Looking for a Hero

Catching up with The Batman this weekend – a film that was finally released theatrically in 2022 and promptly became the highest grossing movie so far this year with about $750,000,000 in worldwide ticket sales– was long overdue.

Ostensibly this is because I teach screenwriting and try to assign my students an old or new movie to see most weeks so storytelling and structure in different genres becomes second nature to them.

But truly – that’s merely the surface reason.

OK so this is the reason, right?

The real one is that I believe watching the top-grossing movie of any year allows you to stay informed

But also this..

What this means is that, like it or not, the film the most people go to see in any given year tells you quite a lot about our world — whether you want to know it or not.

So, here’s what I know after watching three hours of The Batman.

1. Robert Pattinson is a finer actor than you think and possesses great hair and seductively angular features.

2. Prosthetics have gotten to the point where, if Warner Bros. demanded it, the technical geniuses behind Hollywood moviemaking could make even ME look like The Batman.  Or Selena Kyle.

And, most importantly –

3. We live in a time where there are no SUPER heroes anymore.

But somehow we managed to have three Spidermans?

In writing classes we teach that no one is 100% altruistic.  Meaning every hero has a little bit of villain in them and every villain has a touch of a hero lurking somewhere in their souls.

The key to villains is they believe deep down what they’re doing is right and justified.

The path to a hero is that the vast majority of the world think their actions are right and justified. 

In our world there are no actionable super majorities to anything anymore.  Certainly not heroes.   I doubt even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky would get a supermajority worldwide vote if we had a global lie detector.  Nor would Russian President Vladimir Putin achieve worldwide super villain status.

It’d be close for Zelensky

The 2022 probing portrait of Batman tells us everything about our lack of true SUPER HEROES.  It takes the moral ambiguities of the franchise, the conceit of most superhero franchises, and gloomily plants a barely faux hero – our hero – smack dab into heroic territory.

But because the bar is sooo low we think nothing of it.

we did finally see Batman’s makeup, so we’ll give it points for that

He’s an avenger/vigilante with a personal agenda so internal and so intense that he barely feels human.  Certainly he’d have a less than zero potential by the standards of any other era to become anything even approaching a valiant do-gooder.

More importantly, no one around him has much of a moral compass.  And the few who do are either operating with their own secret personal agenda or have not received enough screen time for any real them to properly emerge.

We think Gordon’s good??

This weekend I went to the annual TCM Film Festival in Hollywood and rewatched the 1978 classic Warren Beatty film, Heaven Can Wait.  It was a fantasy comedy remake of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a 1938 play of the same name.

And it shows – in all the best ways.

The late seventies were enough of a post Watergate time and pre-Ronald Reagan 1980s ME era for the world to still believe that a real life good guy could achieve hero status, inspiring others without giving into temptation himself. 

Classic

Sure, it helped that Warren Beatty at his most handsome played Joe Pendleton, a lifelong second-string quarterback for the L.A. Rams, who mistakenly dies and is escorted to a weigh station to heaven due to his incompetent Guardian Angel.

But when Joe is given a second chance and gets temporarily dropped into the body of a rich, unscrupulous industrialist, who among other things gleefully runs a conglomerate that thinks nothing of drilling oil and polluting entire small towns of people to slightly increase his profit margins (Note: Yes, this film was made in 1978), it seems a recipe for disaster.

Clearly, the good guy will be corrupted by all this money and power.  Because let’s face it, no believable good guy could ever be that heroic with all the oil and money in the world at his personal disposal.  At the very least he’d have to launch his own rocket ship to take him to the edge of outer space or perhaps invent his own super electronic auto before dropping back down to earth to help all the rest of us little people. 

I mean the guy already dresses like a supervillain

He’d have to become a bad guy who takes a stroll on the dark side, before rejoining the merely human race and inspiring them.

Because that’s the only way we’d believe it.

Except, well, no – not in the late 1970s.

Joe never succumbed to darkness.  In fact, he is nothing but good, well intentioned, hard working, loyal and kind, even to the two people he lives with who are trying to kill him in.

His everyman morality wins the day – a morality not born of some past traumas he has overcome but springs from the plain yet solid nice guy that Joe apparently always was.

Not sure I would consider this everyman hair #goodhair

He’s a regular fellow whose superpower is being moral.  A hopeful idea of a movie released during a time when we still had a few smidgeons of hope.

Heaven Can Wait was one of the top five grossing movies the year it was released. Among the others were Grease, National Lampoon’s Animal House and Superman.

It’s easy to sense a pattern here because there was one. 

Even in a year when two dark and raw post Vietnam War movies, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, triumphed over Heaven Can Wait at the Academy Awards.

See, it’s not that the late 1970s were an uncynical time.  They were just, well, a little less immoral.

Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out for a Hero”

Win, Lose or Awe: Betting the Oscars

Screen shot 2014-02-23 at 3.54.08 PM

One of my best Academy Award predictions was in 2003 when I told my Dad to bet on Sofia Coppola in the best original screenplay category for Lost in Translation.  She not only got her Oscar but my father won several thousand dollars he happily split with me.

Of course, those were the days when websites still gave great odds on categories that almost anyone vaguely involved in the biz knew were pretty sure things.   (Note:  I think the early odds we got on Ms. Coppola were something like 13-1).

They were also the times when racist politicians could make bigoted remarks to local constituents and/or at fundraisers without fear of an international media blitz via Twitter, YouTube or Facebook.   Needless to say, that era has ended.

We now live in a world where even a professional football player can’t bully one of his teammates in a locker room or insult the player’s mother and/or sister without lawsuit and public retribution.  What’s next – everyone’s vote getting counted in a presidential election?  Well, I might be willing to sacrifice another Oscar betting windfall for that providing the name Hillary is listed as a nominee in one of those races.

Until then, those who want some quick cash at this time of year are left only with the measly remains of the local Oscar office pool or the generous rewards from one of the grand charity events you might be attending where predicting the outcome of the Academy Awards is even more popular than Olympic curling.  (Note:  You say you don’t care, didn’t watch or don’t even know what curling is?  Um, I beg to differ).

Oh, you know me.

Oh, you know me.

But back to what really matters here  – Oscarmania and how we can profit from it.

I’m not sure it’s terribly exciting to predict the Academy Awards anymore until I peruse virtually every magazine, newspaper or website within view of a Goggle Glass and see all evidence to the contrary.  Judging from what I’m reading, all of these sources have many more readers, advertisers and well-funded marketing surveyors proving to them that I am wrong and that we all secretly, outwardly or even perversely do care.  Whether you think of the Oscars as an apple pie tradition or something akin to watching the DVD of Showgirls, Valley of the Dolls, Battlefield Earth or Movie 43 (Note: This all depends on the year you were born), the odds are you will be watching, betting, watching some more or, at the very least, dishing about the Oscars.  So you might want to be armed with just a little more information and be a part of all the…fun?

But please, be forewarned – there is no scientific basis for any of following.  I have not meticulously done research weighing the statistical likelihood of who will win or what might happen based on the results of current guild award winners and anonymous marketing studies from expensive media consultants paid to unofficially check-in with (nee “lobby) Oscar voters.  This is just me – the winner of the Sofia Coppola sweepstakes eleven years ago and owner of a lifetime of show business disappointments and near exhilarations – telling you what is likely to happen.

THE SHOW

The Golden Gal?

The Golden Gal?

It will be too long.  Ellen DeGeneres will be a fun if not much safer host than last year’s Seth MacFarlane.  It will get boring at parts.  You will get tired.  And – there will be few surprises even though everyone says that each year there will be some.  Still, here’s some stuff we don’t know but might expect.

1. The producers have announced Bette Midler will be singing on this year’s show for the very first time.  What will she sing?  Hmmmm, let’s see.  The producers have also announced the theme of this year’s program will be movie heroes, Ms. Midler wasn’t featured on any of the nominated songs and we have to figure out how to fit her in the program so it will all make sense that she’s there in the first place.

Speaking of Bettes...

Speaking of Bettes…

Prediction #1:  Bette will sing Wind Beneath My Wings (…did you ever know that you’re my HERO…and everything I would like to be…) and it will probably be over the In Memoriam portion of the program.

2. Pink has been announced as a performer for a highly anticipated moment on this year’s show.  How do you not love Pink?  And how does any movie lover also not love The Wizard of Oz, which will receive a 75th anniversary celebration on this year’s Oscar show.  Well, Pink has a magical quality to her and often likes to sing upside down in a circus-like theme, so….

Prediction #2:  Pink will sing Over the Rainbow during the Oz tribute, evoking a sort of modern day, surviving version of an adult 2014 Judy Garland in movie business Oz.   Unless, they figure out a way to tie in Pink’s penchant for aerial acrobatics to best picture nominee Gravity, which I am so, so, so hoping they don’t do.  Or wait – maybe I’m hoping that they do do!!

Sorry stoners.. that was Pink.. not Pink Flloyd

Sorry stoners.. that was Pink.. not Pink Flloyd

3. Two of the most superb independent movies of 2013 – Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station – received a total of zero Oscar nominations.  It’s difficult to understand why since often a very small film sneaks into at least a screenplay, if not best picture nomination (e.g. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Precious).  Some people will tell you the Academy chose the larger, racially historic themes of 12 Years A Slave instead of Fruitvale and the similarly small, character-based storytelling of Her, Nebraska and Dallas Buyers Club in favor of Short Term 12. This may or may not be the case.

Prediction #3:  Short Term 12 and Fruitvale Station will receive no mention at all during this year’s Oscar show unless it’s in the introduction to ST’s much over-looked star Brie Larson, who has been announced as a presenter.  But even that is doubtful since they will probably refer to her as merely the co-star of the upcoming remake of The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg.  What a shame.

THE AWARDS

Best Original Screenplay:  Spike Jonze, Her

Betting Meter:  Sure Thing

the future is now

the future is now

Anyone you talk to in the business will tell you privately that Her was certainly the most original story of the year – even people who don’t think it’s the best movie of the year.  Forget that Spike Jonze has won most of the writing awards so far.  For my money, of the nine nominees Her was the best film of the year.  Count on this for the Sofia Coppola moment.  And wager the rent.

Best Adapted Screenplay:  John Ridley, 12 Years A Slave

Betting Meter:  Safe Bet

12-years-of-not-fancy-dining

Oscar eyes his competition

There’s a lot of diverse work in this category but it usually comes down to the overall impact of the film rather than the quality of the script.  The adaptation of the memoir of a free Black man who was kidnapped by two White men and brutally enslaved for 12 years in the Civil War era South is Oscar bait in that it takes an unusual, larger than life political story and tells it in a human manner (Note:  Last year’s winner in this category was Argo).  Truth be told I was underwhelmed by both 12 Years A Slave and Argo.  The latter felt diffuse and disjointed while 12 Years seemed repetitious and strangely undramatic in its constant use of inhumane, brutal beatings in order to make the same dramatic point twelve times.   Still, the Academy voters don’t give a whit (or is it shit?) what I think and the debate over what makes great film drama on the page is only one small factor in who wins a screenplay Oscar.  Which is why Mr. Ridley is a safe bet.

Best Supporting Actress:  Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years A Slave 

Betting Meter:  Slightly Favored

The best thing about 12 Years A Slave was this relative newcomer’s performance -heartbreaking, human, multi-layered and seemingly out of nowhere.  That’s what this category is all about when it’s not about a lifetime achievement award for the entire body of work of a perpetually ignored Hollywood veteran (e.g.  Remember Jack Palance’s acceptance speech pushups onstage when he won for 1991’s City Slickers? Anyone? Bueller?).

Girl, you know you got my vote

Girl, you know you got my vote

The buzz is that the universally beloved Jennifer Lawrence could sneak in for her charmingly frenetic seriocomic turn in American Hustle.  But I’d bet even JLaw voted for Lupita.  Though I wouldn’t bet for money –  it’d have to be more of a Jackass type wager.

Best Supporting Actor:  Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club

Betting Meter: Sure Thing

Bonus points for wearing this suit to the Oscar luncheon #werkJared

Bonus points for wearing this suit to the Oscar luncheon #werkJared

Bet the house.  I and many of my friends lived through the AIDs era of Dallas Buyer’s Club.  And while there is much to be debated about what the film left out, there is no debate over the accuracy and unexpected originality of the actor’s work here.  Straight men playing a gay, transgendered or cross-dressing character tend to evoke performance or caricature or just plain too much sass and/or nobility.  That wasn’t the case in this instance.  When a male actor can make you believe that the one time he is in opposite gender clothing is the one time you see him in a suit, tie and combed hair, then you know you’re watching a total transformation and not a carnival hat trick.  That and much, much more, was always the case every time Mr. Leto appeared onscreen.  Brava.

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine 

Betting Meter:  Closer Than You Think

If you’re wagering, I’d resist tossing all the coin on this category.  Sure, everyone thinks Ms. Blanchett will win for portraying a sort of Blanche DuBois meets Ruth Madoff neurotic madwoman/scorned wife and she probably will since she’s picked up every other major award this season.  Plus, as an actress she has industry-wide admiration and has never won in this category.  Not to mention voters will enjoy resisting the whispered speculation that they will lead a backlash against Woody Allen due to his recently renewed molestation scandals and, in turn, deny the leading lady of his latest film an award.

Both fierce suits

Both fierce suits

But still – consider Gravity made a fortune and Sandra Bullock is the #1 box-office movie star of the year if you also count in The Heat (Note: And…you try acting next to mostly green screen nothingness!). And then consider that many voters greatly admire Amy Adams and her performance as the young con woman among con men in American Hustle since most people in the Academy have spent at least a moment or two of their lives referring to working in the industry as navigating one big con game run amok among similar types of con artists, most of them men.

Okay, consider it.  But if you want to play safe with the rent money, put it on Cate to win.

Best Actor:  Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club

Betting Meter: Safe Bet

All right, All right, All right

All right, All right, All right

It’s his year, plain and simple.  Especially after a scene-stealing scene opposite Leonardo DiCaprio at the beginning of Wolf of Wall Street and a vulnerable and charismatic supporting performance in the indie film Mud this past year.

Still, this does not take away from Mr. McConaughey’s great work portraying a mostly unlikeable, misogynistic, homophobic bigot who only begins to get a tad nicer when he’s diagnosed with full-blown, terminal AIDS in the 1980s. Yes, losing 45 lbs. and the drama of embodying a dying man is yet another example of irresistible Oscar bait if done well.  Which it was.  So deal with it.

The one potential upset in this category could come from a groundswell of support for Mr. DiCaprio in Wolf since he’s both well-respected, constantly sought after and has never actually won an Oscar. Add to the mix the fact that Academy voters of all ages admire the work of Bruce Dern in Nebraska and would enjoy finally rewarding him a career Oscar for a career-making lead actor performance.

But….it’s MM’s year and MM’s to lose.  Chances are he won’t.

Best Director:  Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Betting Meter: The Surest Thing – More sure than you getting up tomorrow morning.

The magic man

The magic man

No one thinks he won’t win and no one thinks he shouldn’t win – except perhaps Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years a Slave, and a few of its loudest proponents.  But the award this year has nothing to do with who does the most and loudest Oscar campaigning and everything to do with technical directorial achievement that moved cinema forward.  The latter seldom happens in the space of a decade, much less in a single 12-month period.  For most in the industry, that was the power of Gravity, a film that actually took more than four years to make.

It also helps that Mr. Cuaron has a large and varied body of films that includes everything from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkhaban to the indie hit Y Tu Mama Tambien.  Though even if he didn’t direct those and other well-respected movies, he’d still win.

Innovation in a repetitively endless world of technology,  a.k.a. #2001ASpaceOdyssey2014.

 Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave, though I want to say Gravity 

Betting Meter:  Do Not Bet Under Any Circumstances!!!

Can she snag it?

Can she snag it?

My father would call this pick ‘em, which is a bookmaker term that means the odds could go either way.  In this case the choices are 12 Years and Gravity with American Hustle close behind.  What makes this so close is that 2013 wasn’t a great year in movies, simply a good year.  Meaning all three of these are good films but each have their faults when you strip them down.

That being said, the Academy usually errs on the most socially relevant and mainstream choice.  American Hustle has an odd zaniness but is seen as a comic parody of social mores.  Gravity doesn’t have social resonance but is what people in the biz are increasingly calling a movie movie – a film that harkens back to the kind of motion picture you have to see with other people on a large screen like they used to always do in the old days. (Note: That would be, uh, 10 years ago, right?).

12 Years fulfills both of these requirements.  It demands to be seen with other people around you in the quiet dark and is political, epic and socially relevant but not so much so that will alienate too many voters. (Note:  There is thankfully not a pro-slavery contingent in the Academy nor a substantial group of people who were offended enough by the excessive violence to withhold votes).

Last year’s surprise winner, Argo, had similar attributes.  Not that that means anything at all.

TIE-BREAKERS:

magic-8-ball

These are the ones that win and lose the pool.  Don’t bet on them individually because the Academy tends to reward these either as consolation prizes for films that won’t win in other categories or for showy work the broader membership likes to vote on as best but that is not necessarily the best.  Only sometimes do the winners emerge for the right reasons, mostly because no one knows that those really are.

Animated Feature:  Frozen.  No one thinks it’s necessarily the best but it’s good enough, has made millions and would, strangely enough, be the first Oscar winner in this category for Disney Animation Studios (Note:  The best animated feature Oscar originated in 2001 and though Disney has released numerous films that have won, the studio has never actually made one of the winners)

Documentary Feature:  20 Feet From Stardom.   No one in show business can resist stories about people who were wronged in show business, survived long enough to tell the tale – and are still working.   Plus, it’s good.

Cinematography: Gravity, Emmanuel Luberzki.  It’s technology and Gravity wins.

Costume Design:  American Hustle, Michael Wilkinson.  Sorry Great Gatsby it’s 1970s America.

Editing: Gravity, Alfronso Cuaron and Mark Sanger.  Technology wins.  Again.

Production Design: The Great Gatsby, Catherine Martin. The 1920s trumps the future in terms of looks and partying.

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects: Didn’t you hear me, technophobes — G.R.A.V.I.T.Y!!!!!  (There are a ton of names here so I won’t list all the individuals for fear I’m beginning to bore you). 

Makeup and Hairstyling:  Dallas Buyers Club, Andruitha Lee and Robin Matthews.  I will paraphrase the words of another prognosticator and tell you this:

No one at the Academy is anxious to hear the words Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa come out of a presenter’s mouth as the winner in any category.

NO COMMENT COMPETITIONS: Do not think for a second I am going to be responsible for predicting the unpredictable, pool-losing categories of:

Guaranteed to lose your shirt

Guaranteed to lose your shirt

Foreign Language Film, Animated Short film, Documentary Short Film and Live-Action Short Film.

You should NOT bet on these.  Or even include them in a pool.  Or even think about doing either.  That is, unless you know someone who has seen them all, is an Academy member and is very good at predicting the whims of voters.  I know several such people and as soon as I can borrow their screeners and cross-examine them I’ll get back to you.  Maybe.