Do voters bring opinions along?


NEW YORK -- When Entertainment Weekly awards columnist Dave Karger argued last week that the Election Day results could help boost the best picture chances of "The Dark Knight" and "Milk," it triggered a war of words among his fellow bloggers. Discounting their own influence, a number of them argued that Academy members aren't motivated by real-world events and that they vote on a movie's merits and not on any social or political grounds.

The question of how much voters check their opinions at the screening-room door isn't a new one, but it's worth posing.

"Kramer vs. Kramer" took home best picture in 1980 partly because divorce was entering the mainstream as both a phenomenon and social topic. "Platoon" landed four Oscars in 1987 in part as a country we were finally beginning to reconcile ourselves to the painful legacy of Vietnam. And in 2005, "Crash" drew voters intent on declaring their racial awareness in what for all the progress was still an ethnically divided Los Angeles. (Good luck finding zeitgeist reasons for "Amadeus" or "Shakespeare in Love.")

Topical movies tend to pick up best picture wins if they're about an event deeply traumatic to the national psyche and if they come out after a certain period of time remove from that trauma -- but not too long.

That's probably why "Apocalypse Now" couldn't win in 1980 but "Platoon" was able to triumph seven years later. Or why "Crash," similarly removed by about a decade from O.J. Simpson and Rodney King, hit a sweet spot.

This year could see the zeitgeist play a greater role than it has in a long time. Given an economic crisis, a presidential election and an unpopular war, consciousness of all sorts of social and political events is high. It's also partly because many of the awards hopefuls happen to grapple with what's already on our minds.

"Slumdog Millionaire" deals head-on with issues of Muslim-secular and Muslim-Hindu tension in the developing world.

"Frost/Nixon" reminds us of a time when the mainstream media could expose a president's distortions -- it could have a sharp timeliness for some as a president who engineered a war on dubious grounds leaves office. "W." offers an even more direct referendum on the Bush presidency.

"Milk" could get a boost from voters outraged by the passage of Proposition 8 in California that essentially bans gay marriage.

Even a fable like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has to be viewed partly in the context of aging baby boomers confronting their fading youth, as a new generation stepped to the fore.

It's hard to draw a straight line between any of these events and awards campaigns; there are simply too many factors making up the equation. Yet in determining the winners and losers of the awards world, the most influential factor might be the world itself.