Idol Chatter

Oscar noms are in, and in the Best Picture category, the big winner is… the concept of being an outsider. Outside your comfort zone, undercover in a dangerous environment, out of place, or in literal exile, these films illustrate that to an extent–whether it’s literal or figurative–we’re all strangers in a strange land and respond to stories depicting the existential angst of the outsider.

Most obviously invoking the theme of diaspora is the Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett film called “Babel,” which together with “Dreamgirls” (itself snubbed for Best Picture but boasting eight nominations) leads the contest in the number of nominations. Pitt and Blanchett portray tourists on a vacation gone seriously wrong: They find themselves out of their environment and in danger, and are among four groups of people whose lives and destinies are thrown together by fate, society, and circumstance. The title itself conveys a sense of confusion, an inability to communicate, and the feeling of utter exile.

Indie favorite “Little Miss Sunshine” takes a family of outsiders–including but not limited to a deluded father, a porn-happy but encouraging grandpa (Alan Arkin, nominated for Best Supporting Actor), and the understatedly miserable Proust scholar uncle played by Steve Carell–and puts them in a decrepit van for a road trip. They are united in their goal to bring young Olive (young Best Supporting Actress nominee Abigail Breslin) to a girls’ beauty/talent pageant, a freakshow to which Olive, herself an uncompromisingly singular girl, wants to belong, even when she so clearly is above the creepy, manufactured culture of artificial, premature, pre-pubescent beauty and sameness.

“Letters from Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s latest, tells “the untold story of the Japanese soldiers and their general who, 61 years ago, defended against the invading American forces on the island of Iwo Jima” (source: official film website). In the “tribute to people who lost lives on both sides of the conflict” (and therefore is largely in Japanese with English subtitles), Eastwood is trying to tell “the other side” of the story behind the bloody battle. (The American side is depicted in Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers.”)

“The Departed,” an all-star, mostly male cast of strong leads (Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Wahlberg, along with Martin Sheen, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin) sporting Boston accents that are varying degrees of accurate-sounding (but that possibly should have qualified the picture for Best Foreign Film). The task of carrying the themes of deception and feigning allegiance to a cause on both sides falls to the boyish emotional doppelgangers Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, the double agents trapped by their baggage within their circumstances, with each working in exile to get back to a life that he wants and deserves.

And then there’s “The Queen,” a post-Diana’s death portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the reigning English royal whose role in England becomes largely antiquated and unnecessary when compared to the emergingly more prominent role of the prime minister. In a world that has been irrevocably altered by the tragic accident, this fictionalized version of what happened within the palace walls showcases a queen trapped in a dead zone between history and modern life.

In addition, there’s something interesting happening over in best adapted screenplay, where we’ve got the ultimate outsider-insider-outsider: a mockumentary featuring a British Jewish comedian playing a Kazakh anti-Semite fictional journalist who goes to engage in “cultural learnings of America for make glorious benefit Kazakhstan,” in the process exposing anti-Semitic and homophobic leanings in this country and–I am confident in saying this, even without research–exposing way more of himself than has ever been included in an Oscar-nominated screenplay.

The layers of inside-outside do seem most complex in the film that many people will tag as this season’s least likely contender. But I always root for the underdog, even if he wears a putridly green thong bathing suit. And besides, we live in a world where Eminem and Three-Six Mafia have already won Oscars. If Borat wins an Oscar (even for Best Adapted Screenplay), we might have to acknowledge a coming cultural apocalypse that will have originated among Academy outsiders.

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