The Foreman

The death of director extraordinaire Milos Forman this week makes one remember a time when movies were movies.

What do we mean by that?

Well, quite simply, he didn’t have a genre. He wasn’t an actor’s director. And his films weren’t all about how they looked, or how they were edited or how they sounded.

He didn’t really have a STYLE.

His movies were not all about the MESSAGE they sent.

Once upon a time, in a world that grows farther and farther away, movies were simply stories. About people. Who wanted something that was difficult or near impossible to get.

Tell em Norma!

They had real and imagined obstacles to get these things and whether they did or did not get them it was usually, at the end of the day, only about a handful of simple things: love, family, justice, or simply finding a place to belong where they could feel less alone.

This is generally why we tell stories. Yes, to be heard. But mostly, to feel less alone.

Oh you know.. just these little known films

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Hair (1979)

Ragtime (1981)

Amadeus (1984)

Valmont (1989)

The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)

Man on the Moon (1999)

Every one of them was about a recognizable person living on this planet. NONE of them had superpowers or were set safely in a dystopian future or reimagined past.

This is not a knock to sci-fi or action or horror or even the Marvel Universe. They can make for great stories on both the big and small screen. Heck, they’re even the setting for some cool books. Anyone remember those?

Allow me to get out my sweater…

These days we have a ton of imagined worlds and past, future and parallel-present imposing end-of-the-universe experiences. There is no lack of people who have cyborg-ish limbs which can throw an object the size of, say, the Empire State Building, from one coast to the other. Or perhaps even THE Empire State Building.

What we don’t have anymore are future movies from filmmakers like Milos Forman and very many film studios or large production companies willing to finance them.

Every detail indeed

One can argue every film creates its own pushed reality and exists in an alternate universe with larger than life characters not entirely of this world. Certainly Mr. Forman’s movies did just that.

I remember very distinctly seeing Hair at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and being transported into a 1960s universe in Central Park exactly how I wished it could be – but probably never was – with the help of sound, editing and great music that enabled a group of joyous actors to simply do their thing.

Sing it with me now…. AGE OF AQUAAAAARIUS

Or the anger and rage at the government that The People vs Larry Flynt gave voice to at what still felt like for me to be the height of the AIDS crisis.

Not to mention the comic hysteria and sheer tribute to artistic will expressed in Man on the Moon that somehow became oddly healing to a generation of us moviegoers still idealistic enough to believe somewhere deep down that iconoclastic comedian Andy Kaufman had not really died of cancer at the age of 35.

Or how the behaviors of all the supposedly insane characters in One Flew Cuckoo’s Nest exactly mirrored what all of the rest of us normal people on the outside saw or even exhibited on any given day in the 1970s.

Me then, and let’s be honest, me now

And, finally — the way the same group of petty, racist and haughty rich, straight white people manage to show up generation after generation, in decade after decade in various modes of dress illustrated in films like Amadeus, Ragtime and Valmont – films that managed to give many of us OTHERS hope because they showed us categorically that the Haughties will always be defeated either by themselves or some other group of more thoughtful and ingenious OTHERS. People who were, more or less, just like us.

Mr. Forman made just seven major studio movies in over 24 years where he managed to win two best director Oscars for himself, another two best picture Oscars for his producers and countless other nominations in pretty much every other category of excellence offered by the Academy and elsewhere all over the world.

Thanks Milos

These films also generated enough revenue, attention and critical acclaim for him to be given subsequent chance after chance (nee $$$) by the powers-that-be to produce the kind of work that would change the lives of several generations of filmgoers, many of them aspiring artists themselves who would go on to inspire still others, in the process. (Note: And if you think those facts are being overstated, just read the endless tributes on Twitter).

Point being, this was all done without EVER having to leave the planet, imagining a dystopic and/or end of the world scenario, inventing a superpower or coming up with a single tacky line, scene or sequence offensive enough to alienate any one marginalized group of people.

Some might say, Well, everything was different back then.

To which we all might consider the one question that all of Mr. Forman’s films did manage to ask – and answer:

Were they, really?

Randy Newman, “Theme from Ragtime”

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Oscar Redux

Behind the scenes with the Chair

Nothing I’ve done in my life since my bar-mitzvah has ever evoked in people such excitement, admiration and curiosity as my recent trip to the Oscars last week.  I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about the ceremony itself (or perhaps more about who I hang out with).  But I’m not lying when I tell you that since that evening I’ve been inundated with pleas to tell almost everyone I know or people I barely know who know I went “what it was like.”  When I ask them exactly what they want to know the usual response is a blank stare and then the same question: Well, what were they like???? (Hint:  I added the “well”).

It took me a while but I get it.  The Oscars are iconic, symbolic and larger than you and I (me?).    They’re celebrity times googol (as oppose to the Google, which is a celebrity within itself and one day might arrive at iconic Oscar status). They’re really not about movies, or what is best, or what is being left out, or what falls short, or even about whether Billy Crystal was too old to host (Hint #2:  It’s not about age.  How much would you love to see Jack Nicholson as emcee – and he’s a lot older than Billy).

The truth is – the Oscars are about —  Well, they’re about magic.  They’re about an idea.  They’re about some weird sort of childhood fantasy come to life.  Forget that on some level they’re really about money, marketing, popularity, taste (or lack of it), fashion, movies and an extreme version of your high school prom whether or not you attended or whether or not you claim you cared about attending.  Like those who say they have no interest in ever attending an Oscar ceremony, you prom naysayers are lying.

We all want to be asked to the party and see what all the fuss is about.  Or perhaps being asked makes us feel special, which is a dangerous way to think about your value if you’re a person who works in the industry or a teenager looking for a date.  As the Dali Lama or your local self-help book or your inner voice will tell you, you are already special – and yes, I did say that and most days (because I’m only human) I actually do believe it.   And not because I’ve been trained to do so from years of therapy (maybe partially) but because it’s the only way to survive in the entertainment industry and in life.

Anyway, in my case I didn’t get officially asked by the Academy, so don’t fret, I’m still sort of on the outside like most everyone else.  I was invited by friends.  It’s not quite the same as being courted by Oscar himself to attend the ball (and who knows if that would be better, he asks hundreds of people but only chooses a select few to go home with him, when it comes down to it), but it’ll do for now.  Yes, it’s fun.  And yes, it is odd.  And when the subject comes up, it’s guaranteed to be a conversation starter in some circles or perhaps get you a bit more attention or perhaps even a date in others.

For that, and for many other reasons, I thought I’d pull back the curtain a beat more than last week’s tweets would allow and give you an inside look.   In no particular order, here they are:

OSCAR REDUX

1. ACTORS ARE HUMAN — Anyone who doesn’t think Angelina Jolie wasn’t in on the joke when she stuck her leg out of her Versace gown at the Oscars and struck a pose either doesn’t know anything about actors, movies or Hollywood in general.  I mean, you don’t really believe that someone who has achieved superstardom and stayed there for any length of time has done it by accident, do you?  Or solely on talent   Or by being totally clueless?   There is now a twitter feed, website and countless photo shopped images of Angie’s leg on fictional and non-fictional characters.  My favorite is the one of the Dowager Countess from “Downton Abbey” – or as she is affectionately known to those of us over 40 – Dame Maggie (also an Oscar winner, by the way).

There are no words...

Now, I’m not saying Angie knew her wide stance would evoke such reaction, but it’s not as if she didn’t know it would evoke some reaction.  And here’s something you might not know.  When adapted screenplay winner Jim Rash (“The Descendents”) imitated the Angieleg pose upon accepting his award, the real Angie and her leg were laughing quite visibly.  Unfortunately, it was off-camera and no one saw.  But now you know.   She was in on the joke.

2. EVERYONE LOOKS GOOD IN A TUXEDO, BUT… – How else to account for a record 300 plus likes of a picture of me and my significant other in tuxedos on Facebook.   Perhaps it was the OSCAR in the background???  (Though I do think we cleaned up quite nicely.  Still, I’m not fooling myself).

The Chair and the Good Doctor

3. THINK BEFORE YOU DISH – The first celebrity I saw when I got there was Michelle Williams.  Yes, she got good reviews for her gown but as good as she looked on the TV carpet, she was 1000% more stunning in person.  As was every actress there, even the misses.  They’re wearing expensive stuff and are styled and coiffed beyond belief.  And – if you were a movie star and had all those people working on you – you would look THAT good.  Okay, maybe not with bare leg, but no one is twisting your arm (or leg) on that.

4. THE DRAPES MATCH THE CARPET – The Hollywood Highland Complex, which houses Oscar’s home in the Kodak Theatre, is an expensive shopping mall with hundreds of storefronts, in case you don’t know.  But after you walk on hundreds of yards of red velvet carpet, you glide up stairs and escalators only to be surrounded by more walls of beautiful red carpet all around you.  I didn’t realize until half an hour later, “oh, there used to be stores there.”  Actually, there still are.  They’re behind all the red velvet wall hangings that cover Banana Republic, et al.   This is how movies can convince you you’re vacationing in Maui with the perfect golden tan (or golden person) in the best shape of your life when you’re really sweltering in Spanx or a man girdle on a Valley back lot.  Next to an extra.

5.  NO AUTOGRAPHS, PLEASE – Tons of waiters give you free champagne in the various lobbies before the ceremony.  You see famous people but you don’t ask for pictures or autographs because you pretend you’re one of them tonight.  And you ignore the loudspeaker voice that tells you to take your seat because you know it’s a TV taping and these things never start early.  Besides, everyone knows when the Oscars really start, please.  Note:  Most of the nominees enter from an orchestra stage entrance moments before the show so you are more likely to run into celebs like Virginia Madsen and Nate Berkus where you are.  But I did spot writer-director Alexander Payne, who was happily talking with lots of friends and co-workers and being very welcoming and relaxed.  That’s how you want to do it.  Of course, it probably helped that he already won once. (And he has now officially won a second time, which will exponentially help at all future Oscar ceremonies at which he is in attendance).

6.  EAT BEFOREHAND!!!  It’s a long show.  At least three hours.  And you arrive an hour or two before.  One power bar in your tuxedo pants pocket or special purse won’t cut it.  And don’t count on the hors d’oeuvre beforehand.  They are literally the size of a mini-pea.  (For the record: the free popcorn didn’t arrive in my mezzanine seat until the last half hour of the show and was the best popcorn I EVER had.   The people in the two balconies were either fed after me or fainted.  Needless to say, the orchestra-seated nominees were all well fed.  Well, I guess this is their night).

all that remains...

7. OSCAR NEEDS TO COMBINE THE OLD AND NEW.  Calling:  Jack Nicholson; Robert DeNiro; Al Pacino; Diane Keaton; Warren Beatty; Shirley MacLaine; Annette Bening; Barbra Stresiand (well, she was there for a moment in a filmed interview); Pedro Almodovar; someone who has worked with Woody Allen because he’s not coming a second time; Goldie Hawn; Denzel Washington; Samuel L. Jackson.

Then how about dangling a few more carrots at some not young but not old stars like Will Smith; Julia Roberts (okay, they’re middle-aged); Johnny Depp; and Jennifer Aniston.  Do I care what Edward Norton thinks about the moviegoing experience in a taped TV interview?  If you want to include Ed, then how about a great film clip of him in  “American History X” or his Oscar turn in “Primal Fear?”

8. OSCARS NEED TO INCLUDE MOVIES – Not people talking about movies; not comedians doing bits that are non sequiturs; not lines about how rich and out of touch those who live in Beverly Hills are with the way most people live (I can attest they still do go to the bathroom because I saw more than a few in there) or futuristically strange acrobats swinging over you without a net.  Movie moments???  Not unless you get Meryl on a high wire, which I have no doubt she could (and probably will) master at some later date.

9. TOO MANY FAMOUS NEWCASTERS – Every freakazoid entertainment show host or correspondent you have ever seen anywhere on every channel is in attendance.  You don’t know all of their names but recognize their faces or their dimples or their fake boobs, or hair transplants or Botox or Restalyne injections.  They, too, are looking their best.  Or some version of what they perceive as the latter.  No, I didn’t see Sasha Baron Cohen dump the ashes on Ryan Seacrest.  I can’t be everywhere!!!

10.  PIZZA WON’T BE YOUR GO-TO FOOD IF YOU EAT IT EVERY NIGHT – Perhaps the Oscars are not as exciting on TV anymore because the stars are accessible and everywhere.  Elizabeth Taylor never used to give interviews.  And by the way, she was THE last movie star.  Which reminds me, couldn’t they give her a separate moment alone after two best actress Oscars, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and a lifetime of moviedom memories for all of us through all of eternity?  Closing out the somber “In Memoriam” segment didn’t seem to quite fit the good time gal who donated an oil painting of herself to the place where, in her later years, she most liked to hang out in – the West Hollywood gay bar, The Abbey.

The patron saint of the Abbey

11.  OSCAR GOLD — The statuettes are still the coolest looking of them all up close. They’re pretty.  They’re shiny.  Oh, and side note — It used to be that winners had to bring their Oscar to the Academy where they were sent off to be engraved with your name (well, not YOUR name, the winner’s name) and returned a month later.  Now, right after the ceremony, the actual winner (that means you, Jean) have to go to a table at the Governor’s Ball, where a small plaque is soldered on to your statue by an expert technician and you are quickly sent on your way.    (PS – The statues are heavier than you think.  I’ve held them several times.  Though not that night, alas).

12. THE AUDIENCE IS ON ITS OWN – Billy doesn’t talk to you during commercial breaks.  But there is a man who periodically brings out the largest broom/Swiffer you’ve ever seen across the stage to make sure it stays shiny.  And some of the best action is off-camera between the presenters.  J-Lo and Cameron giggling and pointing; Emma Stone reassuring Ben Stiller that she wasn’t seriously insulting him (why not??); and standing O’s for Octavia and Meryl (but you should’ve seen those, along with Angie and her leg laughing).

13.  ALL DOGS GO TO OSCAR — You can’t go wrong with a movie that has a dog, especially a Jack Russell terrier.  Check out “The Artist” and “The Beginners” and tell me who really deserved Oscar in those films.  And yes, I have a Jack Russell Terrier.  Her name is Rosie.  And she is not going to have a career in the movies.  I don’t want her to turn out like Lindsay Lohan’s dog.

The Artist's REAL star

14.  FANCY MEETING YOU HERE – One of my favorite moments was when a very attractive young woman in a pretty pink gown and a cool diamond stud in her nose called my name.  I stopped and finally realized it was one of my former students from not too long ago – a working director who was at the ceremony with a friend.  I fully expect her to be in the front orchestra one day, getting her popcorn first and being seated moments before the show.  Yes, it can happen to you.  And any of us.   But only if you get to work.  Right now.  Don’t worry about what you’ll say or what they’ll say about you much later.  People like to talk.  And — as far as what you’ll wear to this most iconic of events where you’ll be watched by, like, oh, a billion people – don’t worry, it’s gonna be free.  And most of all — it’s gonna be faaabulous.

Future Oscar winner, Rachael

Til Oscar’s next glitzy night…