Saturday, January 30, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

This is the most confused, unpredictable, self-immolating Oscar contest in my memory.

If Oscar had an ensemble category, the cast of 'Spotlight" (from left
Michael Keaton, Liev Shreiber, Mark Ruffalo. Rachel McAdams
John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James) would be shoo-ins.
And my memory goes way back to that studio monopoly era when box office and big stars more than artistic merit signaled the winners—and then came the era when, in bursts of conscience and artistic salute, Oscar tried to marry artistic achievement with celebrity, recognizing that a Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, for Stanislavsky’s sake, actually were great actors and not just box office draws.  

Well, artistry is somewhat an inbred given  into the award these days, but 2016 has succumbed into erratic impulses in all directions. Artistic merit, yes,  but boy do  box office and studio intrigue hover!  The self-interest that long embraced the Oscar ceremonies seemed in recent years to finally strike some balance worthy of intellectual debate.  But this year I am primed to abandon the journey of self- improvement that Oscar once seemed capable of.

A new style of gamesmanship abounds in how studios try to sneak entries into awards categories. Threatened by a host of other celebrity ceremonies, all of which enjoy good ratings, the Oscars no longer know who to honor – and how to distinguish Oscar from the multiple other accumulations of stars drinking champagne and laughing at each others’ jokes.

 The categories represent a  mumble of uncertainty about standout accomplishments and values commercial or cultural. Along with triumph of arts and crafts come the salutes to cgi wizardry and similar technical fancies, to auto chases and the visceral dash of great editing.  It is impossible even for experts to watch a movie scene these days and separate the computer from the human --  and industry insiders have good reason to think they know better about what expertise was involved than either critics or the public. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (awards telecast Feb. 28) seems confused exactly where to draw the line on nominations and honors, on valuing the past and anticipating the present – and cinema has become a marketplace where millions know the stars of “Mad Max” and millions others could care less.

 The audience has expanded (fragmented)  into more than 16-30 yahoo boys looking for a thrill. There is now  a regular older audience, a female audience, a politically provocative audience,  but how do the movies recognize true diversity in age, audience and ethnicities? Are they confusing socially meaningful topics with good films? Is time spent at theaters as good a time spent on Netflix, Amazon or cable TV? Why are some movies sold to a sliver of the audience and upset when a more critical audience pays attention?

Those films  that dominate awards categories  have to contort themselves to fit categories of Oscars’  own making that don’t reflect the reality of what is on the screen. 

 Which brings us to the hoopla that no black actor or actress was recognized this year despite some notable cutting edge work – and despite the  huzzahs of recent years for “12 Years a Slave” (good film) and “Selma” (important topic that sometimes felt like a civil rights subject more deserving awards recognition than execution, leading black film makers to hype the film beyond its worth). Yet this was the year of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Chi-Raq” and “Beasts of No Nation.”

Somehow a white actor, Sylvester Stallone, resurrecting his Rocky role as the trainer of a young  black fighter in “Creed,” ends up emerging as the almost black almost traditional supporting actor winner, which is going to be a disfavor in sheer acting chops  to the better work of Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies.”

The absence of black artists  brings commentaries from all side – and rule changes to encourage diversity that some see as signs of ageism on the industry’s part,  dissing its own elders to make a contemporary point. 

 Actor Michael Caine rightly points out that someone should never win for just being black, while Danny De Vito acknowledges it just proves racism really exists. Others comment on how slow the industry has been to embrace the real variety that has occupied the local cinema. Ian McKellan suggests  that older women and gays have also been treated shallowly by Oscars. The more one looks at the boycotts and reluctant participation it seems we have returned to treating the Oscar ceremony as an opportunity for social commentary not because of accomplishment but because of  absent values. 

Truth is, this year the industry is having great difficulties marrying its  sense of importance and broad reach with its actual grip on the public’s imagination.  There are more than ever a range of stars millions have never heard of competing with ranges of stars that have been names for generations. 

Consider the film not nominated as best picture that would win hands down if it were.  That’s my bet.  It  drove audiences to the theaters to receive full satisfaction – the return to the “Star Wars” of imagination. “The Force Awakens” ruled the box office, satisfied customers and has probably launched a new wave of hits, but in nominations it has been limited to technical Oscar awards. I suspect it could win best picture in a walk were it among the magic eight.

Oscar must wish this year it could emulate the Screen Actors Guild, which  offers an award for best acting ensemble.  It has one clear such  standout in “Spotlight”  -- and some long to honor “The Big Short” in this way, though I am deeper into the “Spotlight” camp.

As it stands now “Spotlight” is the most balanced and insightful movie of the year, with a fidelity of purpose and execution worthy of honor. I would hesitate to call it best picture of the year, but by default it ought to be. It portrays the Boston Globe investigative team exposing not just the culpability of the Catholic Church in pedophilia but the range of culpability within the whole of society. It is  focused on the system more than the victims, thus making the victims all the more real in the bargain.

Among the standout performances are  Liev Schreiber as the buddha cool editor, Mark Ruffalo as the journalistic hot-rod and Stanley Tucci as the suspicious lawyer. Solid  character work is magnified by director Tom McCarthy’s driving soft-spoken writing and almost seamless sense of moving from place to place.  The movie takes time to let an actor’s look land and hold the audience  – bravo!

‘The Big Short” is also done well but a bit more tortured (even winking at the audience)  in explaining the financial crisis that buried the US. To make it accessible to the average audience it uses building blocks and extended examples of how Wall Street types bundled mortgages into disaster, and in showing how individuals either did the dirty  or realized the dirty. It  combines comedy with horror relying on some strong performances. But there are too many explanatory devices,  semantic games in the unfolding, and some weird examples of how the studios managed to fit the actors and technicians into Oscar’s nominating categories. (Christian Bale as supporting actor when he carries the flavor of the  film?)

No, Oscar nominations are all over the map and it is hard to pick one picture or one performance for that matter as the standout. Maybe that is as it should be and will be for the future.  But it all came together this year   Many compare Oscar’s confusion to the lost direction of the Republican party, once at least a distinctive part of the American firmament. Just don’t ask folks today what being a Republican means. 

But here is the strange thing.  Oscars this year are speaking piecemeal – in individual offerings --  to the full humanity of the human experience, something that dramatic films can do well.  They just don’t realize how in total they’ve become schizophrenic.

Yet there are  two movies that are standouts in humanity. They  might initially be accused of sensationalism since their topics are pointedly controversial – transgender  impulse and lesbian attraction.  Indeed the topics may be why they got financing.

How on earth can these be among Oscar’s leading  meaningful explorations of the power of love, romance and commitment? Can they really represent the central personal impulse of society toward love and sacrifice? 

Yes.  They are  “The Danish Girl” and “Carol,” both relishing a period style in order to allow the potency of human relationships to emerge in full passion and meaning.  In very different methods, they reflect the power of love and human commitment beyond the fabric of what society deems customary.

Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in "The Danish Girl."
“Danish Girl” has to concoct it own special world to allow this. Loosely based on history of the first male to risk gender shifting under a knife, it is set in a high European  Bohemian world of the late 1920s, the color yellow dominating as the wind whips through the alleys and wharfs. It is  rife with sensitive artists, ballet costumes, high fashion  and silk fabrics as young lovers and young painters Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are aroused in their most  basic senses.  And make no mistake, their physical attraction to each other as man-woman is intense and erotic). They are surrounded.  even imbued by a palette of special allure, of oval faces carved out of their living spaces (the camera keeps moving in to blur the normal rectangle of the screen), of  gestures and poses as controlled and alive as life itself.  

He prefers abstracts of nature, she is a portrait artist --  and she  teases him into dressing like a woman,  only to see him seized by a powerful sense of being reborn in his female personality. It makes no rational sense, but “Danish Girl” creates a world in which rationality gives way to mental desire, to even pores attacked by where the mind is taking the characters.

Normally this transgender grip is something foreign to most humans and indeed most moviegoers, surrounded as we are not just by Puritan values but inherited revulsion within the standard modes of society. But director Tom Hooper has created a world which this impulse to changing skin  is not particularly foreign or aberrant but almost a consequence of feeling so sensations so deeply. His most profound observation is that Alicia’s love for Eddie surpasses any sense of where he physically started – wherever he’s headed, whatever the doubts of established society, she will observe him and go with him – no matter how this may undo their  original relationship. Her willingness to journey with him forces the audience to examine any reluctance it may have. 

Let’s not pretend this is only a love story. It is edged with profound sadness. It raises dimensions for the actors and for the audience that require a suspension of disbelief. It is the soul more than the transgender world that is being uplifted.   The artistry of the two in conveying the  relationship, the doubts and impulses, the ugly confrontations and the underlying warmth, require the director to tastefully frame their faces, bodies and dress and for the actors to engage in some extraordinary moments of self-recognition and self-doubt.

This is actually one reason the Oscar division of nominations angers me.  Redmayne is nominated as best actor, deserving in his minimal gestures and mastery of behavior,  though I don’t think he has a chance of winning given how the academy is likely to deal with his gender change. 

But to sneak Vikander into an awards category as best supporting actress! As opposed to equal!  This fails to recognize some fine work indeed and makes her nomination a farce not an honor.  She carries the movie in direct weight to him and should be honored for that.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol."
Something similar has happened in “Carol,” set in the 1950s and involving a lesbian relationship between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – and a recognition that society regarded this as a taboo of such power as to represent moral banishment. In fact the two actors make their relationship such a meeting of the minds that while the film has its mandatory bedroom scene, even done tastefully, it is  completely unneeded so strong to we feel the pull between the characters.

 But here again to sneak into Oscar consideration, Blanchett is best actress and Mara best supporting actress. Yet the whole film requires the  two to be balanced  – Blanchett as the alluring, perfectly coiffed rich housewife whose simply motion under furs and within perfume fills the senses of Mara as  the shopgirl,  who not only waits on her but feels a completely mutual attraction.  Yet there is in the Mara character an  almost hypnotic pull but the story goes out of the way to show she is a willing partner – expecting the danger and accepting  the full range of responsibility.  That, given the trauma both grow through, is essential.  So it becomes shameful to nominate an equal actress in a lesser category.

Director Todd Haynes does careful character work to suggest that Mara is more than the department store  doll Carol has found, and offers Carol's relationship to her young daughter fully vital as any mother would fee. Slowly Haynes reveals Blanchett as  more an emotional volcano under wraps than the outline of the story initially suggests.  But Oscars clearly robbed Sarah Paulson of a likely nomination as best supporting actress (she plays an understanding former lover), substituting Mara in that category. That is a hard twist to take for a mere award -- and probably means no one from this film  will walk away  with a victory.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.