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.

All That Jazz

Screen Shot 2015-01-04 at 1.10.11 PMNormal people use the time between New Year’s Eve and going back to work on that dreaded Monday to -– well, come to think of it what do they do? I have absolutely no idea. And what is normal anyway? Again, I got nothing.

What I spend my time doing – and have done for most of my life at this time of year – is to go to the movies. For as long as I can remember (Note: And that’s long before anyone, even Louis B. Mayer, got screeners in the mail) I’ve spent the primary part of the post Christmas holiday season catching up with all of the “prestige films” the studios have mostly kept from us.

This is not simply because I’m Jewish. I probably haven’t been to temple in at least five years and even then I think it was only for a bar mitzvah. Though I did walk through several synagogues on a trip to Italy this summer, which really doesn’t count since they were FAR outweighed by the at least 437 churches I also managed to stroll through

Where were we? Oh yes, the cinema.

Go on...

Go on…

These days the cinema means lots of things. It could be going out to the mall or your local specialty theatre and paying a bit too much to see a movie that doesn’t quite live up to your expectations. It could also be watching something old you may or may not have seen before on television that you or the majority rule will be fun holiday viewing. If you’re a bit more privileged or connected or facile, it can even be watching a DVD of a current motion picture now playing in theatres at home or at a friend’s house via a screener, day and date VOD, pay cable or, um…some other means (Note: Please do NOT write in and ask what some other means means).

I admit to doing all of these in the past five days (Note: Not the some other means, I don’t want to be expelled from show business any more than I already am). Which brings me to about six and a half films just seen in a relatively short period of time. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t a clunker in the bunch. Which doesn’t mean I LOVED them. I liked them all and each did what all good films do – made me think while also entertaining me at the same time. Yet in every case there was something sort of, well, missing. Until today… when I caught up with a small movie that was actually released in October called Whiplash.

hitting the right beats

hitting the right beats

It’s excellent, disturbing, thought provoking, a little over the top and emotional – though not entirely emotionally satisfying. Frankly, at the end you’re of two minds and are not sure exactly what to think or who to sympathize with. Which is precisely what was missing from the other five and a half films that I merely LIKED though really did enjoy.

What were the other films? Oh, perhaps a few you might know or have heard of:

  • Unbroken
  • American Sniper
  • Wild
  • The Imitation Game
  • Inherent Vice
  • A Most Violent Year

These are some of the best and brightest the awards season has to offer and will no doubt be crowding around the Oscars along with a few others. Yet none of them has the unpredictably and sheer verve 29 year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle brought to a story we’ve essentially seen many times before – that of teacher who for good or bad pushes that potentially special student beyond the limits of where we (or perhaps they) ever thought they could go. In this case it is in the unlikely scenario of an aspiring drummer and his jazz musician professor, which works because it’s visual. Yet it really could be any one of us up there – if we allowed ourselves – who ever went to school and met that key catalyctic person. Go figure.

He already has that "Oscar glow"

He already has that “Oscar glow”

There is no point telling you any more than that or building up a film beyond the point where it could possibly live up to expectations. The only thing to be said for sure is that J.K. Simmons, the veteran character actor who plays the teacher, will indeed be the one person in the movie who will be winning the Oscar this year. That you can take to the bank because he shares the common denominator of all great performances that rivet you in films – you are never quite sure what he is going to do. He pulls you in, scares you, seduces you and then…well, you’ll see. It’s terrifying, sad, difficult to watch and yet impossible to turn away from in fear that you will miss something you might not want to have seen in the first place. This is to take nothing away from Mr. Chazelle, who manages to capture it all in the most original ways.

Taking a cliché genre, any genre, and turning it on its ear without selling out what we love about it to begin with is no easy feat. Yet it can be done. Look at the best films of Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Thomas Anderson – not to mention Alfred Hitchcock and Roman Polanski – and you begin to understand. It takes not only hard work but NERVE, VERVE and the DESIRE to do this in the first place.

Don't believe me? Try some tanis root...

Don’t believe me? Try some tanis root…

One fears that writers, directors and studios have begun to lose their taste for such things. Scratch that. Most people working in the movies know that to a certain extent this is true. Yet that doesn’t mean that one still can’t come up with something quite wonderful.

For instance, The Imitation Game is a very engaging, sad and illuminating look at Alan Turing – the brilliant, secretly gay British logician who broke the secret Nazi Enigma code and became the single biggest contributor to the Allies victory in World War II only to commit suicide less than a decade later after his arrest and sentencing for homosexual behavior. As superbly acted, clever and well-made as the film is there is little surprising in it if one knows anything about the story. Even for those totally unfamiliar, it pretty much follows the traditional dramatic route because you know from the beginning that victory is afoot and who will be primarily responsible for it – and even how.

The war.. from two fronts

The war.. from two fronts

Unbroken follows a similar path though not quite as adeptly. Still, it is not without its merits. The unbelievably true story – as its billed – of former U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini surviving a devastating plane crash and subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II – delivers everything it says it will deliver. Those are summed up in the adjectives you no doubt have seen in large font on most of its ads: SURVIVAL. RESILIENCE. REDEMPTION. It has all of those many times over. In fact, there is not a moment in the entire motion picture where it doesn’t – which is the problem. As reassuring as that can be to any of us as audience members, it is seldom what makes a really GREAT film.

Take Wild and American Sniper and substitute any or all of the descriptions above. As we roam through the 1100 mile solo hike Cheryl Strayed took through the Pacific Northwest in order to recover from personal trauma or tag along with Chris Kyle on four tours in Iraq where he becomes the most accurate and lethal sniper in US military history, there is excitement and wonderment yet a dulling reassurance of how it will all wind up. Reese Witherspoon and Bradley Cooper expertly pour themselves into each of their roles and give us everything and more than you’d want as their onscreen counterparts. Yet one can’t help but feel deep down that five minutes of any one of their real life adventures were much grittier, exciting and certainly much more morally questionable than any one chunk of time during their entire films.

The great outdoors... in full hair and makeup

The great outdoors… in full hair and makeup

As for Inherent Vice and A Most Violent Year it goes like this. The former is essentially a stoner detective comedy-drama set in 1970s L.A. and is a charming mess that will drive you crazy if you try to follow it as a whole but can certainly be enjoyed in parts and with the help of the chemical aid of one’s choice. The latter deals with working class business moguls making it beyond anyone’s dreams and, well, I only saw one-half because I felt I had already seen it many times before (Note: See earlier Scorsese reference). But again, one could and most assuredly will do worse this year. Annie or Transformers 3, anyone?

Which brings us back to Whiplash.

There will be blood

There will be blood

Part of the reason we loved the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is we never quite knew what he was going to do or where he was coming from. The best I could figure was total nihilism in order to counter the absolutely useless, insensitive, meaningless materialistic world of today. I’d never seen anyone evil-ing their way through a film for no reason other than every reason – tapping into every bad, justified personal insult each of us has ever dished out or had to endure. No one had ever done that in a movie before in just that way to such great effect up to that point and the mere discussion of it makes me want to pop in a DVD for that scene where Joker Heath saunters through Gotham City wearing a nurse’s uniform.

Oh how we miss you

Oh how we miss you

Movies can simply be great entertainment and that is what’s wonderful. They can also be just polemic enough as they tell the story of a social issue in a satisfying way and that certainly is enough to be memorable.

But what we don’t have much of anymore are the films that make you angry, make you think or seem familiar yet will sneakily unearth something awfully important (or importantly awful) at stake in such a way where we do not know at all until the bitter end absolutely what will happen. The end of Whiplash confounds certain audiences and critics because it is precisely the correct ending of a film that gets it absolutely right even though you are convinced from time to time that it is absolutely missing the boat.

Walking the plank

Walking the plank

As a screenwriting teacher I talk to my students a lot about heroes and villains. That no one is all good (and if they were you’d hate them) and that every supposed monster believes somewhere deep down they are 100% justified to be doing the things they do. I mean, why do anything bad or good if you can’t on some level enjoy your actions? That includes reveling in your evilness. After all if you’re going to dare to be that bad and do a high wire act of contrariness to the rest of society and its mamby pamby meandering rules you better or might as well enjoy it and feel like its for a reason.

The teacher captures exactly that in Whiplash in a way I’ve never experienced before. Just as the heroic student – played with superb finesse and skill by Miles Teller – shows us that being a great guy all around is a lot more complicated than the teachings in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” gives one credit for.

Especially if you are a drum...

And don’t get in his way.

I am going to try to remember all of that and more as I continue on the script I’m currently writing as well as the next time I stand before a new group of students (Note: That would be next week) talking about what makes a good movie story. I will also recall and note that the writer-director of Whiplash, Mr. Chazelle, was himself once a young drummer who studied under a mentor of questionable methods and that this movie was inspired by, but not actually based on, real life events.   Yeah, you write or make what you know about because when you give it your all and forget about who’s going to watch and why – you have the chance to show it to us in a true and very real way we all have never experienced or even thought of before even if it would seem like we have. At one point in time, that was what movies were all about. And I’m sort of missing it at the start of this new year.