Scenes that invite audiences to boo and hiss at the callous rich, to cheer the dougthy poor, abound in Titanic. More subtly, two other films nominated for the best-picture Oscar also address the subject of social inequality. Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets join Titanic - box office hits all, which between them have received 30 nominations. It could almost be construed as a plot by Hollywood's hidden persuaders to revive a debate that has gone out of fashion in Washington.
As the veteran political columnist Mark Shields put it in the Washington Post last week, with these three films in mind: "To see and to feel the honest-to-goodness passion of populist politics today, forget Washington and look to Hollywood."
As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens in the US, as government aid to single mothers and the unemployedfalls, no one in Washington is standing up to complain. The middle road, politicians have decided, is the only road. Free-market liberty is all; equality and fraternity be damned.
Good Will Hunting extols the opposite point of view. The hero is a young janitor from a working-class Boston area who happens to possess a genius for mathematics. A professor at the Masschusetts Institute of Technology takes him under his wing and steers him in the direction of fat-salaried capitalism, arranging interviews for him withcompany executives greedy to enlist his brain-power.
Shunning conventional notions of success, however, Will Hunting, the hero, prefers to stick to his roots, to booze and go brawling with his buddies from south Boston. A diatribe he unloads on one potential employer, the sinister National Security Agency, might have come straight from a Cuban propaganda film.
"Say I'm working at the NSA," Will tells the smug agent who is offering him a job, "and somebody put a code on my desk. Something no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it, and maybe I break it. I'm really happy with myself because I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. And once they have the location they bomb the village where the rebels are hiding. Fifteen hundred people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed...."
Will's monologue goes on and on, stretching to a passionate indictment of the iniquities of global capitalism.
As Good As It Gets reserves its hardest hits for a medical system skewed in favour of those who can afford to pay big money. The heroine is a waitress and single mother whose little boy is seriously ill, hovering between life and death.
Whether the moral lessons of Titanic, Good Will Hunting and As Good As It Gets ever strike chords with the American public remains to be seen. But if it is true that every social order carries the seeds of its own destruction, history may tell that, amazingly, Hollywood was among the first to sow them.