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America, America, Hollywood-Style

Oscar's Best Pictures Shape Our Hopes and Dreams; and Influence Our Vision of Life in the United States

by Michael Wilmington, the Tribune's movie critic

Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1996 page 16

Each year, when Academy Award seasons rolls around again, commentators and critics may mull over what the Oscars mean to us.

But what about the flip side? What do we mean to the Oscars?

Suppose we tried to construct a composite picture of the America that has been reflected in the 68 Oscar-winning Best Pictures-from "Wings," honored among 1927-'28 films in 1929, to 1994's "Forrest Gump," honored last year. What would it look like?

A monument? Or a jigsaw puzzle?

Can we summon up Depression America by examining Gable's and Colbert's hitchhiking techniques in the 1934 hit, "It Happened One Night?" Distill the malaise of returning World War II veterans from the 1946 "The Best Years of Our Lives?" [sic] Capture New York City decade to decade through 1928-'29's "The Broadway Melody," 1938's "You Can't Take It With You," 1945's "The Lost Weekend," 1955's "Marty," 1969's "Midnight Cowboy" and 1977's "Annie Hall"?

And if we decided to reconstruct a national image from those movies, what kind of picture would it be? A land of homespun virtues and endless promise? Of promiscuity and violence? Yankee energy and idealism?

All these and more, of course. The Oscar race is often equal parts popularity contest, hype, sentiment, professional critique, idealism and malarkey. But it does tend to reflect fairly accurately, at any given moment (subject to huge studio ad campaigns), what a majority of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' 14 branches-including the 315 directors and 1,718 actors on the current roster-think is their best stuff. And, also, it paints the picture of America that moviemakers, for whatever reason, most want to convey to the world.

That vision can contain dark elements-but not exclusively dark. Moods, heroes and heroines change. But a few things are obvious as you track the Academy Award view of America. Traditionally, edgy or contrarian views often finish second best. In Oscar contests, it's not always strategic to be too brilliant (as mavericks from Orson Welles to John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese have learned.) The America that movie professionals usually like to watch is one in which they'd probably like to live: picturesque, physically beautiful, full of humor, life and idealism. A good guy's America.

Our movies deal with raw reality-and also with dreams. And movie professionals, as much as movie audiences generally, like to escape. In many cases the Oscar prize-winning films offer grand escapes into the past ("Gone With the Wind," "The Sting") or another country ("An American in Paris" "Around the World in 80 days," "Out of Africa"). So the world we discover through them is always a little old, a little fantasized, never quite in synch with ours.

But does it matter? Sometimes, as Freud believed, you can learn as much from a society's dreams as from its reality.

Twenties

The Times: The Roaring '20s. Oct. 28, 1929: The stock market crashes. The Great Depression begins.

The Presidents: Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover.

The Movie Industry: Talking pictures, after 1927's "The Jazz Singer," supplant silent movies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is formed.

The "Best Picture" Oscar Winners: "Wings" (1927-'28) ("Sunrise" (1927-'28)). "Broadway Melody" (1928-'29). "All Quiet on the Western Front "(1929-'30).

America probably never will be quite as simple again as it is in these early Oscar winners. Forgetting the corrosive "All Quiet on the Western Front," set in World War I-era Germany, these movies suggest that whatever the problem or danger, a good heart will triumph over society's evils.

Take "Wings," the very first Oscar-winner. World War I pilot-turned-director William Wellman's movie is about two small-town boys and a small-town girl (Clara Bow) thrust into the maelstrom of WWI and its air battles. The dogfights in vintage bi-planes amid towering clouds are spectacular. The kids are true blue. And the movie ultimately suggests that these simple but sterling young men are the natural masters of the skies.

"Broadway Melody," history's worst Best Picture Oscar-winner, a movie that has almost nothing to recommend it but the Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songs recycled in "Singin' in the Rain"-is about chorine sisters from the Midwest trying to make it big on Broadway. Again ordinary people rise to great heights.

But the best of these early films, and one of the purest and most lyrical visions of America outside a John Ford western is "Sunrise." (In a curious historical footnote, "Sunrise" virtually split the best picture prize with "Wings" in 1927-'28, only to be demoted the next year after a category change.) The major creators of "Sunrise" were both German migrs-director F.W. Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer. But their image of America, on vast city sets and beautifully moonlit country backgrounds, has a naive splendor. In it, an elementally loving and simple country couple, threatened by a city temptress, later triumph over sin, storm and death.

The Roaring '20s, the era of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and the Algonquin Round Table, could be quite cynical. But the Hollywood movies of the '20s, even the Charlie Chaplin-Buster Keaton comedies, often suggest a more sentimental national myth: Steadfast young people from the provinces triumph over adversity, war and temptation. And almost 60 years later, Oscar-winner "Forrest Gump," with a more naive hero in a far more evil world, will say much the same thing.

Thirties

The Times: Franklin D. Roosevelt elected. Sweeping governmental changes battle Depression. Prohibition ends. Hitler rises in Germany; war in Europe begins. The Big-Band "Swing" era.

The Presidents: Herbert Hoover, FDR.

The Movie Industry: Improved three-strip Technicolor appears. Civic and church groups' pressure prompts the Motion Picture Code.

The Oscar Winners: "Cimarron" (1930-'31), "Grand Hotel" (1931-'32), "Cavalcade" (1932-'33), "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935), "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936), "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937), "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), "Gone With The Wind" (1939).

Outside movie theaters, the Great Depression dragged on: bread lines, starvation, homeless people in the streets, Okies on the road. Inside, there was, in many cases, a different world-- one of glamour, screwball comedy and wealth: Manhattan penthouses and the bright, breezy guys who wanted to win some dough. This was the heyday of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and its rich swank. And while topical pictures with gangsters and grim subjects might flourish at other studios (like Warner Brothers), they didn't win the Oscars.

Four of the Oscar-winners are set abroad. One ("Cimarron") is set in the past-a domestic tragedy of American empire building on the frontier. One ("The Great Ziegfeld") is set on Broadway-an overrated and overblown musical that celebrates the most glamour-crazy of Broadway producers, Florenz Ziegfeld. In one outlandishly expensive-looking scene, Dennis Morgan croons "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" while the camera keeps climbing a moving circular staircase packed with "Ziegfeld girls."

Director Frank Capra, a brash and emotional young Italian-American who had wanted to be an inventor, became the preferred movie voice of the Depression among his peers. Capracorn aside, he gives us a hint of what was happening among the "common people."

"It Happened One Night" and "You Can't Take it With You" are both built around the collision between rich and ordinary Yanks. It's the Horatio Alger story with a sexual spin. The commoners, who include Clark Gable as "It Happened One Night's" wisecracking reporter, are depicted as whimsical, fun-loving, daffy or pixilated. And the selfish rich are converted in the end. Capra liked to show his snobbish financiers-Walter Connolly in "Night" and Edward Arnold in "You Can't Take It With You"-turning into regular guys in the last minute. He gave us a world that was racy and firecracker-hot, a carnival full of clowns and geniuses, commoners and princesses.

"Gone With the Wind" is the perfect capstone for the decade-the most curious of big Hollywood romantic epics. In a way, it's a castle built on a swampland of prejudice and hatred. Margaret Mitchell's exciting, compelling, but astonishingly racist book was written partly as an infuriated Southern society woman's response to the "slanders" of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Mitchell laments the death of the Old South while celebrating the pluck of her indomitable, self-centered heroine Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh in the film). But in the movie, producer David O. Selznick carefully cut the wild tirades and lurid racial melodramas.

In a way it's curious that this literary movie myth about the rich having their treasures torn from them-and then winning them back through sex appeal-had such resonance for Depression audiences. Did they feel that the country, like Scarlett, had been thrown out of paradise-and would have to fight to get it back?

Forties

The Times: U.S. enters Second World War. Germany, Italy and Japan are defeated by Allies. Atomic bomb invented and used; Nuclear Age begins.

The Presidents: FDR, Harry Truman.

The Movie Industry: At its all-time audience peak throughout first half of decade. By decade's end, TV networks appear and political blacklist begins.

The Oscar Winners: "Rebecca" (1940), "How Green Was My Valley" (1941), "Mrs. Miniver" (1942), "Casablanca" (1943), "Going My Way" (1944), "The Lost Weekend" (1945), "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), "Hamlet" (British: 1948), "All the King's Men " (1949).

Does a war, especially one forced on a country by outside aggressors (Nazi Germany and Japan), sometimes bring out the best in the nation and its film industry? It did for the U.S. (and Britain as well). Despite the loss for a few years of many of Hollywood's best (Capra, Gable, John Ford, William Wyler and James Stewart) to the armed forces, the Oscar-winning movies of the '40s are the most distinguished group here.

Though three of the films are set in England or Wales (and 1948's winner, "Hamlet," is British), the other six winners carry a detailed and full picture of U.S. life. They show us politics ("All the King's Men") with a Huey Long-style Southern demagogue, religion (in the charmingly idealized "Going My Way"), the battle against prejudice (in "Gentleman's Agreement"-a revelation in its day), big city hedonism and alcoholism (in "The Lost Weekend") and finally, the hardships of ordinary lives: the men coming home from WWII ("The Best Years of Our Lives").

The 1940s were the great decade of the studio system. The movie theaters commanded their all-time peak national audience in 1946 (after that TV steadily eroded it) and, during the first half of the decade, Hollywood was swept along on a wide, warm wave of commercial success and national purpose.

But though '40s Oscar winners tend to be affirming-in 1941, Ford's "How Green Was my Valley" beat out Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane"-there was a dark side: film noir.

The year 1941, which was Hollywood's real "greatest year," rather than the storied 1939, marked the first time the Academy handed out its documentary awards, at first largely to battle films. But that new emphasis on truth carried over to the fiction films as well-especially when the directors who left for the war (Ford, John Huston, Capra and Wyler) returned to make them.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn's and director Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" is perhaps the ideal Oscar-winner of that era. Neither cinematically nor dramatically very exciting, it has, instead, unshakable sincerity, compassion, intelligence and an exquisite surface polish.

The America it shows us is as idealized and full of loving detail as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover, but it's also, in some sense, disturbingly real. German immigrant Wyler, his Jewish producer Goldwyn, and their writer, Algonquin Round Table graduate Robert E. Sherwood (adapting MacKinlay Kantor's original story), give us an American city that's mostly clean, orderly and full of decent people. It is the quintessential "liberal" movie. With an appealing real-life WWII vet at its center- Harold Russell, who had lost his hands while in the service -"Best Years" reflects a belief that, having won the war, America had to devote its energies toward healing and renewal.

Today if you set "Best Years" alongside the other '40s Oscar movies, you see a common slant. Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" shows us a man--Ray Milland's alcoholic-writer--teetering on self-destruction but saving himself. John Ireland in "All The King's Men" walks into political corruption and pulls back. Bing Crosby's crooning priest in "Going My Way" almost loses his parish, but wins out in the end. Gregory Peck, a gentile posing as a Jew in "Gentleman's Agreement," is hit by anti-Semitism and returns-angered and more knowledgeable-to his own world. There are problems, even nightmares, but we can solve them.

Then, of course, there's "Casablanca," set in the Moroccan city, way station for Europe's refugees. Is it really about America? Of course it is. In fact, it's about Hollywood, which had suddenly become sanctuary for the progressive film, music, literary and dramatic artists who had fled Europe after Hitler's rise.

The international cast of "Casablanca"--Sweden's Ingrid Bergman, Germany's Conrad Veidt, France's Marcel Dalio, Britain's Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet, Austria's Paul Henreid, Hungary's Peter Lorre and S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall, the U.S.S.R.'s Leonid Kinskey, Canada's John Qualen and America's Humphrey Bogart and Dooley Wilson--mirror the expatriate cross-cultural splendor of a city that, in the '40s, could boast foreign artists like Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Rene Clair, all living in Los Angeles and many working for the movies.

Humphrey Bogart's Rick-the cynical, world-weary ex-rebel, the pleasure-seeking American, the idealist burned by love-can also be seen as a kind of symbolic movie studio executive: benefactor and harborer of all these refugees. Rick may seem gloomy and disengaged, but all he needs is a kiss and a look from Ilsa to fire his heart again. That's what makes audiences madly love "Casablanca"-shot without a completed script and full of dramatic holes-but, in many ways, the ultimate Hollywood movie.

Fifties

The Times: The Cold War and the Korean War. McCarthyism. The rise of rock 'n' roll. The space race between the U. S. and the Soviet Union.

The Presidents: Harry Truman, Dwight David Eisenhower.

The Movie Industry: Fighting an audience battle with TV, it introduces Cinemascope, 3-D, Cinerama, more color films, sexier and more controversial subject matter-while selling TV its old backlog. The blacklist depletes talent ranks.

The Oscar Winners: "All About Eve" (1950), "An American in Paris" (1951), "The Greatest Show on Earth" (1952), "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "On the Waterfront" (1954), "Marty" (1955), "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957), "Gigi" (1958), "Ben Hur" (1959).

If you don't look too closely, the first half of the '50s is a kind of continuation of the '40s. The first six Oscar winners-minus the spectacular circus movie of ultra-conservative director Cecil B. DeMille-fit right into the mold and mood of the preceding decade. Superficially, it seemed that nothing had changed.

But everything had. Movies were sent reeling-first by Congressional investigations into Communist influence and, more damagingly in the long run, by the challenge of TV. As in the previous decades, we get the world of the stage ("All About Eve"), war ("From Here to Eternity"), crime ("On The Waterfront"), and ordinary people ("Marty"). But somehow, there's a difference.

"All About Eve" ends in the triumph of the scheming ingenue Eve (Anne Baxter), who has conspired to replace acid-tongued diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Rebel Montgomery Clift is dead at the close of "From Here to Eternity."

Brando's boxer-longshoreman Terry Malloy betrays the mob at the expense of a beating in "On The Waterfront." (This movie was widely and dubiously regarded as an apologia for informing before the House Un-American Activities Committee by director Kazan and writer Budd Schulberg-both of whom named names of ex-Communist Party associates. But few who love "On The Waterfront" really imagine it with an anti-Commie subtext.)

Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris" is, like "Casablanca's" Bogart, a Yank who lives abroad among his own special community. If Bogey's Rick specialized in entertainment and politics, Kelly shines at arts and amour; he exemplifies that lust of some Americans for European culture, and, in the movie's great climactic set-piece, the ballet scored to Gershwin's "An American in Paris," Kelly dances himself into a dream in which the sets evoke paintings by Dufy, Utrillo and Toulouse-Lautrec.

But it's in "On The Waterfront" and "Marty" (writer Paddy Chayefsky's tale of a lovelorn Bronx butcher) that our movies show us a really different landscape-before spinning off into the fantasy world of travel, Paris and Biblical times. Here, Kazan and Schulberg, Chayefsky and director Delbert Mann give us lower depths, racy, brutish and tender worlds. Bronx sidewalks and foggy docks, love and danger. Coming 10 years after the international breakthrough of Italian neo-realism, they brought something raw and real to Hollywood.

Sixties

The Times: "Camelot." Cuban missile crisis. The Vietnam War. John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and Martin Luther King are all assassinated. "The Great Society." The sexual revolution. U. S. puts a man on the moon.

The Presidents: Ike, JFK, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon.

The Movie Industry: Old Motion Picture Code is swept away. Economic crises continue.

The Oscar Winners: "The Apartment" (1960), "West Side Story" (1961), "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), "Tom Jones" (1963), "My Fair Lady" (1964), "The Sound of Music" (1965), "A Man for All Seasons" (1966), "In the Heat of the Night" (1967), "Oliver!" (1968), "Midnight Cowboy" (1969).

The '60s were, famously, the most volatile of decades. But often they were less reflected than avoided in the Oscar-winning films. Sex? Drugs? Rock 'n' roll? Riots in the streets? Love in the parks? Not at Oscar time.

For most of the decade, the prizes went to British epics ("Tom Jones," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Oliver!") or Hollywood films set in Britain ("My Fair Lady," "A Man For All Seasons") or even American Broadway hit adaptations with British stars ("The Sound of Music.")

Such wholesale Anglophilia has never been seen in the Oscar voting before or since-and part of it probably stemmed from the fact that the older Oscar voters found so disturbing much of what was happening in the country-street violence, crime, sex, drugs, dissension and most of all that great unmentionable war in Vietnam. (Despite John Wayne's efforts in 1968's "Green Berets," Vietnam didn't blossom as a movie subject until the late '70s.)

All of the movies that really defined the era-"Dr. Strangelove," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Psycho," "Bonnie and Clyde," "A Hard Day's Night," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "The Wild Bunch"-never really had a chance at the top Oscar.

But a few Oscar movies at the beginning and end of the decade did catch the country's contradictions. Billy Wilder's brilliant 1960 comedy of office pimpmanship, "The Apartment"-with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine caught in the double standards of executive success-was a great comedy about sexual hypocrisy in the Miltown and martini era. The 1961 "West Side Story" presented by Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, may have suffered from dubbed singers and studio sets, but it dealt with New York youth violence in a way no musical comedy had ever touched. When "Somewhere" soars up at the climax, it's still capable of moving audiences to tears.

1967's "In the Heat of the Night, " with northern black cop Sidney Poitier and Southern white police chief Rod Steiger joining forces to crack a murder case, handles racial tensions gingerly and amiably. But at least it handles them.

And 1969's "Midnight Cowboy," with Jon Voight as naive 42nd Street hustler Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as his threadbare business manager, Ratso Rizzo, was an emblematic post-Sexual Revolution '60s film; the first (and last) X-rated movie to win an Oscar, the first to portray a homosexual milieu and the first to contain copious simulated sex.

From the vantage point of time, we can see "Midnight Cowboy' as a classic Hollywood story, a heart-tugging buddy movie in a line with "Wings" and "Forrest Gump." Back then, it seemed a shocker that stretched screen candor to the limit.

Seventies

The Times: Vietnam War Ends. Watergate. The "Me" decade.

The Presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter.

The Movie Industry: 1975's "Jaws" and 1977's "Star Wars" start the modern super-blockbuster era.

The Oscar Winners: "Patton" (1970), "The French Connection" (1971), "The Godfather" (1972), "The Sting" (1973), "The Godfather, Part II" (1974), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), "Rocky" (1976), "Annie Hall" (1977), "The Deer Hunter" (1978), "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979).

If there are two great decades of Oscar winners, they're the '40s and the '70s. And since the movies of this decade came after the production code was scrapped, they're among the frankest and boldest in Hollywood's century-long history.

With the exceptions of "Patton" and "The Deer Hunter" (which deal with Americans at war in Europe and Vietnam, respectively) all the '70s Oscar winners are set primarily in America. But it's an America seen from different angles and among diverse groups: Manhattan intellectuals ("Annie Hall"), broken families ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), Pennsylvania steelworkers ("The Deer Hunter"), the secret world of the Cosa Nostra (the "Godfather" movies), blue-collar cops ("The French Connection"), forgotten mental patients ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") heavyweight champs and fantasy long-shot contenders ("Rocky"), generals ("Patton") and con artists ("The Sting").

It was a brief heyday. Things changed radically with the huge success of "Jaws" in 1975 and "Star Wars" in 1977. But it was a strong one. The overall viewpoint is consistently iconoclastic, even tragic, but there's also a wistfulness in these movies, a longing for the past. Seven of the winners have sad or bittersweet endings. Only "The Sting," "Rocky" and "Kramer vs. Kramer" have upbeat resolutions-but none is untinged by sorrow.

What is the view of America we see here? A troubling one indeed--although, as much as these movies portray flaws in society, government or relationships. they also tend, in classic Hollywood style, to find redemption in the people themselves. The world may be dangerous or threatening, but love survives. At times, it's the only solace available.

So in the "Godfather" films, we see a vast criminal empire that murders and cannibalizes its own, run by a family whose loyalties are eventually torn asunder. We see brutal New York cops battling an even more brutal set of French heroin smugglers ("The French Connection"). We see a brilliant but reckless and prejudiced general winning a war and losing his own peace ("Patton"). Rebellion in a mental hospital is waged by a chronic malcontent (Jack Nicholson) who battles the ward's tyrannical head nurse ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"). A bunch of gung-ho Vietnam-bound recruits is torn apart by war ("The Deer Hunter").

And, in the decade's only two Best Picture Oscar-winning romantic comedies: a bitterly divorced couple declare a truce over their child ("Kramer vs. Kramer") and two quirky, bright Manhattan lovers, despite laughs and memories, can't stay together ("Annie Hall").

The Oscar-winners of the '70s suggest that most of what we'd learned from the movies up until then--about gangsters, cops, lovers, soldiers, lunatics, con games, divorce and almost everything else-was wrong. And though they disturbed and riled people, the audacity and bravery of some of these movies now seem unique. What appeared marginal or daring in the previous decade now had moved to the center. But not for long.

Eighties

The Times: The Reagan and Thatcher revolutions. Soviet Union dissolves. Economy booms. National debt quadruples. AIDS epidemic sweeps the world.

The Presidents: Ronald Reagan, George Bush.

The Movie Industry: Multiplexes. VCR's and cable TV help expand audience world-wide.

The Oscar Winners: "Ordinary People" (1980), "Chariots of Fire" (1981), "Gandhi" (1982), "Terms of Endearment" (1983), "Amadeus" (1984), "Out of Africa" (1985), "Platoon" (1986), "The Last Emperor" (1987), "Rain Man" (1988) "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).

Oliver Stone's Vietnam film "Platoon" to the contrary, this is a decade of retreat-and even "Platoon" seems more upbeat than "Deer Hunter." "Rain Man," with its lovable autistic hero, played by Dustin Hoffman of "Midnight Cowboy" and "Kramer vs. Kramer, " can seem 180 degrees away from a movie like "Cuckoo's Nest." The dysfunctional families of "Ordinary People" and "Terms of Endearment," two effective tear-jerkers in middle class settings-pale beside the "Godfather" movies, or "Kramer vs. Kramer." And "Driving Miss Daisy," a beautifully acted film about a black chauffeur and his Jewish lady boss, is less daring than 1967's "In the Heat of the Night."

What do the Oscar-winning movies say about America? Largely, that it was a big beautiful country and that its people should stick together. That families had problems, but all they needed, sometimes, was love. That even if you fought in a rotten war, there are ways to preserve dignity and manhood. A far cry from the trenchant view of the '70s-even if you'd love to agree with it.

Nineties

The Times: Bosnia. Whitewater. Talk radio. Newt Gingrich.

The Presidents: George Bush, Bill Clinton.

The Movie Industry: Conquers the world market.

The Oscar Winners: "Dances With Wolves" (1990), "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991), "Unforgiven" (1992), "Schindler's List" (1993), "Forrest Gump" (1994).

The pattern changes. Is it closer to the iconoclastic '70s or the affirmative '80s? "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven"-the first Oscar westerns since "Cimarron"-are revisionist oaters that present the Indian wars and the gunslinger in a darker light. "The Silence of the Lambs" is a psycho-thriller in which one serial killer is set to catch another-with detective Jodie Foster caught between them. "Schindler's List," about a Nazi industrialist who saved his Jewish workers, is about America only obliquely-though it takes the themes of "Gentleman's Agreement" to a sublime level.

And then there's "Forrest Gump"-a movie that is really about America. It's all there: politics, warfare, sports, romance, heartbreak in dysfunctional families, failure, success. It's not hard to guess why film people love it. This movie is one of the "Super-Hollywood shows them all" type, not really about the world of a post-war era, but about what the movies can make of that world-with Tom Hanks' slow-talking, likable, appreciative Forrest as a kind of super-mogul and dreammaker.

Yet, if we look closely, we can see another similarity. Hanks' Forrest Gump, just like the flying kids played by Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen in "Wings," is a naive boy from Heartland America who goes off to fight a war and then returns home to his family, his girl, his town. Does life ever change? Do movies? Almost 70 years separate Oscar's first anointed movie from its most recent one. Yet, though the singers have changed, in many ways the song is the same.

© 1996 Chicago Tribune Company

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