By James D. Bloom
Will the Academy ever establish an award for MOST INTELLECTUAL movie of the year?
My high school yearbook, true the genre, included a “MOSTS” page, The editors went beyond MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED and MOST LIKELY TO CONCEIVE, adding such categories as MOST INDIVIDUALISTIC and MOST INTELLECTUAL. Unfortunately, they were less imaginative in establishing criteria for picking the winners: unruliest hair and highest SAT scores, respectively. If the academy ever does decide to add a MOST INTELLECTUAL prize, I hope they’ll show some imagination and some rigor. My recent book, Hollywood Intellect, presents some of the questions they’ll need to raise: should the movie show intellectuals doing intellectual things like current Oscar nominee Colin Firth in A Single Man, Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind or Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire.
Or must the winning movies do something rarer, like conduct inquiries and provoke vexing conversations like those in Reds or Bad Day at Black Rock? Maybe the Academy might single out movies that do both. Models might include Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, or even that intellectually fortified Cinderella story Erin Brockovich, for example? Since Hollywood tends to favor “entertainment,” often derided by us highbrows as “escapism,” the Academy will probably end up limiting the category to movies that make knowing fun and learning funny. Among this year’s finalists, think Julie and Julia and looking to the canon, think William Powell as a surreptitious sociologist in My Man Godfrey. Current nominees suggest, though, that there might be a dark flipside to these criteria. Winners might include the kind of tragedy of getting smarter Hurt Locker, in which the hero mixes technical brilliance, flawless street smarts, and excruciating self-discovery. Perhaps the aptest candidate among this year’s nominees is A Serious Man, the Coen brothers’ hilarious tragedy, which recounts its feckless midlife hero’s tortuously earnest effort to become smart—to find some wisdom or at least a scintilla of insight-- after an aborted career devoted to doing something “intellectual.”
James D. Bloom is a professor of English at Muhlenberg College and the author of Hollywood Intellect.