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The Ten Commandments Of Oscar Films


With the Oscars right around the corner the spotlight of public attention is about to shine again on Hollywood. In the light of this inquiry, questions about the moral fiber of Hollywood are sure to crop up. The Gold Standard of ethics in North America has historically been the Judeo-Christian worldview and for many the 10 Commandments are at the center of this worldview. Even if a viewer can’t list the 10 Commandments in order they generally have a good sense of when they are being broken. For this reason the 10 Commandments are often used as the guide by which the moral fiber of Hollywood is judged by the average person in the multiplex.

Curiously the 10 Commandments are not all about what not to do. Embedded in these ancient commands are also positive elements. If the commandment says “Thou Shalt Not Murder” then it stands to reason that the positive thing to do would be to strive to help and support our neighbor in every physical need. With this in mind, a little look at Oscar favorites, nominated films, and other recent films may be in order.

You Shall Have No Other Gods

In 2013 Ang Lee won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing for his adaptation of the Yann Martel novel Life of Pi. Life of Pi provides an example of cafeteria style spirituality in film. The Commandment “You shall have no other gods” at its heart calls for spiritual fidelity. In a rather memorable segment of the film the central character Pi Patel tells about his childhood interest in Religion. His interest is diverse to say the least and could itself act as an allegory demonstrating Hollywood’s tricky relationship with the first commandments found within the 10 commandments.

Seated around the Supper Table Pi Patel’s father Santosh voices his concern about his son’s religious beliefs saying, “[Y]ou cannot follow three different religions at the same time.” His son Pi responds asking “Why not?” To which his father replies “Because, believing in everything at once is the same thing as believing in nothing.” Pi’s mother defends the 11-year-old, “He is young, Santosh. He is still trying to find his own way.”

You Shall Not Misuse The Name Of The LORD Your God

The Oscars do enjoy a movie that’s spiritual but not too religious or a film that questions the role of spirituality and religion in society. Philomena, which has garnered a Best Motion Picture of the Year nomination, depicts an odd couple on their own kind of Odyssey. Dame Judi Dench, who plays one half of that odd couple, has received a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Philomena Lee, an Irish Catholic woman who was pressed into giving up the child she bore out of wedlock for adoption. While the film as a whole is often unkind to the Christian faith, within the confines of the characterization of Philomena Lee a picture of positive fulfillment of the commandment “You Shall Not Misuse The Name of The LORD your God” emerges. This is particularly obvious in the way that her character calls upon God in prayer in a faithful way, even when it’s difficult to do so, and ultimately is able to forgive the nuns who took her baby from her. This is contrasted by the other half of the odd couple in the film Martin Sixsmith played by Steve Coogan who is unable to forgive in the name of God and thereby can’t find it in his heart to use God’s name in a proper way. Both Lee and Sixmith are locked in a kind of holding pattern throughout Philomena, neither character is moved much from their starting point. Lee is the woman of faith even in her trouble where Sixmith remains the man without faith.

Remember The Sabbath Day By Keeping It Holy

Philomena also provides both positive and negative examples of the commandment “Remember the Sabbath Day by Keeping it Holy.” In the opening scenes of the film Sixmith is shown disregarding the value of attending worship services while throughout the film Lee provides a much more positive view on church life and personal devotion amidst her personal struggles.

The Second Table Of The Law

The first table of the 10 Commandments, which focus on the relationship between God and humanity, is not the bread and butter of Hollywood. The real love of Hollywood when it comes to the 10 Commandments is the second table of the law: human’s relationship with each other, man vs. man, woman vs. woman, man vs. woman and vice versa. There is a reason for this: All good stories are born out of conflict and there can be no drama without conflict. This is where greed, lying, cheating, stealing, murder and poor family relationships come in handy to the Hollywood screen writer and the novelists whose work they often adapt to the big screen. The slate of film offerings in 2013/2014 are no exception to the rule. And Oscar loves a good bit of drama.

Honor Your Father and Mother

In the category of Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Bruce Dern has garnered a nomination for his role of Woody Grant in the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. Woody and his son David, played by Will Forte (SNL), spend the film traveling together to Lincoln Nebraska, on a road trip from Billings, Montana. Much of the film is about David looking after his father. The relationship between father and son predominates the overall narrative of the film. For this reason the heart of the movie is the commandment, “Honor Your Father and Mother.” From scene to scene, David is shown struggling with this task of honoring his father Woody. Sometimes he succeeds, sometimes he fails. Interestingly, Nebraska holds up a mirror to viewers in which they are called to remember that their parents are to be honored even when they are not honorable in the eyes of the world. This is mercy and grace. Nebraska is surprisingly filled with grace–grace for characters who don’t deserve it. Spoiler alert: Nebraska ends with a genuinely positive and tender-hearted fulfillment of the commandment to honor your father and mother.

You Shall Not Murder

The theme of murder is popular in Hollywood films. But Hollywood didn’t invent murder, it’s been with us from the time of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 and Jesus even says that the Devil was a murderer from the beginning (John 8:44). 12 Years a Slave, another of this year’s Best Motion Picture of the Year nominations, is perhaps the strongest recent film dealing with the physical needs of men and women and children. When people are bought and sold and used as implements, life becomes cheapened and the needs of those in slavery are not highly valued. While the film isn’t explicitly about murder, it is very much about the poor treatment of fellow human beings and this is at the heart of the commandment “You Shall Not Murder.”

12 Years a Slave is full of distressing scenes of physical peril. There is a disturbing scene at the house of Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), where Solomon Northup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role), is lynched by an unhappy overseer. This overseer and his accomplices are sent running away by Mr. Ford’s chief overseer, but he doesn’t cut Northup down, leaving him standing on the tips of his toes. All day, Northup stands there in danger of slipping and breaking his neck. One woman slave brings him a drink of water but the others go about their routine as if Northup is invisible. Children play, slaves walk by, yet no one raises a finger. It’s a very distressing scene. It calls to mind not only how a person is to refrain from murder but also how people are to work to avoid doing anything to hurt or harm their neighbor in his body. The conclusion of the film sees the positive application of this commandment when Northup is rescued out of his slavery and he finally receives the help and support he’s been deprived of.

You Shall Not Commit Adultery

Last year’s The Great Gatsby by  Baz Luhrmann was snubbed from nominations in some of the most valued awards but did earn nominations for both Best Achievement in Costume Design and Best Achievement in Production Design. One of the major narratives of the film is an illicit extramarital affair, This falls squarely into the territory of a perennial Hollywood favorite when it comes to the 10 commandments “You Shall Not Commit Adultery.” Gatsby, played by Oscar favourite Leonardo DiCaprio, wants to re-live the past by steeling away the wife of another man. Based rather faithfully on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of the same name, the film recounts the scheming of the title character of Gatsby as he works to rekindle the relationship with this other man’s wife. A relationship Gatsby had had in his earlier life. This film is, in part, about the hardships connected with adultery. Many of the central characters in the film are rich and bored and they play fast and loose with their wedding vows and the wedding vows of others who are “less fortunate.”

Looking for moments in recent Hollywood films were men and women are shown being faithful to their marriage vows and positively fulfilling this commandment? Look no further than World War Z and Gerry and Karin Lane’s marriage, as played by Brad Pit and Mireille Enos, in last year’s big zombie apocalypse thriller. A marriage, and family unit, that actually grows stronger in the face of trouble and remained the deciding factor in the decision making process of the central character Gerry Lane. Everything hinged on his wife and kids. Or you could look to Matt Damon’s James Granger turning down a very willing Cate Blanchett playing the French art curator Claire Simone in George Clooney’s World War II historical Drama The Monuments Men.

You Shall Not Steal

While not in the running for any Academy Awards this time around, The Monuments Men is certainly a film about theft, another Hollywood favorite. What on the surface looks to be a Word War II action film ends up being a kind of “heist movie” where one group steals and another group attempts to stop the theft and/or retrieve the stolen goods. This drops squarely in the lap of the commandment: “You shall not steal.”

On one hand you have Hollywood’s perennial villains the Nazis taking their neighbor gold (sometimes in the form of gold fillings extracted from the mouths of Jewish men, women and children) and their neighbor possessions in the form of great works of art (including priceless works like The Ghent Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s The Madonna of Bruges), while on the other hand the Monuments Men seek to help their neighbors by protecting their possessions and returning works of art to their rightful owners. When it came to the great works of Art depicted in the film the Nazis were not just stealing from the Jewish people they were stealing from everyone they had under their boot. For the Nazis there was nothing dishonest about their plunder, to the rest of the world this theft was one of the horrors of war. The Monuments Men may not be burning up the box-office but it does portray the struggles inherent in keeping and upholding this commandment about theft.

You Shall Not Give False Testimony Against Your Neighbor

Actor  Philip Seymour Hoffman who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the 2005 film of the same name stared in the quintessential film dealing with lying. 2008’s Doubt details accusations of child abuse by a priest. The whole film has at its core the struggles that swirl around the commandment “You Shall Not Give False Testimony Against Your Neighbor.” The film is a mystery and only fully reveals its answers in the end.

Hoffman plays the priest in question and he is joined by his accuser in the film Meryl Streep (who is up for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for her part in 2013’s August: Osage County). Doubt also features another of this year’s nominees for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role: Amy Adams, who is nominated for her role in American Hustle. Where American Hustle revels in the ‘thrill’ of conning people, Doubt deals with the pain and suffering that come with unfounded allegations. With Philip Seymour Hoffman’s recent death Doubt is certainly worth a second look, especially when viewed through the lens of this ancient yet timely commandment about truth and falsehood.

You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbour’s House, or Your Neighbours Wife, or His Manservant or Maidservant, His Ox or Donkey, or Anything That Belongs to Your Neighbour

Hollywood has a bit of a love hate relationship with the end of the ten commandments. When it comes to “You Shall Not Covet Your Neighbour’s House, or Your Neighbours Wife, or His Manservant or Maidservant, His Ox or Donkey, or Anything That Belongs to Your Neighbour,” you can almost hear 1988’s Best Actor in a Leading Role winner Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street saying, “[G]reed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.” 2013 was a big year for greed, from Best Motion Picture of the Year nominee The Wolf of Wall Street to Best Motion Picture of the Year nominee American Hustle greed has been good, at least good for the box office. Themes of coveting pop up all over the place in the last year, it may in fact be the biggest theme of the year; from a dragon sitting on a hoard of gold in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to Gatsby in The Great Gatsby coveting another man’s wife, to a movie like last year’s Elysium where selfishness motivates almost every character. Coveting and the greed associated with it is the elephant in the room right. Largely unconsidered is that fact that the flipside of coveting is contentment. Any viewer watching a film like The Wolf of Wall needs to ask the question, “What make a person happy in life?” “what makes them content?”

From time to time the 10 Commandments in film can be unevenly presented and/or difficult to fully grasp. What often gets overlooked are the virtues inherent in the commandments themselves: spiritual fidelity, humility, sanctity, honor, gentleness, marital fidelity, trustworthiness, honesty, and contentment. When the viewer sees these things displayed in an Oscar Nominated film or performance, the first thought isn’t “Hey look at that! The 10 Commandments!” Whether the negative or positive elements of the 10 Commandments jump out at you, one thing is for certain if there’s one thing Hollywood like more than conflict and drama it’s a happy or at least hopeful ending.