Why the Oscar Snub for 'Secretariat'?

So an entertaining film comes out about a woman who bucks up against societal norms in the early seventies, puts career over family, and still comes out a winner — sounds like someone’s flirting with Oscar! Strangely, it doesn’t earn a single nomination.

“Secretariat,” a movie about the horse who won more awards than Al Gore, will not be in the starting gate at the Oscars, February 27. What could be the problem? It opened the weekend after the “Social Network,” so it wasn’t like the Academy of ADHD Artists had time to forget about it. It wasn’t that it didn’t have a good enough campaign team working behind it either. Disney pitched it right alongside “Toy Story 3,” a long-shot which actually made it into the Best Picture category, a rare occurrence for a cartoon.

Diane Lane put in an undeniably Oscar-worthy performance that recalls some of the most glamorous actresses of a Hollywood’s golden age. She played Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy, with the poise of Grace Kelly, the brash of Katherine Hepburn, and the warmth of Donna Reid. John Malkovich should have been a shoe-in, with one of his quirkiest characters to date, as the trainer Lucien Laurin; a role that recalled some of the greater comedic sidekicks from the heyday of Disney like Don Knotts, Tim Conway, and Buddy Hackett

Perhaps the PG rating made it into a film that no one in the Academy bothered to watch. After “The Blind Side” took two nominations last year, the members of the Academy became aware of the disturbing trend of solidly entertaining family pictures that are uplifting and not vulgar. Perhaps a few more jokes about cleaning out the stables could have won a PG-13 rating and a couple seats in the Kodak Theater.

There were other things that the Academy couldn’t overlook. The film opens with a bible quote (which is about as welcome in Hollywood as a silver and garlic crucifix in Transylvania), and top-forty gospel music of the era is predominant throughout. There is also the portrayal of war protesters as children, something that probably got under the craw of Iraq War protesters within the industry. There is a wonderful scene with a group of stern-faced kids dressed up in a coolie costume chanting “War” while flying cardboard planes and carrying “War is Bad for Children” placards around A.J. Michalka singing “Silent Night.” While touching and beautiful it seemed almost condescending to the anti-war movement.

Of course, the Vietnam War was protested by children, but those who look back on those years tend to imagine themselves more mature than they really were. In the film they’re treated as being kind of cute. Penny tells her daughter, “Kate, our political beliefs can change, but our… our need to do what we believe is right… that doesn’t. I’m proud of you.”

While “Secretariat” was a little corny around the edges, it was a good, solid picture. I found it at least as entertaining as “Inception,” which put me to sleep (I thought it was a special effect of the movie, kind of like 3-D, that you were supposed to nod off during certain intervals of the film, so you would be immersed in the experience–if putting you to sleep weren’t intentional, then Leonardo DiCaprio shouldn’t have been so boring).

Perhaps Hollywood takes issue with a movie where the heroes are upper-middle class white people, and the bad guy is an inheritance tax. Few in Hollywood are concerned with that tax, since legacies there are not always financial, and often squandered by heirs like Charlie Sheen. No one seems to understand the idea of holding on to a father’s memory, so perhaps the central theme of the picture was lost in Hollywood.

I was concerned that I might be thinking conspiratorially, until I read the Salon review by Andrew O’Hehir (that I won’t flatter with a link here, you can google it if you’re interested). In his review, he not only hit all the subjects I just did, but also expressed the danger of upper-middle class white people being portrayed sympathetically. He goes completely hyperbolic and compares it to the films of Leni Riefenstahl.

I think the biggest problem was the happy ending. Movies today are all supposed to end unresolved, in the event of an inexplicable sequel. While looked down upon as trite, a happy ending in 2011 is actually less predictable than the ending of the “Black Swan.” You would think that Hollywood, who claims to push envelopes and cherish out-of-the-box thinking, would get behind such a revolutionary picture as “Secretariat.”

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