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.

Losses and Gains

Very mixed bag, in and around the Oscars this week.  At Park City, Utah, the Sundancers had the heaviest kind of pall thrown over their festival when one of the pioneer Indie good guys, Bingham Ray, there as always, suffered a stroke and died at a Provo hospice at 57.

Bingham Ray. Photo: Russel Yip, SF Chronicle

During its too-short life span, October Films, the distribution company founded by Ray and Jeff Lipsky, became an imprint that meant something: singular, distinctive, often groundbreaking films (Remembering fondly and quickly, Breaking the Waves, Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, with the late, magical Katrin Cartlidge, Hilary and Jackie and The Apostle were among them.)

Secrets and Lies

This invaluable mini-portrait of Ray, made by documentarian R.J. Cutler (The War Room) and Paco de Oris in 1996, was just posted over at Deadline.com.  In it, Ray talks about Secrets and Lies, and the impact a possible Oscar nomination might make for its writer-director Mike Leigh, as well as for October Films. Then you get the chance to watch pandemonium in (semi-) high places as the nominations are broadcast.

As I write this, the Screen Actors Guild awards are just over, and The Help took Best Ensemble, with Octavia Spencer Best Supporting Actress and Viola Davis Best Actress.

In the infuriatingly slow ways that these things evolve, in and through film, it might be possible to see a continuum from the humor and bravery Leigh located in his film to those same qualities in The Help.  Possibly. Of course, being the work of Mike Leigh, the young black optometrist of Secrets and Lies (the radiant Marianne Jean-Baptiste) trying to track down her birth mother was independent and upscale.  It was her white mother (Brenda Blethyn, equally unforgettable) who was a scatty factory worker.

The moving ensemble actresses of The Help are, to a woman, saintly when they’re not (god help us) “sassy,” undifferentiated, forgiving and conveniently — because this is a fable of1960s Mississippi — maids.

The Help

Sorry if my shoulders sag a bit, but if voters want to rally around brilliant, woefully underrepresented actors, couldn’t they be playing three-dimensional characters, in a film that really challenged them? I suppose the response is, be grateful for this. Just be patient. . . . one step at a time.  Riiight.