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In one of the most amusing scenes in American Hustle, the year’s most Oscar-nominated film, including nods for best picture, best director, best actor, and best actress, the morally bankrupt Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) stares determinedly into a mirror and tries to disguise his baldness. A short time later, he defends his con-artist way of life to the woman about to become his mistress by describing his victims as “bad guys.” “They’ve got bad divorces, gambling habits, embezzling—all that,” he insists. The joke, of course, is that Irving’s teased, hair-sprayed, carefully-plastered comb-over no more means that he has hair on top of his head than the supposed personal failings of his marks justify his crimes.
It’s hard not to detect more than a whiff of Irving’s self-serving delusion surrounding the 2014 film awards season and its focus on the depravity, fraud, and excess of the American finance industry.
Some thought-provoking moments like the one above notwithstanding, there’s something decidedly disingenuous about those responsible for hard-R films like Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street claiming that prolonged, detailed scenes of immorality are actually meant to express disapproval of immorality. Even many in the typically slavish entertainment media chuckled when best actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (he of the notorious club-hopping, serial super-model dating lifestyle) said of his role in the movie breaking records for its use of profanity, graphic sex, and drug use, “I hope people understand we’re not condoning this behavior, we’re indicting it.”
Martin Scorsese, up for best director for Wolf, defended the film against charges that it trades on the very sins it purports to revile, saying, “I wanted [the audience] to feel like they’d been slapped into recognizing that this behavior has been encouraged in this country.” Agreed, Mr. Scorsese. But by whom?
Off-screen, on a far more serious scale, a now-adult Dylan Farrow spoke openly for the first time about the horrific charges of sexual abuse against her adopted father Woody Allen that first became public in 1992. Short of a confession, no one can know after so many years whether the chilling story Farrow revealed in an open letter in The New York Times on Feb. 2 is true. Allen claims it isn’t. Yet it’s hard to argue against Farrow’s reasoning that, given the evidence that does exist (and which certainly makes her account, at a minimum, credible), if Allen made his living as anything other than a filmmaker, his colleagues would avoid drawing attention to him rather than honor him with Academy Award nominations and lifetime achievement awards.
In her piece, Dylan says the Oscar nominations Allen has received for Blue Jasmine, a movie about a former socialite coping with the downfall of her financier husband, “felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.” She adds, in a direct aside to the actress nominated for her leading role in the film, “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?”
It would be easier to give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt in its unrestrained depictions of sex, drugs, and violence, as well as in its choice to overlook the Allen allegations, were the industry not often high-handed and rigid in its own moralizing. As an example, just watch the best-picture/best-actress/best-adapted-screenplay nominee, Philomena, a movie that roundly demonizes the Catholic Church and Republican Party despite many of the facts of its alleged true story being either invented or very much in dispute.
This isn’t to say, as in all years, that there aren’t some worthy films with worthy themes to root for in this year’s Oscar lineup. Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, and Captain Phillips—all nominated for best picture, best director, and major acting awards—especially stand out as tales of heroism and bravery. Here’s hoping that they are the ones that walk away victorious.
Listen to Megan Basham’s Oscar picks on The World and Everything in It: