With '12 Years a Slave' and 'American Hustle,' awards season a sequel, too

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 17, 2014 - 6:19 PM

Like last year, dramas about slavery and a ’70s scheme compete for best picture.

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Clockwise from upper left are actors Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave,” Christian Bale in “American Hustle,” Ben Affleck in “Argo” and Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln.”

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Hollywood loves a sequel. Presold concepts cut through the cultural clutter and carve out big box-office receipts. The second serving of “The Hunger Games,” for instance, was 2013’s top-grossing film, followed by “Iron Man 3” and “Despicable Me 2.”

So why not have an awards-season sequel?

That seems to be the case after Sunday’s Golden Globe Awards and Thursday’s Academy Award nominations. Like last year, it appears that the top two Best Picture contenders are a heavy historical drama about slavery — “12 Years a Slave” now, “Lincoln” last year — and a film about a 1970s scam — “American Hustle” now, “Argo” in 2013.

The critical acclaim and audience acceptance of those films speaks to how movies can contextualize national, and personal, history.

“12 Years a Slave” won best drama at the Golden Globes and received nine Oscar nominations. It’s a grim, gripping film about the sin of slavery, shown in an unvarnished (and at times unbearable) fashion.

While it may be the most frank film about slavery, it’s hardly the first. In fact, the topic — and the very sense of America’s identity — were the subjects of 1915’s seminal “Birth of a Nation.” Society, and cinema, are still trying to work out this defining era, according to Robert Silberman, associate professor of art history at the University of Minnesota.

Silberman, who will screen the still-controversial “Birth of a Nation” in a course next semester, calls it a “great challenge. It’s a great film, but political poison because of the racism and the questionable view of history.”

“Birth of a Nation” also was the first great blockbuster, and it influenced Margaret Mitchell to write another Civil War cultural touchstone in “Gone with the Wind,” said Silberman. He added: “If we looked at ‘Amistad,’ ‘Lincoln’ and ‘12 Years a Slave,’ we’d see the historical past being used as a mirror for the present and a way of addressing contemporary problems.”

No historian would conflate the late ’70s with the fundamental importance of the eras examined in “Lincoln” or “12 Years a Slave.” And until recently, relatively few films had returned to a time that evoked very different touch points than the turbulent 1960s.

Indeed, after the excitement of the Space Age and the excesses of the Age of Aquarius, the mid- to late ’70s were much maligned. Oil shocks, rising inflation, the fall of Saigon and Americans held hostage locked up the news narrative. Culturally, disco briefly eclipsed iconic rock music, and “Mad Men’s” crisp midcentury modern style devolved into leisure suits. It was post-Watergate, post-Vietnam and seemingly post-optimism — even to former President Jimmy Carter, who warned of  “malaise.”

And yet, like every era, it was formative for those who came of personal and professional age during it. “American Hustle” director David O. Russell, for instance, turned 20 in 1978, the year in which his film is set.

And notably, many Oscar voters — pegged at an average age of 62 in a 2012 Los Angeles Times analysis — may have been influenced by the era, too.

In fact, some might remember the mid- to late ’70s favorably, if not fondly — especially when they consider the cinema of the time. Sure, it gave birth to the franchise film — “Jaws,” “Rocky” and “Star Wars” among the best of them. But to many cinephiles, it was a — if not the — golden age of American movies.

The first two “Godfather” films, for instance, are among the era’s movies that stand the test of time. “Network,” “Chinatown,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Taxi Driver” and “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” are among many others.

“Argo” and “American Hustle” aren’t just about the ’70s, but seem from the ’70s — well-crafted and -acted and meaningful. So while Oscar voters may not pine for the Ford and Carter era, they may miss the moviemaking sensibility that soon succumbed to a more formulaic, albeit profitable, template.

“The meaningfulness of the medium was running counter to the culture, which was kind of dreary and depressed,” said Carol Donelan, cinema and media studies chair at Carleton College. “Part of this might be a filmmaker trend toward returning to, or retreating to, that period in film history when films mattered more than they do today — aesthetically, artistically, culturally and historically.”

And just as “12 Years a Slave” and “Lincoln” may be a modern movie method to explore the role of race in American history and society, “Argo” and “American Hustle” say something about today, too.

Both share the themes of outsiders inside ineffective institutions. The key characters in both senses of the word are schemers: Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) in “Argo,” and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in “American Hustle,” which won best comedy at the Golden Globes and tied “Gravity” with 10 Oscar nods.

Today’s malaise may not measure as high on the “misery index” invoked by Ronald Reagan to defeat Carter. But at a time of partisan paralysis, distrust in institutions and fundamental doubts that the American dream is accessible beyond the well-connected, these archetype Americans — and their hustle — may resonate not just with viewers, but also with voters in Hollywood.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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