2014 Academy Awards: Why Hollywood is taking a walk on the dark side

From 'American Hustle' to the 'Wolf of Wall Street,' nearly all of Hollywood's top films this year are based on real events and cater to Americans' cynicism about society, at a time when heroes are in short supply.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
An Oscar statue stands on the red carpet as preparations are made for the 86th Academy Awards in Los Angeles. The Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre Sunday evening.

A quick glance at some of this year’s Academy Award-nominated films ­– “12 Years a Slave,” “Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle,” and “Dallas Buyers Club” – and it’s pretty clear that these days Hollywood is taking a walk on the dark side. 

Nearly all the top films are based on historical events from one era or another and portray the most heinous side of human nature – piracy at gunpoint, the brutal slave trade, rampant homophobia, amoral, greedy drug addicts ruining the lives of ordinary people.

The film Las Vegas odds-makers are betting on – “12 Years,” a horrific account based on a true memoir of a free black man abducted into the 19th century slave trade – has drawn fire from one film critic who dubbed the film’s unrelieved savagery “torture porn.”

Whatever happened to the dream factory that produced such uplifting biopics as “Gandhi” and “Chariots of Fire”?

Different films for different times, say culture watchers, and these are very different times, indeed.

“We are a nation that in many people’s eyes has already reached its glory days,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “There is all sorts of evidence of dysfunction,” he says, pointing to everything from the bankruptcy in Detroit – “one of our greatest manufacturing cities” – to a dramatic decline in America’s ability to flex its power and influence around the world.

“In the rise and fall of empires, there is a strong sense that we are on the downward slide,” he adds.

These films are designed to tap into that psyche, says Mark Tatge, journalism professor at DePauw University in Green Castle, Ind.

"The current bumper crop” of films and TV shows “cater to our cynicism about society,” he says via e-mail, adding that many people are struggling amid a weak economy and high unemployment. “Many have been downsized out of the work force,” he says, and they are not working or if they are working they are making far less than five or 10 years ago.

When it comes to focusing the camera lens, he says, the litany of woes is long, from “rural areas ravaged by declining fortunes and meth trailers, tax-dodging rich persons, greedy Wall Street investment banks viewed as exploiting the less fortunate, a vanishing middle class, a corrupt Catholic Church with pedophile priests, and a do-nothing, obstructionist Congress.”

There is a deep sense of hopelessness, he says, adding that currently, “heroes are in short supply. Hollywood, for better or worse, has seized on this thread."

More precisely, this is the Hollywood that wants to walk down the awards-show red carpet, wearing the cloak of a prestige project – a film that even if it makes no money at the box office, is seen as being about something important.

“Some of these films are truly hard on many people’s sensibilities,” says Len Shyles, communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. There are differences, however, between the films, he is quick to point out.

Dallas,” a film about one man’s struggle to get the medical help AIDS patients needed back in 1980’s Texas, begins with a depressing line-up of “homophobic creeps,” and this environment dominates some 80 percent of the film. But in the end (Spoiler Alert!), the lead character finds redemption in his work to help society’s outcasts, Professor Shyles says.

While difficult for some to watch, “12 Years” and “Dallas” are “superb” and deserve all the honors they might get, says Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of Film Studies at University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

“Wolf,” on the other hand, he says, “is an amoral film that operates in an amoral universe, depicting amoral people doing amoral things,” he says, adding that the characters are “reveling in it.”

The film invites the audience to watch a spectacle of Roman decadence, says Professor Dixon, “and also to identify with the protagonists.”

While it will all end badly, it seems like an endless party for most of the film, he points out, “as long as you abandon any ethical compass. It's a lesser work in every respect.”

Not all film-goers agree with this assessment. Business ethicist John Paul Rollert, writing in the Atlantic, proclaimed himself “strangely enchanted” by the film, calling it the most “anti-Wall Street movie I’ve ever seen.”

But it’s not just critics who might take a dim view of Hollywood’s dark side. Films based on modern history also run the additional risk of drawing fire from those whose lives were impacted by the actual events that inspired the film.

Such is definitely the case with “Wolf,” which is based on a memoir.

When the film came out in December, Christina McDowell (the real-life daughter of an associate of Jordan Belfort, the lead con man depicted by Leonardo DiCaprio), penned an open letter in LA Weekly blasting the film and its director, Martin Scorsese.

“You people are dangerous. Your film is a reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining,” she says. “We want to get lost in what?” she asks, “These phony financiers' fun sexcapades and coke binges? Come on, we know the truth,” she wrote, adding that this kind of behavior brought America to its knees.

Ms. McDowell, who changed her name after her father went to prison and devastated the family both financially and emotionally with ongoing criminal activities, called on audiences to boycott the film. She addressed the director and star directly:

“You're glorifying it – you who call yourselves liberals. You were honored for career excellence and for your cultural influence by the Kennedy Center, Marty. You drive a Honda hybrid, Leo. Did you think about the cultural message you'd be sending when you decided to make this film? You have successfully aligned yourself with an accomplished criminal, a guy who still hasn't made full restitution to his victims, exacerbating our national obsession with wealth and status and glorifying greed and psychopathic behavior.”

But filmmakers with the clout of Martin Scorsese will always be able to get their projects made, no matter their critical reception, says Sid Levin, longtime Hollywood agent and founder of The Levin Agency.

“There is no studio executive in town who would turn down a Scorsese project, because his movies continue to make money for them,” he says.

However, adds Mr. Levin, if he had his way, Hollywood would turn the lens on people whose lives truly merit the attention.

“There are firefighters, policemen and women, veterans coming home from wars,” he says, “those are the real heroes round us. Hollywood would do well to tell some of their stories.”

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