Losses and Gains

Very mixed bag, in and around the Oscars this week.  At Park City, Utah, the Sundancers had the heaviest kind of pall thrown over their festival when one of the pioneer Indie good guys, Bingham Ray, there as always, suffered a stroke and died at a Provo hospice at 57.

Bingham Ray. Photo: Russel Yip, SF Chronicle

During its too-short life span, October Films, the distribution company founded by Ray and Jeff Lipsky, became an imprint that meant something: singular, distinctive, often groundbreaking films (Remembering fondly and quickly, Breaking the Waves, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, with the late, magical Katrin Cartlidge, Hilary and Jackie and The Apostle were among them.)

Secrets and Lies

This invaluable mini-portrait of Ray, made by documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room) and Paco de Oris in 1996, was just posted over at Deadline.com.  In it, Ray talks about Secrets and Lies, and the impact a possible Oscar nomination might make for its writer-director Mike Leigh, as well as for October Films. Then you get the chance to watch pandemonium in (semi-) high places as the nominations are broadcast.

As I write this, the Screen Actors Guild awards are just over, and The Help took Best Ensemble, with Octavia Spencer Best Supporting Actress and Viola Davis Best Actress.

In the infuriatingly slow ways that these things evolve, in and through film, it might be possible to see a continuum from the humor and bravery Leigh located in his film to those same qualities in The Help.  Possibly. Of course, being the work of Mike Leigh, the young black optometrist of Secrets and Lies (the radiant Marianne Jean-Baptiste) trying to track down her birth mother was independent and upscale.  It was her white mother (Brenda Blethyn, equally unforgettable) who was a scatty factory worker.

The moving ensemble actresses of The Help are, to a woman, saintly when they’re not (god help us) “sassy,” undifferentiated, forgiving and conveniently — because this is a fable of1960s Mississippi — maids.

The Help

Sorry if my shoulders sag a bit, but if voters want to rally around brilliant, woefully underrepresented actors, couldn’t they be playing three-dimensional characters, in a film that really challenged them? I suppose the response is, be grateful for this. Just be patient. . . . one step at a time.  Riiight.

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Notes From the Bottom of Every Office Pool

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 Brooks 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 resisted The 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 in from the cold.  Thrilled to see its 3 nominations, which include its screenplay adaptation and Gary Oldman’s first acting nod. That was a wait. .

Now: who got robbed?  For starters, Albert Brooks (Drive), who said as much and more. Even before today’s announcement, he was wickedly wondering how many more events he had to go to and watch Christopher Plummer win.  For his part, Plummer keeps calling himself “a young kid of 82,” plummily, which should be enough to get his name stricken from the list.

While we’re over at Drive, what about its editing, which set the tempo of the whole film?  Trade you that for the editing of Descendants.  And what about Ryan Gosling, whether driving, playing politics in The Ides of March  or with his shirt off in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Should be some kind of award for that, no?

How long before the Academy gets Andy Serkis? After his motion capture gave a soul to Gollum of The Rings trilogy, to King Kong and this year to Caesar, the genetically altered chimp from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s past time to recognize his near-genius. Where to put his mixture of art and technology is probably driving the Actors Branch wild: how about just calling his work acting?

You don’t want to think about Young Adult, without Patton Oswalt, who really needs to be in the Supporting Actor slot.  The movie was on a thin edge as it was, I shudder to think where it would have been without him. Oswalt has perfect, corrosive pitch as the pity-proof victim of a brutalizing attack in high school who becomes Charlize Theron’s voice of reason, whether she wants him or not.

Because Oswalt cannot have Max von Sydow’s space (no matter what you think of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), why don’t we give him Kenneth Branagh’s imitation of Sir Lawrence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn?  

It pains me to say this, because I think Michelle Williams [and Carey Mulligan] light up every film she’s in, but there should be an embargo on Marilyn Monroe. She cannot be “done,” and no one should have to try.  In the most minor example, you cannot have gents in a screening room, as My Week has, slathering over the luminosity of “her” skin, because that glow was parceled out only to MM (and, don’t snicker, I’m serious, Mae West) and that’s all there is to that.

Finally, what about the phenomenal actor in nearly every moment of Extremely Loud, young Thomas Horn, if we’re talking about pure robbery?  What were they thinking?

If you staggered through a shot-by-shot 16-point analysis devoted to Melancholia’s overture alone in a recent Sunday New York Times, you may wonder where that film stands with Oscar.  Zip, zero, S.O.L.  Not even the cinematography, which is truly other-worldly, let alone Kirsten Dunst’s soulful appropriation of melancholy itself.

You have to lay this in the lap of its Danish director Lars von Trier during its Cannes debut.  It doesn’t help your cause to joke, appallingly.  Cannes immediately banned him, and those who took his words at face value — not allowing for mordant Danish humor — condemned Melancholia along with him.  That would seem to be the mindset of Academy voters, for whom its first prize at the European Film Awards in December 2011 cut no ice.

Today we have the flutters of acknowledgment from every nominee, a few of which even stand out.

Martin Scorsese whose ebullient and touching  Hugo leads the field with 11 nominations, including Best Picture and Director, led off with his gratitudes, then added, “Every picture is a challenge, and this one, where I was working with 3D, HD and Sacha Baron Cohen for the first time, was no exception.”

Peter Straughan, co-adaptor of Tinker, Tailor, with his wife, the novelist/screenwriter  Bridget O’Connor, said: “I wish more than anything in the world that my wife. . could be here to enjoy this moment.  She would be so happy and so proud.  I’m going to go and meet my daughter now and tell her how clever her mother was.”  O’Connor died of cancer at 49,  before filming was finished; the film is dedicated to her.

Finally, there was Glenn Close, whose Albert Nobbs nomination left her  “Just elated.  Elated, elated.”  She told the interviewer that she had come back to her home from a green tea latte with her husband in the East Village, with the Oscars not even on her mind . . . when her publicist rang with the news.

Really?

About the nomination of the three-person make-up team who turned Close into Alfred she said,  “I think their work is the opposite of the work in Harry Potter or Iron Lady.  It was minimalist. It represents the fineness of the craft. . . . . Sitting in the chair,” she said, “was a meditative.”

Don’t know about you, but I’d kill to be there for the nominees lunch.  Meryl Streep might just have a meditative of her own with Close about The Iron Lady’s make-up team, equally nominated.

Finally, the most unfathomable loss was the three-way shut-out of Michael Fassbender. So, Shame may have cut too close to too many bones, but no Jane Eyre or the absolutely thrilling duels between Fassbender’s Jung and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud in A Dangerous Method?  Sheesh!  Guess there’s nothing left for Fassbender to do but practice his golf swing.

A Streep for all seasons, especially this one

Have not awakened from deep Streep mode over here. Partly because the Weinstein Company has been working her like a dog to see that The Iron Lady gets a decent lift-off. Thus her Kennedy Center Honors now, a Vogue cover, a Newsweek cover, plus an appearance – and an unsurprising win — at the otherwise crushingly dull Golden Globes. (Well, she and Idris Elba. That was nice.)

Then it’s the Oscars, February 26th (nominations January 28th.) I have less than no faith in that august body, which moves like lemmings with a strong startle reaction. Think back to that clip from Julie & Julia during the Kennedy Center night, when Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child asks his wife Julia what she likes to do best, and, brimming with enthusiasm and a mouth full of divine French food, she says, “Eat!” Consider the pure joy of that performance.

Then remember: that year, Academy voters preferred Sandra Bullock.

It makes me worry that they’ll let her towering work as Margaret Thatcher go unacknowledged while they dither over its “propriety” or “historical inaccuracy” or, heaven help us, its “anti-feminism.”  Really!

So, at this house it’s been one or another of her 46 features, each night, with or without friends, just to warm up the gods.  We’ve had The River Wild, which she said she made to prove to her girls that she was brave, and A Cry in the Dark and Sophie’s Choice, which proved it to the world. Next is One True Thing, her open-hearted evocation of the kind of small town Americans she grew up around.

I also dug out hindsight from the file, to prove that my appreciation isn’t a sometimes thing.  This was from the late 80s, an attempt to sum up her decade of extraordinary portraits.

“With Sophie’s Choice the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be “utterly, fatally glamourous,” grey-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic.  All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone’s soul.

Streep simply dives into the role and vanishes. Even her sighs have a Slavic thickness to them and her long speeches of revelation — and in retrospect the film feels like one unending string of them — emerge from a deep, cello-like monotone quite foreign to English speech patterns.  In addition to its challenges for director Alan Pakula, Sophie’s Choice is also a test of other, critical filmmaking arts: camerawork, lighting, costuming and make-up, (particularly cinematography) yet it’s as though each department were carrying on its own love affair with Sophie. . .or with Streep.

When she needs to, she looks like a Forties goddess with vivid red lipstick, as vivacious as Carole Lombard. In the camp scenes, her head covered by a scarf she becomes a concentration camp Madonna, seemingly pounds thinner, translucent, with Brancusi modeling to her eye sockets and the planes of her cheeks.

Yet, finally Sophie Zawistowska isn’t about linguistics or make-up or cinematography; it’s a mélange of observation, intuition and truth that may come as much from the actress’ unconscious as from her craft.

Streep has approached this level two other times, in Out of Africa for director Sydney Pollock, and Ironweed for director Hector Babenco.

Ironweed is not a success, at times it’s barely watchable, with all those whitewashed dead folks Babenco dragged in to bring a little magic realism to Depression-era Albany. All I can say is Streep’s work is reward enough for some. For others, it’s the sight of an early Tom Waits, or even her co-star, Jack Nicholson, munching up the wallpaper.

As for Out of Africa, who could get anything out of the Baroness Blixen, or at least Blixen as she so carefully chose to present herself: the enigmatic Ice Queen transplanted to hot climes yet still under steely control. Even in a peignoir she had an aristocratic ramrod from her heels to her brain stem.

The film is measured enough to try the patience of an oyster and the styles of Streep and her co-star Robert Redford, fatally unable to suggest this enigmatic Englishman, are polar opposites.  Yet Streep succeeds.

She succeeds best when Klaus-Maria Brandauer is around to give her a run for her money, to match her strength for strength. From some private depths she finds a way to suggest the passion of the woman, passion that pushed even the worldly Karen Blixen to set limits on her free-as-air lover, although she knew what that would do.  She uses an accent again, of course, Scandinavian vowels this time.  At one of their farewells, Streep’s Blixen says mockingly, “I’m better at hullos,” in a voice that might have come from Garbo.

When she plays Ironweed’s derelict, Helen Archer, she doesn’t use cello tones, this is a bass-baritone register, scoured by alcohol.  Clearly, these are the last days of a deadly downward spiral yet Streep works to keep them feisty, not fragile, and in that amazing barroom song of hers, “She’s Me Pal” Streep gives her a barrelhouse joy.

Helen wears her cloche hat for all but one scene, so we must peer under it to find her and strain to make sense out of the growled fragments that are her sentences. Her mind has hold of the other half of them, and we’re not always privy to its twists and references. It’s a selfless piece of acting, this pink-eyed, shapeless woman of no determinable age.

Modest as the role actually is, in terms of time on the screen, Helen Archer is the summation of everything Streep has done and learned up to this point. It may be that as a former theatre actress Streep blooms in an acting ensemble, which Ironweed certainly is, or it may have been simply her fun at keeping the playing field level with that devil Nicholson.

It may even be that it’s Helen Archer who sticks in our memory when the Baroness Blixen has faded into an amiable recollection of veiled toque hats and airplane vistas of Africa and her voice crooning, “I had a home in Ahfrikahhhh.”

I’m not quite sure why, except that there are Helens all around us and there was only one, grand Baroness Blixen, who created herself. Perhaps the unremarkable has greater poignancy than the flamboyant, where the soul is concerned.”

The world of Karel Reisz

I was newly minted as the Los Angeles Times Critic when The French Lieutenant’s Woman opened to great fanfare in the fall of 1981.  I was still wildly conscious that the people who made these films, and knew them from the inside out, were reading what I wrote.  I also cared desperately for the film and worried that I hadn’t done it justice. (Truthfully, I almost never lose that feeling.)  So, when the Times’ uber Arts editor, Charles Champlin, said that its director, Karel Reisz, wanted very much to meet me, I was stunned.

I knew his history: Czech-born, he had been in the forefront of the British New Wave for years.  What was this about?  Complaints?  Mistakes?  Omissions?  No, simply a lovely, civilized lunch with the three of us at Michael’s (where, of course, I’d never been) with a director I revered.

Conversation and movie gossip began easily, Reisz was charm incarnate, and I almost unclenched.  Then, just as dessert arrived, he turned to me, pleasantly.

“Why did you say what you did about the music?”

“The music?”   (I froze.  Sweet leaping Jesus, what HAD I said about the music?)

        “ You said the music near the end was like Verklaerte Nacht. . .”  

Relief flooded through me.  If this was an exam, I had this one aced.  Schoenberg’s music was also used in the ballet Pillar of Fire, and if you saw its overheated sexual melodrama for the first time when you were 11, it’s unlikely that you’d ever forget it, either.  Or its music.

“Ohhhhhhh!  Well, when Jeremy Irons’ boat comes around the bend to find Meryl Streep.., the violins have that thrumming bit, you know. . .it goes. .. ”  I may even have whistled the thrumming bit, just to make my point.  “It’s really very like the Schoenberg . . . well, just very briefly.”    Mercifully, I held back Pillar of Fire.

Reisz studied me for a long minute.

“That’s very interesting. You know, we edit to temp music, and Verklaerte Nacht was what I had chosen.  I thought we had a spy in the editing room.”

My eyes must have been round marbles.  He went on:

“It’s fatal for the film composer ever to hear the temp, it always seeps through, one place or another.”

“Ummmm, “  I nodded, sagely, in complete agreement.

As we left, he put his arm through mine.  All I could think was, “‘A spy in the editing room”… So that’s how a director’s mind works. A great director.  Oh my, this job is going to be very . . . delicate.

Watching Her Watching Them

Lord, what a joy it was to watch Meryl Streep at the Kennedy Center Honors.  She’s long since mastered the trick of being heaped with praise; she just comes out and says it’s not really the worst thing that ever happened and even suggests (slyly, smiling) that she may just have done something to deserve it. And she manages to make honesty seem funny and endearing and not in the least off-putting.

Two things jumped out as I watched the show: she’s the first honoree I can remember who was utterly engaged with her fellow tributees. Most of them sit, cocooned in their memories, rarely alert to what’s going on in the next chair. Streep was scanning Sonny Rollins’ face as he reacted (impassively)  to the goings-on; discreetly glancing at Barbara Cook to see how a parade of other singers having at Cook’s repertoire was going over (stonily.) And for quicksilver moments of fun, she and Yo-Yo Ma were like ping-pong partners, back and forth, during the night’s more raucous music.

Most of all she listened, and as she did, gave away one of the great secrets of her performances.  . For the Kennedy Center interview, she said,  “The real thing, that makes me so happy, is when I know I’ve said something for a soul.”

Acting isn’t, as it’s sometimes said, reacting, it’s listening  and as you watch Meryl Streep listen, to everyone and everything around her, with every sense engaged, you see her storing up bits and pieces, Chuck Close details, so when she’s finally ready, her “something” rings true.

This night, she threw in a little extra body English,. When they lit into Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and the stage suddenly revealed a bleacher full of kids in Red Sox sweatshirts, her hands came up to the sides of her cheeks with pure surprise and her gold drop earrings swung wildly.

I would love to know if the Famous Five get to have any input about the work that’s chosen for their segments.  Ironweed  has sort of fallen by the wayside in the litany of her best work, a nearly criminal oversight, to my way of thinking.  Heaven knows the film had its problems, but there were none in  Streep’s Helen Archer.  (I’ll dig around and post an appreciation of Streep’s landmark early work, Ironweed included, shortly.)

So, my second surprise was seeing the set of Ironweed’s seedy bar appear onstage, to round out  Streep’s tribute. “She asked for Ironweed !“  I thought, blissfully, “She really really loves it.”  Ummm, maybe.  Mainly it was a chance to load up the stage with a clutch of loving co-stars and to bring the place down with everyone singing Helen Archer’s anthem:  “She’s Me Pal. “

Well, hullo!

Flea market luck brought me this Critic Quality Feed sign decades ago; it’s been on the wall ever since.  This Christmas, Eden and Michael, one-third of my unruly, adventurous brood, made it the logo and title of their inspired present: this blog.

Now it’s up to me.

Sheila Benson