Rules of the Game


Should campaign-finance reform apply to Oscar barnstorming? Witness the soft-money spendthrifts at Miramax (last seen wallpapering your local Buddhist temple with Cider House Rules posters) and their attempt to yoink the Best Picture statue once again from an early DreamWorks front-runner in favor of their late-breaking underdog. American Beauty has proved to have remarkably long legs, but Cider House is still adding theaters and building audience. Harvey’s minions hope to maximize the surge by working the bossman’s hoodoo on all conceivable fronts, from blanketing the trades to last Sunday’s special screening for a group of adoption-rightsexperts and groups.

Cider House‘s surprise appearance on the Oscar ballot seemed the imprint of a publicity machine’s steamrolling force, since the movie was shut out of critics’ awards and had a weak presence at the Golden Globes. But critical response to Lasse Hallström’s film was in fact strangely warm, charitable, fuzzy: Stephen Holden at The New York Times perceived “depth and emotional weight” in his colleague Elvis Mitchell’s pick for most deserving Best Picture entrant. Salon—whose highbrow is usually arched—admired its “resoluteness”: “The Cider House Rules is unabashedly pro-choice, and unapologetic when the choice is abortion.” Praise for its politics—which crops up even in negative reviews—pinpoints another factor working in Miramax’s favor. Fully equipped with mugging doll-faced moppets and overweening Now Feel This! score sure to warm any Academy member’s cockles, Cider House also delivers an abortion-rights maxim; the mostly left-leaning voters are invited to pat themselves on the back with their ballots. Planned Parenthood will present its Maggie Award, for achievement in coverage of reproductive rights, to Cider House this Saturday, the evening before the Academy Awards.

But Cider House‘s message—and this is a Message movie to end the genre—gets warped in the transmission. The Times locates “earned wisdom” in orphaned hero Homer Wells’s decision, despite a lifelong opposition to abortion, to end the pregnancy of a young black girl carrying her father’s child. (It’s both indicative of Cider House‘s racial priorities and a foreshadowing of Miramax’s lily-white advertising campaign that the film uses this gruesome revelation as an excuse for Charlize Theron to have an emotional scene.) Homer’s action is portrayed as the product of a new understanding of the world’s moral complexities, but what physician who didn’t get his M.D. from Bob Jones would try to talk this tortured, terrified girl into motherhood?

Likewise unremarked upon is the abortion scene itself, in which Homer, unfathomably, requests that the abusive father hold the ether mask over his daughter’s face—a metaphorical double-team rape. John Irving’s script, adapted from his novel, treats Dad with an equanimity that exceeds sympathy to become indulgence, and this impassive moral relativism bleeds into and poisons Homer’s choice—for it’s presented as exactly that and only that—to perform the abortion. Incest and reproductive rights are filed side by side under Things Fall Apart. This is a pro-choice movie, and resolutely abashed about it. Cider House didn’t need a Weinstein-led children’s crusade to get the Academy’s attention; its apologist-liberal agenda is the same timid stuff that has scooped up Oscars for decades.

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