America, America, Hollywood-Style
Oscar's Best Pictures Shape Our Hopes and Dreams; and
Influence Our Vision of Life in the United States
by Michael Wilmington, the Tribune's movie critic
Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1996 page 16
Each year, when Academy Award seasons rolls around again, commentators
and critics may mull over what the Oscars mean to us.
But what about the flip side? What do we mean to the Oscars?
Suppose we tried to construct a composite picture of the America
that has been reflected in the 68 Oscar-winning Best Pictures-from "Wings,"
honored among 1927-'28 films in 1929, to 1994's "Forrest Gump,"
honored last year. What would it look like?
A monument? Or a jigsaw puzzle?
Can we summon up Depression America by examining Gable's
and Colbert's hitchhiking
techniques in the 1934 hit, "It Happened One Night?" Distill
the malaise of returning World War II veterans from the 1946 "The
Best Years of Our Lives?" [sic] Capture New York City decade to
decade through 1928-'29's "The Broadway Melody," 1938's "You
Can't Take It With You," 1945's "The Lost Weekend," 1955's
"Marty," 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" and 1977's "Annie
And if we decided to reconstruct a national image from those movies,
what kind of picture would it be? A land of homespun virtues and endless
promise? Of promiscuity and violence? Yankee energy and idealism?
All these and more, of course. The Oscar race is often equal parts
popularity contest, hype, sentiment, professional critique, idealism and
malarkey. But it does tend to reflect fairly accurately, at any given moment
(subject to huge studio ad campaigns), what a majority of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 14 branches-including the 315 directors
and 1,718 actors on the current roster-think is their best stuff. And,
also, it paints the picture of America that moviemakers, for whatever reason,
most want to convey to the world.
That vision can contain dark elements-but not exclusively dark. Moods,
heroes and heroines change. But a few things are obvious as you track the
Academy Award view of America. Traditionally, edgy or contrarian views
often finish second best. In Oscar contests, it's not always strategic
to be too brilliant (as mavericks from Orson
Welles to John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese have
learned.) The America that movie professionals usually like to watch is
one in which they'd probably like to live: picturesque, physically beautiful,
full of humor, life and idealism. A good guy's America.
Our movies deal with raw reality-and also with dreams. And movie
professionals, as much as movie audiences generally, like to escape. In
many cases the Oscar prize-winning films offer grand escapes into the past
("Gone With the Wind,"
"The Sting") or another country ("An American in Paris"
"Around the World in 80 days," "Out of Africa"). So
the world we discover through them is always a little old, a little fantasized,
never quite in synch with ours.
But does it matter? Sometimes, as Freud believed, you can learn as
much from a society's dreams as from its reality.
The Times: The Roaring '20s. Oct. 28, 1929: The stock market crashes.
The Great Depression begins.
The Presidents: Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover.
The Movie Industry: Talking pictures, after 1927's "The Jazz
Singer," supplant silent movies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences is formed.
The "Best Picture" Oscar Winners: "Wings" (1927-'28)
("Sunrise" (1927-'28)). "Broadway Melody" (1928-'29).
"All Quiet on the Western Front "(1929-'30).
America probably never will be quite as simple again as it is in
these early Oscar winners. Forgetting the corrosive "All Quiet on
the Western Front," set in World War I-era Germany, these movies suggest
that whatever the problem or danger, a good heart will triumph over society's
Take "Wings," the very first Oscar-winner. World War I
Wellman's movie is about two small-town boys and a small-town girl
(Clara Bow) thrust into the maelstrom of WWI and its air battles. The dogfights
in vintage bi-planes amid towering clouds are spectacular. The kids are
true blue. And the movie ultimately suggests that these simple but sterling
young men are the natural masters of the skies.
"Broadway Melody," history's worst Best Picture Oscar-winner,
a movie that has almost nothing to recommend it but the Arthur
Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songs recycled in "Singin' in the Rain"-is
about chorine sisters from the Midwest trying to make it big on Broadway.
Again ordinary people rise to great heights.
But the best of these early films, and one of the purest and most
lyrical visions of America outside a John
Ford western is "Sunrise." (In a curious historical footnote,
"Sunrise" virtually split the best picture prize with "Wings"
in 1927-'28, only to be demoted the next year after a category change.)
The major creators of "Sunrise" were both German migrs-director
F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer. But their image of America, on
vast city sets and beautifully moonlit country backgrounds, has a naive
splendor. In it, an elementally loving and simple country couple, threatened
by a city temptress, later triumph over sin, storm and death.
The Roaring '20s, the era of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and
the Algonquin Round Table, could be quite cynical. But the Hollywood movies
of the '20s, even the Charlie Chaplin-Buster
Keaton comedies, often suggest a more sentimental national myth: Steadfast
young people from the provinces triumph over adversity, war and temptation.
And almost 60 years later, Oscar-winner "Forrest Gump," with
a more naive hero in a far more evil world, will say much the same thing.
The Times: Franklin D. Roosevelt elected. Sweeping governmental changes
battle Depression. Prohibition ends. Hitler rises in Germany; war in Europe
begins. The Big-Band "Swing" era.
The Presidents: Herbert Hoover, FDR.
The Movie Industry: Improved three-strip Technicolor appears. Civic
and church groups' pressure prompts the Motion Picture Code.
The Oscar Winners: "Cimarron" (1930-'31), "Grand Hotel"
(1931-'32), "Cavalcade" (1932-'33), "It Happened One Night"
(1934), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), "The Great Ziegfeld"
(1936), "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), "You Can't Take
It With You" (1938), "Gone
With The Wind" (1939).
Outside movie theaters, the Great Depression dragged on: bread lines,
starvation, homeless people in the streets, Okies on the road. Inside,
there was, in many cases, a different world-- one of glamour, screwball
comedy and wealth: Manhattan penthouses and the bright, breezy guys who
wanted to win some dough. This was the heyday of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
and its rich swank. And while topical pictures with gangsters and grim
subjects might flourish at other studios (like Warner
Brothers), they didn't win the Oscars.
Four of the Oscar-winners are set abroad. One ("Cimarron")
is set in the past-a domestic tragedy of American empire building on the
frontier. One ("The Great Ziegfeld") is set on Broadway-an overrated
and overblown musical that celebrates the most glamour-crazy of Broadway
producers, Florenz Ziegfeld. In one outlandishly expensive-looking scene,
Dennis Morgan croons "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" while the
camera keeps climbing a moving circular staircase packed with "Ziegfeld
Director Frank Capra,
a brash and emotional young Italian-American who had wanted to be an inventor,
became the preferred movie voice of the Depression among his peers. Capracorn
aside, he gives us a hint of what was happening among the "common
"It Happened One Night" and "You Can't Take it With
You" are both built around the collision between rich and ordinary
Yanks. It's the Horatio Alger story with a sexual spin. The commoners,
who include Clark Gable as "It
Happened One Night's" wisecracking reporter, are depicted as whimsical,
fun-loving, daffy or pixilated. And the selfish rich are converted in the
end. Capra liked to show his
snobbish financiers-Walter Connolly in "Night" and Edward
Arnold in "You Can't Take It With You"-turning into regular
guys in the last minute. He gave us a world that was racy and firecracker-hot,
a carnival full of clowns and geniuses, commoners and princesses.
"Gone With the Wind"
is the perfect capstone for the decade-the most curious of big Hollywood
romantic epics. In a way, it's a castle built on a swampland of prejudice
and hatred. Margaret Mitchell's exciting, compelling, but astonishingly
racist book was written partly as an infuriated Southern society woman's
response to the "slanders" of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Mitchell laments the death of the Old South while celebrating the pluck
of her indomitable, self-centered heroine Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien
Leigh in the film). But in the movie, producer David
O. Selznick carefully cut the wild tirades and lurid racial melodramas.
In a way it's curious that this literary movie myth about the rich
having their treasures torn from them-and then winning them back through
sex appeal-had such resonance for Depression audiences. Did they feel that
the country, like Scarlett, had been thrown out of paradise-and would have
to fight to get it back?
The Times: U.S. enters Second World War. Germany, Italy and Japan
are defeated by Allies. Atomic bomb invented and used; Nuclear Age begins.
The Presidents: FDR, Harry Truman.
The Movie Industry: At its all-time audience peak throughout first
half of decade. By decade's end, TV networks appear and political blacklist
The Oscar Winners: "Rebecca"
(1940), "How Green Was My Valley"
(1941), "Mrs. Miniver"
(1943), "Going My Way" (1944), "The Lost Weekend" (1945),
"The Best Years of Our
Lives" (1946), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), "Hamlet"
(British: 1948), "All the King's Men " (1949).
Does a war, especially one forced on a country by outside aggressors
(Nazi Germany and Japan), sometimes bring out the best in the nation and
its film industry? It did for the U.S. (and Britain as well). Despite the
loss for a few years of many of Hollywood's best (Capra,
Ford, William Wyler and
James Stewart) to the armed forces,
the Oscar-winning movies of the '40s are the most distinguished group here.
Though three of the films are set in England or Wales (and 1948's
winner, "Hamlet," is British), the other six winners carry a
detailed and full picture of U.S. life. They show us politics ("All
the King's Men") with a Huey Long-style Southern demagogue, religion
(in the charmingly idealized "Going My Way"), the battle against
prejudice (in "Gentleman's Agreement"-a revelation in its day),
big city hedonism and alcoholism (in "The Lost Weekend") and
finally, the hardships of ordinary lives: the men coming home from WWII
("The Best Years of Our
The 1940s were the great decade of the studio system. The movie theaters
commanded their all-time peak national audience in 1946 (after that TV
steadily eroded it) and, during the first half of the decade, Hollywood
was swept along on a wide, warm wave of commercial success and national
But though '40s Oscar winners tend to be affirming-in 1941, Ford's
"How Green Was my Valley"
beat out Orson Welles' "Citizen
Kane"-there was a dark side: film noir.
The year 1941, which was Hollywood's real "greatest year,"
rather than the storied 1939, marked the first time the Academy handed
out its documentary awards, at first largely to battle films. But that
new emphasis on truth carried over to the fiction films as well-especially
when the directors who left for the war (Ford,
John Huston, Capra
and Wyler) returned to make
Producer Samuel Goldwyn's
and director Wyler's "The
Best Years of Our Lives" is perhaps the ideal Oscar-winner of
that era. Neither cinematically nor dramatically very exciting, it has,
instead, unshakable sincerity, compassion, intelligence and an exquisite
The America it shows us is as idealized and full of loving detail
as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, but it's also, in some sense, disturbingly
real. German immigrant Wyler,
his Jewish producer Goldwyn,
and their writer, Algonquin Round Table graduate Robert E. Sherwood (adapting
MacKinlay Kantor's original story), give us an American city that's mostly
clean, orderly and full of decent people. It is the quintessential "liberal"
movie. With an appealing real-life WWII vet at its center- Harold Russell,
who had lost his hands while in the service -"Best
Years" reflects a belief that, having won the war, America had
to devote its energies toward healing and renewal.
Today if you set "Best
Years" alongside the other '40s Oscar movies, you see a common
slant. Billy Wilder's "The
Lost Weekend" shows us a man--Ray
Milland's alcoholic-writer--teetering on self-destruction but saving
himself. John Ireland in "All The King's Men" walks into political
corruption and pulls back. Bing Crosby's
crooning priest in "Going My Way" almost loses his parish, but
wins out in the end. Gregory Peck,
a gentile posing as a Jew in "Gentleman's Agreement," is hit
by anti-Semitism and returns-angered and more knowledgeable-to his own
world. There are problems, even nightmares, but we can solve them.
Then, of course, there's "Casablanca,"
set in the Moroccan city, way station for Europe's refugees. Is it really
about America? Of course it is. In fact, it's about Hollywood, which had
suddenly become sanctuary for the progressive film, music, literary and
dramatic artists who had fled Europe after Hitler's rise.
The international cast of "Casablanca"--Sweden's
Ingrid Bergman, Germany's
Conrad Veidt, France's Marcel Dalio, Britain's Claude
Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, Austria's Paul
Henreid, Hungary's Peter Lorre
and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall,
the U.S.S.R.'s Leonid Kinskey, Canada's John Qualen and America's Humphrey
Bogart and Dooley Wilson--mirror the expatriate cross-cultural splendor
of a city that, in the '40s, could boast foreign artists like Thomas Mann,
Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair, all living in Los
Angeles and many working for the movies.
Humphrey Bogart's Rick-the
cynical, world-weary ex-rebel, the pleasure-seeking American, the idealist
burned by love-can also be seen as a kind of symbolic movie studio executive:
benefactor and harborer of all these refugees. Rick may seem gloomy and
disengaged, but all he needs is a kiss and a look from Ilsa to fire his
heart again. That's what makes audiences madly love "Casablanca"-shot
without a completed script and full of dramatic holes-but, in many ways,
the ultimate Hollywood movie.
The Times: The Cold War and the Korean War. McCarthyism. The rise
of rock 'n' roll. The space race between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.
The Presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight David Eisenhower.
The Movie Industry: Fighting an audience battle with TV, it introduces
Cinemascope, 3-D, Cinerama, more color films, sexier and more controversial
subject matter-while selling TV its old backlog. The blacklist depletes
The Oscar Winners: "All About Eve" (1950), "An American
in Paris" (1951), "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), "From
Here to Eternity" (1953), "On the Waterfront" (1954), "Marty"
(1955), "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), "The Bridge
on the River Kwai" (1957), "Gigi" (1958), "Ben
If you don't look too closely, the first half of the '50s is a kind
of continuation of the '40s. The first six Oscar winners-minus the spectacular
circus movie of ultra-conservative director Cecil
B. DeMille-fit right into the mold and mood of the preceding decade.
Superficially, it seemed that nothing had changed.
But everything had. Movies were sent reeling-first by Congressional
investigations into Communist influence and, more damagingly in the long
run, by the challenge of TV. As in the previous decades, we get the world
of the stage ("All About Eve"), war ("From Here to Eternity"),
crime ("On The Waterfront"), and ordinary people ("Marty").
But somehow, there's a difference.
"All About Eve" ends in the triumph of the scheming ingenue
Eve (Anne Baxter), who has
conspired to replace acid-tongued diva Margo Channing (Bette
Davis). Rebel Montgomery Clift
is dead at the close of "From Here to Eternity."
Terry Malloy betrays the mob at the expense of a beating in "On The
Waterfront." (This movie was widely and dubiously regarded as an apologia
for informing before the House Un-American Activities Committee by director
Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg-both
of whom named names of ex-Communist Party associates. But few who love
"On The Waterfront" really imagine it with an anti-Commie subtext.)
Gene Kelly in "An American
in Paris" is, like "Casablanca's"
Bogart, a Yank who lives abroad
among his own special community. If Bogey's
Rick specialized in entertainment and politics, Kelly
shines at arts and amour; he exemplifies that lust of some Americans for
European culture, and, in the movie's great climactic set-piece, the ballet
scored to Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Kelly
dances himself into a dream in which the sets evoke paintings by Dufy,
Utrillo and Toulouse-Lautrec.
But it's in "On The Waterfront" and "Marty" (writer
Paddy Chayefsky's tale of a lovelorn Bronx butcher) that our movies show
us a really different landscape-before spinning off into the fantasy world
of travel, Paris and Biblical times. Here, Kazan
and Schulberg, Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann give us lower depths,
racy, brutish and tender worlds. Bronx sidewalks and foggy docks, love
and danger. Coming 10 years after the international breakthrough of Italian
neo-realism, they brought something raw and real to Hollywood.
The Times: "Camelot." Cuban missile crisis. The Vietnam
War. John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King are all
assassinated. "The Great Society." The sexual revolution. U.
S. puts a man on the moon.
The Presidents: Ike, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon.
The Movie Industry: Old Motion Picture Code is swept away. Economic
The Oscar Winners: "The Apartment" (1960), "West
Side Story" (1961), "Lawrence
of Arabia" (1962), "Tom Jones" (1963), "My
Fair Lady" (1964), "The
Sound of Music" (1965), "A Man for All Seasons" (1966),
"In the Heat of the Night" (1967), "Oliver!" (1968),
"Midnight Cowboy" (1969).
The '60s were, famously, the most volatile of decades. But often
they were less reflected than avoided in the Oscar-winning films. Sex?
Drugs? Rock 'n' roll? Riots in the streets? Love in the parks? Not at Oscar
For most of the decade, the prizes went to British epics ("Tom
Jones," "Lawrence of
Arabia," "Oliver!") or Hollywood films set in Britain
("My Fair Lady,"
"A Man For All Seasons") or even American Broadway hit adaptations
with British stars ("The
Sound of Music.")
Such wholesale Anglophilia has never been seen in the Oscar voting
before or since-and part of it probably stemmed from the fact that the
older Oscar voters found so disturbing much of what was happening in the
country-street violence, crime, sex, drugs, dissension and most of all
that great unmentionable war in Vietnam. (Despite John
Wayne's efforts in 1968's "Green Berets," Vietnam didn't
blossom as a movie subject until the late '70s.)
All of the movies that really defined the era-"Dr. Strangelove,"
"The Manchurian Candidate," "Psycho," "Bonnie
and Clyde," "A Hard Day's Night," "2001: A Space Odyssey"
and "The Wild Bunch"-never really had a chance at the top Oscar.
But a few Oscar movies at the beginning and end of the decade did
catch the country's contradictions. Billy
Wilder's brilliant 1960 comedy of office pimpmanship, "The Apartment"-with
Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine
caught in the double standards of executive success-was a great comedy
about sexual hypocrisy in the Miltown and martini era. The 1961 "West
Side Story" presented by Robert
Wise, Jerome Robbins,
Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, may have suffered
from dubbed singers and studio sets, but it dealt with New York youth violence
in a way no musical comedy had ever touched. When "Somewhere"
soars up at the climax, it's still capable of moving audiences to tears.
1967's "In the Heat of the Night, " with northern black
cop Sidney Poitier and Southern
white police chief Rod Steiger joining forces to crack a murder case, handles
racial tensions gingerly and amiably. But at least it handles them.
And 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," with Jon Voight as naive
42nd Street hustler Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his threadbare business
manager, Ratso Rizzo, was an emblematic post-Sexual Revolution '60s film;
the first (and last) X-rated movie to win an Oscar, the first to portray
a homosexual milieu and the first to contain copious simulated sex.
From the vantage point of time, we can see "Midnight Cowboy'
as a classic Hollywood story, a heart-tugging buddy movie in a line with
"Wings" and "Forrest Gump." Back then, it seemed a
shocker that stretched screen candor to the limit.
The Times: Vietnam War Ends. Watergate. The "Me" decade.
The Presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter.
The Movie Industry: 1975's "Jaws" and 1977's "Star
Wars" start the modern super-blockbuster era.
The Oscar Winners: "Patton" (1970), "The French Connection"
(1971), "The Godfather" (1972), "The Sting" (1973),
"The Godfather, Part II" (1974), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest" (1975), "Rocky" (1976), "Annie Hall" (1977),
"The Deer Hunter" (1978), "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979).
If there are two great decades of Oscar winners, they're the '40s
and the '70s. And since the movies of this decade came after the production
code was scrapped, they're among the frankest and boldest in Hollywood's
With the exceptions of "Patton" and "The Deer Hunter"
(which deal with Americans at war in Europe and Vietnam, respectively)
all the '70s Oscar winners are set primarily in America. But it's an America
seen from different angles and among diverse groups: Manhattan intellectuals
("Annie Hall"), broken families ("Kramer vs. Kramer"),
Pennsylvania steelworkers ("The Deer Hunter"), the secret world
of the Cosa Nostra (the "Godfather" movies), blue-collar cops
("The French Connection"), forgotten mental patients ("One
Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") heavyweight champs and fantasy long-shot
contenders ("Rocky"), generals ("Patton") and con artists
It was a brief heyday. Things changed radically with the huge success
of "Jaws" in 1975 and "Star Wars" in 1977. But it was
a strong one. The overall viewpoint is consistently iconoclastic, even
tragic, but there's also a wistfulness in these movies, a longing for the
past. Seven of the winners have sad or bittersweet endings. Only "The
Sting," "Rocky" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" have upbeat
resolutions-but none is untinged by sorrow.
What is the view of America we see here? A troubling one indeed--although,
as much as these movies portray flaws in society, government or relationships.
they also tend, in classic Hollywood style, to find redemption in the people
themselves. The world may be dangerous or threatening, but love survives.
At times, it's the only solace available.
So in the "Godfather" films, we see a vast criminal empire
that murders and cannibalizes its own, run by a family whose loyalties
are eventually torn asunder. We see brutal New York cops battling an even
more brutal set of French heroin smugglers ("The French Connection").
We see a brilliant but reckless and prejudiced general winning a war and
losing his own peace ("Patton"). Rebellion in a mental hospital
is waged by a chronic malcontent (Jack Nicholson) who battles the ward's
tyrannical head nurse ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). A
bunch of gung-ho Vietnam-bound recruits is torn apart by war ("The
And, in the decade's only two Best Picture Oscar-winning romantic
comedies: a bitterly divorced couple declare a truce over their child ("Kramer
vs. Kramer") and two quirky, bright Manhattan lovers, despite laughs
and memories, can't stay together ("Annie Hall").
The Oscar-winners of the '70s suggest that most of what we'd learned
from the movies up until then--about gangsters, cops, lovers, soldiers,
lunatics, con games, divorce and almost everything else-was wrong. And
though they disturbed and riled people, the audacity and bravery of some
of these movies now seem unique. What appeared marginal or daring in the
previous decade now had moved to the center. But not for long.
The Times: The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. Soviet Union dissolves.
Economy booms. National debt quadruples. AIDS epidemic sweeps the world.
The Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush.
The Movie Industry: Multiplexes. VCR's and cable TV help expand audience
The Oscar Winners: "Ordinary People" (1980), "Chariots
of Fire" (1981), "Gandhi" (1982), "Terms of Endearment"
(1983), "Amadeus" (1984), "Out of Africa" (1985), "Platoon"
(1986), "The Last Emperor" (1987), "Rain Man" (1988)
"Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).
Oliver Stone's Vietnam film "Platoon" to the contrary,
this is a decade of retreat-and even "Platoon" seems more upbeat
than "Deer Hunter." "Rain Man," with its lovable autistic
hero, played by Dustin Hoffman of "Midnight Cowboy" and "Kramer
vs. Kramer, " can seem 180 degrees away from a movie like "Cuckoo's
Nest." The dysfunctional families of "Ordinary People" and
"Terms of Endearment," two effective tear-jerkers in middle class
settings-pale beside the "Godfather" movies, or "Kramer
vs. Kramer." And "Driving Miss Daisy," a beautifully acted
film about a black chauffeur and his Jewish lady boss, is less daring than
1967's "In the Heat of the Night."
What do the Oscar-winning movies say about America? Largely, that
it was a big beautiful country and that its people should stick together.
That families had problems, but all they needed, sometimes, was love. That
even if you fought in a rotten war, there are ways to preserve dignity
and manhood. A far cry from the trenchant view of the '70s-even if you'd
love to agree with it.
The Times: Bosnia. Whitewater. Talk radio. Newt Gingrich.
The Presidents: George Bush, Bill Clinton.
The Movie Industry: Conquers the world market.
The Oscar Winners: "Dances With Wolves" (1990), "The
Silence of the Lambs" (1991), "Unforgiven" (1992), "Schindler's
List" (1993), "Forrest Gump" (1994).
The pattern changes. Is it closer to the iconoclastic '70s or the
affirmative '80s? "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven"-the
first Oscar westerns since "Cimarron"-are revisionist oaters
that present the Indian wars and the gunslinger in a darker light. "The
Silence of the Lambs" is a psycho-thriller in which one serial killer
is set to catch another-with detective Jodie Foster caught between them.
"Schindler's List," about a Nazi industrialist who saved his
Jewish workers, is about America only obliquely-though it takes the themes
of "Gentleman's Agreement" to a sublime level.
And then there's "Forrest Gump"-a movie that is really
about America. It's all there: politics, warfare, sports, romance, heartbreak
in dysfunctional families, failure, success. It's not hard to guess why
film people love it. This movie is one of the "Super-Hollywood shows
them all" type, not really about the world of a post-war era, but
about what the movies can make of that world-with Tom Hanks' slow-talking,
likable, appreciative Forrest as a kind of super-mogul and dreammaker.
Yet, if we look closely, we can see another similarity. Hanks' Forrest
Gump, just like the flying kids played by Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen
in "Wings," is a naive boy from Heartland America who goes off
to fight a war and then returns home to his family, his girl, his town.
Does life ever change? Do movies? Almost 70 years separate Oscar's first
anointed movie from its most recent one. Yet, though the singers have changed,
in many ways the song is the same.
© 1996 Chicago Tribune Company