Tag Archives: academy awards

Working with Gilbert Would Kill Anybody

Topsy-Turvy is the greatest movie ever made about show business. (It took me about ten minutes to commit to that sentence.) Beneath the elegance of its composition, the vaulted locution of its characters, and its fastidious attention to psychological nuance, Mike Leigh’s story of the making of The Mikado is a relentless chronicle of production headaches. The trials of writing, casting, rehearsing, designing, financing – they’re all here – and they describe, in comprehensive detail, the unofficial DSM of making entertainment.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TudNVuOA7s]

How unbelievably cool that I got to interview costumer Lindy Hemming, who won an Oscar for Topsy-Turvy, for Criterion. The DVD – long since out of print – is finally back.

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Jason and the Argonaut

I saw a sad thing this weekend.

Jason Reitman, who has every reason to hold his head high, who has made two half-movies and one hearty, honest-to-god, fully-realized romantic comedy, and who has already been compared to Preston Sturges, and whose best work, I’m sure, is still ahead of him, took the stage several evenings ago, and conducted a brief interview with Kathryn Bigelow. Poor Reitman was discomposed throughout.

By the end of their conversation, his distress turned sour and I regarded him, as I did Jude Law’s Hamlet, with an equal mix of pity and nausea. (Bigelow remained poised, however; a tower of grace and earthy virtue, like a pretty Virginia Woolf come to Hollywood.)

It was a revealing piece of movie-town theater. I wish I could say the boy was overwhelmed, that facing a presence as physically imposing, endearingly kind, and irrefutably talented as Kathryn Bigelow threw him off balance. But that would imply humility. Because he framed it against his own Oscar-losses, Reitman’s deference, which he punctuated with press-release style clichés about how “tense” The Hurt Locker was, read less like genuine awe than the kind of passive-aggressive cry for attention I used to pull on girls in high school when I suspected no one was going to make out with me.

Bigelow would be ambling her way to a point and Jason would cut in with a joke – about a remark she made some time ago. Had he spent the intervening moments, I wondered, polishing the perfect punchline? Or did it just come to him right then, and he couldn’t hold it back? In either case, he was uncomfortable ceding the stage, so much so that Bigelow, out of a kind of saintly beneficence, often seemed to be ceding it for him. That is the only way to explain the number of times she changed the subject from The Hurt Locker to Up in the Air, which, naturally, was met with waves of obligatory (though earned) applause, and a lot stern nodding on the part of Jason. Soon, he was answering her questions.

In light of the recent (and very public) business of Up in the Air’s WGA arbitration debacle, I suspected Reitman would have taken greater pains to represent himself as judiciously as possible. But it seems he can’t help it. (There is something of Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington about him.) Despite ample evidence to the contrary, Reitman asserted his draft of Up in the Air represented substantial changes from its predecessors. “When it came time to allot credit,” wrote Steven Zeitchick in his L.A. Times blogpost, “Reitman maintained that the substantive work on the movie was his and that he shouldn’t share credit with [Sheldon] Turner. The two went to arbitration in front of the Writers Guild, which ruled in favor of Turner and handed him a credit.”

Up in the Air becomes even more interesting when it’s considered in the light of Reitman’s apparently merciless ambition. Did he make the film as warning against the bulldozer life or as an approbation of the Ayn Randian instinct? It’s tough to say. But that’s what gave Up in the Air its color. With Clooney as his pilot, Reitman made ego look as compelling as ever. But the other night, Kathryn Bigelow, with a single touch of her magic wand, had him in the kind of chokehold he may never get out of. I sincerely hope he does.

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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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Oscarnacht

Oh boy it was a grim Oscars. So grim I’ve put off writing this.

Now here I am and I feel like the Underground Man from Notes From the Underground or that guy from Camus (or was it Sartre?) who begins his book with “my mother died today, or was it yesterday?” What, I wonder, is the point of going on? It seems almost silly to ascribe significance to a ceremony in which Taylor Lautner makes it to the stage, but Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman are only allowed to wave from the audience. Yet therein lies the significance.

In trying to appeal to the young, in trying to stay fresh and relevant, and in trying to keep the show moving at the pace of contemporary attention spans, the producers of the 82nd Academy Awards turned what could have been a meaningful evening into a bloodless night of dinner theater. They made it Weekend at Bernie’s. The Kodak Theater was Bernie.

Admittedly, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been old too long; they’re right to want to try a new tactic. If their members do not reach out to young people, serious film awareness could and probably will become a thing of the past, and the Samuel Goldwyn Theater will become an adjunct of Cedars-Sinai. But tread lightly, good people of Mantilini: to revoke history is to revoke the very essence of your establishment. Giving Oscar a facelift isn’t going to make him seem any younger; it’s just going to make him seem not himself. Attend the tale of Sweeny Kidman.

The very thing that gives the Academy its gravity is, like the British Empire, the sense of tradition that once fortified the Oscar ceremony. Imagine what coronations would be like if Westminster Productions decided to bring in young royals and cut out all that old fashioned business about God and Country and the Henrys and Elizabeths. England would become a role-playing game, with Parliament instead of a twenty-sided die.

I love James Taylor, but the “In Memoriam” segment should not be a music video, no matter how somber the accompaniment (I couldn’t help but think, “Karl Malden is dead and James Taylor will collect swag.”) Nor should the necessary rundown of the year’s Scientific & Technical Award Winners be dashed off like a homework assignment in the moments before class. (This segment will forever feel irrelevant if it is constantly treated as if it is. In truth, the Sci-Tech Awards are just as relevant, if not more relevant, than many other Oscar categories. These are the people who make film work, literally work.) Want to make the Scientific & Technical Awards fun? Then tell us the truth about the amazing things these gifted artists have achieved.

Why were people dancing to film music? Michael Giacchino should not have to compete with flipping. Why Neil Patrick Harris? He’s fun, I know, but how is he relevant to motion pictures? And why such a long tribute to John Hughes? No doubt about it: his influence on teen culture of the 80s was as formative as Salinger’s was on the 50s, and he should be honored in kind, but when Bergman died three years ago, I don’t recall seeing him in more than a few images in the “In Memoriam” reel. Do you see what I mean? Something is terribly, tragically off. Perhaps the Academy could make up for it by financing a Bergman revival. Perhaps they could get hot young actors to introduce the films. But what would they call the series, Girls Gone Wild Strawberries?

Of course I know Bergman won’t keep people tuned to the television sets. I know that’s not a practical solution. But without the great legacy of film in attendance, the Academy Awards will become just another Bar Mitzvah-looking award show. And God knows we already have The Golden Globes.

P.S. I was there for the whole thing. As my date and I left, we saw Michael Haneke lingering outside. He was holding court in a circle of three or four people and he was laughing. He was laughing.

On Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side

Trying to come to terms with Sandra Bullock’s likely Oscar win, I cleared aside a fat portion of yesterday to have a look, once and for all, at The Blind Side.

Right off the bat, I should say that Bullock clearly understands her part. Though light comedy is her forte, she resists every impulse to needle her way through Leigh Anne Tuohy’s rich, suburban existence, and shows instead a kind of Mary Poppins-ish stiff upper lip, spouting ready-made aphorisms with a cheeky Memphis twang. Her gait is brisk, her delivery clipped, and her face – tighter than ever – tells of a compulsive personality driven by down-to-the-follicle precision. She steps to the edge of camp and turns back:  Tuohy is the sort of lady-who-lunches Truman Capote would have loved, and after a few drinks, the sort Tennessee Williams would have sent shrieking into the night. (Close your eyes and you could see, in another version of The Blind Side, Lee Anne sitting on a porch swathed in moonlight, her negligee torn to shreds.) But Bullock, to her credit, doesn’t go there.

Unfortunately, her director, John Lee Hancock, doesn’t help her any. Without much by way of emotional variation, or choice pieces of business to help refine her characterization, Bullock is left alone to draw from a limited reserve. She comes out okay in the end, but with added attention from Hancock, her Leigh Anne might have trounced the limitations of the material (“You can do it, Mike!”) and perhaps even become her best performance to date, which is still Speed.

Hancock should have had another look at Speed. It might have clued him into a few of Bullock’s strengths, like, for instance, how good she can be when she doesn’t have to mind her manners. You want Sandra Bullock to let her hair down – that’s why all of her romantic heroines either start out prude, or overworked and prude. But when she stays tight, as credible as that tight may be, some of her trademark capriciousness is lost. The Blind Side‘s many “meaningful” speeches only make it harder on her.

Still, she’ll probably win. The Academy, after all, loves a converted comedian (“Look how serious she is! Now that’s acting!”) But a converted tragedian is something else entirely. Just look at Meryl. If only she made The Devil Wears Prada before Sophie’s Choice.

The Problem with Precious

People are still talking about Precious.

A few days ago, Ishmael Reed suggested that the general response to the film fell largely around racial lines. As passé as his claim sounds, he may in fact be right. At least my own field research says so. Most white people I know have basically come down in favor of the film, and the few black people I know are mostly ambivalent. I’m not sure this is because, as Reed suggests, Precious flatters white audiences in its perpetuation of the “merciful slave master” stereotype, so much as it uses the Black experience as a punching bag/battle cry. Mrs. Lichtenstein, for instance, the most merciful white character in the film, is as Jewish as she is white, and “merciful Jewish slave master” is not a stereotype in wide circulation. To Lee Daniels’ credit, Mrs. Lichtenstein is merciful because she is merciful, not because she is white.

It seems more likely that the bifurcation stems from bad filmmaking masquerading as “authenticity.” Responding to certain clichés meant to register as “realistic” (ugly people, sweaty brows, hand held camera work, etc), white people – to continue the bifurcation theory – seem to have fallen for the picture’s social awareness agenda, the righteous sense that something must be done, while Black people, with a keener sense of the Black experience, seem to have sniffed out the objectification lurking beneath the massacre. Perhaps it was the relentless cruelties Precious doled out on its characters, combined with the awful feeling that one was meant to leave the picture changed, that lent Precious that certain Riefenstahlian something.

Mo’Nique’s tremendous performance notwithstanding, there is very little to recommend the film. Gabourey Sidibe is a striking screen presence, but Daniels, true to his needs as a propagandist, gives her few opportunities to breathe life, or even death, into her character. Her size is not acting; it’s a directorial idea, and a particularly facile one at that. The proof? If leaving the film, you have difficulty coming up with a more descriptive character trait for Precious than “fat,” it’s because Daniels thinks of her less as a person than as meat. This puts him closer to Pasolini than Rossellini, and Precious closer to 120 Days of Sodom than Rome, Open City.

How to Enjoy Your Sadomasochistic Oscar Romance

Quibbling over Oscar nominations is as futile as quibbling over who left the cap off the toothpaste. No matter what you say or how emphatically you protest, you know it’s going to happen again, so either give it up, or pack your things and get out. Fighting the tide isn’t just mundane, it’s exhausting.

And now that we have ten Best Picture nominations instead of five, there are more uncapped toothpastes (and a few raised toilet seats) than ever before. An EducationDistrict 9? What is this, The People’s Choice Awards?

Perhaps. We all know the Academy Awards have ceased to be about The Academy or the Awards, let alone the movies themselves. Now, like everything else, like The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor, they’re about the numbers. Thus the ten: with more movies in the running, you have – or so the logic goes – more viewers. But there I go again with the toothpaste.

And yet, like a spineless cuckold, I keep coming back. Call it ritual or call it cockeyed hope; call it an anthropological inquest or call it masochism, but there it is. I keep coming back.

I’ve tried/am trying to make peace with the nauseating glory of it all. This morning, for instance, I hurried through the top portion of the nominees and scanned down to the bottom of the list. I saw there certain names that made my heart flutter. There was Inglourious Basterd‘s cinematographer, Robert Richardson; Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, directors of the Oscar nominated documentary, Burma VJ; and miracle-workers Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua (and James Cameron), editors of Avatar. Seeing in print these formidable figures of the movies, whose TV presence has no bearing on ratings, and whose work should win them the boost of Oscar recognition, I felt again that feeling of wholesome movie-love only the Academy Awards could ignite.

It was swell to see deserving people like Bigelow and Bridges on the list, but they were locks, and as widely recognized above-the-liners, they’ve already received their chunk of national attention. But it’s an entirely different opportunity for Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, who have been nominated for their In the Loop screenplay. Moment to moment, and line to line, here was a script that never quit, a script so ornately verbal, and so in love with language, that watching the movie, it was difficult not to imagine its writers hunched over a dozen volumes of the OED, debating every word down to its every syllable. And I do mean syllable: rhythmically, In the Loop is an astounding, almost musical feat of film comedy – one of the best in quite a while – and to see the picture gain Oscar visibility, even if it doesn’t go on to win, felt like some kind of personal vindication.

In the midst of an undertaking that invites so much cynicism, these names (and many others) are a reminder of why we care so much in the first place. So hold your heads high, Oscar lovers, because where careers are made, lives can change. And that has nothing to do with toothpaste.