The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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

'Waiting for Superman' Oscar snub: A liberal plot in action?

January 31, 2011 | 12:44 pm

Davis_guggenheim Whenever a film gets snubbed at Oscar time, the conspiracy theorists come out of the woodwork with madcap theories about what dark, mysterious forces were responsible for its disappointing showing. Hence the arrival of this Oliver Stone-style opinion piece from the New York Post's Kyle Smith, who claims that Davis Guggenheim's "Waiting for Superman," despite being easily the most celebrated documentary of the year, failed to get a best documentary Oscar nomination because the film endorses a conservative cause -- allowing the proliferation of charter schools as a means of saving our battered public school system. 

As Smith put it: "Welcome to reverse McCarthyism. Not only are conservatives unwelcome (bordering on unemployable) in Hollywood, but even fully paid-up and lionized liberals like Guggenheim must be shunned for making a case that conservatives agree with." He added in a blog post that the film's snub was "an excellent example of what happens when the Party Line of liberalism comes head to head with the supposed reason for existence of the Democratic Party -- concern for the downtrodden, particularly black and brown people."

I happen to be a fan of Smith's writing, but in this case, he seems unaware of the fact that when it comes to the arcane realm of Oscar voting, politics is about 14th on the list of truly dark and mysterious forces at work. It is especially hard to make the case that liberals had it in for "Waiting for Superman," since the film critics of America --w ho are probably even more overwhelmingly liberal than the Academy -- were the first to champion the "Waiting For Superman," giving it almost unanimously rave reviews.

So if liberal film critics were willing to put aside their supposed ideological blinders and praise the film, why wouldn't the Academy's documentary film branch do the same? If Smith had delved just a little into Oscar history, he would have realized what a creaky limb he'd crawled out on. As it turns out, the Academy has given the cold shoulder to all sorts of wildly popular documentaries in the past, including "Hoop Dreams," "The Thin Blue Line," "Grizzly Man," "Roger & Me" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," which was declared ineligible because of an obscure technicality. The fact that the Academy has snubbed films made by all sorts of liberal filmmakers, most notably the famously left-wing Michael Moore, makes it hard to cite politics as a key rationale for the omission.

This wouldn't be the first time the documentary branch has punished a documentary for being hugely popular or for benefiting from the kind of ostentatious Oscar campaign "Superman" had. There are enough examples of liberal documentaries losing out to less partisan efforts -- such as when Moore's 2007 film "Sicko" and that year's "No End in Sight" lost to "Taxi to the Dark Side" -- that it seems plausible that bias against conservatism seems hardly a major force at work here. Smith and I agree that "Superman" deserved an Oscar nod, but it's a huge stretch to blame the snub on a liberal plot. The only politics at work here were the usual kind -- office politics. 

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Davis Guggenheim accepts the award for best documentary feature at the Critic's Choice Movie Awards in Hollywood. Credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters