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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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.

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.