Oscar Rant, Academy Awards 2009

Written by:
John Sullivan
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In which Culturevulture.net film writers have their say about the Academy Awards, for 2008

After seeing Milk, I thought Sean Penn was a no-brainer for Best Actor. And why not? It’d be scant justice for Prop 8, but we queers need a little pick-me-up right now. And Penn’s take on Milk, so goofy and fey and calculating; give the man the Oscar! Then I saw The Wrestler. Oh Mickey Rourke. Mickey, Mickey, Mickey. I wanted to walk right into the screen and drape my cardigan over his shoulders and feed him a plate of warm cookies. Sure, Rourke has the advantage of appearing as an amped-up version of himself. But I defy anyone to recall a male lead performance in the last decade as compelling, and complete, as Rourke’s. In twenty years, we’ll remember Milk less for Penn’s performance than for its message. In twenty years, we’ll still measure every Best Actor nominee against Rourke.

Philip Huang

I am at a bit of a disadvantage to respond specifically to Philip’s take on best actor nominee Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler as that is one performance I have yet to see. But based on Rourke’s past performances, coupled with all the clips from the movie, I believe I have somewhat of an idea of the level of this performance. Having said that, let’s move on to what I do know- the other nominees:

Sean Penn is my pick in this category as I feel he gave a seamless performance and seemed to be born to play the role of Harvey Milk. This is a part that in the wrong hands could have been a poster child for over-acting (and Penn has been known to go there a time or two), but instead this was a showcase for balance, restraint and precision. Close on Penn’s heels are Richard Jenkins for The Visitor- subtle, yet poignant performance in a small, special film that deserved more attention than it got- and Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. This was a powerful, impressive performance. My guess for Rourke is it probably wasn’t much of a stretch for him to play “a washed up old piece of meat,” but I’m sure an interesting and engaging performance nonetheless. As for Brad Pitt- well, he did give a fine performance in what was for me a disappointing movie, but truth be told he’s not even in the same league as the other actors.

If I were voting for best actor, I’d go with Penn, because it shows his range. But I’d like to rant about something else. I keep reading criticisms about the best picture nominees (Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Reader, Milk, and Slumdog) and what an undistinguished lot they are. And I agree. Only Slumdog felt really special to me. Button was a huge disappointment because the central character is a cipher. And the other three were all solid, well-crafted, enjoyable movies that I was happy to see and which are enjoyable but more interesting as social commentary than films. But what were the obviously better movies that they nudged out? I would say Synecdoche, NY, but I’m in a decided minority and can understand why so many people dislike it. But I thought there were very few really good American films this year; especially compared to Waltz with Bashir, Edge of Heaven, Reprise, The Class, Secret of the Grain, Jar Head, Grocer’s Son, Days and Clouds, Elite Squad, Let the Right One In, Tell No One, Moscow Belgium. So, I thought that except for Benjamin Button the nominees are just about as deserving as other films that could have been nominated. Yeah, I’d choose Grand Torino over Frost/Nixon, but the former was hardly mugged by the latter.

I also thought it was an amazingly poor year for independent films. And don’t mean to be too dyspeptic, but I think Dark Knight was really over-rated. The first 2/3 was compelling. They killed off a character I never dreamed would die. And Ledger was to eat…just wonderful. But the last third felt clunky, semi-incoherent, much less compelling, morally confused, and the main action sequence was just horribly shot and edited. Moreover, I feel the movie gets points because it’s depressing. Like when I was in college, if you were dark and depressed it implied you had depth and seriousness and substance. I thought Dark Knight was dark and depressed but didn’t have any more seriousness or depth than Spider Man (which is about themes of public service, the blandishments of fame and power, father-son dynamics, the nature and limits of friendship) or Incredible Hulk (which is about the duality of our selves and the vitality of our dark side). I just thought that Dark Knight got too much credit as having something to say, when thematically it’s actually way less interesting than Spider Man or Hulk. But am I missing stuff here? And are there some really outstanding independent films that I’m not giving their due? And Philip and Paula, thanks for your thoughts. I love reading your stuff….

Since both Frost/Nixon and Milk deal with significant historical aspects of the 1970s, what matters to me are not only the films’ performances, but also their historical accuracy and zeitgeist. From that perspective, Milk is far superior to Frost/Nixon.

Now, unfortunately, younger generations of Frost/Nixon viewers will believe that there actually was that “Aha” moment in the Frost’s interviews, when in fact Nixon was far too tricky to let that happen.

Milk, on the other hand, succeeds wonderfully in capturing the look and feel of life in the Castro in the in the late 1970s, down to the details. I can attest to this because I was living several blocks uphill from the commercial section of Castro Street during that time. I met Harvey Milk during his campaign and used his camera shop. The film also portrays well the political tenor and the political figures of San Francisco at the time.

I agree with Harry, Paula and Philip that Sean Penn should be chosen as Best Actor, but Josh Brolin should also be awarded Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dan White. But I would be happy if Heath Ledger won it for his over the top, downright scary performance as the Joker.

One word about Benjamin Button, I had no interest in seeing this film. I’m weary of these cheap “time travel” devices. Best Picture and Best Actor awards should not be given because an actor appears older and younger during a film. That’s why make-up awards are given.

First, I want to admit up front that I hate the Oscars. It’s not for the glitz or kitsch but for idea that they are coming anywhere close to picking out the best movies or performances. Aside from the bias against foreign films, animated films, and comedy, it’s a popularity contest for safe, serious-in-subject yet sentimental filmmaking. Art at its most remarkable pushes boundaries and makes you look at the world in new ways. That’s not what the Oscars celebrate; rather it rules out the adventurous or the edgy.

Sure, there are exceptions. They occasionally get it right like with The Godfather, Annie Hall, and Amadeus, but given the wealth of wonderful movies in any given year, there’s no excuse for the all-but-forgotten Calvacade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Chariots of Fire. Others like Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy, and Forrest Gump remain in memory only to be spoofed. And then there are the true horrors like Braveheart and Crash, perhaps the worst movies ever to win Best Picture.

That said, I do watch the Oscars every year, partly from the inability to look away from a car wreck and partly for the glitz and the kitsch. This year, however, I’m strongly tempted to skip it. The Academy has outdone themselves in nominating mediocrities for Best Picture. Only Milk stands out, but it’s not a great film (the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk is far superior, and hey, the Academy got that one right). The Reader is easily the worst – a bland, pretty, awards-bait object that smothers the normally great Kate Winslet in so much ridiculously awful make-up even she can’t surmount the challenge (she’ll take home the trophy though). With this film’s nomination, the Academy reinforces the stereotype that any movie touching upon the Holocaust will get some recognition. Hopefully Tropic Thunder’s “full retard” joke will put that other all-too true Oscar meme to eternal rest. And would the Academy stop giving out Oscars just because an actor can do an impression of a real life person? Just in the past few years, who has won? Edith Piaf, Idi Amin, Queen Elizabeth II, Truman Capote, June Carter, Ray Charles, and Katharine Hepburn. I’ll make an exception for Harvey Milk this year though. Penn was just that good.

I’m with Harry on Synecdoche, New York, being a better film than any of the nominees, but the biggest Oscar omission this year was Rachel Getting Married. Its sole nomination went to Anne Hathaway, who was perfectly fine, but Rosemarie DeWitt and Bill Irwin were even better, giving the two best supporting performances of 2008. I’d also give un-nominated Jonathan Demme Best Director honors. Robert Downey, Jr. was great in Tropic Thunder, but he gave at least as good a performance in Iron Man and deserved a nomination for it. As I said, Kate Winslet will get Best Actress, but she shouldn’t for The Reader. She deserved it for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004 or even in her debut in Heavenly Creatures in 1994, but if there were any justice, the un-nominated Michelle Williams would be winning for Wendy and Lucy.

Philip, I’ll take your challenge. I thought Rourke was terrific, but it wasn’t the total transformation that Penn’s Milk was. And some performances from the last decade to top Rourke’s? I’ll go with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Mathieu Amalric in Kings & Queen, Paul Giamatti in Sideways, and Javier Cámara in Talk to Her. And Harry, is The Dark Knight overrated? Yeah, but only a little bit.

I went on hiatus from serious film reviewing in 2008. I needed a break from the never-ending and mounting stream of god awful, just plain awful and the mind-numbingly trivial effluence coming out of Hollywood these days. I think there is a direct correlation between the hyper-inflated self-valuing of corporate America, now in utter disgrace, and its film industry siblings. I have passed on Oscar viewing for years now, as it is, after all, a mutual admiration society, of mostly industry insiders playing out the Hollywood equivalent of Life Is Permanently Junior High School.

As I approached this year’s films, I sought succor in taking in the BFI awards, and have been following the Berlinale on DWTV all week. Mind you, out there in the world there are some exciting films, great acting, and much cinematic food for thought. Mostly what’s missing in Hollywood today is any awareness of the global village we live in, let alone encouraging seriously exploring the purposes of film in our global village today.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, let me dive in. (I promise to be somewhat more civil, really!) For best Hollywood actor, my vote goes to Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon. I was living in Germany as an ex-pat fugitive from Nixonian America, so I missed the David Frost media coup. Seeing this film as film, and not as history, I was spellbound by Langella’s performance, just as I had been by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s reincarnation of Truman Capote in Capote. Precisely because I moved to San Francisco’s Castro District one year after Milk’s assassination, I have a problem with the revisionary historical distortions of Milk. Yes, Sean Penn was great (but unnecessary), but The Life and Times of Harvey Milk did it much better and much earlier.

As for best Hollywood actress, I confess to a prejudice for Meryl Streep, in anything. And in 2008, she shows up in two of my favorite films, Mamma Mia! and Doubt. For her versatility in 2008 she should be recognized. And for getting it right in Doubt (more clearly than many viewers and reviewers did in Doubt): she is brilliant, as the (politically incorrect in today’s atmosphere) man-hating, self-doubting reprobate nun, who tries with all her might (yet fails) to victimize Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s coach. Just recalling Streep’s performance as Sister Aloysius makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

Adding to the above, my top ten film list for 2008 would also include Revolutionary Road (best kitchen sinkdrama), The Dark Knight (best philosophical film based on a comic book), Food, Inc. (best documentary), Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex (best 1970s historical film), The Edge of Heaven (best socially awake film), Mamma Mia! (best camp), Synechdoche, New York (best truly independent-minded film), and I’d toss in The International (2009) because of its immediate timeliness on the heels of the Great Depression II, a film that will look trite and outdated by the time next year’s Oscar season arrives.

The Reader win best picture? No way, Les. I say it’s a toss up between Milk and Slumdog Millionaire. What with the passing of Prop 8 in California, a degradation that Hollywood will assuredly want to address, my bets are on Milk. But Slumdog Mllionaire won the Golden Globe, and the Academy is showing a willingness to open up the Oscars to include the rest of the world, though I still don’t understand the rules of who can be considered and who can’t. I remember some controversy when Red could not be nominated for best picture because it wasn’t in English, but Kiewslowski was nominated for best director. All very confusing twenty years ago, and now we have cartoons nominated for best picture, and films in Hindi from Britain.

As for Best Actor, it’s all very American this year. As for who will win, it looks like the Penn yeas among us outnumber Rourke’s. If I had to cast a deciding vote, I’d choose Rourke. As much as I love good technique and broad range, I’m a sucker for personality, and even though I would rather have Penn in my boudoir over Rourke (I always found Rourke to be a sleazy bum, even when he wasn’t playing one), Mickey gives so much in this role that we should give it to him already. There should be a rule that anyone willing to be maimed should get an Oscar. As for Brad Pitt, I happen to think his performance as Benjamin Button a fine one, even though his nomination makes me think this was a slim year indeed for actors. The nominations are about taking a film to another level, not necessarily keeping it on track. And who wins, as George reminds us, often depends on how miraculous the transformation, aka Sean Penn into Harvey Milk, Philip Seymour Hoffman into Capote, Marion Cotillard into Piaf, Ben Kingsley as Ghandi, Tom Hanks as a retard one year (oops; can I say that? I’ll blame Tropic Thunder.), queer the next (I think I can say that, can’t I, Philip?), George C. Scott as Patton, on and on. Shall we play that wonderful little game of finding out how many actors have won for impersonating a real-life person? Anyone remember Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur?

As for the best actress nominees, I keep looking to see if Kristin Scott Thomas is on the list, but she’s not there. Is this some kind of backlash against French-speaking roles? I guess it would seem weird if Marion Cotillard handed over the mantle to yet another actress in a French-speaking role. Going global does not mean going French. Mon dieu, we might as well change Oscar’s name to Cesar. Maybe that’s why Juliette Binoche was also excluded from the best actress nominees this year. Her performance in The Flight of the Red Balloon is a transformation in the most original sense. The blonde hair is just the tip of the iceberg.

I must admit that although Anne Hathaway’s performance in Rachel Getting Married was mostly schtick, the monologue she gives at an AA meeting moved me in ways that I could spend hours talking about. She could have played this scene so many ways, and her decision for subtlety and containment I thought was brilliant. It gave us a glimpse of what it must be like to have to live with such a burden of guilt for the rest of your life.

I happen to love Meryl Streep, too, Les, but Doubt is not going to be her third win. Kate Winslet will win, of course. Sometimes, Oscars are given to acknowledge an actor rather than a particular performance. Al Pacino (The Scent of a Woman), Henry Fonda (On Golden Pond), Paul Newman (The Color of Money), Susan Sarandon (Lorenzo’s Oil)—all won for roles they are now less known for. I’ll just close my eyes and pretend Kate’s winning for Iris, or Clementine.

As long as I’m thinking about films and performances the Academy has ignored to my chagrin, I agree with Harry and George about the blatant omission of Synecdoche, New York. At least the Academy could have acknowledged Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant writing with a nomination. I could say the same about Che. I mean, where the heck is Benicio del Toro among the actor nominees? Talk about transformation.

I’ll stop here, before I take out my long list of Oscar’s worst omissions, starting with Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s magnificent Orlando, or Tom Noonan’s The Wife. Ok, sorry. I said I’d stop.

It was great to exchange rants with you guys. Let’s do it again next year.

PS: Sally Potter is a genius. Someone should just give her a lot of money and let her do the films she wants.

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