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The Oscars


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The first Oscar show I ever saw was the 42nd annual gala, honoring the movies of 1969. Of course I hadn’t seen any of them—even True Grit hadn’t made it to our local “show house” yet, and the likes of Midnight Cowboy and Z never would. But I was aware of all of them, thanks to my tendency to scrupulously pore over the movie pages of the Portland Oregonian in anticipation of all the delights of the cinema I hoped would one day come to town.

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By the next year, I was fully engaged in the battle of Patton vs. M*A*S*H; felt sufficiently knowledgeable about Airport and Love Story from clandestine exposure to their genesis texts through my aunt’s Book of the Month Club (and, of course, their respective Mad magazine movie satires); enjoyed the moment of glory when that nice little old lady Helen Hayes, who reminded me of my maternal grandmother, won for Best Supporting Actress, having no idea how much love I’d eventually have for the nominated performances of both Sally Kellerman (M*A*S*H) and Lee Grant (The Landlord), which would end up choking on Hayes’ dust; rooted for Chief Dan George, whose work I somehow did see before Oscar night; and was first exposed, through the Best Director category, to names such as Robert Altman, Federico Fellini and Ken Russell, all of which would come to mean the world to me, cinematically speaking, as I grew older.

Francis Ford Coppola (writing), Dorothy Puzo - 1972 (45th)

(In looking back, I’m still somewhat gobsmacked that Fellini managed a directorial nod for Satyricon, the only nomination that movie would score. I can’t even imagine such a movie being made today, let alone garnering Oscar love of any kind, and of such a specific variety. Hollywood really was a different world back during the dawning of what many would consider its last golden age.)

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The following year Life magazine published a splashy article on the upcoming Oscar ceremony, and they included a gigantic two-page listing of every nominee, with pictures to accompany each one. This was the first instance in my memory of any kind of fevered anticipation of the Oscar show, and my rigorous study of each category from that chart helped to cement my own fascination with the Oscars and the names, many of them already legends in the industry, many soon to make their own marks, who would be honored during that year. I learned about Bernardo Bertolucci, Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa, Luchino Visconti and even Paddy Chayefsky from studying 1971’s nominees; and I still somehow remember that someone by the fascinating name of Folmar Blangsted, who I would eventually discover to be the veteran Hollywood editor responsible for putting together classics like Rio Bravo and A Star is Born, was nominated for Best Achievement in Film Editing that year for Summer of ’42.

I had also received a cassette tape recorder that past Christmas, and that year I began a longstanding tradition of putting it to use to record the audio for every Oscar ceremony I watched. Thanks to this marvelous technical innovation of home recording, I was able to relive great moments, like Isaac Hayes, a fever dream in gold chains, rising to accept the Oscar for Best Song for Shaft, and David Niven quipping about the shortcomings of a streaker who interrupted the 46th annual Oscars (for the films of 1973), as well as moments of heartbreaking defeat, like Elizabeth Taylor opening the envelope to announce that year’s Best Picture winner and proclaiming, “Oh, I’m so glad! The winner is… The Sting!” (Though I hadn’t, at age 13, yet seen the competition, it was far beyond my understanding as to how the Academy could be so profoundly blind as to not be able to recognize the greatness of The Exorcist. My teenaged vexation knew no bounds.) 

Liza Minnelli (actress), Joel Grey (supporting) - 1972 (45th)

Soon after, by the time of the 48th annual Academy Awards in 1976, I had begun putting together ballots for my friends so we could follow along and make our own guesses. My own little slice of Oscar tradition, the Oscar Pool, continues to this day, this coming year being the 39th such event. My circle of friends has changed over 39 years, to be sure, but one thing has not—my own inability to predict winners. I’ve won my own Oscar pool maybe three times, only once since 1988, when actual money became involved. (More on that disastrous record in a minute.)

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One other thing remains true: the Oscars then, as they do now, meant nothing, and they meant everything. For all the obvious points made by writers and critics every year about how art isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a contest and how the Oscars amount to little more than a popularity contest—two points with which I emphatically agree—there’s no denying the seductive quality of the Academy Awards, which draw moths to the flames of outsized ego, movie megalomania and the relentless neediness for recognition among the Hollywood elite like no other grandiose spectacle ever could. Oscar, now more about celebrating the kinds of movies Hollywood used to make— respectably budgeted adult dramas and indie-style sensations—than the megabuck superhero franchises that sustain it, appears to have even bucked the trend of decreasing viewership that building a show around a bunch of movies the vast majority of moviegoers haven’t even seen would seem to make inevitable. (Social media stunts like host Ellen DeGeneres’s multi-celebrity selfie last year would seem to be the sort of key to raising interactive awareness among the average moviegoer that Oscar producers have long sought.)

And certainly the huge cottage industry of Oscar prognostication is a relatively new phenomenon, social media being the perfect fan for this particular flame, one which that Life spread hinted at but could have never fully predicted. Each new season of breathless Oscar analysis actually begins the previous year at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where possible phenoms (it’s so easy to slip into Variety-speak when considering this subject) and awards bait make their first appearances. (This year’s Oscar hopeful Whiplash began life as a Sundance sensation in early 2014.) The Sundance pot is stirred even as the Oscar nominations for the previous year are being announced and the full-throttle Oscar mania of promotional appearances and screener mailings are getting under way. It’s never too early to start cooking up Oscar heat.

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There is also, for every year of endlessly expressed joy about the nominations, endless talk of snubs, as if Oscar voters cast votes based on simple agenda, and with one mind. This year Ava DuVernay, who could have been the first black woman ever to be nominated for best director, and her movie Selma, were largely overlooked due to, depending on whose explanation you believe, a combination of a publicity snafu—Paramount failed to make screeners available in time for voting by critics groups and guilds, which would have raised the movie’s profile considerably at just the right moment— controversy over the movie’s depiction of Lyndon Johnson’s role in the establishment of the Voting Rights Act, and possibly because DuVernay, a black woman with only two other features to her credit who began her career as a publicist, simply didn’t have the sort of connections within the director’s branch of the academy.(Nicole Sperling’s Entertainment Weekly piece on DuVernay and the movie’s diminished presence at the Oscars is worth a look).

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What I think makes the DuVernay oversight important is not only that she simply deserves a slot, which would have theoretically made it easier for her to line up her next job, but because of the missed opportunity to highlight the other minority voices– not just DuVernay’s– who might be more readily considered by Hollywood decision-makers when it comes time to line up a new slate of directors because of the visibility of DuVernay and her movie during Oscar season. When that glass ceiling is finally broken it will be a significant event, no matter who ends up doing it. It would have been nice if it could have been DuVernay for this movie.

But even a movie which has emerged as an Oscar favorite this year has a snub on its record, this one thanks to rigid Academy rules regarding nominations. Birdman, which could slide into the home plate of Oscar glory on the strength of its appeal to the actor’s branch alone (the largest voting branch in the Academy), features a brilliant percussion score improvised and embellished upon by the great jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez. But the Academy refused to consider it for a nomination in the Best Original Score category because the drum score shares a healthy portion of screen time with existing classical pieces, from Tchaikovsky and Mahler to John Adams. 

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Last Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the movie in downtown Los Angeles, at the majestically restored United Artists Theater, once Mary Pickford’s playground, which, though occurring far too late to alter the Academy’s stand on Birdman’s musical qualifications, went a long way toward demonstrating just how badly Oscar missed the boat here. After an on-stage introduction from Michael Keaton, Antonio Sanchez took a position in front of the stage, behind a video monitor and his drum kit, and proceeded to perform the entirety of his drum score live while the movie, minus the recorded drum score, played out on the UA’s giant screen. It was a brilliant feat, with the excitement of added improvisations and variations, a singular demonstration of why this complex, high-wire act of a drum score should have one of the five spots in Oscar’s musical score category. (The scores that do occupy the spots are perfectly okay, if unsurprising, candidates, demonstrating that convention, rather than innovation, is the hallmark most attractive to Oscar’s ear.) If Emmanuel Lubezski’s camerawork (also Oscar nominated), gliding through the backstage corridors, stairways and catwalks of the St, James Theater, makes us feel as though we are on a guided tour of the compartments of an actor’s tortured ego, then Sanchez, in the film and more than ever during the live performance, provides the erratic, compulsive, cacophonic heartbeat to propel that tour.

But enough of Academy Awards past and dime-store thoughts about what Oscar is and isn’t. You want to know, just like I do, who’s going to win. And given my Criswellian record at besting my own Oscar pool, you’d be well advised to seek advice elsewhere—like your own instincts, which are probably far more trustworthy than mine—rather than filling out your own office Oscar pool ballot based on what I have to say. All that levelheaded advice is, of course, no deterrent to my own masochistic willingness to lay bare my own guesses, which, if you are so inclined, can be reviewed around 9:30 p.m. on February 22 as Exhibit “A” in the case against my own status as a brilliant Oscar prognosticator. (The Los Angeles Times own awards show digest, the “Envelope” section, is unlikely to ever come calling.) What follows, then, are my guesses in the eight main categories for the 87th annual Academy Awards on tap for this coming Sunday night, along with my own preferences among the five nominated films. You have been warned.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Winner: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Deserves to Win: Boyhood

Oscar will not be able to resist finally hopping on the Wes Anderson bandwagon.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Winner: The Imitation Game

Deserves to Win: Whiplash

The Harvey Weinstein-Masterpiece Theatre aesthetic will be felt strongest in this category.

BEST DIRECTOR:

Winner: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Deserves to Win: Richard Linklater, Boyhood

It’s my guess that the perceived momentum of Birdman and Alejandro Inarritu with the Producers and Director Guilds will not translate within the Academy as a whole, whose entire membership, not just directors, will vote on this award. I think the voting body will lean more toward innovation and not technical achievement, though the aforementioned actors’ body, the largest in the Academy, really likes Birdman, and it’s happened frequently in recent years that the director and picture awards have split between two different movies.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR:

Winner: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Deserves to Win: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

The lockiest lock in the history of Academy Award locks, or at least since Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Bet the house. But if Robert Duvall pulls an upset, I will disavow all knowledge of such claims on Simmons’ behalf, which will be pointless anyway because the End Times will have commenced, rendering all talk of Oscars even more unimportant than it already is.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Winner: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

Deserves to Win: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood

As much as I want to hold out hope for an Emma Stone upset, a loss by Arquette would be only slightly less apocalyptic than one by Simmons. 

BEST ACTOR

Winner: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Deserves to Win: Michael Keaton, Birdman

Voting actors are being forced to choose between an impossibly juicy My Left Foot-esque effort by Redmayne and Keaton’s masterful meta-consideration of an actor’s plight, and I think this time they’ll set impeccably rendered disability aside and go for the performance that most acutely speaks to their own lives and careers. Will this then be a contest between the actors and the rest of the Academy branches, who may be more closely endeared to Redmayne’s movie? It’s perhaps only a coincidence that Keaton actually deserves the accolades.

BEST ACTRESS

Winner: Julianne Moore, Still Alice

Deserves to Win: Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night

I actually haven’t seen Two Days, One Night yet. I’m just being perverse. Can’t I pick one damn category where someone other than my predicted winner also deserves the honor?!

BEST PICTURE

Winner: Boyhood

Deserves to Win: Boyhood.

I’m just not buying all the talk of the Birdman momentum, I guess. (See Best Director.) I suspect that Boyhood will have spoken more deeply to a wider swath of voters than Birdman, despite how the Producers and Directors Guilds have proclaimed, and that voice will be remembered as the ballots are cast.

Happy Oscars, everybody!