Thursday, February 15, 2007
By all accounts—most notably the amusingly disenchanted commentaries by Caryn James, David Carr and Paula Schwartz in The New York Times—this year’s Oscars will be considerably less uncertainty-laden than usual, particularly in the four acting categories. This is to say that Helen Mirren (in The Queen), Forest Whitaker (in The Last King of Scotland), and Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy (in Dreamgirls) have all won so many awards leading up to the Oscars that the only suspense remaining in their categories will be how much they choose to depart from their too-frequently-televised acceptance speeches.
Indeed, the biggest shock for the Oscar gurus this year has already occurred with the surprising disinclination of the Academy even to nominate Dreamgirls for Best Picture, after so many journalistic handicappers had predicted that it would be a shoo-in for the top prize. To add auteurist insult to genre injury, the Oscar voters also passed up writer-director Bill Condon in the nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, even though Dreamgirls led the pack with a total of eight nominations. One disgruntled scribe played the race card by suggesting that a mostly white male Academy voting membership had rejected an all-black musical, even though no fewer than five African-American performers, as well as two Latinas and one Asian, make up a sizeable chunk of the nominees for best acting this year. And far from being token choices, three of the five black candidates are heavy favorites to take home the Oscar.
If there is one lesson I’ve learned over the years from my experiences as a would-be Oscar guru, it is that one should never bet the rent money on a so-called sure thing on Oscar night.
All of which, I suppose, provides only a momentary distraction from the parlous state of the film industry, as well as of the world in general. But if there is one lesson I’ve learned over the years from my experiences as a would-be Oscar guru, it is that one should never bet the rent money on a so-called sure thing on Oscar night. So I am not making any predictions this year, even though I will be glued to my set for the annual display of vanity and folly that gives so many of us the excuse to feel morally superior.
This year, I warmed up for the Oscars by watching most of what transpired at the Golden Globes, a much more convivial ceremony than the Academy’s evening of strained non-expressions and clenched smiles. Not that there wasn’t a full quota of clenched smiles at the Globes—but there, the smiles are well lubricated with free liquor and gift baskets galore. My favorite loser’s smile was Renée Zellweger’s, who must have known that she didn’t have a chance against Helen Mirren, who had to make two different acceptance speeches for the two different Elizabeths she’d played this year (in The Queen and in the TV miniseries Elizabeth I). As usual, the wittiest acceptance remarks were delivered by two British actors, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy, for their performances on television.
I must confess that the loathsome and overrated Sacha Baron Cohen made me laugh with his off-the-wall (and disgusting) remarks about looking up the anus of his fat nude-wrestling partner, who was shown sitting in the audience with a comically unconcerned expression. I wonder if Mr. Cohen will deliver the same acceptance remarks at the Oscars should he win for Best Adapted Screenplay (for which he was nominated, somewhat mysteriously, since I can’t imagine the literary or theatrical work that Borat was adapted from).
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Of course, there will be the usual opportunities for the Academy to bestow supposedly “sentimental” awards on nominees who have been passed over many times in the past. I stopped believing in Oscar’s big heart around the time that Judy Garland was lying in a hospital bed waiting to be honored for her emotional performance in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), only to have Grace Kelly walk off with the prize for George Seaton’s and Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, before abandoning Hollywood to hop off to Monaco and assume the role of postcard princess.
The candidates for this year’s heartwarming largesse are Martin Scorsese, who directed the Best Picture nominee The Departed; Peter O’Toole, a Best Actor nominee for Venus, who has been a seven-time loser in his category; and Alan Arkin, the Best Supporting Actor nominee for Little Miss Sunshine, 38 years after he was nominated for Best Actor in Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), with no other nominations in between. So good luck, Marty, Peter and Alan, but remember another seven-time loser, Richard Burton, as well as six-time loser Deborah Kerr, not to mention all-time icons Greta Garbo and Charles Chaplin, who had nary a competitive Oscar between them.
This year’s Best Picture nominees reflect a crisis in what Hollywood regards as mainstream entertainment. Almost all of the movies that had huge opening weeks are nowhere to be seen. And two of the nominees are spoken almost entirely in languages other than English and require extensive subtitles. Both Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima—the two films in question—have yet to register as strongly with the US paying public as with the critics. The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine are genre entertainments, looked at askance by Oscar gurus for their lack of social significance. And The Queen is thoroughly British, with (so far) disappointing US box-office returns.
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This is where the conundrum involving the absence of Dreamgirls from the Best Picture competition becomes especially troublesome. Yet, come to think of it, the only other all-black Hollywood musicals with the slightest mainstream provenance I can recall are Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943), Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Preminger’s Porgy and Bess (1959), and no one ever talked about Oscars for any of these. Of course, times have changed, but one is never sure how much.
I didn’t like Babel, so I couldn’t get over its winning Best Picture in the dramatic category of the Globes, with Dreamgirls winning in the comedy and musical division. My fear of Babel winning Best Picture at the Oscars greatly outweighs my hopes for either The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine as an acceptable alternative.
For the record, I would also note that despite the widespread lamentations over the lack of good parts for women, the Best Actress category at this year’s Oscars is as strong as any I can remember in the past. Penélope Cruz in Volver, Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal, Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and Kate Winslet in Little Children have all performed so far above the call of duty that it seems a shame that four of them will end up losers.
My other fears are that Paul Greengrass will win as Best Director for United 93 as a “patriotic” gesture and allow the Academy to deny Martin Scorsese one more time, and that Happy Feet will win for best animation—though my negative feelings about Happy Feet are even more notorious than my negative feelings about Borat. But I learned very long ago to live with the fact that many otherwise estimable people disagree with my most brilliantly thought-out and rendered judgments.
ANDREW SARRIS, THE FILM REVEIWER AT THE NEW YORK OBSERVER, IS THE AUTHOR OF THE AMERICAN CINEMA: DIRECTORS AND DIRECTIONS 1929-1968.