Disillusioned by Slumdog Millionaire's Oscar

I’ve loved films since I saw my first one at age five (it was The Music Man, for the record), and have watched the Oscars with enthusiasm since I was old enough to stay up late enough to see the stars come out that night.

So why did I turn off the set last Sunday filled with disillusionment? It wasn’t Hugh Jackman’s cheesy song and dance intro (at least he can sing and dance, something you can’t really say about otherwise fabulous past host Billy Crystal), and Jackman looks better in a tux too.

It wasn’t the set, which sparkled with myriad strings of real crystals that caught the lights. It wasn’t the red-carpet fashion show. It certainly wasn’t the award presentation style, which this year seemed especially respectful of all the nominees. (Loved the repeated use of “…they make movies” as in, “writers of screenplays don’t just arrange words, they make movies.) And I thought all the performances honored were worthy.

I think the disillusionment set in before the broadcast, while reading Ty Burr’s “What do the Oscars Mean?” article in the Boston Globe. It said, in part, “The Academy Awards are generally perceived and promoted as an imprimatur of quality…Nothing could be further from the truth. The Oscars are in fact a popularity contest designed not to award good movies but movies that make the film industry look good.”

Slumdog Millionaire, winner of eight awards including “best picture” honors, proves his point. It seems on the surface to be a good- and good-for-you film with a message that reflects well on the Academy. It’s about people of color for a start, and poor people of color at that. It takes place in a country other than America (gasp!), and it plants its feet squarely on the side of what’s morally right.

But a closer look reveals that, despite the Academy’s reputation as a haven for political lefties, the film it honored most this year carries a profoundly conservative message. The fact that it’s an Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is key. For all the genuine sympathy shown the residents of the Mumbai slum where the film was shot, the message is that a better life is something only individuals, not communities, can aspire to. Everyone loves a winner, whether it’s the film’s hero or the film itself, but director Danny Boyle’s film—worthy though it is of attention and awards—also reveals Hollywood’s dirty little secret: it doesn’t really understand or like poor people.

For decades, few of the “best picture” winners have dealt substantively with working-class life. And the notable exceptions—The Deer Hunter, Rocky, On the Waterfront, and The Best Years of Our Lives—date back to the 1970s and before.

If Hollywood had wanted to reward a film this year about what life for the working class of any country is really like, it could have given top honors to the exquisite Frozen River. Its working-class heroine’s goal isn’t winning a million; just cobbling together the few dollars needed to save her double-wide trailer from repossession. That’s not as dramatic as Slumdog’s rags-to-riches story, but it’s a lot more real.

And reality is the one thing that Hollywood simply can’t stand.

No comments: