Monday, February 29, 2016

88th Annual Academy Awards (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/ABC-TV, February 28, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s 88th annual Academy Awards was one of the dullest, most lumbering awards shows it’s ever been my displeasure to sit through, which made me astonished that the Los Angeles Times actually gave it good reviews. On the front page of this morning’s paper were two articles on the ceremony, over a joint headline reading “Spotlight on Harsh Truths,” while under it one of the pieces, by John Rothenberg, subheaded “Biting Comments on Race Dominate the Awards Show,” and the other piece, by Times TV critic Mary McNamara, had a subhead that called it “A Show That Did More than Hand Out Gold Statues.” Certainly it would have been inappropriate for the Academy Awards show to ignore completely the controversy over the fact that for the second year in a row all the acting nominees in both lead and supporting categories — 20 people in all — were white and the #OscarsSoWhite movement that has sprung up with the intent of integrating both the Academy’s list of nominees and its membership. Instead they went whole-hog in the other direction, using a Black host, Chris Rock (whose work I am totally unfamiliar with so I can’t tell whether he’s always this lame or just got really victimized by the quality — or lack of same — of his writing) to tell dull and snotty jokes about Blacks and the Academy all night. (Earlier the Times had noted that it’s not just Blacks who draw the short straw in the Academy and the movie business generally; there was a previous front-page article on how virtually no Latinos are being cast for anything these days, not even in the silly servant roles that used to be sinecures for them.) The Academy and the show’s producers were so scared about the thing running overtime that for just about every winner there was a long crawl expressing all the people they wanted to thank but wouldn’t have time to mention in their actual acceptance speech —though just about all the winners tried to crowd as many names as possible into the speeches themselves — and both Charles and I would have rather heard longer speeches from the Oscar recipients and fewer lame jokes about Blacks and their acceptance, or lack thereof, as part of the Academy and the Hollywood community as a whole

As for the awards themselves, the Best Picture award was won by Spotlight, a film about the investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the story about how not only were several Roman Catholic priests serial molesters of children but the church was actively working to cover it up, often moving the abusive priests around from parish to parish, saving the institutional image of the Church at the expense of the fresh new crop of victims the molesting priests would have access to in each new city. Spotlight was definitely on my list of movies I wanted to see — how many big-budget, big-studio films have there been since All the President’s Men in which journalists were the good guys? — but it only won one award besides Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay for Tim McCarthy and Josh Singer. Alejandro Inárritu won Best Director for the second year in a row (offhand I can’t think of another time that happened) for The Revenant, which won two other awards: Emmanuel Lubeski for Best Cinematography and Leonardo di Caprio for Best Actor. In a night full of gaseous political rhetoric (just because I agree with most of it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to listen to it, especially all night!) di Caprio used his speech not only to warn of the dangers of human-caused climate change but to tie them in with his movie. He said that though The Revenant takes place in 18th century New England, they had to shoot it at the tip of South America because that was one of the few places left in the whole world where there was enough snow to meet the needs of their production. The big winner of the night was Mad Max: Fury Road, which seemed to have been put on the Best Picture list of 10 more to give token inclusion to a crowd-pleasing blockbuster than because it had any real chance of winning, but it cleaned up so well in the back awards — Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Costume Design, Production Design, and Makeup and Hairstyling — it won more awards than any other single movie and for a while I was wondering if it was going to sweep à la The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or (even worse) that god-awful Lionel Richie album which won the 1985 Grammy for Album of the Year over two deathless masterpieces, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Prince’s Purple Rain. 

The other acting awards went to an assortment of different films: Best Actress went to Brie Larson (if she ever turns in an overwrought performance some smart-aleck critic is sure to call her “Ham and Cheese”!) for her role as the sex slave imprisoned in a shack in Room, a film I really want to see partly because I read (and richly enjoyed) the source novel by Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the script) — a story of a sex slave told from the point of view of the six-year-old son she had with her captor, who has literally never known any life outside the room until they escape in the middle of the story — and partly because I want to see how the director handled the challenge of making an interesting movie set so totally within a confined space. Supporting Actor went to Mark Rylance (whom I’ve long been a fan of, at least partly for non-artistic reasons: as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, I first saw him in a British Last Tango in Paris knockoff called Intimacy, in which he went full-frontal and showed a long and blessedly uncut cock; he’s well-hung enough and a talented enough actor — I thought his performance in Intimacy was way better than Brando’s in Last Tango, but then I’m decidedly a non-fan of Mumblin’ Marlon — I’ll forgive him for being a believer in the Earl of Oxford-wrote-Shakespeare idiocy), and Supporting Actress went to Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl (so the woman who ends up with a Transwoman won out over the woman who ends up with a Lesbian in Carol! And I was a bit put out by the euphemism whereby twice during the ceremony the term “gender-reassignment surgery” was replaced with “gender-confirmation surgery,” which may be superficially more Trans-sympathetic but also might be read as a slap in the face to all the Transgender people who choose to live in the identity of the gender they identify with but not to have their bodies surgically remodeled to “confirm” it).

The Best Documentary Feature award went to a film about Amy Winehouse over a film about Nina Simone — I don’t think I need to belabor the point about which of those two women had the more significant career; Nina Simone, for all her eccentricities, was a powerful, commanding artist who made major work over three decades, while Amy Winehouse was a drug-soaked weakling who sounded like a has-been even before she was an ever-was; as I sang, in bitter parody of her biggest hit, when I heard the utterly unsurprising news of her drug-fueled demise, “She said she wouldn’t go to rehab, and now she’s dead, dead, dead!” Surprise, the Best Documentary Short winner was not the film about the Holocaust — when my late roommate/home-care client John Primavera and I were working out our rules of Oscar prognostication, one of the rules I suggested to him was if a documentary category contains a film about the Holocaust, it will always win because all the Jews in the Academy will vote for it — but A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgetfulness, a film about so-called “honor killings” of rape victims by their families in Pakistan, whose director, Sharmain Obaid-Chinoy, said she had shown the film to the Prime Minister of Pakistan and got him to sign a law banning such “honor killings.” Charles was irked at the awards show producers’ decision to play outro music while she was still talking, since she had just said she’d had the rare experience of making a movie that not only exposed an injustice but actually contributed to ending it (or at least making it illegal, which alas is not always the same thing). If you want to establish an idea that “movies matter,” it’s hard to get much better than a head of state saying, “I signed a bill because you persuaded me with your film that I should.”

Ennio Morricone won Best Score for Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight — and, much to the surprise of both Charles and I, delivered his speech in Italian, which his assistant interpreted into English (which makes me wonder how he and Tarantino communicated through their collaboration — did they do it long-distance, did the assistant interpret for them, or does Tarantino know enough of the language of his forebears to be able to talk to Morricone unaided? Or does Morricone know enough English to communicate with the director of an English-language movie but not enough to feel comfortable making a public speech to an English-speaking audience?), and Best Song went to Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes for their song “Spectre,” from the latest James Bond movie of that title. Smith, who rubbed his Gayness in everybody’s face when he accepted his Grammy awards (I loved his dedication of his award-winning album to the man he’d just broken up with before he wrote and recorded it: “He broke my heart, but he helped me win four Grammy awards!”), did it again last night, announcing that he’s sure he’s the first openly Gay man to win an Oscar. (I had thought Tony Kushner had won it for writing Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but he was only nominated.) That one really rankled me because, as good a song as it was (and as powerfully as Smith performed it), Lady Gaga’s nominated song “’Til It Happens to You” from a movie about the sexual abuse of women whose title I haven’t been able to run down on line was a far better, more powerful song, and Gaga’s staging of it — with a backdrop of people (mostly women but at least one man) who’d been victims of sexual violence joining in on the choruses and wearing tattoos on their arms expressing their determination to survive the experience — was by far the show’s most honestly powerful moment and, as much as I like Sam Smith, the gap between him and Lady Gaga as talents is about as enormous as … well, the gap between Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone.

The Big Short, another movie I want to see mainly because I read the book it was based on, won Best Adapted Screenplay for Charles Randolph and Andy McKay (who adapted it from a nonfiction book by Moneyball author Michael Lewis — and one wonders if the film reproduces Lewis’s cynical comment that the financial schemers who make a killing shorting the housing market in the run-up to the 2008 crash would have lost their shirts if the government had actually intervened to protect the underwater home buyers, but they didn’t really have to worry about that happening given that the government has become mainly a wish-fulfillment machine for the 1 percent), but the film didn’t win anything else — and the big shutout of the night was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which probably because it was the highest-grossing (by far!) movie of 2015 didn’t win any awards — the Academy voters probably reasoned it was already so super-successful it didn’t deserve any help, not even the Special Effects award, which went to something called Ex Machina almost no one’s even heard of, much less seen! I noticed that I’ve written about the Oscars in years before and said that the current awards are a testament to the fragmentation of the movie audience — it’s probably going to be a long time, if ever, before we see a movie sweep the awards the way Titanic or Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King did, and that’s largely because Hollywood has lost the art of making movies like Gone With the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia that are both entertaining, crowd-pleasing blockbusters and artistically great films.