For the past 91 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out awards for great movies, and I’ve been an avid watcher of the Oscars for a third of that time. Each February, I stake out the Redboxes in town to see which nominated films have been newly released on DVD, and then I head to Little Rock theaters to watch some of the rest.
As I dive into in the Academy favorites year after year, I often find myself torn between the joy of watching great art, and the duty of watching what some insist is great art.
I certainly experienced the wonder and grandeur of film with this year’s Best Picture winner, “Green Book.” The true story of a refined concert pianist who hires a not-so- refined nightclub bouncer to drive him on a tour of the deep South in the 1960s is a masterpiece. I realize there is controversy over the film’s perspective, but I hope that viewers won’t skip its powerful message about the need for dialogue and the hard work necessary for different people to understand each other.
I love the symmetry between this film and “Driving Miss Daisy.”Exactly 30 years after Jessica Tandy won the Oscar for playing a white woman learning to accept her African- American chauffeur, Mahershala Ali won for his role as a black man connecting with a white driver in “Green Book.”
Both films confront the racial legacy of the South. The “Green Book” was a publication for African-American motorists, providing addresses of hotels and restaurants that served black patrons. Both films also present a completely charming relationship between two people who discover through honesty and humor that we cannot make assumptions about other people, and that we have much to learn from each other.
I enjoyed several other films. “Black Panther” is an innovative and absorbing superhero movie that transports viewers to a unique world and that justly won Oscars for costume design, production design and original score. “A Star is Born” portrays a completely believable relationship between an alcoholic country music star (Bradley Cooper) and the up-and-coming singer he discovers (Lady Gaga). The third remake of this iconic story — previously filmed in 1937, 1954 and 1976 — was a winner for Best Original Song.
As a sentimental favorite that took home no Oscars, “Mary Poppins Returns” is delightful from beginning to end. Emily Blunt is “practically perfect” in the title role, and fans were thrilled to see the 92-year- old Dick Van Dyke tap dancing on top of a desk — no stunt man required.
True stories dominated the awards as usual. “Bohemian Rhapsody” captured four gold statues with its tribute to the iconic band “Queen,” and Olivia Colman charmed everyone with her witty acceptance speech for Best Actress for playing another queen in “The Favourite.”
Each biopic presents its subject as flawed but ultimately redeemed. At least, all of them except “Vice,” which received eight nominations and took home one award for the makeup team who transformed Christian Bale into Vice President Dick Cheney.
“Vice” was exactly what I expected: an over-the-top hatchet-job on the former VP. The title says it all in a three-way pun: a reference to Cheney’s job, a synonym for sin and a nod to the devilish medieval character who was always whispering bad advice to the protagonist.The film follows a well-worn pattern: if you want to feel smug about your politics, pick someone on the other side and make him into a monster.
Conservative filmmakers have done this, too, and everyone learned how from Shakespeare. Over 400 years ago, his play about another Richard manufactured a cutthroat villain whose alleged crimes far exceeded his historical faults. You see, in order to flatter Queen Elizabeth in 1592, Shakespeare had to praise her grandfather, Henry VII. The best way to do that was to demonize the man he defeated a century before.
The result was “Richard III,” a play about a hunchback king with a withered arm who lurches from scene to scene, killing whoever stands in his way. As Christian Bale plays Cheney, you’d think he was the Prince of Darkness himself — wrecking the Constitution and ruining the free world from the shadows, with Amy Adams as his Lady Macbeth. In one telling scene, they even reveal their wicked ambitions in Shakespearean dialogue.
You don’t have to believe Richard III was a saint to see through the agenda. Nor do you have to agree with all of Cheney’s controversial actions to realize that “Vice” is political theatre designed to confirm what the man’s enemies already think. The message of “Green Book” — whatever its flaws — is that we have much to learn from those who are different from us. It’s a shame that tolerance doesn’t extend to Hollywood’s politics.