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.

Advertisements

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.

                     *                              *                           *

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.

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.”

Notes From the Bottom of Every Office Pool

Let’s pick through this year’s full-on melodrama at the Academy Award nominations and see what seems to stand out.  Is this deep, inside stuff you can take to the betting window or the office pool?  Good heavens no. I’m habitually awful at that game.  This is a bemused look around by someone a little off to one side, and just crazy enough to take it all in.

You want depth, the internet now churns with writers whose depth of field in Oscar stats is stunning, although sometimes it seems that the Oscars are their only world.

For clarity, and a sense of proportion on the nominations (and all things Hollywood), I’d trust the New York Times team of Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes who, among other challenges, make the virtually impenetrable Academy rule changes clear, and do it with a sheen of wit.  They’re non-geeky and nicely reliable.

As for me, it looks as though the Academy has tried to shake things up.  A little. So we have Demian Bichir on the Best Actors list for A Better Life, and Nick Nolte as a Best Supporting Actor in Warrior.  (Now to find those films!)  We have the fortitude of the Animation Committee who resisted The Adventures of Tin Tin in all its mirthlessness, and having been left off nearly every of those churning prognosticators’ lists, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  came in from the cold.  Thrilled to see its 3 nominations, which include its screenplay adaptation and Gary Oldman’s first acting nod. That was a wait. .

Now: who got robbed?  For starters, Albert Brooks (Drive), who said as much and more. Even before today’s announcement, he was wickedly wondering how many more events he had to go to and watch Christopher Plummer win.  For his part, Plummer keeps calling himself “a young kid of 82,” plummily, which should be enough to get his name stricken from the list.

While we’re over at Drive, what about its editing, which set the tempo of the whole film?  Trade you that for the editing of Descendants.  And what about Ryan Gosling, whether driving, playing politics in The Ides of March  or with his shirt off in Crazy, Stupid, Love.  Should be some kind of award for that, no?

How long before the Academy gets Andy Serkis? After his motion capture gave a soul to Gollum of The Rings trilogy, to King Kong and this year to Caesar, the genetically altered chimp from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s past time to recognize his near-genius. Where to put his mixture of art and technology is probably driving the Actors Branch wild: how about just calling his work acting?

You don’t want to think about Young Adult, without Patton Oswalt, who really needs to be in the Supporting Actor slot.  The movie was on a thin edge as it was, I shudder to think where it would have been without him. Oswalt has perfect, corrosive pitch as the pity-proof victim of a brutalizing attack in high school who becomes Charlize Theron’s voice of reason, whether she wants him or not.

Because Oswalt cannot have Max von Sydow’s space (no matter what you think of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), why don’t we give him Kenneth Branagh’s imitation of Sir Lawrence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn?  

It pains me to say this, because I think Michelle Williams [and Carey Mulligan] light up every film she’s in, but there should be an embargo on Marilyn Monroe. She cannot be “done,” and no one should have to try.  In the most minor example, you cannot have gents in a screening room, as My Week has, slathering over the luminosity of “her” skin, because that glow was parceled out only to MM (and, don’t snicker, I’m serious, Mae West) and that’s all there is to that.

Finally, what about the phenomenal actor in nearly every moment of Extremely Loud, young Thomas Horn, if we’re talking about pure robbery?  What were they thinking?

If you staggered through a shot-by-shot 16-point analysis devoted to Melancholia’s overture alone in a recent Sunday New York Times, you may wonder where that film stands with Oscar.  Zip, zero, S.O.L.  Not even the cinematography, which is truly other-worldly, let alone Kirsten Dunst’s soulful appropriation of melancholy itself.

You have to lay this in the lap of its Danish director Lars von Trier during its Cannes debut.  It doesn’t help your cause to joke, appallingly.  Cannes immediately banned him, and those who took his words at face value — not allowing for mordant Danish humor — condemned Melancholia along with him.  That would seem to be the mindset of Academy voters, for whom its first prize at the European Film Awards in December 2011 cut no ice.

Today we have the flutters of acknowledgment from every nominee, a few of which even stand out.

Martin Scorsese whose ebullient and touching  Hugo leads the field with 11 nominations, including Best Picture and Director, led off with his gratitudes, then added, “Every picture is a challenge, and this one, where I was working with 3D, HD and Sacha Baron Cohen for the first time, was no exception.”

Peter Straughan, co-adaptor of Tinker, Tailor, with his wife, the novelist/screenwriter  Bridget O’Connor, said: “I wish more than anything in the world that my wife. . could be here to enjoy this moment.  She would be so happy and so proud.  I’m going to go and meet my daughter now and tell her how clever her mother was.”  O’Connor died of cancer at 49,  before filming was finished; the film is dedicated to her.

Finally, there was Glenn Close, whose Albert Nobbs nomination left her  “Just elated.  Elated, elated.”  She told the interviewer that she had come back to her home from a green tea latte with her husband in the East Village, with the Oscars not even on her mind . . . when her publicist rang with the news.

Really?

About the nomination of the three-person make-up team who turned Close into Alfred she said,  “I think their work is the opposite of the work in Harry Potter or Iron Lady.  It was minimalist. It represents the fineness of the craft. . . . . Sitting in the chair,” she said, “was a meditative.”

Don’t know about you, but I’d kill to be there for the nominees lunch.  Meryl Streep might just have a meditative of her own with Close about The Iron Lady’s make-up team, equally nominated.

Finally, the most unfathomable loss was the three-way shut-out of Michael Fassbender. So, Shame may have cut too close to too many bones, but no Jane Eyre or the absolutely thrilling duels between Fassbender’s Jung and Viggo Mortensen’s Freud in A Dangerous Method?  Sheesh!  Guess there’s nothing left for Fassbender to do but practice his golf swing.