Scandals lack for stickiness

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Controversy has long been the mother's milk of awards season. But what happens when the teat runs dry?

For scores of Oscar watchers, there's apparently one preferred response: pump furiously anyway.

Numerous awards- season kerfuffles have sprung up during the course of the campaign, almost all of them strangely lacking in traction.

Academics stirred the juices on "Frost/Nixon" with pieces from Nixon scholars like Elizabeth Drew, who in the Huffington Post wrote, among other things, that "Langella's Nixon becomes an almost sympathetic figure, and also a jokey one, the one we most want to see, in order to have more laughs. But Nixon wasn't funny. And he certainly wasn't the likable figure of 'Frost/Nixon.' " And Ray Charles didn't really always smile like Jamie Foxx did, either.

In the wake of Proposition 8, "Milk" figured to be at the center of the firestorm. It hasn't, but that hasn't stopped some from ginning up one. Under the headline "Slamdogs Gaybash Milk," the kudos site Awards Daily notes that a "sudden slump in 'Milk's' already battered position on the IMDb charts is exactly what happened to 'Brokeback Mountain' three years ago … the same types who believe gay marriage is a menace to society climb out of their holes and start shredding it." But there's little evidence of homophobic attacks on "Milk"; if anything, the movie's success has been held up by filmmakers as evidence of tolerance.

"The Reader" had a genuine tint of controversy when Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein tussled over its release. But once Rudin took himself off the picture — leaving Donna Gigliotti and the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella as producers — it has been clear sailing. Attempts to restart it have missed the mark. "Academy Allows Nods for Dead Producers," the New York Times headline said last week when the Academy ruled it would allow four producers. But the issue was never about whether Pollack and Minghella would be credited by the Academy (they would be); it was whether a line producer named Red Morris would be allowed on the picture for Oscar purposes. Not exactly the stuff of great scandal.

The most ballyhooed of these rows was Slumdog-gate. Several news accounts have wondered, "Kite Runner"-style, whether child actors were taken care of after the production had moved on.

Forget whether filmmakers have this larger social responsibility; these people make movies, after all — they don't work for the Red Cross. Even if there was a question about their role, filmmakers noted that they'd taken care of the children's education and health care.

Part of the reason for the lack of controversy is a strange convergence: More media than ever are following the campaign, even as the race has gotten more civil. Sure, behind the scenes, seasoned players talk down others' movies as they talk up their own, but as someone whose ear is bent by these agendas, the level has been reasonable.

There's also a more subtle factor at play. When the Oscars featured outsider upstarts against studio heavyweights — think "Shakespeare in Love" vs. "Saving Private Ryan" — the stage was set for a big battle. This year, that's hardly the case. Most of the big contenders are in the same realm of prestige and passion projects, many of them in lower-budget ranges (including "Slumdog Millionaire"). The biggest heavyweight is "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," still an art film.

A lack of controversy isn't a bad thing. Such quiet does allow for a focus on the movies. But some substantive off-the-film-page tiff might give the awards season a charge, or at least some good gossip.

Awards season can remind one of that old adage about academia: The battles are so intense because the stakes are so low. This year, the battles aren't that intense. Let's hope that means the stakes aren't so low.
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