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.

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Oscar shows us its boobs: MacFarlane & Co.

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.

The next most popular favorite, David O. Russell had gathered armloads of awards for Silver Linings Playbook on Saturday, over at whatever they call the Independent Spirit Awards these days, and Jennifer Lawrence was, eventually, on the podium in a dress that was 5′ across, to represent the team, so he could hardly complain.

(Oh, how I would have loved to see and hear Emmanuelle Riva with that Oscar in her hands, but ask yourself how many voting members saw Amour — and how many will rush out to fix that situation after the particular clip they chose to show? Sheesh, guys!)

That left out her co-star, the very good Bradley Cooper, but he could have had no illusions about his chances against Daniel Day-Lewis, and besides, he has The Place Beyond the Pines up his sleeve in March. Oh my!  And, as my astute film companion points out, he’s a movie star.

Day-Lewis himself was there to get his due, and to remind us all why you just cannot beat the Brits at acceptance speeches, unless you’re old enough to remember Laurence Olivier’s at the 1978 Oscars — which  unfortunately, I do.  It is a piece of work, but you be the judge.

Finally — I’m skimming here — there was the Best Picture win for Argo, and the generosity of Ben Affleck’s fellow producers in letting their director have center stage (to the point of co-producer George Clooney’s having no mike time at all. Doubt he’ll brood over it.) It’s worth checking out his speech at YouTube.

The Oscars producers also had a nice way with this year’s Roll of the Dead, which actually included some of the industry’s worker bees in addition to the more high profile names, and gave a hint about what any of them did. 

Now: to the horror, the horror, which began with the Zadan/Meron choice as the host.  If I seem to be tap dancing around Seth MacFarlane, I am, because revisiting his crude, ugly, witless, racist view of the world is almost as bad as being in it the first time.

An opening number bringing tired old Captain Kirk down to tell Seth how badly his jokes were tanking?  Repeatedly?  Anyone, at home or in vast Dolbyville could have told him that. A musical number called “We Saw Your Boobs,” a handy list for teenage boys of movies in which an actress’s breasts could be glimpsed. Really??  How old is MacFarlane anyway?   Racist date-rape jokes, with Django Unchained as their springboard? Cringe-worthy jokes about not understanding Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayeck, because of their accents?

Who was it, MacFarlane or the Zadan/Merons who thought how hilarious it would be to have presenter Dustin Hoffman paired with Charlize Theron, in her highest heels, and why did Hoffman let them? (Because he’s a class act among the classless, that’s why.)

Enough. This is making my head hurt. No one needs to trudge through sludge more than once.

Here are two unassailably great things to take away from the Oscars — and the Independent Spirit Awards the day before.

One:  Indie voters know a wrong when they see it, so even if it meant crushing the supposed front runner, Bradley Cooper’s only chance at an acting award for the weekend (see above), they gave their Best Actor award to John Hawkes’ sublime performance in The Sessions. Way to go, Spirit folks!!

And two: in a sea of froth and trip-inducing Oscar dresses, one smoky silvery gown which seemed to be channeling cinema art itself, was unparalleled.  The dress is by Indian designer Naeem Khan, the poise and ebullience are entirely Michelle Obama’s.

Michelle Obama Wears Indian-American Designer Naeem Khan's Dress to Oscars

From Abraham Lincoln to Eiko Ishioka, wot a year it has been

Well, here we are again, friends.  The Academy Award nominations are upon us. For voting members it opens the sluice-gates to six weeks of more “friendly” persuasion than the NRA at that Tucson gun buy-back.

The rest of us can expect a deluge of guesses and pronouncements from folks not vastly smarter than we are about an event roughly as predictable as an earthquake. (See: Marisa Tomei’s Best 1992 Supporting Actress Oscar win over Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave. I know. It was a long time ago. Some folks recover slowly.)

To wade in at the top: what was the Directors Guild up to on Tuesday — that’s just two days ago’s Tuesday —  when it nominated Ben Affleck and Katherine Bigelow for two of its five Feature Film Director slots?  (Tom Hooper, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg rounded out their slate.)

The DGA slate is supposed to be the solid gold, take-it-to-the-bank standard of who’ll be nominated by the Academy. Were they simply giving two hard-working directors a good night’s sleep before Announcement Thursday, when they might reasonably expect to find themselves in nomination?  You don’t think Affleck and Bigelow were being set up for a sucker punch, do you? The Guild loves you, just not the membership of the Guild, the ones who vote in the Academy?  Don’t look at me.  I’m as stunned as they are.  Well, relatively speaking.

BAFTA, the British film academy, released their nominations at virtually the same moment as our Academy.  Will it make Ben Affleck feel any better to go to the London celebration, where among Argo‘s seven nominations, including best picture and best director, he also picked up one as best actor?  Probably not.

I liked the Guardian’s description of the BAFTA best five pics: “Lincoln,  Argo, Les Miserables, Django Unchained and Life of Pi, pluckily bobbing in their wake.”

What makes me personally happy?  To see the many ways humanism was defined by this year’s nominees: in utterly different ways throughout Life of Pi and Argo; in so many of the personal exchanges in Lincoln; by the tenacity of Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and by the unforgettable face of Emmanuelle Riva in Amour. And please, throw in your own choices, this is such a perfunctory armful..

I had the same astonished intake of breath as my critic-buddy Chuck Wilson, to see not one tiny special effect or what-you-will nomination for Rust and Bone, let alone an acting nod or two. We shared an eerie, did we really see it? moment of bewildered loss, not only for the rapturous generosity of Marion Cotillard’s work, but for the lacerating but equally abundant performance of her co-star, Mattias Schoenaerts.

Personally, I’m thrilled that members of the Costume Design branch have good long memories in addition to their collective eye for breathtaking work, since it resulted in their recognition of Eiko Ishioka’s final gasp-inducing costumes for Mirror Mirror, released early in 2012.  Seemed to me that the sumptuous wit of Eiko’s costumes spurred Julia Roberts on to fresh heights of delicious bitchiness as the Queen in this Snow White re-working – or perhaps they were just a bitch to move around in.  (When Eiko designed a cage headpiece for Jennifer Lopez in The Cell, Lopez mewled that it was uncomfortable. So the designer clarified things for her:  “You’re supposed to be tortured,” Eiko said.)

Take a look here at Mirror Mirror’s wildest flights of fancy and the consummate glory that was Eiko Ishioka, who died January 21, 2012, and to whom the film is dedicated. (Sorry about that ad, small price to pay, is how I look at it.)

Deadliest reading every year are the toe-in-the-sand responses from nominees, a thrilled, stunned, over-the-moon, humbled and ecstatic crowd who probably shouldn’t be allowed near heavy machinery for at least 24 hours.  The nice departure from all that was the final bit of Tony Kushner’s gracious words in the wake of his Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Lincoln. 

After carpet-bombing thanks to just about everyone ever connected with the film, Kushner said, “I heard that I’d been nominated while waiting to take off on a plane from JFK to LAX. James Gandolfini, who’s sitting in front of me, gave me a hug and a kiss, so I’m about as happy as can be.”

Finally, as a public service – and to prove that it’s not really all that hard — here (thanks to The Wrap) is how to pronounce the name of the youngest Best Actress nominee, Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s almost irresistible Quvenzhané Wallis, from her very own lips.