March 6, 2006 -- Is proud liberal George Clooney on the winning side of history? When accepting his Oscar for best supporting actor, the Kentucky native took on the critics who say Hollywood is out of touch with America.
"We're the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered," the 44-year-old star told the audience. "And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. This academy -- this group of people -- gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch."
But does Hollywood take the lead on social issues, and do its movies change American society? Scholars who study the industry express doubts.
While McDaniel received an Oscar for her role as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind," the impact on civil rights was minimal, said Rick Jewell, a film professor at the University of Southern California.
It "did nothing for segregation or for the plight of African-Americans," he said. "She was rewarded for playing a stereotypical role." Regarding AIDS, Jewel was also skeptical of Clooney's claim. The most serious film on AIDS was 1993's "Philadelphia," he said, "which was well into the crisis."
Jewell said this year's best picture Oscar winner, "Crash," seemed "retro" to him. "It took on issues that have been pretty well dealt with by the media for 30 years."
Jewell believed that "Capote" -- not "Brokeback Mountain" -- was the most challenging film this year, because though both movies centered on gay protagonists, "Capote" also dealt with "important ambiguities in the world of media and reporting."
Culture watchers continue to debate whether Hollywood is out in front or out of touch on the issue of gay rights, but in the past the industry has clearly been ahead of the curve at times.
Hollywood Takes a (Safe) Stand
Jewell pointed to the 1939 film "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" about an investigation into a Nazi espionage ring in the United States. Executives across Hollywood told Warner Bros. not to release the film, Jewell said. The studio did anyway, and World War II broke out within months.
Hollywood may be ahead of its audience, UCLA film historian Howard Suber said, "but only by about 12 minutes."
"Is there anything in 'Crash' that would shock people on race relations? Not in the world as I know it," he said.
Suber said the history of Hollywood and race is better defined by the 1947 film "Gentleman's Agreement" in which Gregory Peck portrays a character who pretends to be Jewish.
"Hollywood was always sensitive about the portrayal of Jews onscreen," said Suber. He argues "Gentleman's Agreement" deliberately put "the most WASPish actor they could find" in the role of Philip Schuyler Green.
In 1967, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" took on racial attitudes as a white girl brought her black boyfriend home. "It was savagely attacked at the time," said Suber, but before long it "it didn't seem daring at all."
UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz put the issue in terms of two Hollywoods. One, he said, is made up of mainly liberal artists who have always been outspoken on social issues. The other is the business-minded side that has traditionally shied away from controversy because executives believed it could only hurt the box office.
But Kuntz said times have changed, and today controversy isn't always viewed as bad for the bottom line. "The rules have been rewritten in the last few years with films like 'Fahrenheit 911' and 'Passion of the Christ.'
"What we are seeing today is a continuation of what's been happening to the film industry since the 1960s," he said. "Hollywood has been fragmenting the audience by producing films for niche audiences. Now it seems the fragmentation has finally reached the Oscars."
Oscar night may lend some support to Kuntz's theory. No single film dominated the 78th annual awards, with four movies receiving three statuettes each: "Crash," "Brokeback Mountain," "King Kong" and "Memoirs of a Geisha."
"If Hollywood could make a blockbuster like 'Titanic' every year, it would not be that easy for other films to compete," said Kuntz.
Perhaps the most controversial film ever was D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," from 1915. Based on the 1905 play "The Clansmen," it was vicious in its depiction of African-Americans, who harshly criticized the film.
The film caused race riots throughout the country, but it was also the first movie ever screened at the White House. President Wilson said it was "like history writ with lightning." The film is credited with rejuvenating the Ku Klux Klan and is reportedly still used as a recruitment tool to this day. It was also a huge box office success -- some argue the most successful film of all time.
Bottom Line Still Beats Social Messages
All three film experts agreed that Hollywood is still ultimately a business, and social issues are rarely the focus of filmmaking.
"The day after the Oscars, Hollywood executives probably aren't sitting around trying to figure out how to make another 'Crash,'" said Suber.
"They have to make money, and if they don't the revolving door hits you on the ass on the way out."