Pruit’s Oscar Wrap up

Here is Musea’s annual Oscar wrap up from Melanie Pruit.

So history was made last night at the Oscars, not only with the selection of the first ever female winner for Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker), but also the first time an African-American has ever won one of the two Oscars for screenwriting—in this case, Geoffrey Fletcher, for adapting Precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire).  Furthermore, and just to be absolutely clear, The Hurt Locker is also the first Best Picture winner to be directed by a woman. Bieglow’s win in one category certainly did not portend success in another; after all, not every film that wins Best Picture wins Best Director. It was only a few years ago, for example, that Ang Lee won Best Director for Brokeback Mountain, the presumed Best Picture frontrunner, but the big prize ultimately went to Crash. Likewise, Barbra Streisand (The Prince of Tides, 1991), Randa Haines (Children of a Lesser God, 1986), and Penny Marshall (Awakenings, 1990) are women who directed Best Picture nominees without the benefit of being nominated themselves, which makes it all the more interesting that Streisand herself was chosen to present Bigelow’s historic win. Now, even though I think The Hurt Locker is an amazingly well done movie, and even though I applaud the Academy’s choice, I’m still troubled by the fact that a woman had to direct a war movie in order to be given props by her peers in the Academy’s directors’ branch. I think that shows some kind of weird bias. Of course, skeptics and cynics will no doubt scoff about my misgivings and remind me, along with everyone else, that Bigelow won because she made the best possible film, and not because she was, and is, a woman. Of course, I understand that much, but I also understand that people who operate from positions of privilege, such as the presumably and predominately white, heterosexual males who comprise the Academy’s directors’ division, no doubt carry around certain cultural or social biases that affect the way they look at a film, and the way they vote for Oscars. Well, that’s my two cents. That noted, Bigelow has always, always, been an incredible visual stylist whose films have long favored a kind of macho sensibility (per high octane surf dudes as bank robbers epic Point Break) over the potent female sexuality of , say, Jane Campion’s The Piano. Maybe with Bigelow’s victory, the doors will be open for more diverse entertainments at Oscar’s table—but not so fast. After all, it’s been 9 years since Halle Berry broke decades of indifference to African-American leading actresses and took home the Oscar for Best Actress…but what has really changed in the film world since then? I mean, Gabourey Sidibe, the amazing newcomer at the center of Precious is still the first African-American actress nominated as a lead actress since Berry’s historic win. (Nine years!!!) It’s not the fault of the Academy, per se, that Hollywood as a whole still doesn’t know how to make thoughtful, successful movies driven by African-American women, Atlanta-based Tyler Perry notwithstanding. And, yes, it’s also time for more African-American filmmakers to be recognized as well.

Now, in my Oscar Dossier I certainly indicated that Fletcher’s script for Precious was a spoiler in the making (if I didn’t, I certainly meant to), but I was sure that Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner were a lock for Up in the Air. I’m happy for Fletcher because I just couldn’t embrace Reitman’s film even though I know it had all the hallmarks of a typical, middle of the road Oscar success story (mid-life crisis and everything). I think the most interesting thing is that Up in the Air, such a darling of the critics and a moderate box office hit, went home empty handed. Zero, zilch, over and out, and that brings me to my next point. We won’t know for a few days whether the move to expand the roster of Best Picture nominees from 5 to 10 pays off in a ratings spike (the impact the box office was nil, according to most reports), but look at how the race played out: of the 10 nominees for Best Picture, only six  (The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Precious, The Blind Side, Up, and Inglourious Basterds) actually won trophies, while the remaining four (A Serious Man, An Education, District 9, and Up in the Air) went home with nothing, which seems kind of embarrassing to me…and I know, btw, that District 9 has its fans, and I know it’s supposed to be a cinematic metaphor for apartheid, but I still think it looked ridiculously out of place among the Best Picture nominees (and, to clarify, yes, I actually saw it—finally).
I also wonder what the aftermath will be because the Oscar for Best Picture went to a movie that has been so little seen—the lowest grossing Best Picture winner in several years. Of course, box-office dollars don’t always equal quality film going (but what is quality film going, anyway? Who can define it).Nonetheless, here’s what I know: if the ABC network and the Academy dreamed up this plan to create a slate of 10 Best Picture winners in order to make room for more blockbusters, and possibly attract a younger generation of moviegoers to the party (after The Dark Knight and Wall-e were passed over last year), I can’t help but wonder how the fact that Avatar,  the biggest blockbuster of all time was all but ignored will play-out among that very demographic. Maybe they’ll be convinced, now more than ever, that the Oscars are nothing but an elitist shell game, or some other form of claptrap, and vow to never watch again. On the other hand, perhaps the win for Bigelow’s film will work wonders and prompt all new interest in the film, thereby spiking an interest in the DVD.
Of course, there was a time when the critics, the public, and the Academy were all pretty much on the same page…I think the disconnect began in the 1980’s (1984, specifically, when all 5 Best Picture nominees were hovering around the 30 million mark at the box office when the nominations were announced…not a blockbuster in the bunch, though Amadeus ended up enjoying an increase in ticket sales), but others might argue that split began earlier, either in the 1960’s or 1970’s. With all that in mind, I thought it was refreshing that Sandra Bullock won Best Actress for such a hugely commercial film as The Blind Side. Of course, not everyone loves The Blind Side. Indeed, some critics (like a writer in Entertainment Weekly) have taken the movie to task because it isn’t 100% truthful to the original source material…but that might be beside the point. The story onscreen is essentially true, and there’s something in the movie that people respond to, and they respond to it in droves; moreover, it seems like it’s been forever and ever since a leading actress, or leading actor, for that matter, won an Oscar for a movie that was/is so massively, massively popular. Even Reese Witherspoon’s Oscar winning Walk the Line, as much of a hit as it was, only pulled in about half the take of The Blind Side.  No, Bullock’s win is a very good thing indeed (and I don’t even like using the word “very”) because it may very (!) well restore some moviegoers’ faith in not only the Academy, but in Tinseltown’s ability to make a wonderful, uplifting movie about real people—and, yes, much of that credit belongs to Sandra Bullock. Of course, skeptics will say Bullock’s performance lacks the weight, the big, heavy, meaty, dramatic scenes of which Oscar winners are made—and I say, thank god! Nothing about the performance seemed rigged to garner awards (Jeff Bridges, are you listening). Instead, the beauty of Bullock’s performance is how natural, unforced, and/or unaffected it seems…as though she’s making it up as she goes. Oh, and I loved her speech, her heartfelt tribute to her mother. I also thought it was amazing that under all that pressure to be deliver a memorable and fitting Oscar speech, she could go back and forth from being earnest and gracious to being laughout loud funny and cracking wise about Meryl Streep. Oh, and what a lovely touch that the real life Tuohy family was there to cheer her success.

I have always been a huge fan of Jeff Bridges, and was pleased to the tips of my toes 25 years ago when he was nominated for Starman, a movie that struggled to find an audience (though his nomination ultimately helped), but as happy as I am for last night’s victory. I still think Crazy Heart is second rate. I like Bridges too much to hold a grudge, and, yes, his speech, in which he paid tribute to his parents (including the deceased Lloyd Bridges) and his longtime wife, was touching, but the movie—even with all that great music—seemed too calculated, too much a retread of movies like Tender Mercies and The Wrestler, for me to take seriously. Plus, is it just me, or is Jeff starting to look and sound more like his brother Beau? Oh, and Jeff, the Coen brothers remake of True Grit, with you in the role of Rooster Cogburn, which won John Wayne his only competitive Oscar sound like a horrible idea. Meanwhile, if you haven’t yet seen Morgan Freeman in Invictus, or Colin Firth in A Single Man, what are you waiting for? (Besides the British Academy equivalent, Firth also won the Venice Film Festival award for his performance.)
To the surprise of almost no one, Christoph Waltz won Best Supporting Actor for Inglourious Basterds. I liked his quip that an Oscar and Penelope Cruz combo was like uber-bingo! His speech was humble, not too gushy, a little funny, and mercifully brief.  Of course, Waltz is obviously a gifted actor—that much his evident from his Oscar winning performance—but I still have problems with both the concept of his character and Inglourious Basterds in general. I completely get the whole freedom of speech thing…I mean, yes, I’m a proud American, but I think a movie that trivializes—even rewrites—history, especially the Holocaust and World War II, the way that Inglourious Basterds does, should be treated skeptically, and not necessarily positioned for awards consideration. After all, The Blind Side is being targeted for fudging the facts, but almost nobody is lashing out at Inglourious Basterds for rewriting a crucial episode ion world history for cryin’ out loud!. Indeed, even Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin felt comfortable enough to make jokes about the Oscars being “Jew central” when referring to Waltz’s Nazi character, more aptly described as a Jew hunter. Really? Really? Really, really, really?

Best Supporting Actress winner Mo’Nique (Precious) deserved that standing ovation…I loved the gardenias in her upswept hair-do.  Her remark about paying more attention to the performance rather than the politics refers to her well-documented refusal to do a lot of hobnobbing and schmoozing on the Oscar circuit, meaning making the round of cocktail parties, movie premieres, granting every interview request, etc. Instead, Mo’Nique did her part to promote the film when it opened, but she ignored the advice of publicists, managers, agents and other studio personnel who believed she needed to campaign for the award—and good for her. The performance was simply the real deal, and all anyone needed to do to be convinced was to watch the film. I also found it touching that this many decades later, Mo’Nique took time to pay tribute to legendary Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress, for 1939’s Gone with the Wind).

So those are the big awards. Even though I have taken The Princess & the Frog to heart, I was nonetheless pleased that Up won the award for Best Animated Feature…and why not? It’s a beautifully made film: visually rich and inventive and such a wonderful sense of storytelling. Actually, the best thing for me was that the film’s composer Michael Giacchino won an Oscar. I loved that score…thought it was the perfect musical complement to the onscreen action, and actually made a note to myself last summer when I saw the movie in a theatre to remember the music when Oscar time came. Also, Giacchino has been a fave of my ever since The Incredibles, a film for which he was shockingly not nominated. I also loved, loved, loved, those incredible costumes by Sandy Powell in The Young Victoria. That noted, I think Powell’s approach, at least initially, was less than gracious…what was it, exactly? “I already have two of these.” Ultimately, however, Powell turned it around by acknowledging how often the Academy overlooks the costume element in movies with contemporary settings, so good for her.

Miley Cyrus and Amanda Syfried made an interesting pair—pretty enough, but they almost looked like little girls playing dress up in oversized ball gowns—and Miley looked slightly uncomfortable…something about her posture was skewed. It was nice to see T-Bone Burnett get an Oscar for his song from Crazy Heart, not just because of the song itself, but because the Academy had almost no way, a few years back, to honor the amazing soundtrack he produced for the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? Of course, that soundtrack eventually won the Grammy for Album of the Year, but it seemed odd that it was never recognized by the Academy—nor was Burnett’s work on the soundtrack for Walk the Line. So, this year’s Oscar is a nice touch, and even though I found Crazy Heart underwhelming, the music was solid.  On that same wardrobe note, Zoe Saldana and Carey Mulligan looked beautiful, but like Cyrus and Seyfried, they also looked like girls playing dress-up—girls playing dress up and having a really, really hard time navigating the stairs, especially Saldana—I love the top of her gown, all sparkly and periwinkle…not so crazy about the overworked train.

I thought that some of the presenters for the clips of Best Picture nominees were inspired: Ryan Reynolds, Bullock’s The Proposal co-star, was on-hand to introduce the clip of Best Picture nominee, The Blind Side; Ah, nice touch…asking John Travolta to introduce the clip of Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, since Travolta’s once languishing career received a huge boost from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; Why was Jeff Bridges of all people presenting the clip of Best Picture nominee A Serious Man? Bridges is now soooo identified with The Big Lebowski, from the Coens; Ah, Keanu Reeves presenting the clip for The Hurt Locker. Of course, he co-starred with the late Patrick Swayze in Bigelow’s Point Break; Kathy Bates, aka Molly Brown in Titanic, introducing the clip to Avatar.

I also found it fitting, so to speak, that former fashion designer turned director Tom Ford was paired with Sarah Jessica Parker, long considered a fashion plate thanks to Sex and the City, in order to present Best Costume Design. Also, how brilliant was it to pair Tina Fey with Robert Downey Jr. to present Best Original Screenplay, what with all the good-natured kidding about writers, which Fey most definitely is, versus actors.  Mercifully, the winner for Best Original Screenplay was Mark Boal, for The Hurt Locker. It’s interesting that Boal is a former reporter who wrote about what he saw in Iraq as a reporter—and so touching that he thanked his father who passed away about a month ago.  The reason I use the word mercifully is because I was so scared that Quentin Tarantino was about to win for Inglourious Basterds. Even though Boal had been considered the frontrunner early on, Tarantino’s name began popping up as a spoiler. Well, I’m sorry, but that just would have been wrong. (On the other hand, I highly recommend 2008’s Valkyrie to anyone who’s interested in learning about a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler.)

OMG!!! Molly Ringwald (Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink) and Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) in person to introduce a tribute to John Hughes—and joined by the likes of Anthony Michael Hall (Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, and Weird Science), Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink), Judd Nelson (Breakfast Club), Ally Sheedy (Breakfast Club) and Maculay Culkin (Home Alone). I would have liked to have seen a few more, such as Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink), Emilio Estevez (Breakfast Club), Eric Stoltz (Some Kind of Wonderful), and Mary Stuart Masterson (Some Kind of Wonderful).

I thought the Neil Patrick Harris opening number was tasteless—and, worse, not even funny. That noted, I enjoyed Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as hosts, but I thought the funniest bit of the evening was Ben Stiller in all that blue makeup, poking fun at Avatar. Avatar is a big enough hit, and Cameron with all his box office success (Titanic and Avatar, don’t forget) and Oscars, ought to be big enough to take a joke—especially about a movie starring blue-skinned creatures who don’t speak English. I especially liked the jab the winner of the Best Foreign Language Film award also made at Avatar’s expense (that is, the Academy not considering the language of Avatar as foreign). Hilarious! I was slightly disappointed that The White Ribbon did not win the latter, by the way. Truthfully, I haven’t seen it yet, but it is on my agenda for this week. My disappointment comes from almost a year of keeping up with the movie since the Cannes Film Fest (where it won the Golden Palm), and being blown away by the trailer.

Okay, who wins Best Dressed honors? I think Sandra Bullock, all slinky and sparkly and looking every inch an Oscar winner…and perhaps even an actual Oscar.  I also loved Penelope Cruz in a strapless burgundy ballgown; Queen Latifah, gorgeously curvy in a jewel encrusted lavender gown; Sigourney Weaver in dramatic red (chiffon?) with one of the biggest, most dramatic brooches I’ve ever seen; Cameron Diaz, looking just like a Hollywood princess (with Veronica Lake locks) and a full ballgown. Jennifer Lopez’s gown was a little over the top, but she owned it, so that’s cool. The color of the evening seemed to be blue: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mo’Nique, and Gabourey Sidibe (who was looking more and more like the upset in the event of Bullock-Streep split). Worst dressed? Sorry, Charlize…homecoming mums belong in high school, not pinned to bosoms on Oscar night…that noted, the color was fetching—and her hair and makeup were flawless. And I, for one, was not thrilled with Sarah Jessica Parker’s yellow Chanel number.

If I have a beef at all, it is with Avatar being awarded the Oscar for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. I mean, I “get” that whether virtual or actual, the sets still had to be designed, and I understand that there were some partial sets constructed to help the actors get into character, but the bulk of the work was computer-generated and the logistics are different for that kind of effect as opposed to sets that have to be constructed from scratch, and must be user/camera friendly, or even the possibly greater feat of reconfiguring an existing space. The designer of virtual sets has a whole different set of criteria, so the Academy dropped the ball on this one. Other than that, I’m basically good to go.

Thanks for your consideration,
Mp

PS: I still don’t know why that very loud woman interrupted the man who was accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary Short. Yeesh, no manners. No manners.

“Mysticism doesn’t come naturally to an ironist…”
–Pauline Kael

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