Mythic mirror
Oscar image via Joe Seer / Mirror via shutterstock

The Oscars as mythic mirror

by Laura Shamas

Each January, I can’t wait to read the list of Academy Award nominees. The annual ritual offers a way to review a pantheon of cultural imagery from the past year: a complex mirroring process. “Who are we? What do we want? Where are we going?” The Oscars always provides a unique, collective avenue to explore questions about our humanity and our destiny.

Jean Mitry writes in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema: “A film is a mirror in which we recognize only what we present to it through what it presents back to us: all it ever reflects is our image.”

Key imagery and symbols from Oscar-nominated movies may suggest new iterations of archetypes from the collective unconscious, related to patterns of human behavior, becoming mainstreamed this year. For example, the Oscar-nominated documentary 20 Feet from Stardom about backup singers in the music industry could be viewed as a modern look at the inspiring Muses from Greek mythology, from which the word “music” is derived.

Frozen, loosely based on the fairy tale of The Snow Queen, is nominated in the Best Animated Feature category; it’s about the powerful love of sisterhood. Ice as metaphor dominates the landscape; the Snow Queen’s eternal winter signifies an individual’s psychological wound that could freeze an entire community if not healed.

Cate Blanchett, nominated for Best Actress for her leading role in Blue Jasmine, performs an updated embodiment of Dame Melancholy. “Being blue” is suggested in the title, and through the repeated use of the song “Blue Moon.” Blues and grays are present visually in blouses, cloudy skies, and beaches.

In the 2014 Best Picture category, there are other resonant motifs to consider, including Tricksters in love plus money (American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street) and complex meditations on the Hero (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Gravity). The Trickster has universal appeal because the character allows us to acknowledge the profane. The Hero allows us to recognize our highest aspirations, a move towards the sacred. Mitry describes the Hero as “an unfulfilled wish, an ideal Self.”

In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodruff is diagnosed as HIV positive, and given thirty days to live. Could Woodruff’s character be linked to the concept of the Wounded Healer? This is a term C.G. Jung links to the Chiron myth, the immortal centaur who was poisoned by Hercules’ arrows.

Figures of the contemporary family are highlighted in the Best Picture category: Mother, Father, Child. A mother’s toddler is stolen; she searches for the child everywhere, and seeks help in her quest. In Greek myth, that character is Demeter, goddess of the grain, who seeks her daughter Persephone; she eventually pleads her case to Zeus. In Philomena, Philomena Lee searches through Ireland and across the Atlantic for her missing son, aided by journalist Martin Sixsmith.

Winter, as setting and metaphor, is also featured in Nebraska, the father-and-son auto odyssey that leads to revelations from a de facto family reunion, and the answers to what “winning” really means in life.

The sci-fi OS romance Her, perhaps related to Galatea’s tale — the statue sculpted by Pygmalion and brought to life by Aphrodite, scrutinizes the intricacies of love and its future.

So as we tune into watch the Oscars this year, and follow who wins and loses and what they’re wearing, consider: movies are our mythic mirrors, reflecting in rich imagery and vivid character what it means to be human.

Laura Shamas

About Laura Shamas

Laura Shamas is a writer and mythologist. Her latest book is Pop Mythology: Collected Essays. She blogs about film and myth for Huffington Post. She is married to writer/professor Jon Klein. Please follow Laura on Twitter: @LauraShamas

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