Monday, February 25, 2013

2013 Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC, 2/24/13)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 2013 Academy Awards lasted a shade over three and one-half hours — relatively short — and host Seth McFarlane actually started promisingly with a joke about the movie Argo and the fact that the directors’ branch of the Academy had snubbed its producer/director/star, Ben Affleck (doesn’t he play a cartoon duck on TV commercials? Oh, never mind) by not nominating him for Best Director. He said something along the lines of, “The CIA mission depicted in the movie Argo is still so classified that even the name of the film’s director remains a government secret.” (The last time a movie won Best Picture without even a nomination for its director — with Driving Miss Daisy — that year’s Oscar host, Robin Williams, joked that Driving Miss Daisy was “the movie that directed itself.”) The advance publicity for the show was not too promising — some Academy P.R. person said that it was going to be not an awards show but “an entertainment show with some awards” — apparently the thought was to copy the Grammy Awards (which over the last few years have been drowning in their own glitz — the Latin performers Miguel and Jaunés got the best reviews from this year’s Grammys simply by not drowning their performances in pyrotechnics, chorus lines of a size that would have made even Busby Berkeley flinch, Cirque du Soleil-style performers over their heads — one horrible year the genuinely talented singer Pink even turned herself into a Cirque du Soleil-style performer — and the like) and create a theme show on the subject of “music in films.” This meant in practice that MacFarlane got to do a thoroughly tasteless song (backed by the L.A. Gay Men’s Chorus, who you would have thought would have been the last people interested in this as a concept!) about how many actresses have shown their breasts on camera — preceded by a lame attempt to make fun of its own tastelessness by showing what purported to be a TV monitor screen on which William Shatner (as he looks now) reprised his Captain James T. Kirk role from Star Trek and posed as a time traveler from the 23rd century (odd since the original Star Trek show took place in the 25th century) giving McFarlane reviews on his performance as Oscar host. It was an abysmal conceit — I wanted to send Shatner back to his hand puppets and his commercials — and was all the more pointless because on his own McFarlane was actually a decent if not brilliant host (but then only two people have really been able to make the Oscar-host gig their own: Bob Hope and Billy Crystal).

The awards went predictably, for the most part: Argo won Best Picture (it’s a measure of how weird Academy politics can get that it got Best Picture largely due to the sympathy vote for Affleck being snubbed for Best Director) but only two other awards; Ang Lee repeated his Brokeback Mountain experience with Life of Pi (a movie I have relatively little interest in seeing because the entire concept — a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger who doesn’t eat him in a minute — just seems too phony to me) by winning Best Director but losing Best Picture; Lincoln won for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in the title role (and fortunately he did not give his acceptance speech in the nerdy voice he used in the actual movie) but not much else (the Academy tends not to give awards to movies so consciously shaped as Academy Award Material as Lincoln, nor do they give awards to Steven Spielberg unless they absolutely have to; they’re just too damned jealous that he’s made half of the most popular films of all time); Zero Dark Thirty won a tie for sound editing with the James Bond movie Skyfall (which seemed to be the box-office blockbuster the Academy considered sufficiently worthy of at least a few down-ballot awards; it got another craft award and Adele predictably won for her theme song; the show also featured a tribute to the music in Bond films, including Adele belting out her song and Shirley Bassey doing “Goldfinger” — her breath control isn’t what it was 49 years ago but that bizarre Black contralto still thrills). The snub of Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director nomination was generally explained by the reaction to the movie by three U.S. Senators — two Democrats (California’s own Dianne Feinstein being one of them) and Republican John McCain, the only sitting Senator who has actually been tortured — who said the film left an inaccurate impression that torture (oops, “enhanced interrogation”) was instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden in the first place (I don’t know if the film overall gives that impression — I haven’t seen it — but one critic called the first half-hour of Zero Dark Thirty “torture porn” and I suspect that here, as in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, talked a Left-wing movie but made a Right-wing one). I think it had as much to do with the sheer jealousy of other women directors who are glad Kathryn Bigelow cracked the glass ceiling and became the first woman to win Best Director — but for damned sure didn’t want her to be the second one too!

Only about two of the actual Best Song nominees were performed, and instead there was a really lame montage purporting to be a tribute to the best musicals of the last 10 years — Jennifer Hudson did “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls and showed that Weight Watchers hasn’t impaired her vocal chops any, but the medley “cheated” big-time by featuring the song “All That Jazz” from Victor/Victoria, which was made in 1982 and therefore hardly qualifies as one of the great musicals of the past decade. Then again, what do you get in today’s musicals? A whole bunch of actors who can’t sing; no wonder Les Miserábles won for Sound Editing — someone had to patch and AutoTune the soundtrack so Hugh Jackman would sound like the modern-day Nelson Eddy! Jennifer Lawrence won Best Actress for something called Silver Linings Playbook which from the reviews sounds like an inchoate mixture of old-age drama and romantic comedy; the Los Angeles Times had run an article the day before lamenting that she was nominated for a movie almost nobody has seen and not for her performance as Katniss Everdeen in a movie almost everybody has seen, The Hunger Games — as it was, the girl who had moved through the killing fields of her blockbuster with grace and self-assurance stumbled and fell on the steps on the way up to the podium to accept her award (and frankly I was wishing her dress would have caught on fire!). Anne Hathaway won a predictable Best Supporting Actress for Les Miz (as it used to be called when this show glorifying poverty and revolution was inexplicably a hit among the 1 percent during the Reagan years) even though she couldn’t really sing any more than the rest of her cast could — still I have a soft spot for a member of the Brokeback Mountain cast, and the fact that she has the same name as Mrs. William Shakespeare also leads me to look on her kindly.

The Academy Awards are a testament to the fragmentation of film — it’s going to be a long time before any movie sweeps the awards the way Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, the James Cameron Titanic and the last episode of The Lord of the Rings did, and that’s not so much because the Academy is deliberately ignoring the big-ticket blockbusters and nominating the smaller, more human films instead — yes, there’s a lot of genre snobbery going on here and it was only Heath Ledger’s death that made possible the first major-category Oscar ever given to a movie based on a comic book — as that the industry itself has pretty much lost the knack of making a film that is both a blockbuster commercial hit and a truly great, award-winning film. Expanding the Best Picture category to “up to 10” films (this year there were only nine) hasn’t democratized the awards, nor has it boosted the ratings. What I’d like to see them do is go back to something they did in the very first Academy Awards in 1928 and bifurcate the Best Picture category into “Best Production” and “Most Artistic Quality of Production,” so there’d be a category into which they could nominate the audience-pleasers like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises (both comic-book movies and the two most commercially successful films of 2012) and another in which they can have films like Argo, Lincoln and Life of Pi compete against each other — so the Academy members can have the feeling they’re advancing the art of film (and, more importantly, giving nods to films that need the help of the Academy’s cachet both at the box office and on DVD sales instead of ones that are going to be enormous hits regardless) and they can also have a category that acknowledges the films large audiences are actually paying to see.