Errors, omissions and general hilarity: it’s Awards nomination time again

Appalling to discover what it takes to get me back here, isn’t it?  Nominations morning. Kiss and cry time.  So much real, consequential stuff came down during the last months of 2013, yet, mostly, I hung back from writing.  Omit a few names on the Academy Award ballot and I’m fired up, ready to go. I fear it’s simply the mark of the beast, so better get to it. The less frivolous stuff is TK, I swear. .

First the outrage, then the love.. It seemed to me that three actors absolutely held their films together and at least two of them, Robert Redford (All Is Lost) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her.) did the best work of their lives. Unfortunately, the Actors branch didn’t agree.(Churls among us might even call it Redford’s first unmannered performance, but you know churls.) 

I would have put Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips as the hard pressed, resourceful freighter captain on that list too, except that, idly, I started to watch Philadelphia on TCM the night before the nominations, and after Hanks appeared, I couldn’t stop. No matter how that film sits with you, then or now, watching it cleared up one thing fast for me. Captain Phillips isn’t a career best for Hanks, it’s simply what he’s been doing all his acting life, working with a strength, integrity. delicacy and — within limits — range that has only intensified with time.

If there’s an irony to Hanks’ lack of recognition, it’s in the supporting actor nomination for the terrifyingly good Barkhad Abdi as Captain Phillips’ chief adversary among the Somali pirates. Guess who Abdi is shoulder to shoulder with for 90% of his scenes? You have to have flint to strike sparks.

Before we leave Captain Phillips, its editing nomination (for Christopher Rouse, in his third film for director Paul Greengrass) seemed virtually inevitable, but how could there not be one for Greengrass himself?  Shades of Ben Affleck and Argo, although that didn’t turn out too badly, if anyone can remember back to the 2013 Awards.  

I am going to hold the fierce good thought that Fruitvale Station’s complete shut out for director Ryan Coogler and actors Michael B.Jordan and Octavia Spencer only gives Independent Spirit award voters a clear sense of what they can do to right some big oversights. The Indie folks love stuff like that; it makes them look less like panting wanna-bees and more like Spirit voters.of old, free thinkers who gave Best Director awards to Lodge Kerrigan, Everett Lewis, Whit Stillman, Nick Gomez, Carl Franklin and, oh yes, David O. Russell. Those were the days.

L. to R.: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, director Ryan Coogler

And while we’re in Omissions vein: I really hope it didn’t look too much like Jonestown over at the T Bone Burnett scatter Thursday. To call attention to Burnett’s immaculate round-up of folk songs which gave the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis its very backbone, CBS Films sent prospective voters everything but an Inside Llewyn Davis scratch ‘n sniff. You may have noticed the double-truck ads. For this massive effort they got two nods, for Bruno Delbonnet’s rapt, incisive cinematography and for the trio who did the sound recording. Entirely worthy but well short of high CBS hopes. Harsh, Academy, truly harsh.

What might be called the Inside Llewyn Davis Situation has not gone unnoticed close to home, either. Tucker and Lily feel keenly the lack of recognition for their orange brethren (all 3 of them) who gave character, attitude and certainly legs to Llewyn Davis himself.

Before we leave film music, you won’t hear more heartfelt American bluegrass than in a gem hidden among the five Best Foreign Film nominees. The Broken Circle Breakdown, from Belgium is a stunner, an intimate contemporary love story whose brilliantly fractured narrative carries a genuine gut punch. It may take a minute to adjust to a bluegrass lead  singer whose other mode of expression is her artful and ever-expanding tattoos, but this is a case where her ink is beyond decorative, it’s her message to the world. (Great good news: Scarecrow,Video, invaluable and essential as ever, tells me that Broken Circle has a March 11th DVD release.)


We should all have known Sally Hawkins (a supporting actress nominee for Blue Jasmine) years ago, after her effervescent, many-faceted Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky (2008).  As I remember (a dangerous phrase), a broken collarbone on another shoot, before Happy Go Lucky’s U.S. release kept her from doing the intense NY publicity push Leigh’s film needed. Her performance became a cherished, “minor” prize-winning open secret. She picked up awards from stateside critics’ groups, a first at Berlin, even a Golden Globe during that group’s more louche era, but for Academy voters she might not have existed. As of Thursday morning, she does. She’s in one of the most densely packed major categories, still. . .she’s there, at long last. (And what did Hollywood find for Hawkins first, for her quirky, lean-in-closely unique fizz?  Godzilla.)

I’m glossing over armloads of favorites mainly because, with the exception of Gravity, which mercifully I saw before House Arrest began, I’ve watched almost everything else on screeners. Each time I do, I imagine sharing the room and the moment with the film’s director, sleepless after weeks balancing the sound, correcting the color, getting every finicky detail tuned to perfection. . . . Oh the horror, the horror!!!

Now that they’re rushing so many films back into theatres,  I am looking forward to getting my fill of repeats on very big screens (12 Years a Slave, Gravity — Yes again. And again —. perhaps even another fling with The Grandmaster) before they all go away, March 2nd, and only the winners survive.  .

Let me finish with a Kite Day update. First: I can say absolutely that I walk better than Bruce Dern.  I always did.  As of last week, however, I can now get up the stairs to our bedroom — and all my clothes, and while you might not want to see my knife-work from up close, I’m cooking again.  Next is our car’s stick-shift, which is still a bit beyond me, although the day can’t come soon enough in some quarters. My husband has taken to calling me Miss Daisy. He says all he needs is the cap.


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

What’s kept Argo’s flame burning brightly

I have a hunch about what’s helped keep Argo’s awards slowly, stubbornly piling up inside Hollywood: Benghazi and its seemingly interminable fallout.

Argo opened one month and a day after that murderous attack. It was a month that reshaped what we knew about the realities of  “diplomacy” when, in the presence of the President and the Secretary of State, the bodies of our Ambassador to Libya and three men who tried to save him were returned to their families and to a largely uncomprehending country.

And as we began to think about what it is that diplomats do, Argo arrived to show us. It was deadly-real and it was Hollywood-real; it had the look of newsreel footage and a grand, bogus bigger-than-life finale, and at its core were six, human, identifiable characters – diplomats all.

At its most deadly serious, Argo was sound for sound, action for action, what happens when an American embassy (consulate, mission) is overrun in a decidedly unfriendly country. Even when Benghazi became political attack fodder, Argo’s resonance of resilience under fire lingered.  Last week, the film got gold-standard corroboration from Hillary Clinton, during her day-long testimony about Benghazi to both houses of Congress, when she said,

“Marine security guards, as you know, are very much a presence on more than 150 of our posts.  . . If you saw the recent movie Argo, you saw the Marines in there destroying classified material when the mob was outside in Tehran.”

Having your movie taken as a point of reference by the Secretary of State  must have given Ben Affleck a not-bad day, although he’s been having a lot of those recently (the Producers Guild Award, back-to-back with the Screen Actors Guild Best Cast win, on top of all those other odd-shaped awards Argo has collected for all its artists along the way.)

But I think that Argo does something well beyond winning awards: it connects us to that soaring, exuberant, embarrassing emotion, patriotism, in the same way that the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir did when they took “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to pure lump-in-your throat, tear-stained national pride at Obama’s Inauguration.  For every one of Argo’s artists, its portrait of American patriots, in Hollywood, Tehran and even Washington D.C. may have come at exactly the right moment.

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.

Argo and me — the back story

I started to describe why Argo struck me as brilliant and almost unendurable, all at once, but that’s silly. Just drop everything and go.  For such a full-throttle, gripping, movie-goer’s-movie, it has depths that linger — certainly at this house.

I haven’t been writing for a while.  Even before the September 11th attacks in Benghazi, with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, I’ve been reading, almost every day, reports from a world that I am intimately connected to, yet necessarily apart from, our Foreign Service.

Most of my friends know that the most far-flung of the three daughters joined the Foreign Service just over three years ago.  She began working in Bogota, came back to D.C. this Fall for training as a Consular Officer and when that’s finished, she goes to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.  With, of course, her husband and their three cats, the Tabbies.

At the same time that I followed every test, every setback and surge forward on her blog, I began to browse over at the Tabbies’ lower right-hand column, where she lists other FS blogs she follows.

They are the damndest mash-up imaginable: blogs so dense with acronyms that I don’t venture across their threshholds; ones fuming at a bureaucracy that seems to make things harder, not easier, and ones with pretty imaginative examples of coping calmly with what you and I might see as staggering obstacles.

Among all these voices — who’ve become my unvarnished, behind-the-scenes FS reporters – I’ve come to think of Life After Jerusalem by “Digger,” as the most straight-talking, passionate, intelligent and vibrant guide possible to the core of Foreign Service life, by one of the very best writers for the job. Very frankly, she’s my hero.

Digger is in no way neutral. In Jerusalem she served under Chris Stevens, not yet a full-fledged Ambassador, yet virtually functioning as one at that post.  If you read Digger’s piece in September, “Who Chris was to me,” you’ll get a picture of the man that only a co-worker could draw. Those memories end with Digger’s clear as a bell definition of foreign service; it cannot be bettered — and in this context it may bring tears to your eyes, too.

And this was her entry for October 14th:

It has been just over a month, but the attacks on our embassies and consulates and the deaths of four diplomats including one friend are never far from my mind. And the dangers friends continue to face continues to worry me.

The politicizing of this situation, however, including the blame game going on, is infuriating.

That the very people who have repeatedly slashed our security budget would then try to find scapegoats within the State Department, the people who have tried their best to “do more with less,” is unconscionable.

We know we sign on for dangerous tasks when we join the Service. It is a risk most of us gladly take for the privilege of serving the country and the feeling that we get to make a difference and help keep America safe.
*                            *                       *
Since I last posted on this topic, there have been a couple good pieces I wanted to share with you on what we do and the choices we make to do it.

Most riveting among those pieces is this one, from another blogger who writes as Four Globetrotters. She’s a Foreign Service Officer at post in Tunis with her 3 kids and this excerpt following is her first-hand, hour by hour account of an attack on their Embassy, Sept. 12, 2012, a hairsbreadth after the deadly Benghazi raid. The Tunis attack, which got scant attention in our press, counts as a “relatively minor” event (FS families safely evacuated, no lives lost.)  Among its other qualities, her account gives some of Argo’s most terrifying moments the context they deserve:

All employees are ordered to the safe haven. Everyone dutifully files in, deposits their cell phones since the safe haven is a phone-free zone. Reports continue to come in. The motor pool is on fire. The rec center is on fire. The employee parking lot is on fire. Protesters are on the roof of the Chancery. We immediately begin to do what we know to do. Destroy classified. I hear the sound of sledge hammers pounding away, comforted to know that my colleagues are destroying the classified material. The sound of the hammers echo through the Embassy, making the walls vibrate. Find out that sound isn’t coming from within. The protesters are at our windows and are intent on getting in. They are attempting to set fire to the Chancery, dousing the building with gasoline and setting it on fire. My mind flashes back to the images from Benghazi, just a few days prior. I visualize the caskets of my dead colleagues on board the C-130 in Tripoli.

A faint smell of smoke begins to waft through the safe haven, where I’m sitting with 103 of my colleagues, some of whom are panicking and crying. I’m trying very hard to project calm and confidence. The fire alarm goes off. Someone decides to go get everyone’s cell phones so we can start calling our loved ones. I sent three quick emails from my blackberry — to my ex-husband: “In safehaven. People are on the compound, on roof. Tell the kids I love them so much. If the worst happens don’t let them forget me.”, one to my parents and my sisters, and one to my very special person. I’m worried sick about my motor pool team, stuck in an outside building.

Compare this account with what director Ben Affleck was able to create on a vastly magnified scale, as he staged the takeover of our Embassy in Tehran in 1979 by radical Islamist students.  Down to the sounds of metal on metal as sledge hammers break up classified equipment, he seems not to have made a single false move or left out a step in orchestrating the escalating panic inside and the bloody-minded crowds at their gates. At times it doesn’t seem possible that this isn’t archival footage.

Argo is a lot more than its diabolical suspense, however.  It’s a bemused salute to the world-wide power of The Movies (this was 1979, after all, and Princess Leia’s kingdom was universal. Intergalactic maybe.) At the same time, screenwriter Chris Terrio is having a field day with movie-making’s other abiding art form: the great flim-flam. (That would be Alan Arkin’s mega-producer, tenaciously in on the CIA’s con. It’s Arkin’s unabashed claim on a second Oscar, although he may have to wrestle John Goodman for it.)

But see if you don’t catch another undertone beneath the brash and breathtaking CIA plot to walk “the Canadian six” safely out of Iran: the clear  sense of dedication within each of these Americans, even in their most wobbly moments. That conviction gives a soaring quality to Argo’s most lasting afterword, the onscreen title says (roughly):

All six of these diplomats chose to remain in the Foreign Service.