The Academy Awards Gets Real

Watch the online trailer for the upcoming 78th Annual Academy Awards, and you'll see a montage of teary actors mugging through their acceptance speeches, with a terrible pop soundtrack gurgling beneath. But, as any good film buff knows, the trailer is nothing like the real thing.

Sure, the ceremony (airing on ABC this Sunday, March 5) will offer the usual parade of Hollywood beauties in couture gowns. But it's also the most politically progressive lineup of nominated films in years. That's right: no elves, musicals, historical epics or romantic comedies in sight. This year, you'll find a cornucopia of Big Issues, from gay cowboys ("Brokeback Mountain") to transgendered women ("Transamerica,") sexual harassment ("North Country") and institutionalized racism ("Crash") to censorship ("Good Night, and Good Luck").

With just one Best Picture nominee ("Munich," Steven Spielberg's factually inspired rumination on 1972's Munich massacre) from a major studio, this year's Oscars could almost be mistaken for the grungier, Bravo-aired Independent Spirit Awards. And unlike past shows, when sweet sleepers like "Shakespeare in Love" and "Chocolat" ruled, 2005's film crop can't exactly be described as feel-good.

Instead we've got a timely, issues-based Best Picture roster, of which "Capote" -- whose gay protagonist is plainly critical of capital punishment -- is the least political nominee. Of the remaining four films, "Crash" takes on racism (albeit in an almost unbearably heavy-handed fashion), and "Good Night, and Good Luck" is progressive poster boy George Clooney's black-and-white account of McCarthy-era TV news censorship. Although he deserves it, I don't think Clooney will win for that film, but he will probably be rewarded for his supporting role in the political thriller "Syriana."

Critics' clear Best Pic favorite is "Brokeback Mountain" (which, in this politically charged Oscar season, is fitting, as Ang Lee's first film after the big-budget debacle of "The Hulk"). The Gay Cowboy Movie, as it's frequently been dubbed, boasts some of the most beautiful scenery (with Canada standing in for the Wyoming wilderness) and horrifying (tragic ending) aspects of life in homophobic 1950s America. As a hit in both blue states and red states, it's become an unlikely commercial success, something the Academy always loves to reward.

The Best Actor race is between two polarized depictions of gay men: Philip Seymour Hoffman's fey Truman Capote and Heath Ledger's stoic "Brokeback" cowboy. A fitting Best Actress winner would be Felicity Huffman, a Desperate Housewife turned transgendered road tripper in "Transamerica." But it's still the Oscars -- where, as a woman, if you don't gain weight or wear a prosthetic nose, the second-best route to the gold statuette is to portray a put-upon wife.

If that maxim holds true this Sunday, then Reese Witherspoon (who, earning $29 million for her next picture, just dethroned Julia Roberts as highest-paid actress), will win for her role as June Carter Cash in the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line." (Her Supporting Actress counterparts, portraying two more frustrated wives, are "Brokeback's" Michelle Williams and Rachel Weisz for "The Constant Gardener.")

The Academy often stashes its most politically biting nominations in the foreign film and documentary categories. The greatest controversy has been over the little-seen Palestinian film "Paradise Now," about two Muslim would-be suicide bombers. But while political movies are often rewarded, controversial ones generally aren't. Hopefully, the nomination alone will give "Paradise Now" a needed boost in sales, because the foreign race is split between France's World War I-set "Joyeux Nol" and Germany's World War II-set "Sophie Scholl: the Final Days." ("Joyeux Nol" has Christian groups rallying behind its "neighborly kindness" values, but it has a far more pervasive pacifist message at its core.)

Fundamentalist groups also championed the serial monogamy of the emperor penguin in documentary nominee "March of the Penguins". Although two other great docs, "Grizzly Man" and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," told more complicated stories of animal behavior, the penguin flick made more than $100 million, likely guaranteeing its win. Two other documentaries about very human failings, "Darwin's Nightmare" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," are also nominated, but lack the uplifting endings the Academy favors.

If this year's strong nominees and lack of big-budget fare aren't enough to make you tune in on Sunday, there's also Jon Stewart, the show's lovably liberal host. His is an admittedly tough gig, but with Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal dominating the microphone for the past few decades (with occasional bones thrown to Steve Martin, David Letterman, Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock), viewers have come to expect little beyond a few lukewarm jokes at the overpaid audience's expense.

With Stewart and his incisive "Daily Show" writers on board, there's hope that some of his biting social commentary will engage and enrage the Hollywood community, as well as at-home viewers, into some real, much-needed action. Movies, of course, can only go so far.

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