Except for a few agitators like Sean Penn and Barbra Streisand, people in Hollywood prefer to play down their liberal bent. It can be bad for business, and it can lead to trouble with the real powers that be. Sure, Michael Moore’s movies make a pile of money, and his bad behavior might draw the curious to the Oscar broadcast, but who needs the grief from Bill O’Reilly or Governor Jeb Bush?
The spirit of protest and left-wing politics simmers below the surface, though, waiting to erupt. Lately, as the seemingly unstoppable Republican juggernaut stumbles, beleaguered by scandal, lies, intractable war, and crimes against democracy (the same factors that got it into power in the first place), that moment may have arrived.
Enlisting Jon Stewart as host of the show certainly sends a message. Unless he takes a dive like Chris Rock last year, expect bleeps from the censors, flak from the FCC, and condemnation from the usual suspects. But his barbs would provide only annoying background chatter if it weren’t for a slate of nominees that take a political stand on the traditional checklist of liberal issues.
It doesn’t take a genius to predict that Brokeback Mountain will get a ton of nominations, but who could have guessed that way back when the Venice Film Festival gave it the Golden Lion? Following the lead of just about every critics group and the Golden Globes, the Academy will nominate the film for Best Picture, Ang Lee for Best Director, Heath Ledger for Best Actor, Jake Gyllenhaal for Best Supporting Actor, and Michelle Williams for Best Supporting Actress. Anne Hathaway will come up empty; of the two wives in the film, she seems the most empowered and the least long-suffering. Instead, Amy Adams will grab that spot as the perky pregnant wife in Junebug.
For the first time, then, Hollywood will celebrate the love that dared not speak its name. And why not? Brokeback Mountain has forbidden love, scene-stealing performances, lush landscapes, and an inoffensive but still provocative political agenda. Everything that makes an Oscar contender — except a historical event or a true-life character. But plenty of other films have that. Like Capote, Bennett Miller’s sneakily subtle fictionalization of the true story of how Truman Capote fictionalized a true story into his “non-fiction novel,” In Cold Blood. Miller’s analysis of truth, art, journalism, and fame has a lot to say about today’s sensationalized celebrity media. Still, Academy members will be more impressed by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing performance and nominate him for Best Actor. Hoffman will join Ledger and, for Best Actress, Felicity Huffman’s Transamerica transsexual in this year’s gay landslide. Catherine Keener, meanwhile, will take a Best Supporting Actress slot, not for her work in The 40-Year-Old Virgin but for playing a 40-year-old virgin, Harper Lee, in Capote.
Brokeback, then, will nudge out Capote as the gay candidate in the Best Picture category, and Good Night, and Good Luck will take Capote’s spot as the journalistic representative. The ongoing stir over the role of the media, free expression, government repression, and the rights of smokers can only help this claustrophobic study of Edward R. Murrow’s stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy. The Academy will also nominate liberal lightning rod George Clooney for Best Director and David Strathairn for Best Actor.
Some issues and some historical events, however, will remain taboo. Unlike Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg’s Munich offers no clear choices between good and evil. Given the subject, how could it? Hollywood won’t touch the volatile Israeli-Palestinian dilemma. It’ll nominate Spielberg for Best Director, and that’ll be it.
How about North Country, a harrowing docudrama based on an actual class-action suit in the ’80s? A cross between Norma Rae and Erin Brockovich, it seems at first glance a shoo-in. Audiences didn’t agree, and neither will the Academy. Sexual harassment, wage discrimination against women — the mines sound a lot like the movie industry. But don’t count out the power of Charlize Theron and a crackerjack make-up team; she’ll be up for Best Actress, and so will Frances McDormand for Best Supporting Actress.
Make-Up and Costuming might be the only nominations that Memoirs of a Geisha gets next Tuesday. It too ranked high as a Best Picture possibility once upon a time, but the days when director Rob Marshall and fluff like Chicago could dance away with the top honors seem to have passed — for now. Still, I look for Ziyi Zhang as a Best Actress nominee, if only because her beauty rivals that of the set designs.