The Best Picture

When this year’s Academy Award nominees were announced, many were shocked Mel Gibson’s The Passion of The Christ was not nominated for a single major award. The movie, which chronicled Jesus’s last twelve hours, took the cinematic world by storm.

Breaking an Unspoken Taboo

Because the movie was filmed in Latin and Aramaic with no big-name stars, Hollywood insiders figured producer and director Gibson was throwing away his $30 million investment. However, upon general release in February 2004, it was obvious something extraordinary had occurred: The Passion was not only a box-office smash but the film succeeded brilliantly as cinema.

Gibson expertly puts us at Ground Zero of the last twelve hours in Christ’s life. In his wisdom, the director played it straight, letting the gripping Passion narrative unfold just as it has been passed down through the ages — thankfully, there’s hardly a modern touch found anywhere in the film.

In taking Christianity seriously, however, The Passion broke Hollywood’s unspoken taboo. Controversy raged about whether the film was “anti-Semitic.” But whether people loved or hated the film, most agreed it was extraordinarily powerful cinema. The question was not if the film would be nominated for major awards, but how many.

Then came January 26’s startling news: The Passion was nominated for three minor awards but no major ones. Few imagined Hollywood’s bias against Christianity was so big — and its elite so small — that The Passion would be virtually snubbed when the Academy Award nominations were announced. Was 2004 such a stellar year for the movies that a great cinematic achievement like The Passion could be ignored?

The Second-Rate Competition

Hardly. The five films nominated for 2004’s Best Picture are — at best — second-rate, forgettable as last week’s leftovers. Ray, for instance, is simply a mediocre bio-pic of the sort — albeit seamier — Hollywood used to churn out by the dozens: The Glenn Miller Story, The Benny Goodman Story, The Gene Krupa Story, The Eddy Duchin Story, etc. (None of these — including Ray — holds a candle to Yankee Doodle Dandy, though.) You never forget you’re watching a movie about Ray Charles: Despite all the acting accolades, Jamie Foxx seems far too delicate and insubstantial for the role of a tough, complex giant like Ray Charles. As one who loves Charles’s music, I wanted to like the movie but found it trite and unmoving. Most viewers would better understand “The Genius” by listening to a greatest hits CD rather than watching this anemic film.

It says much about the corrupted state of our culture that Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is considered mainstream. The story involves the freakish sport of female boxing, an activity that would be unthinkable in a civilized society. None of the athletes exhibit even the faintest hint of feminine virtue, but instead talk, act and think like undersized men with mammaries. Worse, the film smiles upon the “mercy killing” of an invalid by the nominally Catholic “hero.” The message: Once you’ve lost the ability to earn big bucks pulverizing women in a boxing ring, then life just ain’t worth living. This is deep thinking, Hollywood-style.

Finally, director Eastwood can’t resist taking cheap shots at the Catholic Church. As in last year’s Mystic River, a priest is disparaged. This time, he’s made to appear immature and so ignorant he can’t explain the doctrine of the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception to a pesky parishioner. In short, Million Dollar Baby is a thoroughly repulsive film.

Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is similar to Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose: so overblown it hardly gets airborne. This leaden biography of Hughes (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a cartoonish, indulgent, almost amateurish production. DiCaprio’s hair looks like it was dyed with shoe polish. In the second lead role, Cate Blanchett’s caricature of Katherine Hepburn is uproariously incompetent. Like every movie Scorsese has made since 1980’s great Raging Bull, this film is too long, too loud, and too lumbering. Nothing in it rings true. Put another way, The Aviator, as they say, must be seen to be disbelieved.

Critically acclaimed Sideways reveals more about its admirers than it does about human nature. The story revels in degradation — of marriage, friendship, courtship, family, etc. You name it, Sideways demeans it. Ostensibly about two friends on a week-long wine tasting binge before one’s wedding, the wretched Sideways is a sort of upscale Porky’s, replete with foul language, naked fat slobs, animal-like carnality and juvenile high-jinks by two thoroughly unlikable male leads. If this is the “cultural landmark” many are saying, Catholics must ask whither American culture hath landed.

Finding Neverland, a story about Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie, is a thin but rewarding film, featuring an excellent performance by Johnny Depp — the first role I’ve seen in which he doesn’t grossly overact. Another highlight is the extraordinary performance by Freddie Highmore as a member of the family that inspires Barrie to write Peter Pan. Neverland is an enjoyable and touching movie, but ultimately is rather insubstantial.

Relishing Religious Bigotry

By any artistic standard, The Passion is far superior to any of the films nominated as Best Picture. Why the cold-shoulder? First, part of the wailing over the movie was veiled envy from an embarrassed Hollywood establishment, those makers of infantile comedies and seductive trivialities who saw what a real filmmaker could do. Watching The Passion is an unforgettable experience: It demonstrates the heights that cinema is capable of but rarely achieves, especially these days.

Second, The Passion’s snubbing puts the lie to the Hollywood establishment’s reputed “tolerance.” In fact, the hostile blacklisting of Gibson and other Christians now occurring is far uglier than anything that happened during the supposed “Dark Ages” of the McCarthy blacklisting era, because now it is done out of religious intolerance. Over the years, observers have noted how Hollywood executives relish producing films that undermine, demean, and ridicule the Christian faith. This year the mask is ripped off and we see the bared fangs of religious bigotry in all its grisly and vivid ugliness. In a year when a great film like The Passion so obviously should have been honored, Tinseltown’s elites instead chose five forgettable films as the finest they had to offer. Faced with an opportunity to rise above their prejudices for a change, the Academy — to its everlasting shame — took a flyer.

The 2004 Academy Awards forever will be remembered as when the year’s best picture wasn’t nominated as Best Picture.

Click here to view an amazing one-minute trailer presentation that will take you “Inside the Passion.”

James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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