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The Academy Awards — How Much Does Hollywood Really Matter?

In the aftermath of the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony, the big story appears to be the fact that Brokeback Mountain didn’t receive the Best Motion Picture of the Year award. After all, the hype and promotion surrounding the Oscar celebration centered in the expectation that Ang Lee’s film about two homosexual cowboys would win it all. It didn’t happen. Instead, the award went to Crash, a film few thought had a serious shot at the big prize.

Some immediately argued that Brokeback Mountain‘s loss was evidence of cultural “homophobia,” even within the elite Motion Picture Academy of America, whose members vote in the awards process.

In San Francisco, Wyatt Buchanan of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on the disappointment that set upon his city:

The single-word title of the film that won best picture at the Academy Awards Sunday night, beating “Brokeback Mountain,” could perhaps best describe the mood at the end of San Francisco’s premier Oscar night party.

Moments before, when “Brokeback’s” Ang Lee won for best director, the packed house at the Academy of Friends AIDS fundraising gala at the Concourse Exhibition Center erupted in wild cheering.

But as Jack Nicholson announced the best picture award for “Crash,” a film that received nowhere near the media attention of the cowboy love story, the crowd went quiet. Some booed, and others cried. This was supposed to have been the big “gay” year at the Oscars, with “Brokeback,” “Capote” and “Transamerica” all vying for major awards. Many saw “Brokeback” as a kind of great gay hope for best picture.

This section of his article is most revealing:

“I felt like ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was a film that brought Americans together over issues of homophobia,” said Grant Colfax, who hugged and wept with his partner, Rod Rogers, as the final award of the night went to a movie that instead explored issues of race. Although Colfax said he liked “Crash,” he called it a safe choice.

Others were less diplomatic. “I think that’s an absolute horror,” said Brad Bruner, who is a leader in the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. “It’s an outright sign of homophobia in our country. (‘Crash’) won no awards before this. It makes me sick.”

Make no mistake — I am glad Brokeback Mountain did not receive the award. Had it been chosen, the event would have been hailed as a great turning point in the nation’s normalization of homosexuality. Yet, I believe that Mr. Colfax is wrong in his assumption that a motion picture — any motion picture — has the power to turn the culture in one direction or another, all by itself.

Hollywood has enormous power and influence. In many ways, the cultural products of Hollywood, both movies and television, simultaneously serve as both barometers of the cultural mood and as engines for social and ideological change. It is sometimes hard to know which role Hollywood is playing in any given season or with any particular movie.

Movies have the power to move our emotions, entertain our imaginations, and open our minds to new places, stories, experiences, crises, and questions. But Hollywood cannot move the culture alone. If that were so, we would be a very different nation even now. Just consider where many in Hollywood would have us to go.

Evangelical Christians need to remember this as well. Not long ago, some evangelicals were touting Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ as the catalyst for mass conversions to Christianity and a massive shift in the culture beyond. These did not happen, and that movie is now, like so many others, just one more DVD on the shelf.

With the 2006 Oscars now handed out and as the Hollywood set aleady dreams of next year, let’s remember that Hollywood really is important — that its cultural products have an enormous power to influence our society. But let’s also remember that Hollywood is not all-powerful, and that one movie — whatever its message — is not likely to transform the nation.