Oscars and The Best

I’ve dreamed of winning an Oscar.  There, I said it.  And I think if everyone in the film business were honest (HAH!), they’d all admit they’ve dreamed of winning one too.  The real question is – WHY?

There is no single answer to that.  Some things just are.  Death.  Taxes.  The tastiness of really good French Fries.  Those who say they haven’t craved Oscar or French fries will inevitably flunk a lie detector test.  Those that pass the test are lying and have figured out a way to get around the machine.  Which, in itself, could be Oscar worthy and one way to get one.

But I digress.

It’s not as if I wake up each day meticulously planning how I will bring the win about (uh, oh, perhaps I should).  I actually seldom think about it.  Except around Oscar time and all of those childhood dreams of being noticed, publicly recognized, cheered by a tuxedo’d/gowned audience (not to mention the billions watching on tv), acknowledged as being great by my peers, going down forever in history as being brilliantly talented by a majority of, well, some group, and becoming rich and famous enough to tell everyone else or even everyone else in that group who was ever mean to me to go jump in the lake, begin to surface.

Have I said too much?  Does any of this sound familiar? At ANY point in your life?  Think about it.  Come on.  Then think about it some more.  Go deeper.  And don’t lie to me.  Or yourself.

Because admitting you want something in a fantasy isn’t the same as being obsessed with it or making it your life goal.  I want to be 6’2” and look like a Winklevii for 15 minutes.  But that’s not going to happen.    It’s implausible because I’m 5’7” and human beings can’t be stretched 7 inches.  (And besides, the Winklevii are 6’5).  Where  you we I get into trouble is not thinking it is overwhelming fantasy or in taking it too seriously.  It’s when you don’t see it for what it really is – a “nice to have in the abstract” but not a requirement that means what we think it does.  This is actually the basis of fairy tales.  In Oscar’s case, being recognized and voted the “BEST” that year.  The BEST?  By whose standards and what measure?  Let’s discuss.

Was three time Oscar winner Walter Brennan a better actor than never won an Oscar Cary Grant?  Is “Rocky” a better film than “All the President’s Men” and “Network?”  Well, somebody (more than one) thought so on both counts.  Would you rather watch “Ghandhi” again (or for the first time) or rewatch “E.T.” or “Tootsie?” – the film that won best picture that year or the two nominated?  Finally, do you think it’s an oversight that for the last 25 years every critics poll didn’t vote Oscar winner “How Green Was My Valley” as the BEST film ever made but instead voted for “Citizen Kane,” the film that lost the Oscar that year?

You can objectively state that due to my height and lack of athletic ability I will never look like a Winklevii because it’s a scientific reality. But you can’t prove “How Green Was My Valley” is a better movie than “Citizen Kane.” Oh, and conversely,  you can’t prove “Citizen Kane” is better than “HGWMV” (well…okay).   It’s a matter of taste.  And – it’s subjective.

Years ago when I was one of three movie critics at Daily Variety I was assigned to review “Nine to Five” (1982; starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton, – huge boxoffice hit).  I came back from the screening and one of my fellow critics, thinking my tastes in film were quite pedestrian up to that point, said “Well, you couldn’t have liked THAT!”  I, being who I am and easily annoyed by condescension (except for my own), replied “Actually, I thought it was really funny and very entertaining.”  Needless to say, he slammed his reporter’s notebook down and exited in a huff, thus causing the passive aggressive in me to write an even more favorable review than I would have.  And holding to my guns, that it is still one of the most brilliant, historic, perfect comedies to this day if he were to ask me.

I have the vague sense that more than a few Oscar ballots are cast that way.  Who will benefit from the award; who do I dislike who will be pissed off if I voted this way and that person/thing wins; what filmmaker never gets recognized and should; what indie movies are over praised and what commercial studio movies that have made too much money should be ignored.  But – THE BEST?  Sometimes, I suppose.  But as a quantifiable barometer of anything more than a fantasy fulfilled?  I don’t think so.

Some things are measurable.  Steven Spielberg’s films are the highest grossing combined in the history of Hollywood because all you have to do is add the numbers, even with ticket price inflation.  But he can’t rightly be called the BEST director any more than I can be called the best, well, anything.  That’s about personal feeling.

It was most wisely put in “The Wizard of Oz” when at the end of the film the Wizard gives the Tin Man a great big red heart. The Tin Man’s sweet demeanor and consideration of others would cause even all of the members of the Academy to vote him as having the biggest heart of all (or certainly at MGM).  The irony is the Tin Man thinks he doesn’t have one.  But as the Wizard acknowledges the only thing the Tin Man doesn’t have is a testimonial, he hands him an actual replica of the heart, the physical embodiment of all he desires.  It’s nice but it doesn’t cause him to cry when Dorothy leaves. It’s just a physical reminder of what’s inside.  So this Sunday, when you pull up a chair at your friend’s house to view the Oscars, know you’re watching the best fantasy in the world played out on a star-studded night. And remember what I once heard the late Oscar-nominated producer Dan Melnick say, “In Hollywood, when there’s smoke, there’s usually a smoke machine.”

Fear, Guilt and Speaking Your Mind: What the citizens coup in Egypt, Lady Gaga and my fight with my Landlord have in common

When I try to imagine myself on the streets of Egypt I am loath to admit I am a 2011 coward.  Not that I didn’t Act Up and fight AIDS or as a teenager attend anti-war rallies to stop the Vietnam War.  But that was prior to the age of suicide bombers, fatwas against Salman Rushdie, domestic anthrax attacks and Tom Cruise movies where a practically microscopic mechanical gadget could kill you quicker than you could say Scientology (speaking of which – 34 years, Oscar winner Paul Haggis?  Really?).

Which leads me to Lady Gaga getting all kinds of crap for having a bunch of dancers carry her into the Grammys tucked inside a translucent human sized Lucite egg and emerging from it after a reported 72 hour off and on stay only to sing her new single, “Born This Way.”

Being a left wing, Jewish homosexual, a closet provocateur despite my overriding personal cowardice, and a fan of overachieving ethnic girls from New York City who had trouble fitting in during high school, I’m willing to cut Gaga some slack.  (Some might say given those characteristics it is not at all surprising I’d feel this way.  Especially since I was  born this…well, never mind).

Actually, I’m going to cut her more than slack.  I’m going to take a 2011 courageous stand and say  — if you thought what she was doing was a bit much –  why do you think that?  Oh, It’s embarrassing?  Gratuitously attention getting?  Tacky?  A spectacle?  Of course it is.  On the red carpet on a televised music awards show – the kind of place where Jennifer Lopez wore the naked dress (2000 Grammys); Kanye West grabbed the microphone from a 17 year old singer accepting an award because he thought she shouldn’t have won (2009 VMAs); Mary J Blige showed up wasted with oversized sunglasses and a large white hood over her head (Grammys  – I don’t remember which year but trust me, it happened); and Diana Ross played with Lil Kim’s breast (VMA’s1999). In that company, I found the egg spectacle tame and sort of fun  – or as I unabashedly posted on Fadebook re Gaga’s emerging from the egg to sing her anthem – “she was the only one in on the yolk.”  That line now falls flat but did sort of seem amusing genius amusing at the time.

With a googol (the number, not the search engine) media outlets these days, you have to at least try to be inventive to sell your wares and get the word out.  If you’re a girl you can’t out Kim Kardashian, Kim Kardashian (and why would you?).  If you’re a guy, you can’t ever try to be as good-looking as Brad Pitt or as smart as  Stephen Hawkings or as rich and smart as Bill Gates.  You have to be as ________ as you can possibly be at __________ , using all of the _____________  you have at your disposal.  Or as Judy Garland is once credited as saying:  “Be a first rate version of yourself, rather than a second rate version of someone else.”  It’s just the 2011 version of Barbra Streisand’s screen version of Fanny Brice being ordered by Florenz Ziegfeld to dress like a beautiful,  bride-like showgirl and, deciding not to compete, stuffing a pillow under her dress and pretending she was pregnant, causing the audience to laugh uproariously at the spectacle rather than laughing uproariously at her in the number  she was ordered to sing – “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.”  (Times have actually changed in some respects.  Divas requirements these days are not being told what to do and certainly not listening).

Just as Gaga decided she wanted to be inside an egg and –- hatch (a shameful self-promotion for a single called “Born (Hatch) This Way” – get it??), most of the great commercially successful people in the world have figured out a construct to be a larger version of who they are inside – Madonna was a naughty Catholic school girl who borrowed heavily from, well, many people.  Scorsese and Spielberg admit to appropriating/recreating shots from John Ford and others and why wouldn’t they?  (So did all your other favorite directors at some point from those who came before them).  People in Egypt who want freedom and democracy have certainly been influenced by imperfect Western culture/democracy.    But their brand of it will be yet another permutation that in some ways might look like ours, but isn’t ours.  Nor should it be.  Especially when lives still hang in the balance and our own economy still teeters on the brink of collapse (or at least elongated bending).

Which brings me to my landlord – who is remodeling our duplex and the two apartments above the garage and NEVER lets us know in advance if workmen will arrive at 7:30am with jackhammers and drills, tearing apart the upstairs, bulldozing our backyard, cancelling the gardener or ripping out our backyard fence, which is the only safety net standing between our frolicking dog and the cars rushing down the streets.  After the sixth phone call about all this, his “assistant” phoned and said “he told me he called you back and left a message.”  I abruptly replied, “he’s lying,” only to find out the next day that he left  a quick message on my partner’s voicemail.  I immediately felt guilty for my outburst, feared I’d lose my apartment, and  thought I should apologize.  Until I thought, what about the five others that weren’t returned prior?  Shouldn’t I be standing up for myself in some form?  It’s not Cairo but isn’t the principal the same?   Even though I’m now regretting the nerve to compare the two and even though you roll your eyes, just laughing at me for doing it, doesn’t it all start from the same place on some academic level?  Standing up for yourself?  Not being cowed?  Not being conned?  Being who you are?

Which finally brings me to what I heard from a sort of idol of mine I recently got to meet at friend’s birthday party – Jane Fonda.  No, we don’t hang together (are you kidding?)  But my friend does and he knew how I admired her politics, her boldness and acting talent, so he sat me next to her at this big party (yes, she looked fabulous, I mean, it’s Jane!).  After bending her ear about everything I could while making sure I actually let her speak to others, I casually mentioned how far the world now was from the values and idealism of the sixties and how, if it frustrated me, it must drive her crazy.  She considered this, looked me square in the eye and said (paraphrasing) “Some people are born with a global platform, some have a national or local platform, and some have one in the action of their day-to-day lives.  And you never know how change happens and which will be the most important. But change will happen eventually.  I might not be around to see it, but you might.  That’s why it’s so important to take a stand in your everyday life and see what happens.”

It kind of makes you want to go outside, find a red carpet somewhere, put on your favorite outfit and crack an egg.  Or, if you’re just not in the mood, cheer on someone else who is doing it.