The decision, made four years ago, to expand the roster of Best Picture nominees beyond the traditional five has had two consequences for the film industry’s showcase event. It has made Oscar season more engaging by elevating a wider range of deserving movies — blockbusters and art-house films alike — and offering fans and critics more issues to argue about, and more comparisons to make. At the same time, it seems to have encouraged the Academy’s voters to indulge their natural solipsism, which is how we’ve ended up with two consecutive Best Picture winners — first the silent-film homage The Artist, and now the Langley-meets-Hollywood caper Argo — chosen mostly because they make the movie industry feel good.
Before the predictable Argo victory, though, this was the most interesting Oscars ceremony in many years. I don’t say successful, mind you — certainly the ratio of groans to laughs in Seth MacFarlane’s opening monologue was higher than the organizers had hoped. But the show felt more relevant than usual, more representative of the country’s diversity, and more honest about the culture that it celebrates.
In part, this was because the Best Picture nominees offered not just a range of styles and stories and approaches, but a genuine diversity of worldviews. If the Oscars at their worst can feel ideologically cramped and self-congratulatory — think of American Beauty’s being rewarded for revealing the hypocrisy of all those heartland squares — this year’s show set up a lot of politically and philosophically interesting contrasts between the nominees. The ironic, postmodern, Tarantinified take on 19th-century suffering in Django Unchained versus the earnest, uplifting, anti-ironic take in Les Misérables, for instance. Or the idealism of Les Mis and Beasts of the Southern Wild versus the nihilism (however sentimentalized) of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Or the radicalism of Django versus the earnest procedural liberalism (flavored with a little bribery) in Spielberg’sLincoln.
It was striking, too, that the nominees included not one but two movies whose visions were explicitly religious: Les Mis and Life of Pi. It was equally striking that they included two movies, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, that portrayed the CIA in a positive light, offering counterpoints to the paranoid style that Hollywood normally favors. It was most striking of all that one of them actually portrayed the Bush-era War on Terror in a sympathetic light — and the controversy that Zero Dark Thirty provoked, like the controversy over Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of American slavery, was actually an argument worth having.
At the same time, the ceremony itself exposed another interesting division — this one within the temple of Hollywood liberalism itself. The choice of MacFarlane as host was a calculated one, designed to induce more young men to watch the telecast, and, judging by the ratings, it succeeded. But as I noted when his trash-talking-teddy-bear comedy Ted did big box-office numbers in blue states, MacFarlane’s whole appeal rests on his complicated relationship to liberal pieties: Like Bill Maher, he crafts jokes for guys who generally share his left-wing politics but chafe against left-wing political correctness, savoring ethnic stereotypes and sexist jokes as much as they do a good anti-Republican rant. (The quintessential Maher joke is a misogynist dig at Sarah Palin; for MacFarlane, it’s a Down syndrome joke about her child.)
#page#That relationship made him a subversive choice to host the Oscars, because of course Hollywood itself similarly combines a formal adherence to liberal pieties with a practical eagerness to profit from exploitation in all its many forms. This reality is usually highlighted by the industry’s critics, such as the enterprising gun-rights activist who re-edited a post-Newtown ad in which various movie stars called for stricter gun control to include footage from their many, many hyper-violent films. But this time it was brought home by the Academy Awards themselves, which asked the regal, gracious Michelle Obama, the tsarina of contemporary liberalism, to bestow the Best Picture statuette on the same stage where MacFarlane waxed sexist, cracked wise about Jews in Hollywood, and leered at big-screen nudity in his “We Saw Your Boobs” song-and-dance routine.
That number, which included “boobs” glimpsed in rape scenes, deserved all the next-day criticism it took. But there was also a kind of impressive honesty about having the First Lady share the stage with the lech behind Family Guy. The MacFarlane Oscars, more than many prior shows, acknowledged the movie business’s essential schizophrenia, which is also the schizophrenia of post-1960s cultural liberalism writ large. There’s the official commitment to high-minded principles of equality and human dignity — and the “whatever sells” libertinism that tends to undercut those ideals at every turn. There’s the theoretical embrace of feminism and multiculturalism — and the practical realities of pornography and sadism and, well, Seth MacFarlane.
That’s our liberalism, that’s the pop culture that it’s made — and this year’s Oscars did a pretty good job of holding up the mirror.