Tuesday, February 7, 2017

HOW LOVING AND FRIENDSHIP HAD LITTLE PLACE IN OSCARS

By  Dominique Paul Noth


Ruth Negga is the lone Oscar nod despite Josh Edgerton's strong
performance in "Loving."
One measly nomination for “20th Century Women”? That  was not the intention of producing companies Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray and Modern People, as this reviewer has discussed

It’s awards that help keep East Coast financiers interested in an era when most films need these multiple sources.  That’s  why most movies’ introductory logos convey a multitude of unknown investment companies, many of whom are also doled out “executive producer” credentials.

It takes a lot of cooperative money -- sometimes strange money. As hedge fund manager, new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin invested some $500 million in films, but he also  used the fortune he amassed on Wall Street, and  working for Goldman Sachs,  and running his own bank,  to finance other movies well into 2016, earning constant executive producer designations.

He actually has  one film in the Oscars – a sound editing nomination for “Sully,”  directed by Clint Eastwood. It also clearly had broader Oscar hopes and pumped in vain for Tom Hanks as best actor.   

The “20th Century Women” partners carefully released the film in New York and Los Angeles in December before turning to  general release the following year -- clearly hoping for deeper Oscar  recognition at the last minute for more nominations than the one they got.

Similarly  “Loving” chose a November release though ready six months earlier.  Its Oscar hopes were barely realized, not even a best picture nod in an expanded field of nine despite director-writer Jeff Nichols’ previous credentials and an entertaining cast.  

Joel Edgerton is remarkably good as the strong silent type --  Richard Loving, a reticent reluctant public figure even when sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for interracial marriage. But only Ruth Negga landed an Oscar nomination as his wife in a performance of luminous compassion and determination – and recognition that she is a star in the making. 

Negga’s Mildred, as seen by writer Nichols, is factually  fabricated to make her environment  friendlier and her heritage not the partial American Indian the real Mildred claimed in interviews but more outspokenly “black.” But the performance contains its own truths about human behavior even more than about the landmark Loving  case.

The Lovings couple took their 1950s  legal troubles to the Supreme Court in the 1960s and won an end to miscegenation laws nationwide -- certainly a timely reminder of the importance of the courts in social progress. The acting, the historical significance and the truthfulness of government indifference have kept the film around, which is not the fate of other 2016 entries that failed to win big respect at the Oscars.

(Looking back and being blunt, the producers of “Captain Fantastic” -- a July release that landed a best actor nod for Viggo Mortensen --  and crime thriller “Hell and High Water,” August release yet four Oscar nods and strong box office, are probably wishing they had pushed Hollywood voters even harder.)

Documentary and foreign film specialists can probably signal Oscar overlooks (though bravo for the documentaries including “I Am Not Your Negro”). But credit the Academy voters generally for coming down to mostly respectable choices (except for the strange placement of star Viola Davis of “Fences” in the supporting actress character and inserting Octavia Spencer there, the weakest performance but biggest female name in “Hidden Figures”). 

Never pretend there isn’t a lot gamesmanship behind the scenes -- nor how obvious it is  when studios give up despite positive sounding press releases.  A case in point is  “Love & Friendship” despite the awards  track record of films based on the  works and late blooming popularity (after more than two centuries!) of Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice”). The clarity of that times’ class structure and the pertinence of Austen’s verbal skewers always hold out great opportunity for film-making.


Kate Beckinsale as the venom-dipped Lady Susan.
Faithfully adapted by director Whit Stillman from the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan,”  the production promised elegant 18th century fashion and humorous dissection of the battle of the sexes, focused on an endlessly scheming penniless widow who uses her looks and shy daughter to force a lucrative outcome.

It was plugged hard in June . . . then  quietly  moved to Amazon’s DVD market by September. The industry pretty much knew then  the  producers had given up hope that either well-known Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan or Chloe Sevigny as her gossipy confidante would gain awards  attention. 

Quite right, too, because Beckinsale is concerned more with elegant style than internal conviction about  Lady Susan’s powers over men, an essential dramatic element even in comedy. Sevigny’s amused arched eyebrows are similarly not enough.

The film cannot be saved by some inventive visuals to keep the complicated plot from tangling – or  even by those delicious Austen bon mots. (Lady Susan’s vicious wit is on constant display: one targeted husband is  “too old to be governable and too young to die”; a miscarried scheme brings the Trump-like complaint, “Facts are horrid things.”) 

The epigrams cluster like locusts but except for Tom Bennett’s amusing turn as a rich ignoramus, what should have been a comedy of manners becomes a comedy of mannerisms.

Recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie, Hidden Figures, FencesManchester by the Sea and 20th Century Women.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.