Rants and Raves: Reflecting On The Oscars
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
I've now had time to let this year's Oscar result settle in and the ceremony actually tells us a lot about what's wrong with Hollywood right now.
You know how people advise you to walk away from an angry letter or email you just wrote and let it sit for a day before sending it out? Well I took that advice -- and a few deep breaths -- before posting my reflections on the Oscars.
Let me get a disclaimer out of the way. Yes I know that it is a silly awards show and these are just movies that we are talking about. None of what went on Sunday night is really important and perhaps I am reading too much into it. However, I place a high value on pop culture because often and without seeming to, it reveals a lot about ourselves and the state of the society we live in. So with that in mind let me assess the 2012 Oscars.
Most satisfying wins: Jean Dujardin for "The Artist" and thanking Douglas Fairbanks for inspiration; Christopher Plummer for "Beginners" and noting that Oscar is "only two years older than me, darling, where've you been all my life?"; and editors of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for some genuine acceptance speech surprise.
Most egregious mistake: Meryl Streep winning for "The Iron Lady." She is undisputedly a great actress but this was not even close to one of her best performances and the film was awful. Plus she has an embarrassment of accolades, let someone else win.
Most egregious acting omissions: Albert Brooks for "Drive," Andy Serkis for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (perhaps revealing Hollywood's fear about computer enhanced performances); and Tilda Swinton for "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Most overlooked Foreign Film: "Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In," it's one thing for Spain not to submit the film but come on Academy, you could have nominated it for screenplay or art direction or cinematography.
Most egregious technical oversights: the cinematographers and editors for "Tree of Life" and "Drive."
Most ridiculous moment: Angelina Jolie's right leg.
By now everyone now knows who the actual winners are and has had time to discuss (or possibly Tweet to) Angelina Jolie's right leg. But the woes for this year's Oscars actually began late last year with the whole Brett Ratner debacle.
In a Q&A session after a screening of his film, “Tower Heist,” Ratner stated, “rehearsal is for fags.” Well that was dumb on so many levels. It revealed his insensitivity to gays and it revealed he had little respect for the creative process. (Perhaps that's why his films are crap.) It also reveals how dumb the Academy was to hire someone like Ratner to produce their prestigious awards show. I mean what did they expect from the director of "Rush Hour"? And Rattner's attempt to apologize only dug a deeper hole.
So the whole 2012 Oscar show started off on the wrong foot. Ratner resigned, Eddie Murphy (the original choice for host) pulled out with Ratner, and Billy Crystal, the Bob Hope fill in for this generation, stepped in to play host.
The Oscar show began with Morgan Freeman -- the African American God from "Bruce Almighty -- coming out to welcome everyone. Hollywood wanted to make sure we knew how racially diverse and open minded it is. But wait... Crystal came out to deliver his usual montage spoofing the Oscar nominees and then a second go round of acknowledging the nominees in song, and along the way he also appeared in blackface as Sammy Davis. Jr. Excuse me? Yep, blackface.
Now Crystal has done blackface before (most notably on "Saturday Night Live") but perhaps the prime time venue of the Oscars isn't exactly the best place to do blackface again, especially when you have a film like "The Help" up for a bunch of awards. Here's a film that tries to showcase race relations but does so by turning it into a silly sitcom in which the African American maids are supporting characters in their own struggle for civil rights. It's a well-intentioned film with some remarkable performances (Viola Davis being the only hint of reality in the whole movie) but ultimately it's a bright and cheery comedy that whitewashes what were some truly horrendous conditions. Now, comedy can be used in unlikely places -- I will just note "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers" and making a laughing stock of stupid terrorists in "Four Lions" -- but in "The Help" the lightness of touch was only used to make the story more accessible, more entertaining, and less troubling. In "The Producers" and "Four Lions" the comedy was used to make a point.
So I see the nominations for "The Help" as a way for Hollywood to applaud itself for being, like the white character played by Emma Stone, so "sensitive" to racial issues. When the entire auditorium stood to give a standing ovation for Octavia Spencer's best supporting actress win in "The Help," they were applauding her fine work but also themselves. Showing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie rising to applaud this actress who played a black maid in the 60s who fed her obnoxious employer a shit pie, was the entertainment industry's way of pretending it's come a long way. But it still has a long way to go. Just look at how white the auditorium was, how white the presenters were, and how few African Americans actually have a say in what kind of pictures get made. "The Help" might have been a very different film in the hands of Spike Lee or Cheryl Dunye or Julie Dash or Charles Burnett or with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in the lead roles with the white characters in the smaller supporting ones.
With all this in mind, Billy Crystal's blackface just seems like a bad idea. I don't think it was intended as offensive or racist yet it smacked just a little of both.
So who are you wearing? Okay, my next gripe. All the women -- and only occasionally the men -- keep getting asked who are they wearing? Are we honoring their acting or doing ads for Hollywood designers? Even smart, funny women like Tina Fey have to answer these stupid questions about their clothes and be dressed and coiffed to look totally uncomfortable. Then for the Best Costume Award we get a montage of interviews about costumers. I have nothing but respect for costumers but why do they get highlighted when cinematographers and editors don't? So another fail for this year's Oscar show.
And some bad fashion moments: the bland on bland beige of Jennifer Lopez and Cameron Diaz (who also took a moment to show us their asses, J-Lo's made to look even bigger by the diagonal pattern on her dress); Sandra Bullock's dropped waist disaster; and the luscious Penelope Cruz made to look rather ordinary with her cropped hair and conservative dress. And then of course Angelina Jolie's right leg. A woman this anorexic should keep her limbs clothed. She could be seen practicing this pose on the red carpet before the show. I guess this is what happens when you have nothing in competition but your significant other does. No one wrote about Brad losing for "Moneyball" but everyone was writing, posting, and Tweeting about Angelina's leg. It apparently has a Twitter account all its own now.
Kudos to Crystal for delivering the jab about nothing like taking the sting out of the recession like "millionaires presenting each other with golden statues." Yeah that sums up how out of touch Hollywood can be with its audience. The Academy decided to go to 10 Best Picture nominees in 2009 after TV ratings for the show dropped and mainstream America expressed displeasure over films like "The Dark Knight" getting overlooked in favor of smaller, artier films. But this year, the Academy couldn't muster enough votes for 10 potential Best Picture contenders and what it did nominate was, for the most part, neither satisfying blockbusters nor outstanding art films. The nine nominees, with the exception of "Tree of Life," were all rather safe, bland concoctions.
Even "The Artist," which was charming and beautifully rendered, was a cleverly made but rather predictable valentine to Hollywood. Nowhere to be found on the list were more daring works like "We Need to Talk About Kevin," "The Skin I Live In," "Hobo With a Shotgun," "Submarine," or "Coriolanus." Or popular crowd pleasers like "The Bridesmaids," "Harry Potter," and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." How could the dud "War Horse" make the list but none of these could get enough votes to round out the 10th slot? This expanded field achieved nothing -- it failed to bring quality indie films into the mix and it failed to embrace the well-made box office hits. The focus group parody that Christopher Guest and company did would have been funnier if it weren't so sadly true. Too much in Hollywood is determined by focus groups, market research, and trying not to go out on a limb.
Even the craft awards revealed a sad bias. How could "Tree of Life" and "Drive" be overlooked for cinematography and editing? These were both films that challenged conventions, and isn't that what the best in any category should be doing? Shouldn't the best be groundbreaking, original, and fresh? The fact that these films couldn't even get a nomination proves yet again that the Academy has blinders on when it makes nominations. Plus, West coast tech people have a better shot at being nominated and winning than east coast or foreign tech people because Hollywood prefers to keep the awards in the family.
And finally let's get to the issue of length. The Academy and viewers keep complaining that the show is too long. So acceptance speeches were cut to 30 seconds unless you are Jack Nicholson (nobody gives him the hook). In recent years they also cut out having the honorary award winners come out. Clips have been cut to a minimum. Yet still the show runs long. Maybe that's because they refuse to cut the things that really need to be cut: musical numbers and banter. The musical numbers, like this year's Cirque De Soleil, have nothing to do with the movies. They are like some useless old vestige from the old MGM musical days.
Continuing to give out a Best Song award only encourages studios, and especially animated films, to ram a musical moment into a film even if it has no business being there. If we eliminate this category we will shorten the show's running time, and reduce the number of stupid songs we have to sit through in theaters. This year only two songs were nominated so instead of singling the two, we got a totally unrelated musical number from Cirque de Soleil. We also got Billy Crystal singing the Best Pic nominees. If all the music were cut we'd get back an easy 15 minutes of our lives.
Although the one small pleasure I got this year from the Best Song category was that Bret McKenzie won for "The Muppets." He was one of the comic geniuses behind cable's "Flight of the Conchords."
While "live" moments like acceptance speeches have been almost eliminated, there are plenty of self-congratulatory montages. There was a whole section praising "Precious." That could have easily been cut. Again it only existed so white males in the industry could go on camera to show that they too care for poor black women. How about just giving some black women jobs in Hollywood where they can start creating some films that genuinely reflect their point of view?
In another montage, this one about great/favorite films, Reese Witherspoon admits -- of her own free will -- that "Overboard" is her favorite film. Well if she is typical of the voting membership, no wonder so much crap gets nominated and wins. How embarrassing. Not for her, she can like whatever she wants, but for the Academy that wants us to take them seriously.
Then there was the tearful montage of all the people who passed away last year. Well, all the people Hollywood saw fit to include like a marketing research dude but no Tura Satana. How the heck can they ignore a cult icon like Tura Satana and include a marketing research guy and Whitney Huston (who was really more a part of the music than film industry). That was criminal oversight. Plus give us a moment to savor the talent of these people. I mean Elizabeth Taylor deserves a few sound up lines.
Ultimately the thing to remember about the Oscars is that they are industry awards given by Hollywood to itself. It started with Mary Pickford having voters over to her home for tea and then winning a Best Actress Award. It hasn't change much since then. It's like awards at work: the people who really do the best job rarely get recognized and it's more about who's popular and who brings in the most money.
This year's awards, though, managed to overlook great work in its nominations and then managed to pick some of the least deserving winners from that limited pool. And as if to add salt to the wound, there were montages of past winners further proving how with hindsight the best films don't usually win. Remember "Ordinary People" beat "Raging Bull," Cher has an Oscar but Richard Burton doesn't, and cinematographer Gordon Willis (who shot "The Godfathers" and Woody Allen's best films) received a mere 2 nominations and no awards.
The Oscars are a rather silly affair and could be taken more lightly if they didn't actually impact films. Some foreign films and documentaries may not receive a U.S. release if they fail to garner a nomination or award that can render them in a distributor's eyes as "marketable." And the Academy's voting membership reflects the white male bias in the industry (a fact that oddly seemed to surprise a colleague of mine), which is probably responsible for the rather homogenized products we keep getting.
An awards show should be about the work and the winners. Let's have a simple show, no presenters bantering, some lovely clips from the best films, and more than a moment for the winners to really enjoy the spotlight.
And a few images to leave you with: