A Night Swung Between Two Oscars

Truly deeply deserving Streep

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.   Here’s its trailer:

www.undefeatedmovie.com

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.

O.C., whose athletic promise is abundantly clear, is shuttling weekdays among two North Memphis families who are trying to help him keep his grades equal to his football skills. (Weekends he’s home with his siblings and his grandmother who has raised him since he was 2.)  Chavis, the third of these promising athletes — just back from 15 months at a youth penitentiary– still has a hair-trigger temper wild enough to disrupt even Coach Courtney’s formidable patience. The tension here is real and formidable.

For anyone wondering why so many words about a film they can’t see, there is very good news. Undefeated was picked up by the Weinstein Company after its screening at the SXSW Film Festival, and there are plans to release it nationally, possibly as early as March.

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Honestly, I didn’t think Meryl Streep would win tonight, that Viola Davis’ showing at the Actors guild was a strong hint of what was looming, and that half-page ads reminding voters of the almost-30 years since Sophie’s Choice were half a page too much.  So this time, I think my twisting, stomping, fist-pumping exuberance almost knocked my pals right off the couch.

(When will I learn to trust a full-court Weinstein offensive?  Maybe never, but after tonight, it’s hard argue taste and restraint in the face of armloads of Oscars — 8 of them, gathered by the un-silent French, by Undefeated, and by Streep and The Iron Lady’s hair and make-up artists, J. Roy Helland and Mark Coulier.)

Her acceptance speech was Streep at the top of her form: a rush of genuinely funny self-deprecation; a touching salute to her husband who has given her “everything I value most in my life,” a special thank you to “her other partner” Roy Helland, the make-up artist with whom she has been working for 37 years, and a remembrance of all the friends, here and gone, that her “inexplicably wonderful career” has given her.

It’s magnificent, and I have been trying for the better part of two days to capture it here for you, in all its embracing wit and warmth.  CQF is still a challenge for me at times, but I think what I’m running into is an Academy copyright wall. So, go, revisit it on YouTube. It wears well, and it’ll make you feel wonderful all over again.

As for the rest of the night, what is this I read (everywhere) about it being dull and geriatric?  Ummmm, guess that nails me, because I thought it did everything that a night suffused with affection for the movies should do (short of giving the Oscar to Martin Scorsese.) And Billy Crystal was part and parcel of that Gemütlichkeit, pardon my German.

Those vignettes of actors speaking about their work and its meaning to them sounded unscripted and, frankly, not as easy to get as one might imagine. (Bennett Miller, the director of Capote and Moneyball did them.) And if they reminded you of the Witnesses in Reds, although not quite as gorgeously photographed, well, that’s the continuity of movies.  If you didn’t like the Cirque de Soleil, what do you like? And if Octavia Spencer’s wordless tears didn’t move you, then we have nothing more to talk about, ever.

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In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

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:

  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 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. .

How do you think the near-perfect A Separation from Iran did in the Foreign Language section, where all five of the nominated films must be seen?  Well, that depends on how many voting members get themselves to those screenings at the Academy, and if they are working (as 42% are, the Times says)  even with two screenings of every film, that could mean that only a tiny, dogged percentage chose the winner. And heaven help any film if word gets around that it’s “difficult” or “challenging.”

Don’t look to hip, young members of the Actors branch to rush to the side of “fringe” work, or even toward an outre performance (Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Adepero Oduye of Pariah.) They’re only 20% of the membership, their median age is 65, and they’re 88% white.

How does one become a member, anyway?  According to the LAT:

“There are three ways to become a candidate for membership: land an Oscar nomination; apply and receive a recommendation from two members of a branch; or earn an endorsement from the branch’s membership committee or the academy staff.

The membership committees then vote on the candidates; those who get a majority are invited to join. The academy says almost everyone accepts the offer.

Actors, for example, now must have three significant credits to be considered for membership, and producers need two solo producing credits or the equivalent. Such criteria benefit people with more experience. “The academy is always going to be slightly older — if just because you have to have about five years of credits before you’re even considered,” said Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner for visual effects.”

Look: they added almost 800 new members to the Academy between 1990, (when I still used to go to Academy screenings) and the year 2000, and nothing has really changed, much as Academy board members say they wish it would.  They have, however, put the brakes on admission since 2000.

Part of the fun of those Academy screenings was watching indignant wives lead the Voting Member straight up the aisle and out the door as soon as a Foreign Film nominee crossed the family line on sex. If you ever wondered about the tepid quality of Oscar Foreign Film winners, start there — and certainly with the guardedly-controversial nature of the “Official” films submitted from across the world.

As the Board looks to its branches to bolster their woeful statistics on race, gender and age, the status quo disturbs some not at all. To return to the Times:

Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership.

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

The late Damien Bona, who wrote the most readable chronicles of the Academy Awards ever, was fond of quoting this from director Milos Forman, who’d won two:

“The Academy Awards are a wonderful game, but if you take them seriously, you’re in trouble.”

Good intentions aside, perhaps that’s the best way to look at the Academy itself, inching its way with no particular haste into the world — as they see it, reflected in the films that they award.

Nobody Does It Better or Morphine Through A Drip?

Before we get into BAFTA, here are a pair of presents.

Looking up from the work at hand — bringing home as many Oscars as possible — a couple of studios have watched what big money PACs have wrought, and liked what they saw: money = influence. .  No, no, no, this time it’s a good thing. These featurettes were made in the hope of swaying voters, but they’re shameless fun all the same.  (Okay, the von Sydow piece is truly barefaced and blatant fun, and it diminishes my ardor for him not one scintilla.)   .

Take another brief look at the incomparable Hugo.

Here’s a celebration of the equally incomparable Max von Sydow.

*                           *                          *                        *

I’ve been trying to puzzle out why last night’s BAFTA Awards show went down so smoothly, at least at this house.  Not the awards themselves — a few things to talk about there — but the feeling of the event.

It may be a certain British take on life in general that seems so appealing. Offer a wild opinion to the kind of Englishman now owned by Colin Firth, and his opening salvo is, “Yes, well. . ” It has to do with reticence, a deep level of wit and intelligence, and the sense — rightly or not –that the person you’re speaking to is as least as quick as you are. It’s so flattering, really.

The show last night seemed to be steeped in that attitude.  It gets on with things. Even thought it’s held at the Royal Opera House, it seemed intimate, certainly compared to whereever  they house the Oscars, where the vastness is always chilling.

BAFTA seems blessedly anti-banter (Aussies excepted), which usually means a single presenter, even a grown-up, who gives a short intro that gets briskly to the point. Although music is recognized, there are no song awards,and thus no music production numbers. Think of the time your life gets back, right there.

If they have a house band, I don’t remember it, but nothing drowns out the winners who, peculiarly enough, have short and sometimes moving things to say. There seems to be the expectation that they will have something to offer, beyond thanks to their wife (first or current), to everyone they’ve ever met in the Industry, to their parents and to the god that made them. And this is an example of the thanks they do get:

Winning the Best Adapted Screenplay for Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy  Peter Straughan first acknowledged the beginning of The Artist’s mop-up job of 7 awards in all, with, “I’d just like to thank The Artist for not being based on a book.” Then, he took the award for himself and his late wife and co-writer, Bridget O’Connor, whose clear blue eyes had just shone down from the BAFTA clip of artists lost in 2011, saying “She wrote all the good bits, I made the coffee.”

(Straughan has been on these pages a lot recently. When there’s time, I’ll share bits of his blog, which may make you a follower, too.)

The huge gang of dedicated filmmakers who made the insanely watchable doc Senna were exceptionally moving, even for those inured to the “glamour” of F1 racing. They thanked the young driver’s parents for entrusting them to present the very fabric of his life, over at 34.

The BAFTA folks gave the towering Stephen Fry the job of Minder, because he’s already proven that he has one. He wasn’t auditioning for anything or compensating for anything.  If at times you may have thought Oscar Wilde had taken over, well, it could certainly have been worse. Say to yourself:  Stephen Fry.  Eddie Murphy. Stephen Fry.  Eddie Murphy.  If a fit of pique and homophobia by designated Oscar producer Brett Ratner hadn’t surfaced early on chez Oscar, necessitating a change in producer and his choice of host, those would have been our contrasts in style. Fortunately for us, Billy Crystal knows the house.

As for the awards  themselves (those small, gaping bronze masks), I don’t really begrudge The Artist any of their 7 except the one that should have gone to Gary Oldman. (British reticence, this time working against him.) Jean Dujardin is a charmer, he’s been everywhere that Meryl Streep hasn’t and he’s big enough so that we’re fairly certain he won’t start clambering over the theatre seats like a manic French Roberto Benigni of unlovely memory. Still and all. . .I feel for Oldman.

Jean Dujardin and his BAFTA

It’s no secret that I had a favorite here, and still do. Have to say, though,  things seem far brighter to know that the Brits may loathe Mrs. Thatcher, but not her spirit-catcher.

Everyone at BAFTA was treated to one of the reasons we over here adore everything that makes up Meryl, and no one I’ve read captured the split personality that is Streep at work and Streep just being herself better than The Guardian’s Xan Brooks, so I turn this over to her:

“Ask Meryl Streep to play-act for the camera and the result is pristine professionalism, icy exactitude and self-possession that verges on the eerie.  Ask her to collect an award and you get the polar opposite, a rumble-tumble Feydeau farce.  At Sunday night’s BAFTAs, the Iron Lady star bounded on stage with such devil-may-care exuberance that she lost her shoe en route.

Colin Firth fits Meryl Streep's stray shoe

‘Well, that couldn’t have gone worse,” Streep chortled, having clearly forgotten her appearance at last month’s Golden Globes.  On that occasion she rocked up without her spectacles, shouted, ‘Oh shit, my glasses!’ and thereby triggered the telecast’s seven second time delay (the broadcaster’s equivalent of the red button or the ejector seat.)

[Reporter Brooks complains that over the years, awards shows have become “rigorously policed and stage managed” and that this year’s BAFTA “played out like morphine through a drip.” ]

“So, thank heaven for Streep, with her flying shoe and her mislaid specs; her off-piste [sic] outbursts and scatty good humour.  Undeniably, she gives a fine performance in The Iron Lady.  And yet her ongoing tour-de-force on the awards circuit — playing the dotty aunt, the agent of chaos — is at least its equal.  Streep is electrifying, she’s turbulent; you can’t take your eyes off her.  Maybe she should get an award or something.”

Pina Bausch

Wim Wenders’ magnificent Pina began as a 3-D collaboration with the German dancer-choreographer and her troupe.  It was completed after Wenders and her dancers, some of whom had been with her for 30 years, came to grips with their shock and grief over her sudden death, 5 days after she learned she was ill.

You won’t find a better evocation of her work than this, by Wenders:

PINA BAUSCH
INVENTOR OF A NEW ART FORM
No, there was no hurricane that swept across the stage,
there were just … people performing
who moved differently then I knew
and who moved me as I had never been moved before.
After only a few moments I had a lump in my throat,
and after a few minutes of unbelieving amazement
I simply let go of my feelings
and cried unrestrainedly.
This had never happened to me before…
maybe in life, sometimes in the cinema,
but not when watching a rehearsed production,
let alone choreography.
This was not theatre, nor pantomime,
nor ballet and not at all opera.
Pina is, as you know,
the creator of a new art.
Dance theatre.
MOVEMENT
Until now movement as such has never touched me.
I always regarded it as a given.
One just moves. Everything moves.
Only through Pina’s Tanztheater have I learned to value
movements, gestures, attitudes, behaviour, body language,
and through her work learned to respect them.
And anew every time when, over the years I saw Pina’s pieces,
many times and again,
did I relearn, often like being struck by thunder,
that the simplest and most obvious is the most moving at all:
What treasure lies within our bodies, to be able to express itself without words,
and how many stories can be told without saying a single sentence.

[Speaking at the ceremony of the 2008 Goethe Prize of the city of Frankfurt am
Main to Pina Bausch (excerpt)]

Wender’s Pina is now a retrospective, a portrait, and an evocation of her power, her wit, her soulfulness and the breadth of her reach.  And right close to the end of the huge list of those who worked on it. there’s this credit:

               Dancers over 14. . . (roughly 50 or so names)

Dancers over 65. . . (at least half that many names)

Cannot tell you how encouraging that is.

I Owe You This Much

A few people have asked about the Margaret in Margaret, as well they might.  My apologies!   I think she was ungallantly left behind during a cut-and-paste from another version, although this may also have had something to do with it.

In any case, here she is:

“Margaret, whom we discover must be called Mar-gar-et to fit the meter of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall,” is a “young child”  who grieves over changes in nature she is noticing for the first, painful time.

“Ah, but as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by. . .”

It’s the kernel of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s epic look at the effect that the fall from another kind of innocence -– uncompromising idealism –- has on Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) a smart, self-absorbed 17-year old in New York City, a few years post-9/11.   

Lonergan lets Matthew Broderick give “Spring and Fall” its ideal reading, as an English teacher trying to pry responses from one of the poem’s tougher audiences, privileged kids, including Lisa, at a private school on the Upper West Side.”

*                                       *                                 *

It occurred to me that the few readers lucky enough to see Margaret may not know Lonergan’s breakout success, You Can Count On Me (2000). It’s worth watching —  again or for the first time.

Scooping up indie and critical awards across the country, the film gave Laura Linney her first Oscar nomination and ignited Mark Ruffalo’s movie career after years of theatre.  Quite aside from its cast, perfect in Lonergan’s droll mix of dry wit, deprecation and tenderness, Count On Me is a time capsule of American innocence itself, before the convulsions of 9/11 and all that has followed.

Lonergan plays against the Our Town purity and prettiness of his small town setting, in among the Adirondacks.  If this white church-steepled town has always been a straitjacket for Mark Ruffalo’s wandering soul, it’s a perfect fit for his by-the-book sister, Laura Linney, whose life revolves around the right upbringing for her 8-year old (a debuting Kieran Culkin, simply fine.)

Count On Me also turned out to be an introduction to the Lonergan stock company: Ruffalo, of course; Matthew Broderick, a mainstay; even Kieran Culkin over the years. And if you look closely at Linney’s hilarious bank co-worker, seething at new manager Broderick’s fussy rules, you’ll discover J. Smith-Cameron, Margaret’s actress-mother, Jane (who looks rather like Jane Krakowski’s big sister.)

Can’t say enough about Smith-Cameron’s work in Margaret. The Eighth Circle of Hell must be reserved for working actresses with full-on teenage daughters, and Smith-Cameron manages to suggest that Jane’s faint edge of uncertainty – odd in a successful actress – had its roots in a divorce rug-pull.

(I always feel mixed about mentioning this, in case readers suspect casting nepotism, but Smith-Cameron and Lonergan are long married.  I’d say they’re both wildly lucky.)

Don’t know about you, but discovering in Margaret  that Anna Paquin’s cool choice for her first lover was adorable 8-year old Kieran Culkin, grown up and gone plumb to hell, dependability-wise, was not a passage I was ready for.

*                              *                              *

In the same vein as sliding from one reference to another in the IMDb’s seductive linkages, the actors in Kenneth Lonergan’s movies have a history of other performances that beg to be seen.

Jeannie Berlin’s blistering, bravura work in Margaret, should have sewn up a 2012 Supporting Actress Award, in a just world.  Here, in a clip as Emily she gives the toughest possible response to the naivete of Anna Paquin’s Lisa, who had cradled Emily’s best friend in her dying moments after a bus accident.

(If brief language bothers you, this isn’t your clip.)

But, Berlin has already been an Oscar nominee, playing Emily’s comic  polar opposite in The Heartbreak Kid in 1973.   (The original, directed by Elaine May, NOT the Farrelly brothers unmentionable 2007 version.) It’s interesting and certainly heartbreaking, but it certainly marks a step up for women since 1973. Frankly, I’ll take today’s biting, assured Berlin over the Kid as a wet bathmat, any day.

Finally, there is Mark Ruffalo, hot in ways that no other director has imagined before, in Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003).  Obliterating his bruised little boy persona, Ruffalo plays a Lower Manhattan police detective, very, very good at his areas of expertise: the investigation of murder and the infinite ways of making love.  Direct, inherently confident (“Never apologize,” Campion told him, “you never apologize”), with an obligatory Zapata mustache, Ruffalo is unforgettable – with nothing whatever to apologize for.

[This isn’t an apology either: I cribbed these thoughts about Mark Ruffalo from a full-length essay about In the Cut included in The X List: the National Society of Film Critics Guide to the Movies That Turn Us On.  That’s okay, I wrote it.]

The Wonder That Is Margaret

Never, ever dismiss a grassroots movement (just ask Elizabeth Warren). Or the indignation of film critics, denied the chance to see what one of their clan has called “One of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders.”  The result has been a flurry of petitions, blog-wails and unkind aspersions directed at Fox Seachlight, from here at home and as far away as the U.K.

The fallout in Seattle has been that Kenneth Lonergan’s breathtaking Margaret got a press screening and a one-week run in one theatre, SIFF’s Uptown (backed up by no ads anywhere.)

Here’s where critics come in: with 3 ½ stars from the Seattle Times’ Moira McDonald and a strong pick-up review-let at the Weekly – and, no doubt, a buzz in every cranny of Scarecrow Video – Margaret’s healthy weekend grosses have earned it a second week, through February 9th.

The tidy among us should probably know that Margaret is almost as gloriously unruly as Anna Paquin’s Lisa herself, and that we will be following her at almost eye level for 149 minutes, as Pacquin virtually irradiates the screen.

Lisa’s divorced mother Jane (J. Smith-Cameron, simply superb) is a successful New York theatre actress and Lisa is at home in Jane’s close-knit, seductively unstable scene, and with her deeply ironic private school classmates.

Her screenwriter-father (played by Lonergan), now lives in California with a new lady, but at least makes an attempt at being in his kids’ lives. Even living with a younger brother hasn’t altered Lisa’s world view that compromise in any form is as contemptible as anyone who suggests it.  Ah yes, total idealism.

So nothing has remotely prepared her for a real-life bloody tragedy, when her flirtatiousness distracts a bus driver enough to run over a pedestrian. Slowly, then with mounting despair (and volume), Lisa sets about to do the right thing.

Which right thing?  That answer gets more muddled with each new character Lisa drags to the stage of her personal mini-opera: her mother, the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), the victim’s closest friend (a scathingly skeptical Jeannie Berlin), the police, the MTA, potential heirs, at least two lawyers, and a concerned English teacher at Lisa’s private school (Matt Damon.)

                                         

None of them will emerge unscathed, Lisa most of all.  By turns she becomes damaging, hotly destructive, sexually predatory, and genuinely dangerous to everyone around her, until with her every good intention in ruins, she finally faces her own part in the tragedy. (Interestingly enough, at an opera, the irresistibly gorgeous Tales of Hoffman.)

So, is it a cinematic wonder?  Damn straight, considering that Lonergan’s skills are deeper, broader and more nuanced than they were when he made You Can Count On Me, his unforgettable writing-directing debut 8 years ago. He seems to be an actor’s director, since every one in Margaret’s huge cast is miraculously good, and his intimate New York canvas includes the theatre and its denizens; the vagaries of the city’s private schools; teenage, both general and specific; opera and its followers, and post 9/11 America as viewed from abroad.

Lonergan’s ear may have become even more sharp: for the hearty, hollow phone chat of divorced fathers; for the escalating state of war between mothers and 17-year old daughters and, especially, for panic-inducing exchanges between teenagers:

She:  “Did any of that get inside me?”

He:    “It’s okay. . .Odds are overwhelming that it’s okay.”

But an ear is nothing without a soul, even in its excesses and our own struggle to put up with Lisa’s wicked stubbornness, Margaret is humane to a humbling degree.  (Who else but someone with Lonergan’s depths of understanding could even conceive of a positive mini-epic with teenagers at its heart?)

It is noticeably dated.  A classroom donnybrook, as a discussion spills over into the bigotry that a fellow student, of Syrian descent, has felt first-hand, in the wake of 9/11 is one of many reminders that Margaret was made when that event was still raw.

You ’ll notice that Matt Damon is in Bourne fighting trim and the hilarious Matthew Broderick, his teaching colleague, is positively coltish.  But the bus accident’s gory chaos and pandemonium around it is the most shocking reminder of that date, as much now as when it was shot.

The film’s exact time of 149 minutes was achieved by Thelma Schoonmaker (who by now should simply be called Legendary Editor.)  She arrived when  Martin Scorsese stepped in to help with the impasse between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight, who having watched their picture grow beyond its 2-hour mark, finally agreed to 150 minutes and not a second more.  Bless them all.