Oscar, You’re Breaking My Heart (but you always do)

I have no proof whatever that when the final ballots were tallied, late at night at the Academy, and the prospect of a second year of the dreaded hashtag #OscarsSoWhite hung over the room, considerable thought was given to The Messenger of this news. Messengers.

I do know that it was really nice to see that Guillermo Del Toro and Ang Lee were given the first swath of nominations to read. The second list was handled by redoubtable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and John Krasinski.

It was a gallant show of inclusiveness, before the truth was out and hellfire rained down from every side.

– Sylvester Stallone but not Michael B. Jordan? So, who was Creed about, an old, slow white guy from Philly?

– Idris Elba nowhere in sight, unless you count Netflix ads.

Straight Outta Compton? Not exactly the screener that . . .ummm, mature Academy voters bring out to share with poker cronies.

– Women? Don’t start. Freud said it best, “My god, what do women want?”

– Spike Lee? Maybe no one could pronounce Chi-Raq. In any case, he just got an honorary Oscar. . . in November, at one of those ceremonies that happen way, way off-stage. Check out his speech, every last minute of it.

Don’t even want to think what he’s saying today. No, actually, I do.

Far from Hollywood, another movement had been roiling. A headline in The Irish Times nailed it:

                          Irish talent front and centre in the 2016 Oscar nominations

You gotta love coverage that names the home counties of nominated actors like Steve Jobs’ Michael Fassbender (Kerry) and Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan (Carlow.) And quotes a genuine-sounding reaction by Room’s director Lenny Abrahamson to perhaps having nabbed Steven Spielberg’s Best Director slot.

“I don’t know how to talk about that. That is amazing and very humbling. I chatted to Spielberg when I was last in L.A. and he spoke beautifully and was very complementary. But we thought we’d be in a seat at the back. Now [Room is also up for Best Picture] it looks as though we’ll have seats at the front.”

The Irish Times continues, citing Room’s adaptor Emma Donoghue, working from her own novel, and live action short director Benjamin Cleary for Stutterer. All in all, their tally suggests that it was pints all around for the Irish Film Board.

Check out the total hard numbers of Irish nominations, I don’t trust myself to. It’s a rout.

                                                                               * * *

A good long time ago, I was close at hand for another, brave try at balance at the Oscars – this one behind the scenes. For its gala 65th Oscar ceremony, the Academy declared that 1993 was its Year of the Woman.

(For all of you with really good memories, you’re right: the country already struggled through its so-called Y. of the W. in 1992, when women popped up everywhere in Congress. What can you say, other than if you want cutting edge, you don’t go to the Oscars.)

I was in our kitchen in Los Angeles in the early evening when the phone rang. It was Gil Cates, producer of the Oscar show, whose nominations would be announced the very next pre-dawn morning. I’d met Gil before, nice guy, always pleasant, but never so much as now.

“Sheila! How ARE you? Not still at the Times. . . ? ” It was one of those fishing questions, sure but just making sure.

“Not for 2 years, Gil.”

“Well, I was just wondering how you’d like to work on an Oscar show.”

“What doing?” I asked guardedly.

“Writing. Writing!! How would YOU like to be a writer on the Academy Awards? On this Academy Awards.”

Couldn’t think of a reason why I shouldn’t. And so my short, strange trip began, with an impressively rushed-through contract, so that when the Academy Year of the Woman gang was presented to the world, it did indeed, have a Woman Writer. Thrown right in there next to the two guys who’d been writing those snappy quips and truly fulsome film tags for years. Longer. For decades.

(The show also had a woman filmmaker, Lynne Littman, to create the night’s special presentation celebrating Women. Womanhood. Womankind. It changed frequently. She rarely looked happy. She came aboard earlier, already vetted by virtue of her short film Academy Award.)

So, it began. I turned up, ready for work, shiny-bright and redundant. Whatever was I supposed to write? It took days to sort that out. Obviously, I hadn’t been hired for banter. I wouldn’t have known what to do with banter if it had been thrown, naked and flopping on the writer’s table. On that point we were utterly in agreement.

Maybe I could do the lead-ins to the nominated pictures? Well before the 1990s, that form was set in solid Styrofoam: a mystery description, one or two overripe sentences, and an answer revealed by the title of the movie. That year’s nominees were Unforgiven (the winner), A Few Good Men, Howard’s End, Scent of a Woman and The Crying Game.

I loped off with that assignment and brought it back to my industrious fellow writers the next day. They were appalled. Not by what I’d written; every cringe-worthy mothering word of mine was used (well, more or less, we’ll get to that.) It was my timing. I was finished, already? The subtext, Now what to do with her? went unspoken, as they beavered away.

One of the pair created a larky bit for Michael Caine, scheduled as a presenter. Every scene went into the vast script we all lugged around everywhere, all but chained to our wrists. Reading it, I wondered how Caine would react to his moment in created Cockney dialect. By declining to be on the show, it turned out.

To tell the truth, almost all our labors have faded away, mercifully as any uncomplicated birth, although I do remember a joke that one of the two writers tried out on me. Not, he made clear, for this show, but for a Writer’s Guild show that he famously worked:

“They’ve made a Half-Way House for battered women. It’s called Tempura House, for lightly battered women.”

Rotten readable Irish face. It marked me forever as No Fun.

My far-off daughters kept pestering me for details, Tid-bits. Who had I seen? Not Al Pacino. Not Emma Thompson. And not Bruce Vilanch, damn it all, funniest of all Academy Special Material writers. His company wasn’t for the likes of me. I was closeted away with my famous Academy veterans.

Every word of the script was embargoed, and even if I could, I wouldn’t tell my family, because they know appalling when they hear it. But I could give one hint: watch for the intro to The Crying Game, a film with a far-ahead-of-its time transgender reveal. I was almost half-way proud of that one, which ended, “Who says a woman can’t keep a secret?”

And so, on The Night, I came off the base of my spine where I’d been parked, when my Crying Game presenter strode onstage. Even before rehearsals, I had learned not to think of any presenter as mine. They came. They went. You had no idea who you’d draw. You could hope, of course,  but it was truly one big game of Mess Around.  But here she came and it was. . . Diane Keaton.  In a white pantsuit, with a huge white beret.  Heaven.

Until she pulled out a sheaf of pages and launched into her own impassioned brief on the Rights of the Downtrodden Different, for roughly 45 minutes. Plus or minus.

To their eternal credit, my family never really thought for one minute that those were my words. Although they did ask.

Advertisements

“The Citizen Kane of the digital era. . .”

               

That’s not me talking. That’s what the great editor (great friend) Dov Hoenig said about  Birdman the other day, as his wife Zoe and I were trying to shorten the distance between London and Seattle over the phone.

My enthusiasms you can take with a giant grain of salt.  Dov’s you should take very very seriously.  The secret in the IMDb listing of his 40+ films, abroad and crucially with Michael Mann, is that it spans movies shot on film (Thief, Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans) and digitally (Heat, Collateral Damage) and he knows the virtues and frailties of both.  Never heard Dov — impassioned but also measured and serious — be this swept away before and this seems the time to share his fervor.

What particularly revved me up was seeing Birdman a second time last week. I’d forgotten just what a deckle-edge comedy it is, with all its soulfulness.  I think it’s a reflection of my inner Olive Kitteridge that I’ve held fast (for 3 months!) to not just popping in the screener so that my husband could see what I’ve been hyperventilating about, but insisting on a dark quiet theatre, so he could see it as it should be seen, in its full wonder.  Worked, too; he has come back to moments from it, again and again.

I wasn’t much help, have to say, when he asked what it was about, (his second favorite question after “What’s the running time?”) because it’s not about any two-sentence summary.  Fox Seachlight and New Regency are doing a full court press currently in Los Angeles, showing all of director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s films, with a section of “themes ” from Birdman added each night  (Risk, Respect, Love, Honesty, Truth.)

Well, okay, if you say so; I’d never disrespect the publicity arm that has brought this film to so many podiums and Best Of awards thus far. Still, highlighting themes does sort of tear up the — sorry, but there’s no better word —  soaring quality of the film. The camerawork of  Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity) appears to be one pell-mell, hurtling, breathless single take, following Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, indelibly stamped as the alter-ego of Birdman, a very dead franchise, as he dares to transform reclaim himself one last time — on Broadway.  (More about Keaton’s unsparing brilliance to come — as they say.)

I did like it Saturday night, when the beautiful Inarittu (below) won the Directors Guild  Award, and someone had to ask him flat-footedly What It All Means. Full of the moment, and translating from inside his head, the ebullient director answered,

“The actor as the representation of every human man who has a creative process. It’s about anyone with ambition, anything we feel; we try and fail, we question, we go deep then we rise up again.  I wanted Birdman to be an extension of that state of mind that every human being has [had] in his life, embodied in an actor.”

(Thank you Deadline Hollywood.)

I think of all the awards this shimmering film has accumulated  — and the uber-reliable IMDb logs them at 139 won and 163 nominations, excluding its 9 at the Academy Awards* — the one that truly took me aback was winning Best Film from the Producers Guild.  Until I thought about that for a long minute.

Yes, of course that Guild could be considered the bastion of old Hollywood.  I don’t even want to look at the stats on its lily-whiteness or average age or how many women are members.  But Inarritu’s words stuck in my mind:  he made his beautiful film for anyone who has a creative process, who has ambition, who tries and fails, goes deep and rises up again.

How could it not have struck a chord with Hollywood’s producers — very possibly the biggest risk-takers in the business? .

* Let’s celebrate every single nominee:

Best Motion Picture of the Year
Alejandro González Iñárritu
John Lesher
James W. Skotchdopole

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
Michael Keaton

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
Edward Norton

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Emma Stone

Best Achievement in Directing
Alejandro González Iñárritu

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
Alejandro González Iñárritu
Nicolás Giacobone
Alexander Dinelaris
Armando Bo

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
Jon Taylor
Frank A. Montaño
Thomas Varga

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
Aaron Glascock
Martín Hernández

.

Oscar detritus and a mad Academy Award daydream

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 sheets in 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.

A great many people were in disbelief over Hawkes’ omission on nomination morning. White hot fury just about covers the mood around here: “What is this nonsense? Would they nominate Thelma and not Louise?  Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain and not Jake Gyllenhaal? ”

Wildness got the better of me. Helen Hunt already has one Oscar (won the very hard way, opposite Jack Nicholson.) Suddenly, I could see the steps she should take, that very morning, that would endear her forever to every actor living.   In full, impassioned Vanessa Redgrave octaves, she should say,

“I’m sorry, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I cannot accept this honor. This was a duet, not a solo; without equal recognition for my fellow actor John Hawkes, my nomination is a travesty and a shameful artistic miscarriage.”

(“Sounding brass and tinkling cymbals” may have been in there, too.)

I called my Oscar savant, Chuck Wilson (www.flickers.typepad.com) with this stunning idea. He knows the why of such outrages, based on a lifetime study of runes and press releases.

“Not a chance in the world, “ he said, instantly.  “No actress would ever. . . Besides, Sheila, he doesn’t have a moment.“

“A moment!?! He has the whole bloody movie!!!!”

“Remember her sitting, alone, in her car? She breaks down. We see his effect on her. She fights for control.  She has a moment.  He doesn’t have a moment.

“Oh.”

You live, You learn.  From your betters.

And yes, I did see Emmanuelle Riva and her equally un-nominated costar, Jean-Louis Trintignant, in lockstep throughout Amour.  What can I say.  They’re French. It would simply never come up.

Well, in less than a week, the air will be filled with the sound of snapping Spanx; limos will gum up the Hollywood streets, and a great many far-too overdressed folks will mill about, exposing too much make-up to too much sunlight, until they’re finally allowed into the rarified gloom of the Kodak. . . .Oops! dead technology, , , DOLBY Theatre.

I don’t mean the actors. Unless they’re Meryl Streep, all that hair-and-make-up stuff is what they live for. I’m talking about the comfortable wives of nominated Sound Mixers, the tetchy girlfriends of nominated Screenwriters, the put-upon wives of nominated Editors.  This is their sweetheart’s moment and these partners have gotten all dressed and made-up to meet the challenge full on. . . And???

The assembled yobs of TV all but stub out their cigarettes on these best beloveds, as they speed off to exchange a sound bite or two with the Youngest Nominee ever. Or the Oldest.

I was one of those hangers-on myself, when I was about 10.  I knew that my upstanding screenwriter-mother meant it as a treat, and that dressing up meant you wore white socks and black patent leather Mary Janes.  In those unenlightened days, they let photographers into the auditorium, pre-show, and what I clearly remember is one of them, expertly canvassing one row after another, including ours, before telling his assistant, “Nope. Nobody.”  I remember patting my hands and arms, thinking, “Noooooooo, there’s somebody here. I can feel her.”  Hah! Shows you what I knew.

The most deft reporting I’ve seen on this 85th Oscar extravaganza came from the estimable Doree Lewak at the NY Post. In a moment of deadpan inspiration, she tracked down lifelong Academy members Rita Gam and Arlene Dahl, collecting their opinions about the show, its hosts, past and present, the cost of keeping one’s ballot, and a few picks for Best Picture – and a Best Director.  For balance, she also interviewed screenwriter Walter Bernstein, now 93 and holding his own in a more recognizable universe. (Personally, I’d say who needs balance, but that’s just my mean streak.)      

*Yes.  Helen Hunt did mention John Hawkes in the most appreciative terms when she was on Leno. She just didn’t say anything that could have suggested that the Academy, you know, blew it.

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.