Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 27 April 2021


Give Bill Maher an Oscar

Unlike Hollywood’s woke, at least its Communists could make good movies.

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WSJ Opinion: Give Bill Maher an Oscar
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WSJ Opinion: Give Bill Maher an Oscar
WSJ Opinion: Give Bill Maher an Oscar
Main Street: Unlike Hollywood’s woke, at least its Communists could make good movies. Images: Everett Collection/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly
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For years conservatives have bemoaned Hollywood’s influence on American norms and mores. Sunday night ought to allay any such fears. Far from showcasing its mighty influence on American life, the 93rd Academy Awards confirmed that our movie industry no longer even knows how to entertain.

Start with the inexplicable decision to dispense with clips from nominated films in favor of more time for presenters and winners to drone on about whatever they had on their minds. From actress-director Regina King’s opening remarks about the Derek Chauvin verdict in Minneapolis to the later reference to police killings and the themes represented by the films nominated for best picture (#MeToo feminism, 1960s black militancy, the plight of an Amazon worker, etc.), it had all the glamour and appeal of a public-television fundraiser. It’s not that this year’s Oscars were too political. It’s that they were too boring.

Bill Maher called it. Two weeks before the Oscars aired, the HBO host of “Real Time with Bill Maher” said that after a year of Covid-19, he had hoped for a little Hollywood escapism. But “judging by this year’s best-picture nominees,” he said, “you couldn’t have a worse time at the movies if there was an active shooter in the theater.”

Here’s his summary of the contenders, starting with “Nomadland,” which took home the award for best picture:

“That’s the one about the woman who winds up living in her van after her husband dies of cancer. In ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ the FBI kills the leader of the Black Panthers, and in ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ the FBI kills the leader of the Black Panthers again. ‘Promising Young Woman’ has Carey Mulligan avenging a murderous rapist, but then he kills her too. . . . ‘The Sound Of Metal’ is about a musician going deaf. ‘The Father’ is about an octogenarian descending into dementia. And ‘Minari’ is the story of dirt-poor Korean immigrants in Arkansas who put all their food in a barn, but then grandma has a stroke and burns it down. Now enjoy the show!”

Say what you will about Mr. Maher—and many dismiss him as an old white guy complaining that Hollywood doesn’t make movies he likes—his seven-minute rant was more entertaining than anything in the 3½ hours of Sunday’s Oscar broadcast. The overnight ratings confirm Mr. Maher speaks for more than himself: Variety reports only 9.85 million viewers for this year’s ceremony, down from its previous record low of 26.5 million in 2018.

Ms. King appeared to acknowledge the Oscars’ indifference to its audience when she said, “I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you,” and yet still preached away. Anthony Hopkins didn’t even have to go for the remote. When he was announced as the surprise winner for best actor, it turned out the 83-year-old was fast asleep in his bed at home in Wales.

Left-wing causes and Hollywood have a long history together. Once upon a time, screenwriters were even cited for contempt of Congress, jailed and then blacklisted for refusing to answer questions about any affiliation with the Communist Party. Billy Wilder, director of “Some Like It Hot,” famously described the Hollywood Ten this way: “Only two of them have talent. The rest are just unfriendly.”

Not so. Whatever their feelings about the Soviet Union, the Communists at least knew how to write. Dalton Trumbo earned an Oscar for “Roman Holiday” (though he wouldn’t get credit until decades afterward because of the blacklist). Ring Lardner Jr. won best original screenplay with Michael Kanin for “Woman of the Year,” starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Director Edward Dmytryk, who later reversed himself and did testify, gave us classics such as “Murder, My Sweet” and “The Caine Mutiny.”

“Billy Wilder was wrong,” says Allan Ryskind, author of “Hollywood Traitors: Blacklisted Screenwriters—Agents of Stalin, Allies of Hitler.” “There was a lot of talent in that group. No matter what else they did, they always made sure that what they wrote was entertaining.”

Defenders of Hollywood would say this year’s Oscars represent the choice of art over mass appeal. But the assumption that they are in conflict is belied by Hollywood’s own history. The best-picture nominees from 1939—“Gone with the Wind,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Stagecoach,” “Love Affair,” “The Wizard of Oz”—point to a time when Hollywood did not despise its audience and produced many movies that had both popular appeal and artistic merit.

Surely it says something sad that professionals skilled in the visual arts can’t even hold an audience for a night. That’s because wokeness inevitably degenerates into virtue-signaling, which has never been a crowd-pleaser. So as the Academy was busy applauding itself for “the most diverse Oscars ever,” Americans changed the channel.

“Academy nominations used to say, ‘Look what great movies we make,’ ” says Mr. Maher. “Now they say, ‘Look what great people we are.’ ”

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