Uncle Oscar’s Birthday

Well, that didn’t go exactly like I thought it would. I had this entry half drafted Sunday afternoon, speculating on the culturally tragic implications of The Revenant winning Best Picture and sweeping most of the Academy Awards, but there were quite a few surprises, weren’t there?

8uncleoscarIt was Uncle Oscar’s birthday, and like going to that family dinner, you love it and dread it simultaneously. You love Aunt Sadie’s meatballs, but her inappropriate comments make you cringe. Your cousin corners you about some business venture or cause that bores you to tears or requires a donation. It will go on too long with too much bland food, and you know you’re going to fight with your spouse on the drive there and on the way home. And yet you’d never miss it.

Results notwithstanding, my original question is worth asking: Is it a crime against humanity or a travesty of justice if the Best Picture of the year is a movie you didn’t particularly like? Or one which, from the moment you saw the trailer, you had no interest in seeing? Is the Best Picture the “best picture” artistically or popularly, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

As the 88th Academy Awards unfolded, I wondered if the movies I happen to like would get the recognition they so clearly deserve in the World According to ME or if those cretinous voters would demonstrate that they were drugged out of their mind or kidnapped by Moonies. My answer, as with most years, is probably a little of both.

I’ve said that cinema is THE art form of our culture, the way opera was to Vienna and Venice, art to the Parisians in the 1850s, playwrighting to the Venetians and the Greeks. It is the culmination of the best of our culture, even as it is also sometimes the worst. I was raised on it. My humanities professor mother taught classes on film – on the Western and Women’s Role in Film and the Media. My father told stories of going to the nickel picture show weekly with his sisters, as he took my brother and I every weekend. When video was invented, he created his own VHS library in his house. He would bundle 3 films together on a tape and as you explored the shelves from room to room, you could find complete Bogart, Bette Davis, Kurosawa, Fellini, Scorsese, and the Marx Brothers. (He also had complete Michael Madsen, which I always puzzled over.) Venice, Florida still talks wistfully about John Chmaj’s tape collection.

I have my own Academy Award little notebook wherein I dutifully record the “best” winners each year – Picture, Actor, Actress. I know the history of the awards and can tell you which actors turned them down, which actors won the most, who was the youngest, oldest, and so forth. It is, for me, much more the Super Bowl than the Super Bowl. Except. It has been clear from the time I remember – when Rocky beat Taxi Driver and Network– that it is neither pure meritocracy nor spectator sport.

The Daily Beast ran an excellent analysis of both the mechanics of voting and the history of best picture travesties, with the headline “How Best Picture Is Now Meaningless.” What’s interesting is the concept of “now,” since they argue that the problem started when How Green was my Valley beat Citizen Kane in 1940. So the Oscars were ok for 12 years, but really have gone downhill in the 66 years since then? Not likely.

More likely it is that this evaluation mechanism has always stood at a knife edge of the whim of moviemaking voters — the Academy ballots representing actors, editors, producers, directors and not the public — depending on the culture at the time and the movies being presented. If you leaf through the nominees and the choices, this is what you find. Big epics tend to win over small stories. (Mad Max wins should not, therefore, have been surprising.) Studio backed movies for most years heavily influenced choices. Advertising dollars push certain actors over others. People who win tend to win again. There has always been a lack of diversity of choices outside the people who have already won, which not only limits race and gender winners, but for a long time limited independent films from being included as well.

8lesliebear revenantMoreover, if we consider the ceremony itself – does it feel like a ceremony honoring artistic merit? The host must deliver a 10-15 minute monologue, which must be funny and irreverent without being rude. The two hour preshow spends considerable focus on dresses– many worn by celebrity women who are not actresses, unless you count reality television. Sometimes, the bits are very funny (i.e. Leslie Jones as the bear).  The musical numbers are bad 90% of the time (except for Lady Gaga); the show goes an hour over 90% of the time; the best presentations are saved for the very end and forced to rush acceptance speeches; and whenever the last honored presenter emerges to award best picture, half of our thoughts are, “geez, so and so looks terrible, I had no idea they were so old.” (Not this year though, as we had God/President/Morgan Freeman, looking as elegant as always.) That is a show with very odd expectations, if we’re thinking that the actual awards would be merit-based.

Most of the movies that have been nominated over the years – whether “best” or not – are worth seeing, although there are decades where you scratch your head. Before 1935, a lot of the movies are forgettable; between 1965 and 1986, all of them are iconic and glorious; since then, it’s hit or miss. IMHO of course, because I still can’t explain The English Patient, Braveheart, Gladiator or Shakespeare in Love. But I have seen them, and if you haven’t, you should get them from the library and judge for yourself. I know that many of you share the same passion for movies and for the Oscars as myself and would love to hear your opinions.

Here is where I land from this night of choices. Spotlight made me really appreciate what journalism used to be like and what it could be like again; if it helps push some reporters back to that place of changing society for the better, it could be enormously influential. It was very well crafted and its win is deserving from an artistic sense. Sylvester Stallone was not “snubbed” since, if someone else good wins, that’s not a snub, and Stallone was the weakest of the performers nominated. Mark Rylance, who did win Best Supporting Actor, is known to be one of the greatest stage actors of our time; he has a closetful of Tonies, Olivier Awards, BAFTAs, and Emmies, even though you may have never heard of him. His performance in Bridge of Spies is quiet but amazing; he is the engine that movie runs on, even though Tom Hanks is the lead. (A funny side note, somebody wrote Mark Rylance’s Wikipedia entry too early – as the inset shows. It was changed by the time the Oscar credits rolled.)


The sound editing in Sicario – which did not win – is one of the “best” actors in that movie, and makes the action chilling and mesmerizing and important; rent that from Netflix or Redbox and see it. Both Sicario and Carol were overlooked as nominees for Best Picture. Alicia Vikander was astounding in Ex Machina, and she probably won for the wrong movie. Leo DiCaprio is a good actor, and it was not a travesty for him to win this year, given the other nominees and given that sentiment in the acting categories does have a huge influence. Mad Max was the most artistic film of its type – the summer blockbuster action pic – that I have seen in a long time. We were pleased with its six wins and happy we already own it. I have written before about the excellence of The Big Short, and if you didn’t see last year’s Foxcatcher, watch both that and The Big Short and marvel on how Steve Carrell has become such a good actor. We have already bought a copy The Martian and Inside Out. So overall, a good crop of movies, and even though I disagree with a few of the choices, civilization will apparently not end.

And now that The Revenant didn’t win, I feel more inclined to see it.

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