The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Now that you've safely forgotten all about them....THE OSCARS!

Full post behind the jump

Pre-requisite catty dress joke
: Nicole Kidman looked like a Christmas present that got returned.

Now that that’s out of the way…

The Academy Awards were very writer-centric this year. Passages from the nominated scripts were read aloud by beautiful actors, and graphics flashed throughout the evening that included famous movie quotes gliding in the background. Some were the expected burnished-in-stone one-liners: “
Here’s looking at you, kid.” and all that, but closer inspection revealed stranger choices. Like “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” Really, Oscars? Isn’t this the one night of the year Dirty Dancing and its ilk are supposed to be denied entrance, the night where the whole industry pats itself on the back for failing to kill off these prestigious projects they never wanted to make in the first place

As has become an increasingly worrisome trend, the Best Picture nominees represented the type of picture movie studios wanted nothing to do with. None were fully-financed by a lone studio – Little Miss Sunshine was a festival acquisition, Babel was cobbled together from international sources, The Queen from the BBC, and Letters From Iwo Jima’s relatively slender sub-$20 Million budget was split between Warner Brothers and Dreamworks. Even star-laden genre picture The Departed was heavily-underwritten by producer Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group. The studios have concluded that it’s simply too much of a risk to make movies where success hinges on whether or not they’re good.

So on the surface, you might guess that Hollywood was determined to be very, very nice to writers this year, perhaps because the Writers Guild Agreement is set to expire, so the town is looking down the barrel of a writer’s strike with the most aggressive board elected in a number of years. But this was just a diversion, a fruit basket. I think the immortal image for writers remains the one Nancy Meyers slipped into her very funny montage about the writer as movie character – Joe Gillis getting shot by Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd. Sure, Hollywood will let you cavort around the mansion for awhile if you play nice, but try and grow a spine, and POW.

I wonder if it was intentional on Billy Wilder’s part that we never confirm if Gillis died from drowning in the pool or bleeding to death. It’s almost like, since he was a writer, no one really cared. As the studio executive played by Tony Shaloub in Barton Fink perfectly said – “Jesus, throw a rock in here, you'll hit one. And do me a favor, Fink: throw it hard.


The Oscars were long, as always – they’ve given up on making three hours, but even letting out their waist-band to three-and-a-half, and getting things underway at a brisk tempo, they failed to fit it all in. Those old devils – montage overkill and interpretive dance – once again take the blame.

Some of the montages had unconventional snap and wit to them – especially Errol Morris’ opening segment that allowed nominees from every category a few gloriously-eccentric seconds of air in his Interrotron interview box. Once again it allowed Eddie Murphy to prove the true depths of his talent, as he scored the first big laugh of the night just by staring.

The show saved a few seconds by taking less time to introduce things which, by now, we accept as conventions of the show – like clips from each of the Best Picture nominees. They also found extra crannies to shove human interest in, like those strange factoids about the winners that the announcers would bellow during the triumphant walk to the stage. With further tweaking I think both devices will serve Oscar well in the coming years – if only they can develop montage restraint, we might just get this thing in the pen on time for once.

In fact, I think the Academy Awards don’t often get enough credit, because they genuinely try to shake things up every year. And for a ceremony almost eighty years old, that they are still cooking up new little ideas is, in itself, commendable, even if we sometimes get oddities like that year the orchestra pit had Burt Bacharach and a set of DJ turntables in it.

I don’t mind the Oscars trying to have a bit of the variety show element to them, especially when you get a piece like the Will Ferrell-Jack Black-John C. Reilly musical number A Comedian at the Oscars. It was a funny bit that riffed on a smart idea and kept the inspiration coming briskly. This is the 2nd time Ferrell and Black have been seized by melody during the broadcast, and I would encourage this to happen at least one or two more times.

It’s especially effective for a show hosted by Ellen DeGeneres – she has a way of bringing any spectacle back to a people-sized enjoyment. Perhaps it’s because her delivery – well-supported by the show’s writing – is so dependent on our ability to recognize the thoughts that flash between the words. While her re-think/re-start process prevents her from ever building to a real high, it’s humor built on what we have in common, which is a useful contrast when you’re bringing out a choir filled with sound effects impersonators. She was, thus, perfect for her allotted stage time.

Although I won’t lie and say she dressed up for the occasion, she brought an air of gentle kidding to the affair, that elbow dig Billy Crystal used to do well before it calcified into shtick. She also knew which celebrities would be able to play along, as evidenced by a couple of seemingly-spontaneous laugh moments that came out as she accosted the likes of Scorsese and Eastwood and Spielberg in their chairs. If it was rehearsed, these directors gave more natural performances than most of the stars, and I’m looking in your direction, Cameron “I can’t sell a punchline live” Diaz.

These Oscars were so respectful, so eager to please – they even featured winners saluting our Men and Women In Uniform, and tips to lower your electric bill! And even with that blink-and-you’d-miss-it lesbian kiss Melissa Etheridge laid on her wife after winning, even though four of the five documentary feature nominees boiled down to being about how much George Bush and his cronies have loused up the world, Hollywood seemed on the brink of winning genuine Heartland Hearts and Minds.

That is, until that deviant genius Michael Mann decided to set off a stink bomb. His montage was introduced as “America – through its movies”. And what “The Movies” apparently tell us about America is that it is where the little guy is stepped on and exploited, people are always getting shot, and the whole works from sea to shining sea is filled with racists, warmongers, and sh*t-crazy God people. The crowd, which had already applauded Robert Downey, Jr making a crack about his own drug addiction, was just as stunned as could be, and I’m sure some of them were considering the drastic consequences of ordering up just one montage too many.

My pet peeve every year about the Oscars is that they fatten the running time with montages then put the winners under terrible pressure to keep their speeches short. And given the choice between trying to say something eloquent that could get you laughed at, and simply thanking as many people as you can remember, most will choose the latter. Their joy of winning is immediately eradicated by their fear of The Baton.

With those thank yous, The Oscars are now about taking the moment that will be the highlight of some peoples’ lives, and requiring them to use it to soothe other peoples’ egos. For Hollywood I would see that as poetic justice, except that it usually falls on the little guy. You don’t see the orchestra cueing up to play Scorsese off-stage; no, it’s the sound mixer whose glory we don’t really care about.


As for Scorsese being welcomed into the winners’ fold by his Film Brat Generation chums Coppola, Spielberg, and Lucas, I do agree it’s well past time, even if The Departed wasn’t my favorite movie of the year. I don’t know that I could say any other picture or directing job was so drastically superior to it that I feel any sense of injustice.

I save that feeling for elsewhere, when Pan’s Labyrinth can win three Oscars but lose the Foreign-Language Film Award – a fluke of the voting process, since for that particular category only a select group that’s proven they’ve seen all five nominees can vote. Or Jennifer Hudson, with an acting performance that doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny when she isn’t singing, winning for Dreamgirls.

Forest Whitaker’s win was not only deserved, but was a welcome milestone because he was a black actor winning an Oscar, and for the first time I can remember, his race was not the chief topic in discussion. It was about how amazing his performance was. This is when you know we’ve really gotten over the hump, because it’s no longer barrier-shattering; after recent wins by Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx the playing field is looking a lot closer to level these days. And about damned time.

My only regret is watching the face of Peter O’Toole, who has quite visibly withered in the last 2-3 years, and realizing he may have had his last crack at competitive gold. I don’t think he doubts his own legacy, he’s got too much class and cheek to worry about nonsense like that. Still, it would be grand if he had just one more in him – not just for Oscar, but because there are generations growing up not knowing the volcanic talent behind those pale eyes. The classiest moment of the evening came when O’Toole was first mentioned by Ellen DeGeneres, and Leonardo DiCaprio put his fingers to his lips and whistled. Even though on that night O’Toole was the competition, DiCaprio had to show respect, and the gesture had sincerity to it. DiCaprio’s at the forefront of his generation of stars, it’s good to see him knowing who from earlier generations deserves props.

Speaking of earlier generations, Alan Arkin won the equivalent of the Character Actor Lifetime Achievement Award, an autumnal Supporting Actor Oscar which is as much about his prior decades of excellent work as his performance in Little Miss Sunshine. It’s a fine excuse to revisit his early years in Hollywood, where with his background in music and sketch comedy (he was a founding member of Second City) he provided an earnest weirdness that played like a dissonant virtuoso saxophone over his studio-schooled co-stars. In the dated and overwrought comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, he drops a quiet and worried straight man right into the middle of the flailing and looks all the better. In the still-handsome thriller Wait Until Dark he’s so mannered he’s practically alien, one can only imagine how his dark-spectacled beatnik thug unsettled audiences of the time.

But by far the biggest star of the night was former Vice President Al Gore, who the Academy audience treated like he was the new Roberto Benigni. We also learned he’s a more natural comedian than DiCaprio. Who knew?

Ellen’s first reference to him led to a camera cutaway that caught something priceless – Al Gore, squinting, body hunched up, doing what only a fellow traveler could recognize as the Nerd Laugh. You know, the snorty one you learn to keep to yourself from all the times growing up that no one else could understand what you thought was so amusing. In a way I hope Gore doesn’t run for President, he seems too happy that he gets to just be a slightly-plumped-out, globe-saving Nerd now. Instead of the traditional unbooked starlet (Maggie Gyllenhaal this year), he should have been tapped to host the Sci-Tech Award Ceremony, and he could have introduced himself by saying “I am your GOD!


P.S. Has anyone else noticed that Hugh Jackman is turning into Jeremy Hawke, Jay Sherman’s hunky Australian friend from The Critic? Just asking.


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