Southern Oscars

Sunday night is Hollywood’s annual tribute to narcissism, hedonism and voyeurism known as the Academy Awards.

Oscar statuette
Southern trophies typically have antlers. This one ain’t from around here.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have only watched the Oscars a couple of times in my whole life, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete broadcast. I have no plans to watch it this year. Depending on what time the Daytona 500 finishes, you may or may not switch over and catch a little of it.

But because three of the nine films nominated for best picture are either set in the South or have Southern themes, I began contemplating Southern movies.

What makes a movie “Southern?” Is it as simple as a being set in the South or does it revolve around Southern characters regardless of geographic location? Are there a set of themes that make a film Southern? What is the difference between Southern movies and New South movies? What milestone movie marked the change? Why are Southern accents always so bad in movies?

So while the Oscars have little to interest me, these questions intrigue me. Let’s take them in order.

Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn't win an Oscar.
Pure chick flick, this non-Southern, Southern movie didn’t win an Oscar.

First, what makes a movie Southern? I don’t think it is a function of geography or character or theme. I believe it can be any of the three, but those films we most strongly identify as Southern have at least two of three. A movie can be set in the South and not be Southern. Just look at all of the movies being filmed in Georgia these days thanks to the gracious tax breaks and active recruitment of production studios.

A few years ago, Carla and I rented “Life as We Know It” staring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. It was set in Atlanta, but there was nothing particularly Southern about the characters. It did have a strong theme of family woven throughout. I would consider it a Southern movie, but not as much as, say, “The Blind Side,” which had all three, complete with bad Southern accents.

Next, what constitutes a Southern theme? Here, I think you have to look to Southern literature. Some universally-agreed upon Southern literary themes include, but aren’t limited to, the aforementioned family, history, tradition, community, justice, faith, race, agriculture and the land, social class and hardship.

If you ain't first, you're last. This one wasn't exactly Academy material.
“If you ain’t first, you’re last.” This one wasn’t exactly Academy material either.

There are plenty of films that have these themes that aren’t Southern in any way, but it’s hard to find the reverse – a Southern movie that doesn’t employ these themes. Even something as ridiculous as, say, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” has multiple themes of family, faith, class and hardship, not to mention the whole dialect thing.

That brings us to the question of whether Southern movies are any different in the New South. I think so. Historical epics aside, I think New South films portray race in very different ways. Gone are the days when archetypes veer into stereotypes. One example is the 2012 remake of “Steel Magnolias” with an all African-American cast.

New South movies take traditional Southern themes and either approach them in an unorthodox format or reverse the perspective and look at a narrative from other angles.

Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn't believe she had never seen it.
Had to rent this one for my wife last year. I couldn’t believe she had never seen it.

For me, this began with 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” By moving back and forth between the past and present and making the societal underdogs triumphant along the way, what may have been a maudlin and superficial Southern film brings a thoughtful edge that ultimately endorses radically different worldviews from the Old South.

As for the bad Southern accents? Well, I’m afraid it’s just part of the territory. There is no overarching Southern dialect, and too many movies seem to ignore the subtle differences within the South. Those of us with well-trained ears will wince when a character set in a movie in Virginia breaks out in an Alabama drawl. Occasionally, the actors themselves hail from Southern locales and grew up immersed in the dialect bringing an authentic sound. Think Conyers, Ga.,-native Holly Hunter in just about anything she’s done.

Cannibalism is just one of the surprise "isms" in this New South movie.
Cannibalism is just one of the surprise “isms” in this New South movie.

So whether or not Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild or Django Unchained win best picture, it has been a high-profile year for Southern films. Given the rise of the New South in all forms of media, I don’t think it will be the last.

What’s your favorite Southern movie? Check out this list on Wikipedia for help, and a leave a comment with your vote. We’ll call it “The Southern Oscars.”

Southern sports showcase

Last weekend was a convergence of televised events that treated channel surfers with more than the usual amount of Southern accents.

Matt Kenseth wins the 2012 Daytona 500
Matt Kenseth won his second Daytona 500 in one of the weirdest races of all time at the historic speedway.

Unless you were under a rock you know that last weekend was the 54th running of the Daytona 500, the official start of the never-ending NASCAR season. What you may have overlooked was that it was also the 2012 Bassmaster Classic at the Red River in Shreveport, La.

Yeah, yeah, the rest of the world had the Oscars to fuss over, but for true Southerners, it was a weekend to revel in the great sports that have found or are beginning to find a broader fan base.

Truth be told, I don’t watch much racin’ or fishin’ on the TEE-vee. A few years back, Barron had a brief obsession with NASCAR after he saw the Pixar film, Cars. That year, Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 by two-tenths of a second over Mark Martin in the closest finish ever, and Clint Bowyer crossed the finish line upside down and on fire.

“Whoa! What is this!” Barron said in a “where has this been all my life” tone as the race finished.

Once he realized there was a five-hour race every weekend for nearly 10 months and all races don’t end that way, he lost interest. But for a couple of years we were as much NASCAR fans in our household as the other neophytes sporting numbered trucker hats and T-shirts with such thoughtful slogans as “Boogity, Boogity” and “The surgeon general said nothing about smoking the competition.”

This year’s race was a logistical nightmare. It was supposed to gun on Sunday afternoon, but rain delayed the event until Monday night. Several wrecks chased fan favorites Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and last year’s winner, Trevor Bayne. Then, with 40 laps to go, something broke on Juan Pablo Montoya’s number 42 car. It swerved and hit a jet dryer causing an explosion and subsequent blaze that delayed the race another two hours. By the time Matt Kenseth crossed the finish line to take his second Daytona 500, it was Tuesday morning.

In driver parlance, it was a weird deal, man.

I don’t want to give away the outcome of the Bassmaster Classic because even though the event has ended, the three-days of weigh-ins will be televised on Saturday and Sunday on ESPN2. What? You say you don’t mind? OK, well, SPOILER ALERT! Chris Lane took the top prize of $500,000 by catching 51.6 pounds of fish in three days.

Chris Lane
Chris Lane holds the 2012 Bassmaster Classic trophy aloft and gives a celebratory yell.

What? You say you’ve never heard of Chis Lane? THE Chris Lane? OK, well, neither had I, but that’s not the point. As a guy who grew up with a bass fishing dad, I can still hear Jimmy Houston’s cackle and see Bill Dance’s pratfalls in my childhood memories. Bass fishing was something I never cared to watch on television, but grew to enjoy with my dad when we had chances to go.

So why are these sports inextricably linked to the South? We all know football is king down South, but people in other parts of the country play it, too – although that’s getting harder and harder to prove by watching the Bowl Championship Series games.

NASCAR and Bassmaster have several things in common: their origins are Southern, they are warm weather sports, their fan bases have some sense of participation and, most importantly, they have numerous corporate entities involved that wish to reach an audience with their products.

Ultimately, it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue that lands your sport on TV.

So before anyone claims the South has risen again based on the ascendance of its hallmark sporting events, think about your consumer behavior next time you pay $8.49 for a Strike King® Kevin VanDam Sexy Dawg Topwater lure or pick up a Diet Mountain Dew.

Did you really want that or did you just watch too much racin’ and fishin’?

Keep your hooks wet and your car off the wall, and have a good season. Second place is just first loser!

What do you think is the king of Southern sports? What makes a sport Southern? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.