The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Worst Oscar trend story of the week: Grim movies are George Bush's fault

December 8, 2009 |  2:19 pm

Having voted against the man twice and popped the bubbly when he left Washington, I'm probably an unlikely defender of George W. Bush. But even as a die-hard lefty, I was appalled by the sheer dim-wittedness of Newsweek's Ramin Setoodeh's current post, entitled "Apocalypse Now," which heaps the blame for this year's crop of grim, downbeat movies on our former president.

After complaining about having the distressing experience of sitting through "The Road," and admitting that he found the Coen brothers' "A Serious Man" so depressing that he walked out in the middle of the movie (meaning he missed the funniest rabbinical scenes of all), Setoodeh writes:

"You can blame Hollywood's gloom and doom on the Oscars, but I'm not going to. Instead, I think it's George W. Bush's fault. Most liberal directors felt restless under his presidency, and they pushed the envelope with over-the-top, operatic tragedies. From 1997 to 2000, during Bill Clinton's second term, 20% of the best picture nominees were comedies.... During Bush's second term, the Academy only nominated two comedies -- 'Juno' and 'Little Miss Sunshine' -- for best picture, and roughly three fourths of all the films fixated on death."

To say this is an incredibly hapless way of making a case against Bush would be an understatement. For starters, if Setoodeh picked movies from Bush and Clinton's first terms, the numbers would be far different, so his methodology is undercut right off the bat. And if conservative presidents really inspired angst and despondency from liberal directors, then why wouldn't Hollywood have been full of gloom and doom during Ronald Reagan's reign, instead of gushing with such upbeat, inspirational and occasionally comic fare as "Top Gun," "E.T.," "Tootsie," "Gandhi," "Amadeus," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Moonstruck," "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Broadcast News" (all of them, except for "Top Gun," best picture nominees, by the way).

Of course, when it comes to making a case for dreary movies, picking the year's Oscar crop has little to do with reality, since the Oscars -- while generating lots of advertising money for newspapers and the trades -- have little do with American moviegoing habits, since films like "Transformers," "Harry Potter," 2012" and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," while hardly Oscar contenders, will be seen by far more moviegoers than all of the ultimate Oscar best picture nominees combined.

Anyway, I know a few liberal directors and I can assure you that they weren't thinking about all their beefs with George W. Bush when they decided to make a downbeat movie. You can blame Bush for anything you want, but I can guarantee you that it's just as likely that Martin Scorsese would've made "The Departed" and Paul Thomas Anderson would've made "There Will Be Blood" and the Coen brothers would've made "No Country for Old Men" if John Kerry or Conan O'Brien had been sitting in the Oval Office (not to say that I couldn't tell 'em apart, since -- let's face it -- Conan's speeches are a lot funnier). 

Filmmakers are like all artists. They're often attracted to dark, somber material -- it's where the drama is. Digging down deep inspires their best work, which is why Clint Eastwood will forever be known for "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby," not "Bronco Billy." Filmmakers don't look at whose picture is on the post office wall for inspiration. They respond to what's in the zeitgeist or what's in their gut, not who's in the White House. If you want to denounce someone for inspiring depressing movies, curse the morons who flew the jets into the Twin Towers. If you're really worried about why our movies have been downers in recent years, you'd have a lot more luck assessing the emotional fallout from 9/11 instead of pointing fingers at George Bush. You can hate him all you want for twiddling his fingers while the planet kept filling up with carbon dioxide, but don't blame him for "The Road."

Photo of George W. Bush by Ron Edmonds / Associated Press