The Oscar Race

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There is not much to count on in life anymore but one of the constants is that upon the announcement of the Academy Award nominations there will be a significant group of people outraged by the choices made by the group’s almost 6,000 voting members. This is not to denigrate the passionate emotions those who are outraged display. I myself have still not gotten over the fact that Mia Farrow was not nominated for her star turn in Rosemary’s Baby and that movie was released before I reached adolescence (Note: Yes, it’s true, I had opinions even then). Not to mention, we’re not taking into account the biggest Oscar slight of all – Judy Garland losing the best actress race to Grace Kelly in 1955. I mean, all things being equal could you honestly say that you’d rather watch The Country Girl on a loop until the end of time rather than A Star Is Born??? Please.

Lest we forget 1951's blasphemy

Lest we forget 1951’s blasphemy

So you see where I’m going with this.

This year the principal outrage is about the movie Selma receiving only two Academy Award nominations – one for best picture and the other for best song. So powerful were the passions stirred that the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending almost instantly. Among my favorites was:

#OscarsSoWhite that the statue counts as a person of color.

Oh snap!

Oh snap!

Bravo! (or Brava!) to whoever thought of that one.

As a lifelong Oscar watcher, former entertainment reporter, person who has been going to Academy screenings for 30 years, and screenwriter who admittedly would LOVE to at some point get nominated for one of those things as I’m simultaneously made fun of by 50 million people from their beds and/or living rooms, let me just say this:

None of this is fair. And it is NOT a conspiracy of exclusion. The day that the creative types and non-creative types who make up the membership of the Academy could truly agree on what is a good movie is the day when Oscar watching will cease to be an attraction. Or even vaguely interesting. Which, in laymen’s terms means — IT WILL NEVER HAPPEN.

Here’s the deal. Minorities ARE underrepresented in movies. But if you take the entire list of films in distribution in each year, so are — intelligence, depth, humanity, and individuality.

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

And just think.. 3 years ago this was the Black and White debate of the Oscars

There are a MINORITY number of films in release these days with many of the above qualities and most of those are the ones being considered for Oscar statuettes. That’s a small number compared to the amount of movies each year that can qualify for consideration by the Academy but a large number when taken as a group unto themselves. So given that most categories are limited to five nominees means that when it comes down to it there is A LOT of competition for those top slots.

What happens then is that it becomes a matter of taste. Well, all you have to do is go into the recently revamped bland, near empty, high-tech nightmare that accounts for the new lobby of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and you can see that its ingenuity in that area is – to be kind – sorely lacking. While it does deserve credit for keeping the traditional cushy red velvet seats in the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre – still the best sound and best place in town overall to see a movie – the design of the new lobby itself tells you all you need to know about the organization’s taste level at this moment – or really, any moment. And that is – well, go down the list of nominations and judge for yourself. The one thing that is for certain is that you can find quite a bit not to like.

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

The only Oscar lobby we care about this year

It’s difficult to defend the Academy’s record for the employment and recognition of non-white, non-male and non-heterosexual people on the whole. On the same token, it’s equally difficult to find much consistency in many of their choices. For instance, if the 21st century of Academy voters were truly white-centric why did they award Oscars to 12 Years A Slave last year for best picture, screenplay and supporting actress, among the film’s nine nominations? If they are so white, traditional and such an insular club, how is it that they failed to even NOMINATE the unofficial KING of Hollywood directors, Steven Spielberg, for best director on The Color Purple in 1986 yet saw fit to vote the movie a whopping 11 nominations back then?

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Apparently having brown eyes also puts you in the minority. #creepy

Don’t try to answer because none of it makes any sense and it’s about as fair as who wins the lottery or is chosen to participate in The Hunger Games. Though it is a lot more fun to watch than either. Especially when the right people lose and the wrong people win. Admittedly those are sad facts but undoubtedly true ones.

I took myself to see Selma a few days ago before I weighed in on any of this. I liked the film, which gained power as it went on – not unlike the march for voting rights did in Selma. Its director Ava DuVernay did a fine job and David Oyelowo so powerfully evoked the spirit of the late Dr. Martin Luther King in such a uniquely human fashion that there were occasional moments that felt like discarded behind-the-scenes documentary footage rather than beats of a large scale, mainstream Hollywood-type movie.

And to think he's British!

And to think he’s British!

Yes, it would have been just to finally have an African American woman nominated for best director. In fact, it’s beyond ridiculous that it hasn’t yet happened. But when going over the list of nominees, who clearly doesn’t belong and should absolutely be eliminated?

Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman

Richard Linklater, Boyhood

Not going to happen. Those two are the frontrunners of arguably the most unusual and complicated films made this year. So that leaves three more slots.

Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel

Morten D. Tydlum, The Imitation Game

Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

One thing's for sure: they all need a haircut.

One thing’s for sure: they all need a haircut.

Well, I for one always feel left in the lurch with Wes Anderson movies (Note: Students don’t hate me and yes, it’s probably a bit generational). Yet given the complicated visual execution here and the fact that the Academy has a new and growing group of younger voters who have finally brought the average age down to somewhere around 60, you can see why it’s hard to argue a case against this. It’s a film that feels hip and quirky and there almost always seems to be one slot for that.

The Imitation Game is, like Selma, somewhat of a film about injustice but unlike the march for civil rights it centers on the life of a little known previously unsung GAY man who pioneered the use of computers which significantly contributed to the Allies winning WWII (Note: Never underestimate WWII stories in Academy circles).

OK... maybe not all of the time.  #sorryangie

OK… maybe not all of the time. #sorryangie

It’s also strangely about humanity and civil rights but also manages to make the puzzles surrounding the computers that baffle most Academy voters in daily life seem decipherable. All told that’s a triple relevance factor overall and it’s hard to compete with that.

That leaves Bennett Miller’s nomination for Foxcatcher, a rather unsavory, artsily-disturbing look at a murder. It has a lot of sparse, directorial flourishes and features a beloved comic actor who has not been recognized previously by the Academy in a stomach churning, disturbing star turn. One can’t imagine it’s the White choice or even the commercial choice. The oddness of it feels like the choice of the director’s branch – a group composed primarily of men who probably related to its themes of maleness.

And yet THIS is the Academy president

And yet THIS is the Academy president

The latter could alone validate the reasons of the outraged and the fact that certainly more female-driven stories need to be made, hopefully by more female directors. Meanwhile, the one female to actually win best director, Kathryn Bigelow, did so seven years ago for The Hurt Locker – a war film with maleness written all over it, despite its female director. 12 Years A Slave had an even more violent underpinning and also got recognized in spite of, or perhaps because of, its quite violent subject matter. Hmmm.

This all does not address the best director omission this year of perennial Oscar alpha male favorite Clint Eastwood for American Sniper, The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh’s unique take on Stephen Hawking, or why Whiplash could get a best picture, screenplay and supporting actor nod while Damien Chazelle was completely left out of the aforementioned category. Did that movie direct itself?

Ageism?

Ageism?

Best actor is an even more impossible competition. Do you by pass by Michael Keaton for Birdman, Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, or Benedict Cumberbatch in Imitation Game? Those three were locks. That leaves two major movie star, star turns. Both Bradley Cooper and Steve Carell left behind all traces of their charismatic and jovial selves in American Sniper and Foxcatcher and if nothing else the acting branch are suckers for that. I would wager at least a box of Red Vines and a small Diet Coke that Mr. Oyelowo came in sixth for a performance that was so good it managed to blend into the movie rather than stand above it. That is a credit to him as an actor, regardless of race. It is just not always the best strategy to net an Oscar nomination in a super competitive year. One only needs to look at the Oscar nominated best actor performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave last year to see the difference. Which begs the question of why Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler was overlooked this year for totally transforming into…well, see it. My guess is he was #7 even though he clearly delivered one of the three best acting jobs of any sex or race in 2014.

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Someone get this man a hot meal!

Of course, this and all other Oscar analyses and prognostications are sheer guesswork.   Yes, we all need a lot more work on inclusion and equal opportunity. But like most of us, Oscar is primarily an equal opportunity offender. Which is to say there is no coherent reason for why they are doing the offending in the first place.  This makes it quite different from the events in Selma and near impossible to come up with a reasonable explanation as to why that film received a paucity of nominations.   Or why some of the others you and I didn’t care for received a plethora of them.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t be watching, waiting and ready to comment when they give out those little suckers for the 87th time next month – along with most of the rest of you.

Big Dreams

There’s a great scene in the first act of “A Star Is Born” where the established star, Norman Maine, advises the young talented unknown, Esther Blodgett, about her career.  She admits her big dream is catching a lucky break, getting discovered by a talent scout and having a number one record but also freely admits, “It won’t happen.”  The veteran, a great fan of her work (among other things), counters, “No it might happen very easily.  Only — the dream isn’t big enough.”

He then goes on to tell her, “A career can turn on somebody saying to you,  ‘You’re better than that.  You’re better than you know.’  Don’t settle for the little dream.  Go on to the big one.” (for more go here)

In Esther’s case, having the number one record was not necessarily the wrong dream (she does go on to get a number one record AND a lot more) – just not the right dream at the right time.  In other words, to quote a wise old adage, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

Aside from the fact I’m a sucker for old Judy Garland movies, I’ve been thinking a lot about dreams lately.  Do you get just one?  Is working hard and profusely wanting something enough to push you towards your goal?  What if it is the WRONG time?  Or, perish the thought, the WRONG dream?   But wouldn’t I know what the right and wrong dream was for me – I mean, it’s my dream!!  Well, not necessarily.  I mean, no one is right 100% of the time except, well, the 8 Ball– and even it has its occasional limitations.

Hold on, let me get my glasses.

Taking that into the realm of high-class problems, what if you’ve already achieved your dream and you’ve still got half or two-thirds of your life left, and don’t plan to die early.  Do you just coast and sit on or in your mountains of money (while you’re spending it and it keeps magically replenishing through endless tax cuts for you and your millionaire/billionaire friends)?  Do you continue to try and top yourself in your own field even though you feel like you’ve “done it” and it no longer holds its mystery because you’ve reached your version of the mountain top?  Or maybe you, perish the thought again, start from ground zero and try something else with the hopes you can reconnect with the passion you had for your original dream and expand that and more to even greater effect and affect.

Only we can provide the answer for ourselves.  Maybe for you it’s one or all of those.  Or maybe it’s none of the above.  Dreams are funny that way.  Ultimately, they’re extremely personal.

But for guidance – why not look to the best.

No one spoke of dreams more eloquently than Dr. Martin Luther King, and being this the 48th anniversary of his historic  “I Have A Dream” speech – a speech delivered at a time when the idea of a Black U.S. president seemed as likely as, well, an openly transgender, ultra-liberal, atheist one might one seem today, (and if anyone under 40 thinks I’m exaggerating, ask anyone OVER 40) – it’s important to be reminded of the ever-enduring necessity and universality of having not only commitment to a dream but a great and unlimited personal imagination.

Inspiration

Dr. King didn’t dwell on what was necessarily rational in the south in the summer of 1963 for Black (then called Negro) Americans, but “dreamed” of what he saw (and hoped) was “possible.”  Does it trivialize the civil rights struggle to use it as a metaphor for the individual dreams each of us may or may not have for ourselves in our creative lives?  Absolutely not.  Dreaming of something that seems impossible is always valid and necessary if you’re human and want to make any kind of impact or difference for whatever reason.  And if you’re going to steal (in Hollywood they call it homage), why not steal from the best?  And – at least I’m publicly giving him credit – unlike what Paramount, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have so far done for James Toback, by not informing him they were going to remake his seminal 1974 screenplay “The Gambler,” prompting him to feel he dreamt a bad dream because he first found out about it last week in Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood news item. (Read it all here).

But I digress.

I’ve written before about dream stomping or dream ignoring or dream ______ (fill in your phrase) being very big these days – particularly in the creative arts.  “You’ll never,” “do you know the odds of,” “You have to be practical,” or the dreaded comment – “you’re such a dreamer.”  As if that’s a bad thing.

I, and all of my happy and/or successful friends (uh, they’re not necessarily the same thing), will testify to you that there is no way to achieve anything for yourself without dreaming it up in some fashion for yourself in today’s world.  Especially in the creative arts.  Oh — Hint:  It’s all made up, anyway!

As for having only ONE dream or MANY dreams or not stopping until you find the RIGHT dream for you, the strategy depends on who you are and how busy you want to be.  I can make the case for employing any of those, or, alternately, all three.  Consider:

  1. A very successful SCREENWRITER friend of mine with more movies made than any of his contemporaries always dreamed of being a screenwriter (some of us think from in utero).
  2. A very successful SCREENWRITER I know was in a punk rock band before he ever thought of writing movies or wrote a word in screenplay form.
  3. A very famous ACTOR friend of mine always wanted to act and never considered anything else.
  4. A very famous ACTOR I once worked on a movie with didn’t start acting until mid-life and spent the first half of his life doing, well, a lot of illegal stuff unrelated to show biz (and often behind bars).
  5. A very famous and successful DIRECTOR friend of mine actually finds it torturous to direct and dreamed of doing lots of other things but became most successful at this.  Now, this person is sort of stuck.
  6. A very talented DIRECTOR friend of mine now writes and produces and doesn’t direct at all (except in the mind) and, I believe, finds it infinitely more satisfying.

Oh, and what’s most interesting to me now is that NONE of these six people today ONLY work on their dream of writing, acting and directing.  One of them always dreamt of being a great parent and spends a great chunk of time with his/her children; another works tirelessly reforming convicts; a third spends enormous amounts of time decorating and remodeling.  All of them are on their third, fifth, eight and twentieth dreams.

There are other individuals I know who never quite “made it” on their original dreams but now are dreaming even bigger and better.  To whit:

  1. A brilliant, aspiring AGENT I know left the business and has become a very successful (and happy) family LAWYER.
  2. A talented, lower level STUDIO EXEC I once knew now writes self-help books (imagine that?).
  3. A former AGENT friend of mine and PRODUCER friend of mine each sell and develop real estate (separately), are very good at it and LOVE it (granted, more when the market is a bit better – another subject.  And perhaps another dream).
  4. Three screen and TV WRITER friends are now full-time therapists, helping other dreamers navigate the tricky waters of ambition, reality and, well, dreams.  A fourth has moved on to producing new and exciting content for the web.  (The latter in some way probably being a new, ingenious and inevitable dream to consider and perhaps approach for more than a few younger (and older?) people reading this blog).

Finally, add to that – at a restaurant this week I ran into two different and EXTREMELY, EXTREMELY successful people in the entertainment business.  I mean, you couldn’t GET more successful and famous (you’d know their names).  One of them has nothing to do with film anymore and uses all the money, cachet and power accrued in said business towards charitable works (i.e. helping others fulfill dreams).  The other still pursues dreams in the business but in a very different way and in very different venues.  This person has gone from being unbelievably difficult and, well, not very nice back in the day (how do I know? I was there), to being a warm, open and generally endearing presence who has clearly found that not being in the red hot spotlight is ultimately a lot more dreamily satisfying than drowning in the poisonous kind of heat that public attention sometimes generate for certain types of individuals.

If this sounds tricky, confusing, confounding and littered with endless detours, U-turns and reinventions, rest assured it is.  But — that’s what really BIG dreams are made of.