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.

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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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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.)

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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.