Can lame ducks still fly?

Election outcome could affect soapbox at Oscars

It’s still about politics.

The 2004 presidential contest may be history, but as Hollywood focuses on that other election, the Oscar race, some of the same issues and allegiances remain in the mix.

After a long period in which politically charged material was about as welcome as a pinkslip in most studio offices, the tide has turned.

Movies as varied as Jonathan Demme’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” an update of the 1962 thriller, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s satire “Team America,” which features puppet versions of North Korea’s Kim Jong II and U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, and a long list of politically charged and motivated documentaries, led by box office champ “Fahrenheit 9/11,” are abandoning nonpartisan positions to push more than just escapism. Why the climate change?

“It’s obviously got to do with the political climate of the country,” says writer and director Terry George, whose “Hotel Rwanda,” is about the African genocide of 1994. “Politics suddenly aren’t boring anymore.”

Sean Penn, who’s made independent investigative trips to Iraq, cites the wartime environment.

“It (politics) is such a tangible part of our current life. For film’s sake, I am pretty optimistic,” he told an audience after a recent Variety Screening Series unspooling of “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” a film that rails against a climate of mendacity.

A film like Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” while not overtly political, will nonetheless have to contend with Academy voters’ feelings about its perceived anti-Semitic content and a marketing practice of direct sales to right-wing religious groups.

“It got politicized inadvertently due to the marketing approach and the reaction before it was actually released,” says Bob Berney, prexy of Newmarket, the film’s distrib. “There was a political element to the controversy that was separate from the actual story of the film.”

The controversy certainly didn’t hurt box office, but Berney, whose company also distributed John Sayles’ left-leaning election drama “Silver City” this season, says he can’t predict how it will affect the picture’s awards chances.

A best-picture Oscar bid by “Fahrenheit 9/11,” endorsed at Cannes with a Palm D’Or win, would seem to be inescapably linked to the political leanings of Academy voters, but Tom Ortenberg, prexy of co-distributor Lions Gate, disputes that President Bush’s re-election will affect its chances.

“Before Nov. 2, pundits were split on whether a Kerry or Bush win would help its chances, so I think that proves that the actual outcome (will have) no effect,” he says.

Harry Thomason, director of a doc about the right-wing assault on Bill Clinton, “The Hunting of the President,” voices skepticism that the Academy will ever acknowledge a docu, political or not, for its biggest prize.

“Because of the nature and makeup of the Academy, I think it will be tough no matter how well you made a documentary or how well it did,” he says, adding that he’s delighted he doesn’t have to compete with Michael Moore in the docu race. “Actors, directors and producers will probably stick with traditional pictures.”

Producer Lionel Chetwynd, who makes no secret of his right-leaning political persuasion, says he’s certain that his strongly pro-Bush polemic, “Celsius 41:11,” a docu produced as a right-wing response to “Fahrenheit 9/11,” will not be considered for Academy Awards. Most of the year’s politically inspired contenders will be quickly forgotten, he speculates, dismissing the trend as mostly market-driven.

“We are in a time of deeply inflamed passion, and that’s what draws people out,” he says. “They are hungry to see something that reinforces what they already think. It’s preaching to the choir. There’s very little crossover and very little influence.”

“I don’t know if there’s any future in that,” he adds. “I wouldn’t bet money on it.”

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