God love Tom Shales and this Tweet last night: “For the first time ever the Oscar show is worse than the Red Carpet crap that preceded it.”
For anyone who does not regularly rejoice in the work of the former Washington Post TV critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, he blogs here. For fear of suddenly sounding a whole lot smarter than I have a right to, I haven’t yet read a word of it, beyond his blog headline and this Tweet. Soon as this is posted I plan to luxuriate in Shales’ gentle, dove-like tones, since we seem to have seen the same show.
One of the hundreds of tidbits the Academy chummed to its ravenous readers was an interview with the show’s producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Chicago, The Bucket List, Footloose) who confessed that for years, they’d been dying to stage the Oscars since they’d knew exactly what they’d do, “But no one asked us.”
Then, for better or worse, they were asked.
Let’s go with the best first. The awards themselves, over which they had no control, were wide-ranging and generous (if your name isn’t Steven Spielberg.) It seems almost impossible not to love Ang Lee, people seem to beam in his presence, and he returns the favor. The whole theatre seemed to love his winning Best Director for Life of Pi, a seemingly impossible-to-pull-off, spiritually charged and breathtaking film.
Waded through many double-page newspaper ads lately? Checked any late-night talk shows? With Academy balloting closing today it’s last ditch stand time for nominees, who’ve suddenly popped up on every flat surface to remind Academy voters of their existence.
It’s not just the ballots… although it IS, of course. But also, all those end-of-the-year movies have just been released on DVD – and, bien sur, Blu-ray – and their reappearance has given their stars a chance for one last chorus of “Hey, big spender, spend some time with me.”
The results have been. . .informative. You might imagine after The Hunger Games and especially her nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook that Jennifer Lawrence was a peppy thing, but who could have predicted she’d throw in a mention of anal leakage to David Letterman? Bet you he didn’t.
Helen Hunt’s Letterman moment was calibrated to a nanosecond. She’s gorgeously naked for a good deal of The Sessions, slipping between motel room sheetsin her role as a sexual surrogate, so she and Dave kicked that one around to a fare-thee-well. She got to rap him on the knuckles for taking the low (i.e. leering) road with his questions, which only made him… ummmm, aim lower. Big surprise, huh, Helen?
The really electrifying thing about all their merriment was the name that never once came up: John Hawkes.* He’s the actor in the other half of that bed, Hunt’s un-nominated co-star. Hawkes’ deeply soulful playing of this wry, shy Berkeley writer and (partial) iron lung patient, anchors The Sessions and gives the film its greatest depths.
Argo, the movie inspired by the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, is going to win the Academy Award as best picture of 2012. Go ahead, place that bet in your office Oscar pool, but don’t expect to reap much advantage, because everybody else is just as sure that Argo is going to win.
The signs are impossible to miss, or to deny. Like The King’s Speech a couple years back, and like The Artist the year after that, Argo has been sweeping the film industry’s pre-Oscar contests: the Producers Guild Award, the ensemble award from the Screen Actors Guild, “outstanding directorial achievement” from the Directors Guild (DGA), and the BAFTAs—the trophies from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts—for best picture and direction. Since many of the voters in those various contests are also members of the Hollywood academy, they’ve already vouchsafed a de facto peek at a lot of Oscar ballots.
There is, to be sure, a notable break with the usual pattern. Most years, the director of the movie about to be named best picture will be called to the podium to collect the Oscar for best direction. And much more often than not, that Oscar victory has been predicted by a DGA win. So we’re on track, right? Ben Affleck, star and director of Argo, won the DGA. Yes, but. Whereas the five nominees for the DGA and those for the best-director Oscar tend to be the same, or pretty much the same, this year only two of the DGA nominees made it onto the Oscar slate. And neither of them was Ben Affleck.
How and why this happened boggles the mind; we’ll probably never know. What we can say is that, far from blighting Argo‘s chances for winning best pic, the snubbing of its director seems to have inspired a backlash. Argo lovers are all the more determined to honor their movie, and mere Argo likers who might have been inclined to vote for one of the other eight best-picture nominees have swung aboard Argo. Also—as past best-director winners Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Attenborough, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson can tell you—the biggest voting bloc in the academy is the actors branch, and they like to see one of their own make good. That Affleck has made good as a director after often being belittled as an actor only adds to the payback fervor.
For the record, those other eight nominees for best picture are: Amour, a rare instance of a foreign-language film breaking into this category; Beasts of the Southern Wild, the fave rave among American independent films in 2012; DjangoUnchained, Quentin Tarantino’s expectedly outrageous foray into spaghetti-Western territory; LesMisérables, from the decades-long-running musical; Life of Pi, Ang Lee’s version of the “unfilmable” mystical novel; Steven Spielberg’s historical drama Lincoln (which leads with twelve Oscar nominations); SilverLiningsPlaybook, the best romantic comedy in living memory; and ZeroDarkThirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s distillation of the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden.
As for the directorial scorecard, only Ang Lee and Spielberg carry over from the DGA slate. MIA along with Affleck are fellow Directors Guild nominees Bigelow (winner three years ago for TheHurtLocker) and Tom “LesMiz” Hooper (winner two years ago for TheKing’sSpeech); their slots on the Oscar ballot have gone to Michael Haneke (Amour), David O. Russell (SilverLiningsPlaybook), and Benh Zeitlin (first-time director of Beasts of the Southern Wild).
We’ve spoken of Argo‘s conquest of industry awards (and don’t forget the goofy Golden Globes!), but it should be noted that Affleck’s crowd-pleasing movie barely showed up in critics-group award reckonings. In such contests, Bigelow/ZeroDarkThirty and Haneke/Amour mostly traded first-place honors, with Lincoln (though curiously not Spielberg) crowding for second position.
The discrepancy is easy enough to account for. Bigelow’s, Haneke’s and even Spielberg’s films are complex works of art that challenge audiences and then leave it up to those audiences to deal with the implications of what they’ve witnessed and experienced. Argo is a well-made movie with a fascinating (and mostly true) story to tell, of how six U.S. foreign service workers were exfiltrated from Tehran during the 1979 Iranian hostage-taking crisis, and when it’s over, it’s over. No resonance, no takeaway. An entertaining, quality movie, yes indeed, and there can never be an oversupply of those. But “best film”?
So, since it can’t be Ben Affleck (and the academy no longer allows write-in votes), who takes best director? It’s anybody’s guess. Spielberg has won twice already, and although Lincoln is much respected, I don’t get the sense people are excited about it. LifeofPi must be accounted an awesome technical achievement (the costar and most of the action is all CGI), but should it win Ang Lee a second Oscar? Haneke doesn’t make a wrong move with Amour and, denied the chance to vote for Bigelow, I guess I’d go with him. David O. Russell isn’t my kind of director visually, but SilverLiningsPlaybook is the first movie in 31 years to score nominations in all four acting categories, and he’s gotta rate for that. Zeitlin doesn’t belong here.
Best actress: SilverLiningsPlaybook‘s Jennifer Lawrence (“Hey!”) is the favorite, and certainly mine, but it will be deeply moving if Emmanuelle Riva, of Amour, celebrates her 86th birthday with an Oscar win; hers is one of the bravest performances ever. Also plenty worthy is Jessica Chastain as the fierce CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty. Inappropriate: Naomi Watts, in TheImpossible (but not enough of it); Quvenzhané Wallis, best thing about Beasts of the Southern Wild (but a kid).
Best actor: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln—take it to the bank.
Best supporting actress: I don’t see how anything stops Anne Hathaway, Les Misérables, though I wish something would. Sally Field deserves the Oscar for her Mary Todd Lincoln, and Helen Hunt deserves another for TheSessions.
Best supporting actor: His lovely work as the sports-obsessed Philly father in Silver Linings Playbook is the first performance Robert De Niro has woken up to give in years. He could even win (and I cast my top National Society of Film Critics vote for him). But keep an eye on Tommy Lee Jones in his rather too showcase part in Lincoln. Philip Seymour Hoffman, TheMaster, and Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained, both world-beaters, seem out of place in the supporting category. Alan Arkin’s vaudeville turn in Argo was easy meat.
Further remarks plus notes from the battlefield next week. The Oscars will be awarded this coming Sunday, Feb. 24, 5:30 p.m. on KOMO-4.
Ah, the glories of infinitely expandable space in online editions … and so, a sidebar.
It seemed, still seems, unthinkable that anyone could deprive Tony Kushner of the Oscar for his Lincoln screenplay, which raises subtlety to epic proportions. And yet Kushner shares a category with Chris Terrio, the screenwriter of Argo, and if this turns out to be one of those sweep years when Academy voters just don’t know when to quit, it becomes horribly thinkable that Kushner could lose. And speaking of category … Adapted Screenplay? I know that Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful Lincoln history Team of Rivals is technically the source of Lincoln, but to consider Kushner’s script as anything but an original seems picayune. Also nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook.
Original Screenplay is stronger yet: Amour (Michael Haneke), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, who won the BAFTA), Flight (John Gatins), Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola), Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Boal). Shut your eyes and throw for the dart board, you’re going to hit a winner no matter what. My preference: Haneke for Amour, then the Moonrise Kingdom boys.
Amour will also almost certainly be announced in the Foreign-Language Film category. Of course, predicting that award is dicey because of the peculiar, but entirely appropriate, rules restricting who gets to vote for it. Only members on record as having seen all five nominees may mark a ballot, so even if one film has loomed largest in publicity and critical acclaim, it’s possible that the all-but-unseen (by everybody else) little nominee from Upper Volta is going to pull an upset. No, there’s no film from Upper Volta in this year’s batch, but there are Kon-Tiki (Norway), No (Chile), A Royal Affair (Denmark), and War Witch (Canada). Amour, set in France with dialogue spoken in French by French cinema acting royalty, is technically an Austrian film.
In Film Editing, William Goldenberg will take home an Oscar—but for Argo or the more meticulously shaped Zero Dark Thirty, on which he shares credit with Dylan Tichenor? Other films nominated: Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook.
It is grotesque that Roger Deakins, arguably the world’s greatest living cinematographer, has no Oscar for his mantel. Skyfall marks his tenth nomination, and is (top this for trivia) the first James Bond film ever nominated for Cinematography. In Deakins’ favor, Argo isn’t a factor here. However, Life of Pi is, and that film is continuously stunning to behold. However (like 2009 Cinematography winner Avatar), it’s a movie wherein a lot of what we see is the work of Visual Effects people of various specializations. What cinematography there is is Claudio Miranda’s. Also nominated: Anna Karenina, Django Unchained, Lincoln. Roger and out.
Original Song, Costume Design, Sound Mixing, etc. are not in my wheelhouse. And anyway, I always do abysmally in Oscar pools. —RTJ
Expanded version of a column that appeared in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, Feb. 20, 2013
Everybody gets to gripe about the Academy Awards. Sometimes it’s a matter of “How could you nominate that mess for anything but oblivion?” Sometimes it’s disbelief at a great performance or great camerawork being passed over to reward something not-necessarily-bad but not nearly as good. Then there are the compensation awards — giving somebody an Oscar for second-tier work because their first-rate achievements have somehow never won in the past. (Certainly not meaning you, Martin Scorsese!)
Those are all fun conversations to have, but in this case we want to call attention to something different — some amazing, mostly appalling oversights. There’s a surprising abundance of great and/or universally admired and/or culturally indispensable and/or dearly beloved films that were ignored by Oscar the year they came out. In some cases, totally ignored: not even a nomination, let alone a statuette.
Fortunately, most of our candidates have been, or will be, redeemed in the fullness of time — in many instances outlasting and outshining the pictures that beat them in their day. Better yet, all of them are available for us to resee and reevaluate. Pass the popcorn.
The Searchers (1956)
What movie most influenced the “American renaissance” filmmakers of the ’70s? If you answered The Searchers, take a cigar, pilgrim. This towering Western, acclaimed as the supreme example of its genre, the masterwork of director John Ford, featuring the best performance ever given by John Wayne, and firmly ensconced as one of the Ten Best Films of All Time in international polls devoted to such things, has left its DNA in dozens of later movies, from Taxi Driver to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars. Each year, new audiences discover its visual grandeur, shattering power, and the enigma of its monstrous hero Ethan Edwards: long before it became fashionable to take a “revisionist” view of frontier life, Manifest Destiny, and the Indian wars, Ford and Wayne had wrestled with the demonic side of Western myth and achieved a deeper, more disturbing complexity than anyone would afterward.
And yet in 1956 The Searchers came and went as just another, perhaps slightly above-average Western. The film, director Ford, John Wayne, supporting actor Ward Bond, the never-more-vivid Technicolor and VistaVision cinematography by Winton C. Hoch — none received an Oscar; none was even nominated. Probably they didn’t expect to be, given the way both the industry and the culture regarded Westerns then. As Ethan Edwards would say, “That’ll be the day!”
And the 1956 Oscar went to … “Around the World in Eighty Days”
There is always such a feeling of inevitability by the time the Oscar nominations roll around. Even moved back to early January, it arrives after weeks of Top Ten lists, an unending array of critics awards, and predictions from every pundit with a blog. At least they beat the Golden Globe Awards this year, but the final tally is still measured against the consensus.
This year, no surprise, belongs to “Lincoln,” which entered the nominations as the film to beat and emerged with 12 nominations and an almost sure lock on Best Actor. The Best Picture category swelled to nine nominees, spreading the recognition around muscular studio pictures, big Hollywood Entertainments, and demanding independents. “Amour” emerged as the foreign upstart and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” the American indie that could. The front-runners and underdogs stake their positions and the critical kibitzing begins.
That’s not to say there were no surprises. Who foresaw five nominations for Michael Hanake’s harrowing “Amour,” or eleven for the survival drama by way of a storybook tale “Life of Pi” (albeit mostly for technical categories)? “Les Misérables” took eight nominations yet was ignored in directing and writing categories, which doesn’t bode well for Oscar night. “Silver Linings Playbook” scored better than expected and “Zero Dark Thirty” underperformed. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a game of numbers, it’s about the movies and performers and artists. The numbers just help take the temperature of the race.
Why do we care? Because politics and oddsmaking aside, the Oscars still matter to us, both as a star-studded spectacle and a sign of industry appreciation. A nomination is indeed an honor (certainly more of an honor than the Golden Globes) and a snub is still something to get worked up over. So here is our annual scorecard on Oscar’s slights and oversights: they shoulda been a contender.
The new shapeshifting incarnation of this category can shrink to five nominees or sprawl to ten films, depending on the Academy’s complicated formula. This year it’s a substantial nine nominees, including the inevitable but undeserving “Les Misérables,” and yet it left out Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” a film celebrated on best lists across the country (it was the fourth-ranked film on the MSN poll). The story of puppy love and adolescent runaways in a summer wonderland is Anderson’s most mature film to date and the most authentically benevolent and affectionate piece of filmmaking to come out of the American cinema in ages. I guess that kind of mix of storybook playfulness and unabashed sincerity isn’t considered serious enough, but I’ll take it over the often condescending clichés of “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
The raw dysfunction of “The Master” may have been too uncomfortable for Academy voters but I appreciate its uncompromising intensity. There were cheerleaders rooting for “The Dark Knight Rises” to legitimize the comic book movie and “Skyfall” to honor Bond, but they’ll have to settle for their blockbuster box office.
Yes, we’re past the point when anything more needs to be said about the 84th Oscars, and yet I’ve seen no mention of the most wackily wonderful moment of the evening. It afforded a look inside Academy ritual, and an instance of late-blooming justice being done against considerable odds. So please indulge one last Oscar commentary.
It was around mid-show and the category about to be announced was Best Editing. Four of the five films in contention were Best Picture nominees, which is typical, and understandable: surely a picture’s putative Best-ness has a lot to do with the excellence of its various elements? So Editing would just be part of the politics, the gamesmanship, the emotional rollercoaster of the night. Hugo had taken the lead with two wins right out of the gate, Cinematography and Art Direction—would Editing further hint at an upset of frontrunner The Artist, with Martin Scorsese’s editorial right arm Thelma Schoonmaker adding a fourth Academy statuette to her mantel (she’s won for Raging Bull, 1980; The Aviator, 2004; and The Departed, 2006)? The other Best Pic contenders whose editors had been nominated were Moneyball (those wonderful boardroom schmoozes! Brad Pitt working the phones!) and The Descendants (uh, OK). The fifth slot had gone to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a much-ballyhooed Christmastime release that hadn’t exactly flopped, but neither had it inspired brushfire enthusiasm among critics or ticket-buyers. An “It’s an honor just to be nominated” entry if ever we saw one. Your seats are way in the back, guys.
Then The Girl won. And as co-editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall were making their way down the aisle, you could read the mutual WTF body language and expressions plain as day. When they got to the podium they made it explicit: we weren’t expecting this, we have prepared nothing to say, but thank you David and, er, yeah. Exit, pursued by a chuckle.
“David” was director David Fincher. At last year’s Oscar ceremony Baxter and Wall had collected the selfsame award for editing his The Social Network. Back-to-back wins are rare. That, even more than The Girl‘s overall also-ran status among 2011 films, was why they weren’t expecting to be called to the stage again on this particular night.
But they belonged there, because their editing has a lot to do with why Fincher’s movie is going to find more and more favor over the years. People will stop worrying that there was a 2009 Swedish film rendering of the Stieg Larsson bestseller because, with the exceptions of leading actors Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace, it doesn’t hold a candle to the American version. Fincher’s movie runs only a quarter-hour longer than its predecessor but encompasses much more of the material, atmosphere, and teeming gallery of characters (including the Vanger dead) in Larsson’s 600-page tome. Steven Zaillian did the adaptation, a heroic task, but it’s Fincher’s visual and aural detailing and the at-times-subliminal editing by Baxter and Wall that set it before us and make it play, laminate past and present with breathtaking translucency.
The secret of having a fine night watching the Academy Awards is having a horse in the race, and I had two: Meryl Streep, whom I couldn’t bear to see lose again, not after that performance, and Undefeated, a documentary longshot about high school football players in North Memphis,Tennessee, that didn’t stand a chance in a field that stretched from Pina to Hell and Back.
So, understandably, our house echoed with shrieks, after Undefeated’s win. You may remember the bleeping disbelief by one of its pair of young director-editors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscars in hand.
As the extraordinary Manassas Tigers’ coach Bill Courtney says, “Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Undefeated reveals the almost overwhelming personal struggles of three of Courtney’s young black athletes as they move toward manhood, captured by the kind of filmmaking “luck” that comes from being there, day in day out, recording routine moments and ones of high and sometimes almost hidden emotion.
One of these came on the filmmakers’ first day with Montiel, known as “Money,” a small, speedy offensive lineman and honors student. He took Lindsay and Martin behind his grandmother’s house where he lives, to show them his pet: a tortoise. As he picks it up, explaining gently how its hard shell protects the soft creature inside, we get the first glimpse of the heart on each side of Undefeated’s lens.
If you saw The Blind Side, and think you already know this territory — you don’t. There’s no Sandra Bullock (lord love her) facing genteel opposition as she steps in to change the life of one gifted black player. If Undefeated’s kids see college football as the only way out of their flat-lined lives in this weed-filled, scraggly patch of North Memphis, they can also see the odds as clearly as we can.
Noir City Seattle, a shorter travelling version of San Francisco’s Noir City festival featuring archival and restored 35mm prints of noir classics and rarities, begins its seven day run of double feature screenings at the Uptown: the first year to screen at SIFF Cinema’s new venue.
The series kicks off with Thieves’ Highway (1949), directed by Jules Dassin after his career launching one-two punch of The Naked City and Brute Force. Richard Conte is the firecracker independent trucker who takes on the crooked San Francisco produce market operator (Lee J. Cobb) who crippled his father. He’s a two-fisted idealist in the nocturnal bustle of the San Francisco docks and produce marketplace and the winding two-lane highways of California, made even more treacherous in the daylight thanks to ruthless competition launched by Cobb’s henchmen. Valentina Cortese is the tarnished urban beauty sent to fleece Conte and Dassin gives the film a working class grit and post-WWII disillusionment. It plays with the Robert Wise-directed The House on Telegraph Hill (1951),a handsome suspense melodrama about a European WWII relocation camp survivor (Valentino Cortesa) who takes the identity of a deceased friend for a new life in America, which includes a son, a San Francisco mansion, and a suitor (Richard Basehart) who may have ulterior motives.
So, after an 8-month effort of digging, cross-referencing, and prying the news out of agents and publicists that their clients are in the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times released its bombshell Sunday.
Academy members are:
54% over 60 years old
Board members, reportedly surprised by the results, reacted with variations of, “We knew it was bad but we didn’t know it was that bad.” You might think that a quick look around the room. . . . oh, never mind.
Dig a tiny bit more and you’ll find that only 2% of the membership is under the age of 40; those in their 40s make up 11%, and 25% are in their 50s. (I know, there’s a rogue 8% “Unknown” missing. . don’t look at me, I only lose glasses.)
“Uncomfortable,” “Profound,” “By Mike Leigh” are not words that propel the well over-60-year-old Academy member into a screening. Do you think those same members liked what they saw, when they threw their For Your Consideration DVD of Shame on their home projection system?
Although it’s essentially a noir love story, how well did the unexpectedly violent moments of Drive play in that comfortable Bel Air living room?What about the knife-edge walked in Young Adult by both Patton Oswalt and Charlize Theron? Their (virtual) shut-out in the nominations was a hint. Drive managed one technical nomination, but nothing for its music, let alone its actors, just ask Albert Brooks. On second thought…
Let’s pick through this year’s full-on melodrama at the Academy Award nominations and see what seems to stand out. Is this deep, inside stuff you can take to the betting window or the office pool? Good heavens no. I’m habitually awful at that game. This is a bemused look around by someone a little off to one side, and just crazy enough to take it all in.
You want depth, the internet now churns with writers whose depth of field in Oscar stats is stunning, although sometimes it seems that the Oscars are their only world.
For clarity, and a sense of proportion on the nominations (and all things Hollywood), I’d trust the New York Times team of Michael Cieply and Brooke Barnes who, among other challenges, make the virtually impenetrable Academy rule changes clear, and do it with a sheen of wit. They’re non-geeky and nicely reliable.
As for me, it looks as though the Academy has tried to shake things up. A little. So we have Demian Bichir on the Best Actors list for A Better Life, and Nick Nolte as a Best Supporting Actor in Warrior. (Now to find those films!) We have the fortitude of the Animation Committee who resistedThe Adventures of Tin Tin in all its mirthlessness, and having been left off nearly every of those churning prognosticators’ lists, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came out of the cold. Thrilled to see its 3 nominations, especially Gary Oldman’s first.