Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma (Re-Post)

The Oscars

(The Academy Awards are threatening again.  Every couple years I devote a post to this subject.  But since I rarely watch new movies anymore, and have sworn off most awards ceremonies, I’m recycling this essay from two years ago.  Most of it, I think, is still relevant.)

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic of everything, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations on your bad work, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I wouldn’t know about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. I’m not talking about Left vs. Right here, although there is a hefty amount of PC (see above).  No, I’m referring to campaigning and back scratching.  Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial.

red carpet

Red carpet ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

 

bogie

Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

 

 

Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma

The Oscars

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather film quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

scott

Actor George C. Scott

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I don’t know much about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

bette davis

Actress Bette Davis

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial (although he did give a beautiful acceptance speech).

red carpet

The Red Carpet Ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

[Note: next time I’ll be honoring a true movie “star,” in honor of (what would be) his 85th birthday… the King of Cool, Steve McQueen… (the actor, not the director)]

bogie

Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments

chaplin2

Tonight is the night when Hollywood allows the rest of the world to peek into its party while it pats itself on the back.  Statuettes are handed out, gushy speeches are made, and most importantly, the stars get to pose for paparazzi while displaying their expensive jewelry, revealing gowns, and their physical endowments – and often their plastic surgery.  Most of the hoorah is pretty silly (at least in my opinion).  But occasionally something happens that makes the pomp and ceremony worthwhile.  And since everyone else is doing it, here’s longitudes‘ own list of the Academy Awards’ unforgettable moments, from “The Trip” to “The Tramp.”  Some are funny; some are curious, embarrassing, and poignant.  But they’re all memorable:

10. “THE TRIP.”  The first Academy Awards ceremony to be televised was in 1952.  The Best Supporting Actress award went to B-movie mainstay Gloria Grahame (for whom I earlier devoted an entire blog post).  Nobody expected Grahame to win for her small role in the Kirk Douglas movie The Bad and the Beautiful, least of all the actress herself.  But Hollywood legend has her tripping while she walked down the aisle to accept her trophy from Edmund Gwenn and Bob Hope.  The press later accused her of being drunk.  I don’t know.  I’ve seen the clip on “YouTube,” and although she looked a little unsteady, possibly from all the TV lights, I didn’t see her stumble.  If she was drunk, she played it safe, for her acceptance speech consisted of four words: “Thank you very much.”

9. “THE DUKE.”  John Wayne had handed out Academy Awards a number of times, but he didn’t win one until 1969 for his role as “Rooster Cogburn” in the original True Grit.  He gave a short, classy speech, mentioning that if he had known he’d win the coveted statue, “I’d have put that patch on 30 years earlier.”  Despite his very right-leaning politics in liberal Hollywood, Wayne beat out more talented actors like Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight.  Did he deserve the Oscar?  Does it matter?  The award was as much for his impact on film history as anything else.  And it was touching to see the big man wiping away a couple tears.

8. “THE PUSHUPS.”  Jack Palance had a long history in film, going back to the 1950 Elia Kazan-directed Panic in the Streets.  He usually had supporting roles as a tough guy.  In 1991 he won Best Supporting Actor for his role in the comedy-western City Slickers.  When he accepted his award, the 73-year-old Palance looked down at his much shorter costar Billy Crystal and said “I crap bigger than him.”  He then got down on the floor and did one-handed pushups.  It was a funny moment that provided Crystal with a running gag for the rest of the show: “Palance just bungee-jumped off the Hollywood sign” and “He fathered all the children in a production number,” etc. (NOTE: somehow, a myth went “viral” that it was the indomitable Kirk Douglas who did the pushups.  No, folks, it was Palance.)

7.  “THE ICEBREAKER.”  The first African-American to win an Academy Award wasn’t Sidney Poitier for the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.  It was Hattie McDaniel, who won 23 years earlier for her role as “Mammy” in the classic Gone With the Wind.  She gave a tearful speech, and her award was testament to how progressive Hollywood was compared to the rest of the country.  But even Hollywood had a ways to go.  McDaniel emphasized she hoped to be a “credit to my race.”  And after her speech, she returned to a segregated table.

6. “THE POSE.”  Last year one of the presenters was luscious-lipped, long-legged Angelina Jolie.  A regular to the red carpet, Jolie forgot she was off the carpet when she presented the award for Best Screenwriter.  She awkwardly planted her left hand on her hip and thrust her naked right leg through her split gown.  This after lip-locking her own brother ten years earlier.  The Descendants’ screewnwriter Jim Rash, thinking quickly, did a hilarious imitation of Jolie when he reached the podium to share the screenwriter award.

5.  “THE CRUSADER.” In 1973 Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his unforgettable portrayal of Mafia boss “Don Corleone” in The Godfather.  One of the most gifted of American actors, and perhaps the most influential of the last 60 years, Brando was heavily involved in securing rights for Native Americans by 1973.  He used the Academy Awards to make a statement.  Rather than accepting his award himself, Brando sent a young American Indian Movement member, Sacheen Littlefeather, to deliver his 15-page speech.  She was booed when she tried to protest against television’s negative portrayal of Indians. (She later read Brando’s manifesto to the press backstage.)  The incident prompted the Academy to prohibit proxy acceptance of Oscars.  Littlefeather later posed for Playboy.

4.  “THE MILITANT.”  Brando may have at least had a point, but Vanessa Redgrave’s stab at “Zionist hoodlums” picketing outside the 1977 awards was pointless and embarrassing.  Like Brando, Redgrave was (and is) enormously talented.  But she was also politically controversial, immersing herself in causes for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).  So it’s not surprising she injected politics in her acceptance speech for Best Actress for her role in Julia. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky later admonished her that “her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history” and a “simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

3.  “THE GRATITUDE.”  Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her role as “Nurse Ratched” in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Until that time, Fletcher was fairly unknown, having appeared in some minor television and film roles over 10 years earlier.  As Nurse Ratched, she was one of the most cold-blooded characters in film history.  But her acceptance speech was one of the most tearful, when she used sign language to acknowledge her parents, who were deaf.  Ten years later deaf actress Marlee Matlin won Best Actress for her role in Children of a Lesser God.

2.  “THE STREAKER.”  David Niven was onstage at the 46th Academy Awards in 1974 when a streaker struck.  At that time, streaking – or running naked through a public place – was all the rage.  Niven was introducing a presenter when one Robert Opel jogged naked across the stage behind Niven and flashed the peace sign.  Fortunately for “Oscar,” the television cameras only caught a glimpse of Opel’s pubic hair.  Quick-witted Niven, in classic British understatement, remarked that “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”  His quip was so perfect that some have suggested the streaking was planned.  After all, it is Hollywood, isn’t it?

1. ” THE TRAMP.”  For my money, the most memorable Oscar moment was legendary Charlie Chaplin receiving an Honorary Oscar in 1972.  Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, edited, scored, and starred in movies beginning in 1914.  His most famous screen character was “The Little Tramp.”  In 1940 he made a movie, The Great Dictator, that satirized Adolf Hitler.  But in 1952 he had to exile himself to Switzerland due to the McCarthy-era witchhunts in the U.S.  Twenty years later he finally returned to the states to accept the award for his “humor and humanity” and received a 12-minute standing ovation.  It was a powerful moment that may never be equaled.  Hollywood remakes and sequels are never as good as the original.  Chaplin was an original.

“Lincoln”

lincoln

It’s a perfect storm: Abraham Lincoln (our greatest president), portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-winning actor), and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg.  How can you go wrong?

Having seen the film last weekend, not much did go wrong.  The movie LINCOLN is based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Goodwin is the redhead with a slight Boston accent who appears on a lot of PBS documentaries, and who occasionally offers pungent historical perspective on Sunday morning news programs).  I hadn’t read “Team of Rivals” so I didn’t know the plot of LINCOLN.  Would it be a full-scale bio-pic, or focus on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals?  Actually, neither.  The movie deals with Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Congress to adopt the 13th amendment to the Constitution – the first amendment in 60 years – and which officially outlawed slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential decree that freed slaves in the rebellious states).

The major players here are Lincoln himself, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), radical abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Straithairn).  All are mesmerizing, but Day-Lewis and Field are absolutely uncanny.  Field conveys the strangeness, paranoia, and fragility that we associate with Mary Todd Lincoln.  And though we obviously don’t have recordings or film of the 16th president, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on characterization than Day-Lewis’s (who is British, no less!).  His tender voice and touch of a Kentucky accent remain with you long after the movie ends.   Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is profound and sometimes humorous, yet whose seemingly endless patience can be shattered by moments of terrifying anger.  Or in the case of his deceased son, grief.

Spielberg uses lighting that accurately depicts a pre-electric age, and props that convey 19th-century antiquity without being obtrusive.  In one scene Lincoln is holding a mottled notebook.  The colored mosaic pattern on the cover is exactly like old whaling logbooks I’d seen in the maritime library at Mystic Seaport.  And in one of the many stories and anecdotes Lincoln uses to win over critics of the amendment, he uses whale hunting as an analogy, confounding everyone around him!

Just a few criticisms: some of the minor characters seem exaggerated, particularly a couple timid anti-amendment politicians. Also, a few scenes seemed overtly politically correct.  The opening scene has Lincoln being lectured after a battle by a young black soldier.  It may have been intended to emphasize Lincoln’s renowned modesty and liberality, but this would have never happened (the Black Panther Party was still a hundred years away).  And one of the last scenes has Thaddeus Stevens climbing into bed with his black housekeeper, who then recited him the text of the newly-minted amendment.  Although Stevens supposedly did have a common-law relationship with his “quadroon” housekeeper, I thought this was a bit of overkill (though at least one person I know felt just the opposite!).

Other than these small criticisms, LINCOLN was one “whale” of a movie.  Even if you don’t care for history on an intellectual level, this film is a two-and-a-half hour time trip, with great acting to boot.  It’s also a reminder that, as harsh as the political climate in America is today, it was nothing like during the War Between the States.  It’s a small miracle that the country had a man like Lincoln, who physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him.

I give this movie 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.  And if Day-Lewis and Field (and possibly Jones) don’t win Academy Awards, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat.