Today, the Academy announced that the theme of this year's Oscar ceremony will be "heroes." That's not a great theme for this or any year, really.
In a statement, producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron—they who turned last year into a celebration of "musicals," so long as those musicals were Chicago—said: "People around the world go to the movies to be inspired by the characters they see on the screen. By celebrating the gamut of heroes who have enriched our movie-going experience, we hope to create an evening of fun and joy. And that includes the filmmakers and actors who take risks and stimulate us with provocative subjects and daring characters. They are all heroes in the cinematic landscape." But while the show may want to celebrate all characters that fit the broad definition of hero, it is ultimately far too simplistic a term.
Writing for The Wrap, Steve Pond notes that the theme "will obviously fit with many of the year’s most high-profile movies, which sport such heroes as Solomon Northup ('12 Years a Slave'), Richard Phillips ('Captain Phillips') and Ron Woodruff ('Dallas Buyers Club')." But framing those struggles as simply "heroic" do a disservice to the films. Certainly Ron Woodroof's actions during the AIDS crisis may have ultimately been heroic, but he's homophobic and opportunistic, and it's clear for much of the movie that he was acting mostly out of his own self interest. Then, as Pond points out, there's the matter of American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street, two films that will likely have a large presence at the ceremony, both of which feature hardly any characters that can be characterized as heroes. There may be questions as to whether Martin Scorsese glorifies Jordan Belfort's antics, but no one is arguing that the film makes him out to be a hero. The only hero in American Hustle is the film's hairstylist.
Categorizing film characters—or really any character—as simply a hero or a villain is a tough business. I'm normally a fan of AFI's lists, but the heroes and villains list always irks me, pitting real life heroes (Oskar Schindler, for instance) against fictional ones (Indiana Jones). Then you have someone like Casablanca's Rick Blaine ranking fourth on the heroes list. If you remember, Blaine remains apolitical through most of the film, acting out of his own self interest. Noted criminals Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are also on the list of heroes in the 20th spot. Gandhi from Gandhi is 21st.
Look, we know that an Oscar theme—if we must have one of those to begin with—can't be "interesting and complicated protagonists sometimes involved in heroic acts," but just celebrating "heroes" undercuts the quality of the films that will be honored.