furthermore, I’ve read many Ellroy tomes and believe him to be one of the world’s greatest living writers. The adapted screenplay by Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland was nothing short of genius; they managed to condense Ellroy’s massive and endlessly labyrinth book into a nearly flawless film with a whip-smart story-line. The dialog crackles with menace and excitement; the film is completely alive, and the plot moves with increasing dread to a hyper-tense, adrenaline-rushing, emotionally-spent climax. L.A. Confidential’s 1998 Oscar for Screenplay was 100% deserved.
But there is a reason Titanic won Best Picture and basically everything else Oscar had on offer that year: The respect it afforded women. The deference to feminine concerns. Considering that academy voters are overwhelmingly old, white guys (it’s true—look it up) this may seem askew, but the fact is, all things being equal, Oscar favors male-centric stories for a female audience as opposed to those for a male audience. Because, let’s face it, 99% of all films are male-centric stories; it seems to be what the males are in service of that makes all the difference. Oscar apparently likes to be romanced, just like the rest of us.
Essentially, a “man’s romance” revolves around doing, while a woman’s sense of romance keys on a change of heart through the power of love itself. The former may be expected, and receive more critical acclaim, but the latter seems to be what we ultimately value more, and it nearly always has to be present for Oscar to swoon. Does that make Oscar, at heart, a female? Or maybe our inner “Real Man?”
I’m oversimplifying, but a male-centric love story from a male point of view generally involves a hammer or a gun. He only needs to build a bridge, tear one down, or kill a bad guy to be proved worthy of love. We may be afraid of the blockbuster romance and belittle them because in those stories men are usually required to do something intangible: To grow, like Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, to remain true, like Forrest in Forrest Gump, to sacrifice, like Jack Dawson in Titanic—even to lose, like Rick in Casablanca.
There is no denying the brilliance of films like L.A Confidential, Pulp Fiction, and Goodfellas. And Fargo and The Social Network and Raging Bull and any number of “superior” films we thought were shafted when they handed out the gold. But though they may break cinematic ground, may thrill and spill us, may clock us with their cleverness, may knot our stomach and tickle our funny bone, they don’t transform our heart. They may knock us out but they don’t lift us up.
Honestly, when I reach for a Tarantino, Scorsese or Coen Brothers movie, it is because I really want to be entertained, I want the ride, I want to laugh my ass off — because it’s funny, or outrageous, or just so damn smart. But when I reach for Titanic or Forrest Gump or Dances with Wolves or Casablanca or even—don’t shoot me—Ordinary People, I know that though I will need to forgive a few clunkers and some violins, it is basically going to fuck me up. It’s going to get to me. It’s going to tap me into something I must admit that I find a little scary: my heart.