Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#79, March 21, 2000


by Marylaine Block

I suppose there might be some suspense for me on Academy Awards night -- Jennifer Lopez's dress might succeed in falling off this time. But I already know with absolute certainty that no movie I love will win. That hasn't happened since "E.T." won, which has been a while.

I gave up hoping when Jim Henson's lovely surreal fantasy, "The Dark Crystal," wasn't nominated for anything. It wasn't even nominated for art direction, though one would think creating an entire new planet, complete with its own solar system, critters, and plants, was a pretty fair piece of art. I blame that one on the category flaw. Since for many people, Henson=Sesame Street=children, they automatically ignored the film -- children's movies, after all, aren't REAL movies.

It's also true that many of my favorite movies are comedies, and -- perhaps you've noticed -- you don't win academy awards for comedy. The old line says "Dying is easy; comedy is hard," but apparently not hard enough to be considered acting, no matter how deft your double take, or how precise your comic timing. Cary Grant never won an Oscar.

REAL actors not only don't do comedy, they hardly ever play ordinary, likable people, with the possible exception of Forrest Gump. If you want to win an Oscar, play serial killers, gangsters, prostitutes, Holocaust survivors, or noble people triumphing over disabilities. Dustin Hoffman got an Oscar for playing the idiot savant in "Rain Man," not for his brilliant comic turn in "Tootsie" where he learned, by playing a woman, what an arrogant twit he'd always been.

Most of all, Oscar winning roles and movies are terribly, terribly Significant. Grand themes win Oscars. In 1986, when both "Hoosiers" and "Stand by Me" offered small, beautifully drawn pieces of real life, the Academy preferred "Platoon."

Grand scale is another part of the Oscar equation. Having once worked for a university film program where student directors made movies on hundred dollar budgets, I know good movies don't have to cost a lot. When movies become hideously expensive, studios and bankers don't want to take chances. They want guarantees, the easiest being the splashy special effects and blood and gore that draw in teenage boys. Sex and bad language are also useful, and the award-winning "Pulp Fiction" covers all the bases nicely. (The TV section in my newspaper is warning parents that even "The Borrowers" has adult language and violence. "The Borrowers"? How? Why?)

Hollywood does still make perfect little slices of ordinary life, like "Mr. Holland's Opus," and they even still make screwball comedies -- "Sleepless in Seattle," "The Truth about Cats and Dogs," "When Harry Met Sally." These inexpensive, charming little movies don't seem to be considered REAL movies, though. They're contemptuously dismissed as "chick flicks," and they never win a thing. Academy voters seem to think movies about disgusting people, full of violence and sex scenes and ugly language, are somehow more realistic, more truthful. But my world, where people treat each other kindly, is real too, you know.

And the more money producers spend on sex and "bang bang you're dead," the less they seem to spend on good writers. You know, those people who invent characters so real you feel like you've been trading secrets with them since childhood, the people who write lines that make you laugh or stun you with their insight.

What I want, what I NEED in movies, is words. Good actors playing believable characters, speaking precise, perfectly-chosen words. The sexiest movie I ever saw was "Design for Living," a comedy about a menage a trois filmed in 1932. Not a scrap of clothing came off. It didn't need to, because nothing's more erotic than what our imagination can make out of wonderful, witty, suggestive dialogue.

Maybe I've just missed the good stuff. I've heard good things about "Cider House Rules" and "The Sixth Sense." But I don't much care who wins. I'm pretty sure that, whatever qualities Hollywood is celebrating when it honors itself, it's none of the things I love in movies.

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