The passion over the Oscars

Christians: Some say the films and performances honored this year are particularly unsavory.

February 26, 2005|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

Whose character was less morally repugnant, Annette Bening's Julia Lambert or Hilary Swank's Maggie Fitzgerald? Whose had fewer vices, Leonardo DiCaprio's Howard Hughes or Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles? Which film was less blasphemous, Million Dollar Baby or Vera Drake?

When the stars sweep into this year's Oscars tomorrow night, it's doubtful that the Academy will pay much attention to the moral tenor of the films honored. But religious leaders have paid attention, and some say that too many of this year's Oscar nominees are particularly unsavory to defenders of conservative Christian values.

Two top candidates, Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, offer sympathetic treatments of assisted suicide. Vera Drake, which yielded a best-actress nomination for Imelda Stauton, portrays a woman who performs illegal abortions. Maria Full of Grace has a religious-sounding title but is actually a film about a drug smuggler.

One nominated documentary, Twist of Faith, covers the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. And another - which paints a heroic portrait of a nun - has nonetheless irked some Catholics. Although Sister Rose's Passion portrays a nun's crusade against anti-Semitism, critics see the honor as an insult to The Passion of The Christ, a Mel Gibson blockbuster attacked by many critics as an anti-Semitic movie.

In fact, the 5,808 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have riled religious groups more for what it chose not to honor than for what it did. Gibson's Passion was left off all the major nominee lists. These perceived slights were enough to prompt some religious critics to invent their own awards. The judges of merit, they say, should not be the film industry elite, but the very same religious people the movies pretend to portray.

"We want ordinary people to vote," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who created the group's first Academy Awards survey this year.

The Web site survey asks visitors to choose among the Academy's nominees. If a voter needs guidance, there's a link to the Bishop's Office of Film and Broadcasting, whose staff writes hundreds of movie reviews for the nation's 67 million Catholics. Here's the group's summary of Million Dollar Baby:

"What starts out as a formulaic Rocky-esque fight film takes a disturbingly downbeat turn, becoming a somber meditation on assisted suicide with a morally problematic ending which, despite knockout performances by [Clint] Eastwood (who also directed), Swank and Morgan Freeman as a grizzled ring rat, will leave Catholic viewers emotionally against the ropes."

As a result, the Best Picture contender received an "O" rating, for morally offensive.

Ray, another best picture nominee, fared better. Beyond praise for Foxx's performance, the review points out that it "ends on an inspirational note in 1966 with Charles conquering his drug dependence."

Alas, the film's profanity, sexual innuendo, racial epithets and drug use earn the PG-13 film an "adults only," AIII rating.

"We review films based on artistic merit, but we're duty bound to look at its moral content, given that we represent the bishops," said Harry Forbes, the director of the Film and Broadcasting Office.

Hollywood's tangles with defenders of traditional morality are as old as the industry itself. Back when Mae West was stirring up passions in the 1930s and '40s, religious leaders, and particularly the Catholic Church, had significantly more influence.

The Church's Legion of Decency worked in tandem with Hollywood's review board and could sink a script with its "C" rating, for "condemned."

The '50s and '60s saw the Legion's influence dissolve, while filmmakers increasingly experimented with once-taboo topics. By the time the League was replaced in the 1970s with the bishops' current Office of Film and Broadcasting, it had lost any real power in Hollywood.

Forbes acknowledged that today his reviews are used primarily by parents screening the content of movies for their children.

This year, however, supporters of a more righteous Hollywood found a new beacon in Gibson's Passion and its surprise financial success - its $370 million gross made it the third-biggest moneymaker of last year. Tom Snyder, editor of Movieguide, a publication of the Christian Film & Television Commission, said the group's research has found audiences often spend more money to see films with moral themes than on movies that the industry itself honors.

The academy's treatment of Passion, nominated only for three minor awards, proves that the industry has moved far out of touch with public opinion, they say.

On Thursday evening the commission staged its answer to the Oscars with a Los Angeles gala that doled out awards for inspirational films and performances. Passion swept the major categories.

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