There is a misconception among denizens of the oil patch that the general public is uneducated about their industry, and recent hysterics concerning climate change and the energy transition have turned the masses against them.

Nope, that’s not it. Oh, there’s pearl-clutching aplenty when climate-related traumatic weather events strike but, for the most part, the public’s awareness of greenhouse gases is an abstract concept that flits through the collective consciousness briefly and infrequently, only momentarily distracting the population’s focus from what really matters, i.e., Taylor Swift.

Fact is, the public has been well-educated about the industry for quite some time, just not in the way people in oil and gas would like. Hollywood branded oil barons as greedy long ago. Sometimes they were greedy and evil, but greedy/evil/purveyors of environmental doom is a fairly recent development.

The envelopes, please

To celebrate the Oscars this month, let’s grab some popcorn, suspend our disbelief and see how unready for its close-up this industry really is.

Markman: I’d Like to Not Thank the Academy…
Robert De Niro (Source:

Killers of the Flower Moon (2023)

Oil perception rating: G (greedy), E (evil) and R (racist).

The film by Martin Scorsese is the sole oil-themed nominee for Best Picture this year (an argument could be made for “Barbie” because of the role of hydrocarbons in the manufacture of plastic dolls, but that is a stretch and, anyway, too far downstream for Oil and Gas Investor’s audience.)

Based on real events, the film depicts how the discovery of oil on Osage Nation land in Oklahoma early in the 20th century made the Osage people rich but drew the envy of whites in the region. A white businessman, William Hale (Robert De Niro), recruits his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his conspiracy to murder Osage landowners and seize their oil wealth.

Markman: I’d Like to Not Thank the Academy…
Lily Gladstone (Source:

Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone) and proceeds to do Hale’s bidding in ensuring the murders of her family members to concentrate the headrights, or share in oil royalties, in her hands. Then he conspires with doctors to poison her. The FBI investigates and ends the Osage “reign of terror,” but only after untold people are murdered.

Giant (1956)

Oil perception rating: G, R

In this sprawling classic by George Stevens that spans three decades, a high-spirited young woman named Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor) from the East marries cattle rancher Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) and relocates to Texas. Ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean in his third and last film) pines for Leslie and never quite absorbs the “Dude, I’m married” vibe she directs at him repeatedly.

Markman: I’d Like to Not Thank the Academy…
Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean depicted in a scene from “Giant” on an Italian postage stamp. (Source:

When Bick’s older sister Luz dies, she leaves a parcel of the family’s massive Reata ranch to Jett, who turns down Bick’s offer to buy it back and settles into a modest shack (yes, by shack standards, this one is modest) on the property. Then one day, just like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” up through the ground came a-bubblin’ crude.

I'd like to not thank the academy
Artist John Cerney created this plywood tribute to “Giant” in Marfa, Texas, where parts of the movie were filmed in 1955. From left to right: Rock Hudson’s Bick Benedict character, the Reata mansion, James Dean as Jett Rink and Elizabeth Taylor as Leslie Benedict. (Source: Shutterstock)

Jett starts drilling and, like a cynical, nasty version of Jed Clampett, is suddenly a millionaire. He keeps drilling, builds an oil empire, and becomes a celebrated philanthropist and political power broker. But despite all that, he is a remarkably static character. Jett never gets over Leslie, never lets go of his resentment of Bick and never moves on from being a brawling, sloppy drunk.

Bick eventually relents and agrees to let Jett drill on his land. The decision results in greater wealth for Bick but he’s not comfortable with it. Bick gets favorable treatment in this movie because he prefers to be just a simple cowman who happens to live in a mansion on the largest ranch in Texas.

Like “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the film also takes place in the 1920s, but in “Giant,” the racism is directed at Mexican-Americans. In contrast to Jett, Bick is a dynamic character. He grows from intolerance to love for his Mexican daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandson, even engaging in fisticuffs with a bigoted scoundrel on their behalf.

The big, bad picture

Hollywood is not kind to oilmen. Jett may be wealthy, but even as a philanthropist, he remains a greedy and destructive bigot. Indeed, Jett Rink (J.R.) was the inspiration for Larry Hagman’s character on “Dallas.” Bick gets gentler treatment because, while he gained financially from oil royalties, he never identifies as an oilman.

These two films take place in the 1920s, so environmentalism doesn’t creep into the story. Were “Giant” to be remade today, it’s likely that one of Jett’s poorly maintained pipelines would burst, allowing oil to seep into the water table and kill all of Bick’s cattle.

The theme of the greedy, destructive oil tycoon runs through much of the cinema that touch on the industry. In “There Will Be Blood,” based on Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” novel, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview character drinks, steals, murders, cheats, antagonizes, steals, emotionally abuses his adopted son and murders, though not necessarily in that order.

In “Deepwater Horizon,” a BP manager (John Malkovich) overrides safety concerns to accelerate production on an offshore rig. The result is an explosion that kills 11 and spills enough crude into the Gulf of Mexico to rank as the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.

“Syriana,” starring George Clooney, takes a different path. In this 2005 film, a progressive prince of a fictional Middle East emirate wants to leverage vast reserves of natural gas to propel his country into the 21st century. Naturally, the CIA and a group of Islamic fundamentalist zealots (literally) blow that up. Even when fossil fuels are depicted as a force for good, things end badly.

There are other examples, but you get the picture. Hollywood shows hydrocarbon extraction and the tensions that surround that activity, as if that is an end unto itself. But the products that people use (gasoline, water bottles, Barbie dolls) are unseen.

To mangle a metaphor, we only see the sausage being made in these movies. We’re never invited to lunch.

In the movies, the public never sees the full impact—good and bad—of the oil and gas industry. It just sees the bad, sometimes in grotesque form.

But that doesn’t mean the public is uneducated about the oil industry. On the contrary, it has been carefully taught.