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This Year's Big Oscar Winner Will Be American Anxiety

Hollywood makes better films when it's feeling depressed.

When the world awakes tomorrow, it will be awash with more think-pieces about Jennifer Lawrence's hair. Someone, probably Jack Nicholson, will have provided feminists with months of ammo by leering maniacally from behind his wrap-around sunglasses: “Isn’t it awful and terrible and offensive to all our liberal sensibilities?” etc, etc. The Oscars have an unparalleled knack of teasing out shit from bored people on the internet, and tonight will be no exception. My only hope is that a few people might look beyond the glitz and BS to consider the works at stake, because this year more than ever, they carry with them an important message about the present state of the film industry and America as a whole. The undisputed forerunners for awards this year are 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. With the exception of Gravity, it’s an award season dominated by one subject: American mistakes. Sure, one or two films on this subject crop up most years, but the sheer volume makes 2014 an exception. Leading the race for Best Actor are Chiwetel Ejiofor, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey, and critics are placing bets on the latter to win for his performance in Dallas Buyers Club. If he wins, McConaughey will deliver his speech out the side of his mouth in his Southern accent, probably referring to himself more than once in the third person and revealing his dimples – the quintessential Texan mannerisms that won him roles playing hunks in rom-coms but prevented him from ever being taken seriously as an actor, until recently. Since delivering a parody of his own sexual voracity in Magic Mike there’s a feeling that he no longer gives a shit if you think he’s a joke. And it works. Cue the arrival of Mad McConaughey, the chest-beating, straw-chewing maniac who the world eventually fell for, critics included. It’s testament to the power of honesty, and it’s a personal story that reflects a wider shift that seems to be taking place in Hollywood as a whole. While British cinema never shied from showing the world Julie Walters taking her night courses or heroin addicts coming down in their own sweat and shit, Hollywood always seemed much more preoccupied with making itself look good. Even when dealing with the grittier parts of its own culture, there was always an attempt to glamourise, or at least avoid the fact that in real life, redemption – moral, or otherwise – doesn’t actually exist. Hollywood never had an equivalent to Ken Loach. When it has surrendered itself to introspection, it has usually done so through a telescope and with the fairly patronising feel of a superpower warning of the terrible things that happen to Americans when they get lost in strange, far off and often war-torn lands – see Best Pictures ’85, ’86 and ’87, Out of Africa, Platoon and The Last Emperor. I’m not saying that any of the films in the running this year are particularly gritty, but there's a notable honesty to them. American Hustle makes powerful Americans look stupid, corrupt and greedy. It’s not the searing commentary that 12 Years a Slave is, but its central characters are sleazy and their glamour is farcical and ridiculous. Even The Wolf of Wall Street is honest in depicting the high-octane excitement felt by those egotistical financiers who stupidly thought themselves invincible. If it does glamourise, it’s only for the sake of recreating the distorted view of reality that its subjects experienced, and to emphasise the enormous fall from grace that they felt at the end (if you haven’t seen it by now, you never will). For whatever reason – blame the economic crash, blame 9/11, blame Putin, blame China – the bland pride with which Hollywood made films has slowly broken down. You don't get the feeling that any of the films that will dominate this year's Oscars could ever act as propaganda tools for the US. The American film industry has been retreating slowly to the point where it has arrived on home turf and is now taking a long hard look at itself. Where did it all go wrong? It asks. Were we too greedy? (Wolf of Wall Street) Was the dream a big scam? (American Hustle) Was our approach to healthcare and sexuality detrimental to our people? (Dallas Buyers Club) Perhaps most pressingly: Was our sense of superiority unwarranted and based on a pack of lies? (12 Years a Slave). The answer delivered in the case of each film is a firm and resounding "yes". Even Inside Llewyn Davis tells the story of a hapless American Dream disciple whose musical career is stifled by creative shortcomings. The film is no more dramatic than that. No love loss, no action, no real sympathy for the egotistical man at its centre. Just a simple message that some of us have delusions of grandeur.
Perhaps tonight sees in a new wave of modest, self-deprecating Hollywood filmmaking; and when you place that within the context of the country’s glossiest award ceremony, something interesting starts to happen. Yes, the same ludicrous ritual will take place of actors parading up and down a red carpet while correspondents from Daybreak ask what they’re wearing. Angelina Jolie will probably pose for photos at an afterparty with Ellie Goulding and like I said, Jack Nicholson, if he attends, will be leering behind squealing starlets like only he knows how. But watch closer, because the stars at its centre won’t be staring off into the brightly lit middle distance, a glazed expression on their made-up faces. McConaughey will stride purposefully, DiCaprio will be as unenthused as ever, Sandra Bullock will carry herself with the air of a woman who is just relieved to have finally made a great film and Jennifer Lawrence will probably be photobombing people once again. The perfect veneer of Hollywood is breaking down and the film industry is slowly learning to take itself less seriously. As the awards pay homage to The Wizard of Oz on its 75th birthday, many are attempting to draw parallels with a Hollywood that they feel has finally gathered the strength to pull back the curtain on the USA. Whatever the convenient symbolism, it's hard to deny that America makes much better films when it's depressed.