Thomas Sutcliffe: Hollywood can't claim the credit

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The Independent Online

Complaining about self-congratulation at the Oscars is a bit like complaining that it gets hot in a sauna. That's what the damn thing was built for, after all. As in a sauna, though, beginners may have to acclimatise themselves before they can cope with the fiercer extremes. I confess I found myself getting distinctly uncomfortable when George Clooney - the self-appointed founder of Liberal Pride - ladled an extra bucketful of movie-star preening onto the hot coals during his acceptance speech.

"We are a little bit out of touch every now and then here in Hollywood," he said, "and I think that's probably a good thing. We were the ones to talk about Aids when it was just being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular." The audience applauded itself enthusiastically. Of course they were out of touch - the rest of the world just hadn't caught up with them yet.

I quite like Clooney on screen. I'm even prepared, at a theoretical level, to entertain the growing notion that he's Gandhi in a tuxedo. But there's no getting round the fact that his image of Hollywood as a kind of embattled Cassandra, courageously speaking truth to power, is an absolute crock. I suppose it's possible that Participant - the pro bono production company set up by the eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll to make big-issue films such as Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck - might eventually change that. But only if its films start making big money. In any case Participant - more a tinsel-dusted lobby-group than a conventional movie company - wasn't really what Clooney had in mind. He was talking about Hollywood as a whole - and was implying a long creative commitment to the awkward and the unfashionable truth.

Let's take Aids first of all, since that's what George first mentioned. The health crisis first emerged in 1981 and grew until it was global news in 1983. A lot of people were screaming in 1983, when screaming could still save a lot of lives, but not Hollywood - which uttered not even a whisper. One of the first fictional treatments of the disease was an Emmy-Award-winning film called An Early Frost in 1985, in which Aidan Quinn plays a gay man who contracts Aids and has to tell his parents the truth about his sexuality. But it wasn't Hollywood who delivered that to American audiences, it was the television network NBC. (In 1985 the Screen Actors Guild of America did raise the subject of Aids, but only as they were worried its members might catch it during kissing scenes).

Parting Glances followed in 1986 - a small, independent production that grossed just half a million dollars, small change even back then, and although Longtime Companion in 1990 won Bruce Davison an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, it wasn't until Philadelphia in 1993 - 10 years on from the real front-line battles over public health policy - that Hollywood bet big on the subject. And it also wasn't until 1993 that the beloved Hollywood badge of awareness, the red ribbon, made its first appearance at the Oscars.

The record on civil rights isn't much better. In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner were both made in 1967 - 13 years after the first struggles over segregated education, four years after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech in Washington, and three years after the Civil Rights Act had actually passed into law. Not much sign there that Hollywood had recognised for itself what the Reverend King memorably called "the fierce urgency of now"; more a case of "the belated catch-up of later". And although To Kill a Mockingbird was made in 1962, when bullets were still flying, it came safely underwritten by the bestselling status of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. In other words Hollywood had solid precedent that the subject was popular enough for it to turn a profit.

Generally speaking, then, Hollywood arrives on the scene only when all the hard work has been done and all the serious risks have been taken. This is not to say that there haven't always been individual film-makers with a conscience, or that there isn't still a task to do, once the hard slog of consciousness-raising and legislation is over. Atticus Finch has a famous line in To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it".

Hollywood, historically lousy at leading the way, is pretty good at persuading audiences to do that - to feel deeply for people that they might despise by reflex. It would seem to give ample scope for anyone's passion for a higher vocation, without them having to add false boasts about leadership and courage.