Tuesday, February 25, 2014

REVIVING MY 40 YEAR OSCAR GAME

My favorites for diverse reasons are  “12 Years a Slave,” “August: Osage County,” "American Hustle" and  “Blue Jasmine.”   Also notable are  “Nebraska,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis. ”    Also reviewed in this series  are  "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Butler," “Captain Phillips,”  “her,” and “Labor Day.”  Check them out and add your comments.

By Dominique Paul Noth

In a tight supporting actress race, the writer's nod goes to Jennifer
Lawrence over Lupito Nyong'o
Back in the 1970s as movie critic for The Milwaukee Journal I was approached by editors with a command to predict in print the winners of the next Oscars.  No, I said. What I want to do is predict what I think will win and alongside that what I think OUGHT to win.

So be it, they agreed. That began a regular and well-read yearly game picked up by my successors that I continue to play ever since, in words when possible and in my mind if I haven’t seen sufficient movies to participate.  Over the past few years as the current reviews on this blog indicate, the game is back to writing.

I would like to believe the need has evaporated,  that the purpose of this  two-edged game has lessened since those years when Hollywood fell all over itself to prefer box office celebrity to artistic attention, and then reversed itself in a mea culpa the following year (“Rocky” followed by “Annie Hall” as one example of that seesaw remorse).  

I do think that over the decades the Oscars have become more artistic oriented and less celebrity oriented.  That is certainly the view of an articulate and thoughtful member of the academy board of governors, screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), who may be a bit self-serving but has conviction that his 6,000 plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (artists and artisans, producers, studio executives and public relations officials) have grown up and actually grown a bit more modern and less star struck.  No longer, in this view, can they be stampeded by the studios they work with, the associates closest to them, the celebrities they long to sit with and so forth to the point that their intellects and emotions can be bought off by inauspicious pressure tactics or friendship issues.

I’m not so sure.  A critic’s view of the separation between artistry and sensationalism is still necessary.  Trade campaigns and media bustle, box office receipts and drawing power are still a big part of the game, which makes the Oscars (this year March 2 on ABC-TV) a combustible mixture of tendencies to honor the most creative of your peers and the sensibilities to promote, highlight, show friendship and please an enormous fan base.

This year, there are outside controversies working their way inside that also could cause bumper-car collisions defeating the academy’s best instincts.

For instance, controversy could drive awards to or away from “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In one camp it is condemned as glorifying bad corporate behavior and unstoppable foul mouths. In another it is praised for exposing bad corporate behavior and foul mouths.  I can hope moviemakers will respond with decisions based on artistry ahead of  media buzz, but let’s not pretend the world the voters live in won’t have an impact.

So as the Oscars unfold I will continue my two-way game – my personal favorites on the basis of artistic merit and social value (what ought to win) and what I think will win when all the elements weave together in the votes.

Dustin Hoffman's memorable Oscar acceptance speech
 for "Kramer vs Kramer."
Sometimes they do match. Sometimes they are inevitably close calls (talents are hard to separate in a collaborative art form). 

Sometimes good work is victimized by artificial category definitions. Actors from Marlon Brando to George C. Scott to Dustin Hoffman (“I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon . . . I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost,” he reminded the audience in his memorable acceptance speech for “Kramer vs Kramer”) have all pointed out that artificiality.  Anthony Quinn actually suggested that all five nominated best actors should tackle the same part and see who was better – that would be fairer, he said. (But then, if all five played Zorba, he knew who would win, so that doesn’t quite work either.)

Jane Wyman's forgettable "Johnny
Belinda" win.
Perhaps the most blatant days of star worship have departed. Frankly there were few other reasons than “look what a big name is willing to do to prove she can act” to give the best actress Oscar to Jane Wyman in the long-forgotten “Johnny Belinda” (1948), playing a deaf mute who is raped. Granted it was quite a juicy part based on a Broadway play (and repeated on television by a young Mia Farrow) but Wyman’s performance was nothing special, just voters falling all over themselves for the heroism of her descent from glamour into plainness and physical deficit.  On the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis provided remarkable acting in “My Left Foot,” so honoring disability is not an automatic sign that Hollywood voters have lost all reason.  Sometimes the interaction of the physically less fortunate with the regular world makes quite compelling exploration of empathy.  The Oscars have always been seduced by that.

More recently, whatever the cinematic values, there has also been a self-congratulatory tone within the ceremony -- “The Artist” in 2012 and certainly in “Argo” as best picture in 2013 over the film that I believe will last in time, “Lincoln.” Even here, Day-Lewis had to be recognized as best actor for “Lincoln” yet “Argo” took the biggest prize. It was assuredly the year’s most successful thriller but it was also based on Hollywood participation in an actual spy adventure, so that suckered in the voters as did the sense among many of a snub to Ben Affleck, passed over as a director nominee. So personal vendetta, box office interest and star luster can mix even in this vaunted move toward artistic merit.

There is already an echo of those other influences this year in honors passed over and nominees included.

One of the year’s best films in terms of emotional power, dissection of family relationships and certainly ensemble acting is “August: Osage County,” not even nominated for best picture. But I understand. It is refined from a much honored  stage play so it clearly already had legs, precedents in how other actors were received in these parts and other aspects that don’t spell individuality as best pictures are supposed to do (yet so often don’t).

But acting!  None better, top to bottom. The academy had to honor Meryl Streep as the central foul-mouthed harridan. She is unavoidably powerful. But the film has only one other nomination and that is Julia Roberts as supporting actress, though her role is every much as central and sizeable as Streep’s.

But come on!  Would you put box office star Roberts against actress Streep in the best actress category?   There is still horrible fallout from passing Meryl over in ‘”Julie &  Julia” in 2010  for the star feistiness of Sandra Bullock in the  now forgotten  “The Blind Side,” a tale of football parents that was all the media rage. Nothing against the appeal of Bullock, who is up for best actress again this year against Streep in “Gravity,” but let’s not pretend her abilities are in the same league.

Cate Blanchett (left) with Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine." Hawkins
is nominated but unlikely to win supporting actress.
Roberts in fact is quite good but she is not even the standout supporting actress in the “August” ensemble that includes Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale.  Nor would I argue that Streep is the best actress in her category. She’s assuredly neck and neck but the originality and luminous edge goes to Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” 

The only way Cate can’t win on merit is if the anti Woody Allen campaign gains traction, which has nothing to do with the Oscars though clearly timed to undercut any honors to his films, however you feel about resurrecting that domestic accusation from long ago. But passing Blanchett over because of bad vibes about Allen would be an ugly disservice to a fine actress. It would also instantly justify Allen’s historic avoidance of participating in such awards hoopla.

If Blanchett doesn’t win, I don’t think the prize will go to Streep or the other neck and necker, the uncanny Judi Dench, like Streep familiarly great but even more striking in “Philomena.” There she stays casually and so movingly within character, a simplistic Irish woman gently leading us through her underlying faith and undying love for a long lost child to anger and compassion. 

 But my guess is that if Blanchett is robbed, the winner will be Amy Adams and that won’t upset me. She’s been a neglected bridesmaid in this category whose growing versatility as an actress is on full display in “American Hustle.”  I still think it should be Blanchett and if there is fairness in the academy it will be.

As supporting actress, I lean slightly to Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle” as the likely winner and the one I also want, though quite close behind (and coming up on the outside in the votes) is newcomer Lupito Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.”  I think Lawrence is a magnetic screen actress surviving high-paid efforts to drag her back down to mere modern sex queen in a tiring but wealth-inducing “Hunger Games” series, but in “Hustle” she takes dynamic acting chances far beyond the Yale training that Nyong’o has clearly mastered in “Slave.” In Nyong’o case I want to see more and more before serving up the accolades.

If it’s neither of those, I think name recognition leans toward Roberts, though Sally Hawkins as the country mouse sister in “Blue Jasmine” gives a better performance. But my preference and Oscar's ought to be Lawrence over Nyong’o by a nose.

I like “American Hustle” for its individuality and improvisational exploration of the American character.  I won’t be upset if it wins best picture but my personal choice and I believe Oscar’s is “12 Years a Slave” not only for telling the cruel story of America’s past but doing so mainly through matter of fact details and storytelling to drive the drama home.

Note how many films this year have been inspired by true events but how the unfolding of these stories reveals a lot about the nature of the artists involved (fanciful in “American Hustle,” fidelity in “Slave,” thriller dramatics in “Captain Phillips,” confrontation of the AIDS indifference and will to live in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and verisimilitude providing its own social twists in “Philomena”).  This makes the final choice difficult but probably honorable if “Slave” edges out “American Hustle.” What would upset me is if the voters split and box office luster allowed “Gravity” to sneak in.

The tossup category could be best supporting actor.  The voting edge will likely go to Jared Leto for his gender-bending work in “Dallas Buyers Club,” quite striking, though my personal preference is Bradley Cooper as the preening duped FBI agent in “American Hustle,” a role requiring more versatility and emotional range.

In the best actor race, I worry again about that “look at how daring the handsome star is being” attitude.  Oscar could easily choose Matthew McConaughey, hypnotic in “Dallas Buyers Club” and also a hot property in TV’s “True Detective,” plus notable in dropping his hunk image to prove his acting chops. Given other recent awards, he seems to have an inside track. Close behind, especially if inside tracks matter,  is another screen icon abandoning his looks for comb-over hairdo and pot belly in “American Hustle.” But Christian Bale clearly never pursued hunk status and relishes this opportunity for improv naturalism as a dedicated small-time con artist. 

If nostalgia plays a role, and it often does even for me, there may be some pressure to honor 40 years of fine work culminating in Bruce Dern’s most imposing role in “Nebraska.” This is the category where favoritism seems hard at work. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave."
Personally I would put all that aside and honor the best acting, and that is Chiwetel Ejiofor, our eyes and our hearts in the year’s best film,  “12 Years a Slave.”  Mine is just one opinion, but I openly believe that Oscar has the sense to go along with me here.

I haven’t seen enough of the foreign films or documentaries to decide, so I am largely guessing on knowledge that “Frozen” will win best animated feature while “The Wind Rises” probably should.  But where I have seen enough to know, I expect I will be parting company with Oscar’s final decision on director and writers.

For director I expect the Oscar nod will go to Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” perhaps as compensation for low expectation in a few other categories. Certainly worthy.  But I personally think the best directing was the on-the-fly freedom and precise visionary imagination displayed by David O. Russell in “American Hustle.”

Woody Allen directing "Blue Jasmine," for which he
should win best writing award.
Best original screenplay will probably go to “American Hustle,” which won’t annoy. But the best writing by far in this category gave room for inventive actors and impish storytelling – Woody Allen in “Blue Jasmine,” who for reasons suggested won’t win.


Best adapted screenplay is likely to go to “12 Years a Slave,” but contrarian that I am, for cinematic skill and keeping us on edge it should go to Steve Coogan (also co-star and producer) and Jeff Pope for “Philomena.” This is one of those films that I can’t give away why. You have to see it to understand my preference.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.