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:


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.

                     *                              *                           *

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.

6 thoughts on “A Night Swung Between Two Oscars

  1. I, on the other hand, only remember that you went and it CANNOT have been thirty years ago. CB’s only twelve….

  2. Pingback: A Night Swung Between Two Oscars | Parallax View

  3. I agree wholeheartedly! I went through my expected disappointment to see THE DESCENDANTS win best screenplay, but other than that, I was actually quite pleased with many of the outcomes. I’m not as rabid a fan of THE ARTIST as many –though I found it to be delightfully fun– I would have liked the film to convey that silent films could also be deep and profound and cinematically daring as opposed to leaning more toward the stereotype that many folks have that silent films were rather quaint and fluffy. So for me, it was not Best Picture-worthy, but given that it was a film I did enjoy, I don’t begrudge it its award (and I can also celebrate THE DESCENDANTS not winning the award instead!). And I suppose I’m judging it a bit on what it wasn’t rather than what it was, which was highly entertaining and charming. In so many years past, I’ve seen the Best Picture Award go to films I truly thought were awful, this is far from the case this year.

    Billy Crystal was fun and brings a bit of class to the proceedings. I feel fairly certain that this was probably better than what Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy might have done. I was a tad worried about that combo. I was never bored, nor was I overwhelmingly embarrassed for anyone (as I had been last year).

    As for Cirque de Soleil, it’s hard not to be amazed at what they do. That said, I wasn’t sure I connected its purpose to film and I’ve always been far less interested in those “entertainment” moments in the Oscar show than I am in the nominees and in hearing the winners’ speeches. I would have preferred to see James Earl Jones or Dick Smith accept their awards instead, but if we had to have an interpretive dance/acrobatics display at the awards ceremony, Cirque de Soleil is about as good as it gets.

    Haven’t seen UNDEFEATED yet, but can’t wait! And I, too, celebrate Meryl winning every award she can! The work she does is consistently staggering. She achieves layers and levels few American actors ever do. She deserves as much recognition and accolades as we can throw at her.

    Always love reading your thoughts, Sheila!


  4. And remember it was 30 years ago that you and I were in the audience when she won for “Sophie’s Choice.” Later, sitting next to her at the table at some ball afterwards, she confided that she had chosen her Big Night dress when she learned of her nomination, but before learning of her pregnancy, and therefore the dress didn’t fit as it should anymore. She asked me if it was obvious that she was wearing it backwards (it wasn’t). I’ve had this memory since I was 16; I truly hope I’ve remembered it correctly! If she has a 30 year old out there somewhere – perhaps I didn’t invent this memory.

  5. Hear, hear, to all your comments in this column.
    Just back from our annual trip for the Foreign Film festivities (cocktail party and seminar).
    A super weekend.

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