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Jewish World Review March 21, 2000 /14 Adar II, 5760

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
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Oscars: Will Hollywood do its duty or follow its heart? --
LIKE SO MANY OTHER conflicts in our culture, the Oscar race comes down to an epic battle between two urgent but irreconcilable messages.

On March 26, the Academy voters will choose as best picture either a film that urges viewers to Follow Your Heart, or else they will honor another top contender that says to its audience, Do Your Duty.

Based on the recent history of the entertainment industry, you can bet that Hollywood will once again endorse the Follow Your Heart world view -- which means that American Beauty wins the big prize on Oscar night, while The Cider House Rules settles for the status of also- ran.

The hypnotically lyrical American Beauty centers on a married, middle- age drone (Kevin Spacey) who is trapped in suburban phoniness and emptiness until a sudden obsession with one of his daughter's teenage friends begins an odd process of redemption. Cynics might say that this protagonist doesn't so much Follow His Heart as he follows the primal promptings of another element of his anatomy, but the movie makes clear that his feverish fantasies involve more than mere lust. Meanwhile, the film takes its own potent shots at the Do Your Duty school of thought, because the one character most clearly identified with some external code of honor or obligation is a retired Marine colonel (the excellent Chris Cooper) who represents the story's most cruel and dangerous figure.

If American Beauty triumphs at the Academy Awards, it will be the fourth year in a row Hollywood has bestowed its highest honor on a Follow Your Heart fable about the liberating, humanizing impact of extramarital passion.

Last year, Shakespeare in Love, with its dazzling portrayal of a married playwright falling for irresistible aristocrat Gwyneth Paltrow, won an unexpected best-picture Oscar over the ultimate Do Your Duty movie, Saving Private Ryan. The GIs in the Steven Spielberg saga transcend their fears and feelings to follow orders and serve a higher cause, while the lusty Elizabethans of Shakespeare find artistic immortality by honoring their emotions.

The 1997 Oscar winner, Titanic, unforgettably advanced the Follow Your Heart formula, centering its romantic story on a priceless, heart- shaped gem in case anyone missed the point. Rose (Kate Winslet) ignores her obligations to her stuffy, domineering fiancÚ; (Billy Zane) and lets her emotions lead her into the arms of the charming stranger, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And for '96, the success of The English Patient helped to define the fundamental conflict between the two messages, not through its competition with any other film of that year, but through its striking contrast with a previous Oscar winner: 1942's Casablanca.

Both films dramatize the early years of World War II in exotic North Africa. Both films center on a raffish, elegant, unattached free spirit (Ralph Fiennes and Humphrey Bogart) powerfully attracted to a beautiful, married woman. (Kristin Scott Thomas and Ingrid Bergman). In The English Patient, the lovelorn lug follows his heart into red-hot sex and a plague-on-both-houses attitude toward the Nazis and Allies. In Casablanca, on the other hand, Rick overcomes his feelings for a higher sense of duty, sacrificing the woman he loves and making a commitment to the anti-fascist cause.

Like Casablanca, many other films now considered timeless classics express the Do Your Duty theme. In High Noon (1952), best-actor winner Gary Cooper gives up a honeymoon with Grace Kelly (imagine!) to battle gunmen who invade his town. And in best-picture-winner The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), duty demands that the painfully constructed span be blown to bits, despite Alec Guinness' emotional investment.

In recent years, however, the Do Your Duty idea has gone out of fashion -- which helps to undermine the best-picture chances of The Cider House Rules this year. With its sympathetic treatment of illegal abortions in the 1940s, no one could describe Cider House as politically conservative, but it does advance old-fashioned notions of honor and obligation. Its youthful hero, Tobey Maguire, grows into a selfless commitment to the idealistic orphanage and puts aside his emotional reluctance to perform abortions because he recognizes a deeper responsibility to suffering young women. Similarly, the film's heroine (Charlize Theron) gives up a tender and consuming new romance for the sake of a prior commitment to a war hero who returns home with grievous wounds.

No one would suggest that the voting members of the Academy will make a conscious decision to support American Beauty or to reject The Cider House Rules, based on contrasting philosophical messages of these films. Major Oscar decisions will involve judgments of aesthetic excellence -- as they should -- rather than some premeditated attempt to advance a specific set of values or a cultural agenda.

But like everyone else, film industry leaders feel the impact of powerful currents in the larger society, where the Follow Your Heart attitude has become so dominant that it exerts a nearly inescapable influence. For instance, it's now considered part of conventional wisdom that it's better to follow your heart out of a marriage and into freedom or a new relationship rather than do your duty and stay in a partnership that has grown stale. We similarly emphasize the importance of pursuing your career passions rather than sacrificing yourself to some dull but reliable job out of a sense of obligation.

The current climate, in other words, seems perfectly suited to American Beauty -- with its eloquent emphasis on emotion and authenticity, and its denigration of the bourgeois virtues of obligation, consistency, discipline and self-denial. In anointing the front-running film as the year's best picture, the leaders of the entertainment industry will follow their own hearts, while convinced that they also have done their duty.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.


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© 2000, Michael Medved