The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

On Oscar Night, I'll be blaring "Gimme Shelter"

Full post behind the jump

My first girlfriend was an even bigger film snob than I am, and had a bigger collection of movies to boot, and it was something that we could always talk about even when things were bad. We’re not in contact any more, but the last exchange we had was two years ago just before the Academy Awards. I was thoroughly convinced that Martin Scorsese was finally going to win a directing Oscar for
The Aviator, I was thoroughly wrong. She expressed a strong desire that, if he was going to win one after so many masterpieces, that it ought to be for something more traditionally “Marty-like”. Translation – more guns and swearing and rapid close-ups and classic rock. I can dig.

I imagine she’s happy this morning, because the field of nominees for the Academy Awards honoring the films of 2006 stacks up pretty well for the Don of modern crime cinema. The nods are spread wide, not just among a large group of films, but all over the globe.
Babel, with its international cast and setting (see also: Volver, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Letters From Iwo Jima), and its incisive dramatization of Troubles in the World (paging Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland, and An Inconvenient Truth), is the unintended face of all this year’s themes, but I don’t think that makes it the front-runner. I don’t sense it’s made the cultural imprint it would need. Scorsese’s The Departed, I think, has the right mixture of undeniable excellence, critical support, and audience visibility – the Big Prize doesn’t always go to a movie with enormous box office, but demonstrating the ability to fill a theatre is a must.

And, if the studio PR departments play their cards right, they can create an aura of inevitability, that by gilding
The Departed voters are, in a way, also gilding Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, which are the master texts for the Scorsese cinematic language that finds such vigorous expression here. Much in the way the Academy sought to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy by piling statues on its third and final episode, there is opportunity here for voters to feel like they’re settling a karmic debt and, because the movie’s damned good anyway, they don’t have to hold their nose while doing it.

There are general patterns, historical trends and ground rules for handicapping the Oscars, and I have to admit, this year’s going to skew a few of them. There’s an almost unprecedented bifurcation between the design-oriented categories and those “above-the-line” (meaning actors, writers, directors, etc.) Often you see at least one or two movies ring up 9, 10, or more nominations by covering both. But Oscar shunned the prime candidate for such broad achievement,
Children of Men, which currently sits at #1 on my personal list of the year’s films, and it’s a long way to #2.

This year the most nominations went to
Dreamgirls, but even that’s deceptive because of its eight nods, three came in the same category – Best Original Song. So while the craft honors went to beautiful spectacles like Dreamgirls and Pan’s Labyrinth, the Best Picture category is more weighted towards writing and performance, such as in the case of the gracefully quiet The Queen and the engagingly neurotic Little Miss Sunshine.

The five films nominated for Best Picture have a total of 26 nominations between them. To find that low a number again in Oscar history you have to go all the way back to the awards for 1932-33 (the big winner?
Cavalcade. It hasn’t aged well). But in that year there were only nine competitive categories for feature films (half of what’s available today), and except for Best Picture each award had only three nominees.

Numerically speaking then, this is provably the most diverse Oscar field in the modern era. And there’s quite a few I haven’t seen yet (
grumble, grumble). But that’s not as crucial for this particular writing, as I try and do a little first-hours handicapping of the major awards. We’re still in the first turn of the horse race, here, so early leaders may fade, but as of this morning, this is how I see it all shaking out:

Best Adapted Screenplay

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
Children of Men Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
The Departed William Monahan
Little Children Todd Field, Tom Perrotta
Notes on a Scandal Patrick Marber

The Borat nod here is a clear acknowledgment that the Academy couldn’t bring themselves to bestow too much esteem on a movie with so much hairy nude wrestling, but had to grudgingly admit that it was a special achievement this year anyway. It would have been better to honor Cohen’s performance, but I think there may have been resistance to the idea that he had developed and played this character on TV prior to bringing it to features. The Academy still loathes television and anything that smells of it.

The screenplay category is traditionally a kind of “Miss Congeniality” clearinghouse for movies that are too edgy and unique for the old guard. Note the presence of Children of Men. The upside is, though, that it often results in deserving smaller-profile movies actually leaving with a statue by the end of the night. Two movies, I think, start out with advantages – Little Children, which matches the poetic insight into suburban malaise and fear shown by American Beauty and has a solid phalanx of positive reviews behind it, and The Departed, because of its general momentum and the impressive deftness and color with which William Monahan collapsed the plots of three already-complicated movies into one. Normally I would have given the first day edge to The Departed because of higher visibility, and because voters don’t have too many other categories to honor it in; but the Academy has recently shown a propensity to spread it around, which puts Little Children, unlikely to win elsewhere, in the driver’s seat for the moment.

Best Original Screenplay

Guillermo Arriaga
Letters from Iwo Jima
Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis
Little Miss Sunshine
Michael Arndt
Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro
The Queen
Peter Morgan

This requires some of the game theory developed by the main character of A Beautiful Mind, the most overrated Best Picture winner of the modern age. See, a voter who can’t give Best Picture to Babel will probably land here, but affection will be strong for Little Miss Sunshine, whose directors aren’t nominated and whose strengths draw so much from its script. Plus there’s been a quiet but effective campaign happening around Los Angeles on behalf of Peter Morgan’s wise script for The Queen, and gushing press about the collaboration between previous winner Paul Haggis (Crash and Million Dollar Baby) and first-time screenwriter Iris Yamashita on Letters from Iwo Jima, also likely to have its best shot at an award here.

Even Pan’s Labyrinth has a smaller but still significant opportunity, I’d venture, for the same reasoning: that voters might see this as the best forum to recognize its unique and moving marriage of storytelling methods. For the moment I have it as Sunshine by a nose, or a nostril hair, more like.

Best Supporting Actress

Adriana Barrazza as Amelia in Babel
Cate Blanchett as Sheba Hart in Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin as Olive in Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson as Effie White in Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi as Chieko in Babel

If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we’ll all admit that the reason Jennifer Hudson is competing in this category, and the reason why she starts the race as front-runner to win, is because of her singing. When doing anything else on-screen in Dreamgirls she came up woefully short, but every time the music kicked in, she made the movie special and took the audience in her crying embrace. When she sang, you believed her, simple as that. I don’t know how exactly you honor that, but I’ve got an uncomfortable feeling about trying to compare it to something like Cate Blanchett’s extraordinary depiction of a self-destructive and self-deluding schoolteacher in Notes on a Scandal.

Then again, one could say the same thing about this category pitting a mature master of her craft like Blanchett against the instinctive exuberance of ten-year-old Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine, another performance worth honoring even if the nature of this competition makes for bizarre comparisons. But if anyone’s to play spoiler, I’d keep my eye on little Miss Breslin.

Best Supporting Actor

Alan Arkin as Grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley as Ronnie J. McGorvey in Little Children
Djimon Hounsou as Solomon Vandy in Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early in Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg as Dignam in The Departed

Eddie Murphy has gone for years without the Academy admitting just how gifted he is. It would help, too, if he made fewer terrible movies. Both have now reached an accommodation – he’s selected a role that allowed him to channel his musical chops and gift for timing, as well as to show a more humble and wounded side. When he gets to Jimmie’s Rap, there’s more impact because we’ve already seen what he’s talking about, that although it will be his undoing, he won’t be stopped from being Jimmie. And the Academy has obliged by giving him a nomination, and probably a win, too.

Jackie Earle Haley will get some deserved extra work from his nomination, but the character he portrays, and portrays so well, will make people squeamish. It’s hard to watch a self-loathing convicted pedophile on screen and think “Yes, I want to give him a prize”. Mark Wahlberg’s nod is a most welcome surprise, in a movie that was a feast for alpha males he made the most out of what he was given. If it didn’t seem so much like this was the best opportunity the Academy will ever have to honor Murphy, I’d rate Wahlberg’s chances better. As it is, call him 2nd in the field for now.

Best Actress

Penélope Cruz as Raimunda in Volver
Dame Judi Dench as Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen
Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet as Sarah Pierce in Little Children

Everyone’s got a lot of catching up to do with Helen Mirren, whose Oscar buzz started well back in summer and hasn’t abated. There’s not much you can take away from either her performance or her résumé, this is probably her moment and there’s little anyone else can do about it. It’s a pity for Judi Dench, who performed a rare rich role for an older actress with juicy relish in Notes on a Scandal.

The truth is that everything about The Queen rests on Mirren’s ability to be both regal and human, and thus bring life to the dramatic ideas at the heart of the story. It’s unlikely, were her performance not so good, that the film would have earned any of its other five nominations.

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer in Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne in Half-Nelson
Peter O’Toole as Maurice in Venus
Will Smith as Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland

Quite a few surprises in this category, from Ryan Gosling’s nod, to DiCaprio earning his for Blood Diamond instead of his equally-sterling work in The Departed, to Will Smith, in such a crowded year, earning a nomination from the old-fashioned inspirational tale The Pursuit of Happyness.

I think all three are presently in the backseat, and this race will eventually boil down to an accounting of sympathies. Forest Whitaker is normally a supporting player but gives a dynamic starring performance in The Last King of Scotland. It’s the sort of triumph that usually comes along once in a career, and he’s won enough of the awards along the path to Oscar night that he qualifies as front-runner.

But sympathies will also run strong for Peter O’Toole, who has had so many seemingly once-in-a-career performances and not won for a single one of them. This now-frail legend has been nominated for Best Actor seven times, won a Lifetime Achievement Award three years ago that was seen largely as consolation, and managed, in spite of that particular honor’s cursed history, to avoid dying after getting it. The Academy’s older guard will vote their hearts, and it might be enough to carry the day even though Venus has yet to be seen by many.

Best Director

Babel Alejandro González Iñárritu
The Departed Martin Scorsese
Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood
The Queen Stephen Frears
United 93 Paul Greengrass

Since the 1998 awards snapped a long streak of almost total unanimity between Best Picture and Best Director, the Academy has made it practically a hobby to split the two. In that case it was Picture for Shakespeare in Love and Director to Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan, and since then they’ve repeated it in 2000 (Picture: Gladiator, Director: Steven Soderbergh, Traffic), 2002 (Best Picture: Chicago, Best Director: Roman Polanski, The Pianist), and last year (Best Picture: Crash, Best Director: Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain).

This essentially doubles-up Scorsese’s odds, I think, since each of those splits has seen the Directing Oscar go to someone whose collected work embodies the art form of filmmaking in some way. Paul Greengrass and Alejandro González Iñárritu, it can be argued, are likely to get another invite to the dance, while the light touch Stephen Frears brought to The Queen will have a difficult time being noticed. And in spite of the embrace of Letters From Iwo Jima, I think there will be a collective sense that (like with the New England Patriots), Clint’s done quite enough winning recently, and ought to make room for someone else. Call it Scorsese by a length, with Iñárritu running a strong second should the desire to honor Babel make things go topsy-turvy.

Best Picture

Babel Alejandro González Iñárritu, Steve Golin, Jon Kilik
The Departed Nominees TBD
Letters From Iwo Jima Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Robert Lorenz
Little Miss Sunshine Nominees TBD
The Queen Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward

As I’ve said above, I think The Departed, by standard criteria, has the right elements to win, and its DVD release this week couldn’t be better timed. Audiences will refresh their memories of this surpassing crime epic, and that, combined with the sympathy for Scorsese – who, if he loses again, will take sole possession of the record for most-nominated filmmaker to never win – gives it strong momentum right now.

The Producer’s Guild threw a delicious monkey wrench in the works, though, by awarding their top prize to Little Miss Sunshine, an easy movie to adore. Lingering affection for that movie might allow it to slip through a crowd of heavyweights should they split their own vote too far down. If there is to be a split, I’d say the likely scenario is that voting for Babel for Best Picture allows Academy Members to fancy themselves as enlightened and forward thinking (witness Crash’s surprise victory), while giving Marty the Director prize makes them feel generous and wise. Iwo Jima, with its foreign language content, its late launch (it was originally intended for release in the spring of this year, then moved up at the last minute once its awards chances were recognized), and Eastwood’s previous victories, probably doesn’t reach the winner’s tape, and The Queen will be satisfied with the victory for Mirren, and a possible screenwriting trophy to boot.

Martin Scorsese has grown from outsider goosing the system with fresh vision to venerable member of the establishment. They’ve so far passed up opportunities to finally end his losing streak – I think they’re not likely to pass up another.


  • I think one could have easily substituted Jack Nicholson or Alec Baldwin for their equally-entertaining performances in "The Departed" instead of Alan Arkin, for Best Supporting Actor. Hell, one could nominate Steve Carrell, who made humorous a role(gay Proust scholar) that, by all rights, should have been thoroughly-depressing. Or, indeed, Michael "Pull my finger" Caine for crafting a lovable, touching, toking soul in a minimum of screen time. All parties would have been more worthy. Now, I am not hating on Alan Arkin. I just think he was far more effective as Sheldon the dentist in "The In-Laws", or even as John Cusack's put-upon psychiatrist in "Grosse Pointe Blank". And he is "The Bean", after all. And speaking of actors who have worked with director Richard Rush, I was watching perennial favorite "The Stunt Man" again tonight, and though to myself, wouldn't it be nice if O'Toole really did "win the little bugger outright"? Still, it is Forest Whitaker's year and he shall own. I am also glad to see Moocher prosper, though it is ironic to see a former child star finally getting a nomination playing a child molestor. And as for the Don, I will say this: "Gimme Shelter" is my ring tone.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 9:06 PM  

  • I was pulling for Steve Carrell big time, and, if I can afford the time, I'll probably write up one of my usual "overlooked" columns about who I would rather have seen nominated.

    Looking at Arkin's early performances in the late 60's, it's sort of astonishing what a DIFFERENT energy he was projecting on screen. I can't imagine what audiences back then thought of him in Wait Until Dark - opposite all that handsome Studio acting he must have seemed like he was from outer space.

    And I do wish there could be two Best Actor awards this year. Hell, there was a tie for Best Actress once. We can dream.

    By Blogger Nick, at 12:50 PM  

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