Day By Day

Monday, February 28, 2005

Oscar Thoughts

I'm not one of those who looks forward to the Oscars. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy movies and like talking about movies with people who are knowledgable about movies [and today that includes just about everyone]. but in the week leading up to the Academy Awards, movie talk is dominated by gossipy little tidbits about actors and directors and wild speculation about who is up and who is down, and stuff like that bores me to tears.

Saturday night She Who Shall Not Be Named and I went to a party. It was a good time -- good food, good people, good conversation -- but it was also the night before the Oscars and everyone knew I used to teach university film courses and several had attended one of the little talks I occasionally give to groups about classic films, so... everyone wanted to talk to me about the Oscars [basically, who did I think would win and why].

I was uncomfortable being put on the spot like that. The reason? I was as clueless as anyone in the place. We all watch the same mass media and had heard the same gossip. All of the movie people I know are indies or documentarians, or have been out of the business for a long time and when we talk we don't discuss the Oscars. In other words I have no special knowledge to impart.

Fortunately, after a minute or two of listening to me dispense conventional wisdom [Well, Miramax is really good at boosting their pictures, but a reaction might have set in, and Scorsese hasn't won, etc.], the questioner would invariably begin to spin out his or her own opinion at length and I could relax and simply nod and make encouraging noises. Often another person would join in and I would be completely off the hook and could just stand there and watch them go at each other.

Anyway, for what it's worth, I predicted that Scorsese and Eastwood would split the big awards [Marty would get "best director" and Clint would get "best picture" -- half right, half wrong]. I was right about Jamie Foxx and Hilary Swank. I missed Morgan Freeman and sorta got Cate Blanchett [I thought she would win, but didn't think she should]. All in all, a typical Oscar prediction record.

I thought "The Aviator" was a wonderful film. There were at least half a dozen scenes in it that were simply brilliant. Technically speaking Scorsese is odds and away Hollywood's greatest living director and "The Aviator" shows why. But the film had a weak narrative and was not well cast [Leonardo just didn't have the chops for the role. Compare, for instance, his portrayal of mental deterioration with Russell Crowe's work in "Beautiful Mind" and you'll see what I mean]. Someone referred to it as a "coffee table book" of a movie, and that is right on the money. There was no strong narrative to link together the brilliant set pieces and American audiences insist on a strong narrative.

Successful American movie makers are first and foremost storytellers, and Americans like a story to have emotional impact. They like to have their buttons pushed. Emotional involvement was lacking in "The Aviator." It was a cold, technically brilliant, film that left audiences unsatisfied at the end. It did very well in Europe, winning lots of awards, but it just was not suited for an American audience.

By contrast Eastwood's merely competent work in "Million Dollar Baby" was perfectly suited for an American audience. It had a strong narrative, a "punch in the gut" ending, and related to a contemporary issue about which people have strong opinions. Of course it won over Scorsese's technically superior work.

Jamie Foxx is a class act and is emerging as one of our greatest actors. His work in Ray was right on. What is perhaps most impressive is that musicians who worked with Ray Charles were unanimous in their praise for Foxx's portrayal. And I had been blown away by his earlier work in "Collateral." The award was well deserved.

So was Morgan Freeman's. This wasn't his best performance, but his lifetime body of work is so good that he deserves an award for anything he is in.

I didn't like Cate Blanchett's parody of Kate Hepburn. It was too over the top. It lacked the sympathetic nuances that, for instance, Martin Short brings to his impersonations. Still, Cate is a major figure and deserves some award for something. It might as well be this one.

And what can you say about Hilary Swank? She is a force of nature. A kid her age dominating scenes with Clint and Morgan. Wow! And a great personal story. She's the complete package.

My favorite movie of the year? Don't have one. Most entertaining by far was "The Incredibles;" Most important, "Hotel Rwanda." The most memorable scene; Xiang Xiyi's drum dance in "House of Flying Daggers." Most disturbing scene; the puppet sex in "Team America."

Aw, Hell! That's more than enough. I intend to do some serious writing about movies in the coming months. Stay tuned.

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