Tuesday, March 01, 2005

2004 OSCAR RECAP: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful

Well, wasn't that a kick in the head?

The 77th Annual Academy Awards are in the books-- the mighty triumvirate of Eastwood, Swank and Freeman emerged victorious, despite the best efforts of Michael Medved and his goofy pals; The Incredibles snuck away with two statues, not just one; producer Gilbert Cates' attempts to corral the natural ebullience of the night's honorees were mocked and denigrated by several people appearing onstage, mostly memorably Adapted Screenplay winner Charlie Kaufman, who was rattled by the countdown clock placed in the winner's sight line and denounced it as "intimidating"; Sideways was not entirely denied, taking home Original Screenplay honors, nor was The Aviator, which dominated the technical categories, even allowing for Ray's "surprise" win in the Best Sound category.

But once again Martin Scorsese was not included in the glories of Oscar, except within the acceptance speeches of the honored technicians who helped create his film. He must now face the realization that he is the Academy Awards' very own Susan Lucci. Unlike the soap queen, however, who broke her losing streak at 19 Daytime Emmy nominations, he is unlikely to live long enough to make 14 more films, let alone be nominated another 14 times in order to get the gold on this masochistic, long-term plan. Indeed, if the Academy cannot find it in their hearts to hand him the Best Director award for a film like The Aviator, which is practically tailor-made to suit Oscar's tastes in epic stories filled with opulence, production values, bold acting and attempts to deal with historical figures, then Scorsese ought to stop pursuing the golden carrot as rabidly as he has with his last two movies and concede that the most likely avenue for his being awarded his very own Oscar is the lifetime achievement route most recently and enthusiastically traveled by Sidney Lumet. Speaking of Lumet, critic David Edelstein, wrapping up Oscar observations for Slate online, summed up the connections between the evening's three big directors best:

"It occurred to me that whatever his lefty New York politics, (Lumet) now had more in common with Clint Eastwood than with someone who might have been his natural heir, Martin Scorsese. Once upon a time, Scorsese took his camera into the streets. And even though his technique always bordered on Expressionism, he thrived on real locations and on actors who were clearly digging into themselves. Perhaps he needs to forget that he's a virtuoso, pick up a little Lumet, and go back to that original place."

Or, as my pal Cruzbomb wondered in his caustic piece on Oscar enthusiasm and the lack thereof, why would a director of Scorsese's caliber and originality care to so desperately seek admission to a club that has bestowed its highest honor upon the likes of Ron Howard, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner?

The fact of the matter is, as Edelstein alluded, Martin Scorsese doesn't really make "Martin Scorsese" movies anymore-- Casino (1995) was an entertaining, if relatively hollow and overwrought attempt to revisit the milieu of GoodFellas (itself more hollow and overwrought than its reputation suggests) in a different context; 1999's Bringing Out the Dead was a paralyzing, flat-out unwatchable attempt to rejigger the existential doom of Taxi Driver, with mawkish undertones and uselessly hyperbolic style replacing the chilling first-person isolation that informed every word of Paul Schrader's 1976 screenplay (Schrader also wrote the screenplay for Bringing Out the Dead, adapting Joe Connelly's novel, and he feels like he's repeating himself too); and Gangs of New York was a misguided attempt, not without its own commendable qualities, to personalize, or Scorsesefy, if you will, a bloody swatch of New York City history, in which the director's own grotesque and grandiose tendencies ended up smothering his natural abilities as a storyteller. Movies like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), Kundun (1997) and Mio viaggio in Italia (My Voyage to Italy) (1999) are much more recognizably Scorsese movies in their themes and obsessions, but they're not the kind of movies that will launch the director onto the stage at the Kodak Theater. Whether Scorsese will continue the pursuit of the Oscar is an unanswerable question. But his next movie, an announced remake of the Chinese police trilogy Infernal Affairs, starring Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, doesn't look to be a move back toward a more inexpensive, intimately scaled canvas.

As for the Oscar show itself, it seemed to me, despite the efforts of journalists like Variety's Brian Lowry to put a predictably positive spin on it, to be near disastrous. The decision to gather the technical nominees together onstage behind the award presenter, with the winner emerging from the pack and walking toward the podium, didn't result in too much crushing embarrassment for the viewer, but it sure looked like some of the losers-- I'm sorry, some of those who were not honored wanted to be anywhere but on camera directly behind the winner, all nervousness and disappointment helplessly on display. Fittingly, they were hustled off the stage like Squeaky Fromme getting manhandled by Secret Service agents once their names were not announced. And lowly nominees in the makeup and short film categories weren't even allowed the dignity of taking the stage. In a move that was perhaps designed to kiss up to one of the event's most prominent attendees, these presentations, done mid-auditorium, the presenter, nominees and eventual winner with their backs toward most of the audience in the theater, lent the affair the quality of a very expensive installment of Oprah. Maybe Cates' thinking was that if the idea panned out well this year, they could talk the Richest Woman Alive into hosting next year's awards entirely in this comforting and inviting format that is most familiar to her.

(And what about those empty seats visible directly behind Cate Blanchett during the presentation of the Best Makeup award? Some wayward seat-filler, out grabbing a smoke at the time, hoping to run into Charlize Theron in the lobby, is undoubtedly paying dearly at this very moment for this ghastly transgression.)

How Cates and the Academy can ignore the obvious elitism and drawing of class lines that this sort of marginalization of "below the line" talent represents is beyond me. I only hope that he and his whole brain trust are raked over the coals for senselessly straitjacketing deserving nominees and their big opportunity to bask in a little of the kind of glory that stars like Tom Cruise and Gwenyth Paltrow take for granted. But, as Edelstein observed, instead he'll probably be toasted and lifted to the mountaintops for shaving 15 minutes off the show, and Lowry's glowing Variety review may be the first indication that Edelstein is right. (Okay, that's the last prop Mr. Edelstein is getting from me; you can check out his acidly funny observations on the show for yourself right here.)

By the way, the show did clock in 15 minutes shorter than usual. That's right, 15 minutes-- the difference, in ABC's and Cates' eyes, between stultifying boredom and breezily paced exuberance, perhaps? Maybe. The reality ended up being a race to the microphone whenever multiple winners were announced. By the time the first honoree finished speaking there was only time for a couple of syllables from the second before that familiar eruption from the orchestra pit signaled their unceremonious abduction by a force of mysterious, sinuous, very tall and well-dressed women presumably hustling them off to the press room. That's the presumption, anyway. But seriously, has anyone heard from the special effects team that won for Spider-Man 2 since their attempt to shout down those overwhelming musical cues last night?

Chris Rock looked genuinely flabbergasted at the kind of rude stubbing-out of acceptance speeches that became routine as the night wore on, and his joke about Oscars being handed out next year at a drive-thru-- "Get your Oscar and a McFlurry and just keep on goin'!"-- was a highlight of his raucously funny and relatively fearless commentary as this year's Oscar host. His hilarious, and good-natured, skewering of the ubiquity of actors like Colin Farrell and Jude Law (which itself inspired a sober retort from presenter Sean Penn, whose sense of humor seems to have been relegated to the past along with Jeff Spicoli) was like a spiky tonic, as was his intro to Halle Berry (the "star of the eagerly awaited Catwoman 2" was visibly not amused). And the taped interview segment in which patrons of the Magic Johnson Theaters were quizzed by Rock on their cinematic preferences was five minutes of pure Letterman-style genius (in the bit, Alien vs. Predator and The Chronicles of Riddick are held up for much praise, to Rock's very entertaining amusement, by star-struck popcorn munchers who haven't seen Sideways and wouldn't know Vera Drake from Shinola, and at one point a strange man who looks a lot like Albert Brooks shows up to extol White Chicks as "the best movie of 2004, bar none!"). Rock was just caustic enough, particularly about the new wrinkles in Oscar's format, to make me wonder if he would be asked back, or whether he'd even want the gig again (my guess: no). But if the ratings are up in any significant way, you can bet Scorsese's upcoming lifetime achievement award that Cates and the other Academy ratings whores will suddenly care a whole lot less about getting publicly tweaked by their bitterly funny host a second time.

Some other highlights of the evening:

Joan Rivers on the red carpet asking Imelda Staunton if the actress had met the character she played in Vera Drake, "or is she dead now?" The obviously embarrassed Staunton was forced to point out to Rivers that Vera Drake was, in fact, a fictional creation.

Jamie Foxx's emotional evocation of his dead grandmother, who he claims still speaks with him in dreams-- "I can't wait to go to sleep tonight, 'cause we got a lot to talk about."

Adam Sandler arriving onstage without copresenter Catherine Zeta Jones, for whom Rock ends up as a last-minute substitute. It was a joke-- right?-- and a pretty sly commentary on badly scripted stage banter as well.

Thelma Schoonmaker offering tribute to her director: "You think like an editor when you shoot."

Best Song winner Jorge Drexler, passed over by Cates to perform his own composition in favor of Antonio Banderas' Broadway-scaled version, getting the last laugh by singing an a cappella verse of the song in accepting the award.

Hilary Swank: "Mr. Eastwood, you are my mo cushla."

Most Beautiful Women of the Red Carpet (in alphabetical order): Sandra Oh, Sophie Okenedo and Kate Winslet. For those of you with a penchant for acronyms, that’s OOW! (Close, but no cigar, huh? If she’d only been Kate Hinslet…!)

An errant shot of the audience during the presentation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award revealed Louis Gossett Jr., head cocked back and visibly fast asleep in his plush Kodak Theater seat.

Charlie Kaufman being encouraged to take his time, in defiance of Cates' 30-second time clock: "I don't wanna take my time. I wanna get off the stage."

Those "four presenters," Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek, who took the stage together to dispel suspicions in some quarters that they were actually the same person. I closed my eyes, listened, and became convinced that the same technology that allowed The Incredibles' Edna Mode to share the stage with Pierce Brosnan had been employed to split one of these lovely, English-mangling Latinas (but which one?!) in two, thus doubling Chris Rock's pleasure.

And, of course, the lowlights:

Beyonce is undeniably beautiful, but three songs was way too much Beyonce, especially when it was clear that, during her phonetic French number and the Andrew Lloyd Webber atrocity, she had no idea what to do with her body when she wasn't singing. The dull inspirational ballad “Believe” from The Polar Express was more her speed, unfortunately, and she undulated appropriately while dueting with Josh Groban, but ultimately the song was no less crappy for it. Instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to come up with five nominees, can’t this category just be scrapped altogether, as the dearth of worthy candidates dictates? How’s that for a time-saving measure, Mr. Cates?

Drew Barrymore looking as though she was channeling Cesar Romero.

Johnny Depp’s bizarre Waiters of the Caribbean couture.

The director, Louis Horvitz, defining the evening along racial lines at every opportunity. Chris Rock makes a crack about a black celebrity— Quick! Where’s Oprah? Where’s Jamie? Where’s P. Diddy? They'll be cracking up, for sure! The Sea Inside wins Best Foreign Film— Quick! Where’s Antonio Banderas? Where’s Penelope Cruz? Where the hell is Javier Bardem?! And how did Horvitz resist the temptation to repeatedly cut to Sandra Oh during Yo-Yo Ma’s solo performance accompanying the annual necrology?

Separated at birth: Counting Crows Adam Duritz and Sideshow Bob.

And, finally, the return of a hallowed tradition of Academy Awards broadcasts, one that hasn’t been paid much tribute since its halcyon days in the 1970s: the untimely and very loud dropping of large objects backstage, creating ungodly crashing sounds sure to unsettle even the most centered of AC-tors, such as “comedy superstar” Jeremy Irons. Backstage personnel bounding out from behind curtains, during the live broadcast, to supply the host with a missing microphone-- another treasured subcategory in this tradition that also was on display Sunday night. Thank you again, Mr. Cates, for not keeping those stage hands on as tight a leash as the artists you have gathered together to ostensibly honor.

And for those interested, my name ends up not being Mudd after all. My online predictions were pretty good, but my Oscar Pool ballot turned out even better. I did vary slightly from the published list, as I suspected I would, but this year doing so didn’t fatally screw me up. In fact, I ended a 17-year losing streak and took the big prize in the Oscar pool for the first time. I feel like the Boston Red Sox, for God’s sake. Speaking of which, if I can finally win the damn pool, I wonder if I could be so bold as to take that win as a good omen for the 2005-model Dodgers...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hilarious and insightful comments on the Oscar show. I especially like the Separated at Birth item with Drew Barrymore/Cesar Romero. As for the lone presenter Adam Sandler, I was at first convinced it was planned, but then I wondered whether it was just a very creative way to deal with a last-minute cancellation by Catherine Z-J. It was awfully funny, though. And yes, the three ladies you mention were certainly among the most stunning (or "amazing," to overuse the overused word of the moment) of the evening. bruce