The Sweet Smell of Scandal at the Oscars This Year
I'm an old white guy who prognosticates about the Oscars, which turns out to be morbidly perfect. And I can tell you for a fact that Best Picture will be The Big Short...I mean Spotlight...I mean Pixels. Ah, fuck. Who cares? The perverse excitement this year is in the various scandals brewing, not in handicapping the winners. This time around, "the Oscar race" has come off more like "the master race." It's the white Olympics!
A Whiter Shade of Pale
Last fall they signed acid-mouthed comic Chris Rock to host the gala affair on February 28, no doubt to atone for the horror of last year's lack of inclusiveness. (Selma was up for Best Picture and got...Best Song. End of story.) But then, as is now legend, they did it again. Idris Elba, who's scarily amazing as the Commandant in Beasts of No Nation, bagged Globe and BAFTA nominations and a SAG Award but was sent to the back of the bus by Oscar. True, the Weeknd got a Best Song nomination — for the worst movie of the year, Fifty Shades of Grey. And What Happened, Miss Simone? landed a nod for Best Documentary Feature — for its white director. And Straight Outta Compton got a Screenplay nod — for its white writers. Oy. The Academy clearly needs to be mauled by a bear, though it does seem to like rewarding Supporting Actresses playing slaves, maids, or abusive mothers and Best Actors playing dictators or psychotic cops. The bright side is that, if Rock doesn't stay home in protest, he will undoubtedly have a field day on the topic, and that'll be worth tuning in to as sure as he once told me that, moneywise, "Madagascar is the gift that keeps giving."
And maybe they can get a rise out of everyone by showing a clip of Samuel L. Jackson's "big black dingus" speech from The Hateful Eight, a/k/a The Hateful Eight Inches. That'll instill some fear.
But suck on this: This whole brouhaha should be a wakeup call not only to the Academy, but to Hollywood itself, which rarely gives non-whites the chance to play Oscar-type roles. Has anyone considered that?
Michael Moore Is Gunning for Spotlight
The whiter-than–Neil Patrick Harris film Spotlight is a top contender for Best Picture, since it's a tightly acted ensemble piece about reporters uncovering pedophilia in the Catholic Church — something it's hard to argue with, even if it doesn't achieve the thrill level of All the President's Men, the 1976 classic about journos uncovering the sickos of the Watergate scam. But despite its air of confidence and its taut acting, the film is not universally admired. Recently, Michael Moore told me he has a problem with Spotlight because "Buried in the film is the real story, which is that the Boston Globe reporters dropped the story! They sat on it! Who knows how many kids were molested while they did that? The reporters should not be accepting kudos!"
I see his point, although at least that info — plus the fact that the scribes were actually scooped by a less widely read paper — made it into the film. It makes it more textured, if way less of an occasion for the Pulitzer-winning writers to congratulate themselves. And as I told Moore, "Just because they finally scooped the story, does that mean pedophilia in the church ended?"
Message to Michael
That other Michael's got problems. While Mr. Keaton's two Spotlight co-stars got nominated in supporting categories, he wasn't — and Oscar dissed him last year too, even though his startling, nominated Birdman performance fully deserved to levitate him to the podium. Could there be factors at play here other than quality? A veteran showbiz observer who's been covering the Oscars for over three decades told me, "People think he's a smartass. Way back, when he first became a star, he was being impossible and arrogant, but he was in the catbird seat. When stars are riding high, they can't be contradicted. And I don't think he ever changed. Even though he was no longer powerful, the perception is that he was still that guy. Maybe he doesn't care for bullshit, which is admirable, but the result is that he won't win a popularity contest.
"In his defense, he's a skinny, balding guy who has a great sense of humor and an unpretentious, no-frills attitude, and he's going into the arena to be a big deal. You wouldn't say he's conventionally handsome or the sexiest man alive. He's got a lot of things that might say, 'He's a character actor, not a leading man,' and maybe that drives him a little bit crazy. You have to overwhelm everybody to convince people you're the guy that deserves to be in the spotlight. When he was cast in Batman, it was a very controversial decision. Some people have had it up to here with Keaton for 35 years and some people don't change and some people don't forget." Disclosure: I actually like the guy and think he should have at least one Oscar on his shelf by now. And maybe he's just playing a schmo offscreen. If so, he's even better than I thought.
Notes on a Scandal
[SPOILER ALERT] The diddling priests of Spotlight and their straight unravelers got a Best Picture nod, but Carol didn't, probably because its gay characters aren't victims or maniacs. The lead lesbos face serious setbacks, but they basically wind up together and seemingly happy, even in the wacky, oppressive 1950s. So...sorry! The picture'll come home empty-handed because it's not about a serial killer, jailed drag queen, AIDS patient, or assassinated hero. While Brokeback Mountain elicited squeals of homophobic discomfort from the Academy after its 2005 release — some voters admitted they were unable to even view the screener — it was still nominated for Best Picture and won Best Director because, deep down, if cranky Hollywood types are going to have to pay attention to gays, they want them downtrodden and/or just plain dead.
Leo the Lion
Apparently, some downtrodden straights make the cut, too. This year's star of an Alejandro González Iñárritu film featuring levitation, Leonardo DiCaprio, is a slam dunk to win Best Actor for the man/animal survival saga The Revenant. Leonardo will cop the prize, not only for enacting his character's brave battle with the elements after being left for dead in the wilderness, but for his own personal struggle to get an Oscar after five nominations — a true triumph of the human spirit. And that movie! He wasn't actually raped by a bear, contrary to loony reports, but the bear attack scene is extraordinary, and so is the bit where Leo guts a horse and crawls inside, making this the closest thing to cross-species porn since Lawrence of Arabia. For someone who's probably still drying off from Titanic, this is truly remarkable. Publicists can emphasize how cold Leo was while making the movie and how much he gave for his craft, but I feel they should play down the fact that it's the gruntiest Oscar performance since Patty Duke's in The Miracle Worker ("wah-wah!") or at least Holly Hunter's in The Piano. He barely speaks any actual English! But here's something in the movie's favor, as I've pointed out: It has First Nations characters! Maybe the Academy members can convince themselves that makes it about people of color. If so, westerns will win guilt awards from now till doomsday — and they should anyway.
Let's Play Scattergories
Other leading performances were bizarrely reduced to supporting categories, simply because the studios wanted that to happen and the Academy spinelessly went along with it. It makes for a tidier dispersal of honors in their weird eyes, and everyone conspires to lie about who did what. So Rooney Mara — who's even more the focus of Carol than Cate Blanchett — is up for Best Supporting Actress, and so is Alicia Vikander, who's the female star of The Danish Girl; I guess they wanted Eddie Redmayne to be the only woman up for lead. (That's one thing the Golden Globes got right, by putting both Mara and Vikander in the Best Actress category.) Meanwhile, Jacob Tremblay — the nine-year-old from Room who gave the best performance of the year — got bupkis, possibly because he was being pushed for Supporting, though he's really Lead. It could really give you a headache. Maybe they thought he was black!
Who'll win? Well, The Hateful Eight's Jennifer Jason Leigh has to get punched all through the movie — plus I'm factoring in the real-life setback that her ex, Noah Baumbach, later went off with Greta Gerwig. But I think Vikander will take the prize. She's great in Transparent — I mean, The Danish Girl — and after all, she was in Ex Machina too, as a hot robot. But they should change the category to Best Leading Actress Who Lobbied for Supporting.
As for Best Supporting Actor, Sly Stallone won the Golden Globe for Creed and is surely on his way to creaming the Oscar competition too. If you'd have ever said, "One day, Stallone will win an Oscar for Rocky VI," they'd have taken away your cineplex card. But not only can he play Rocky Balboa in his sleep (or at least with sleepy eyes), he brings a lived-in warmth to the part, even as the film ends up cornily juxtaposing his battle for life with young Adonis's fight for the win. Rocky plus cancer equals victory — especially since a humbled Stallone is gamely working the circuit! And he has the best excuse for showing up: "I asked my [black] director if I should boycott, and he said no!"
The Edge of Glory
I'm "gonna fly now" to a Best Song controversy that started when songwriter Linda Perry (whose tune from the other lesbian film, Freeheld, didn't get nominated) stirred up some fascinating shit. On January 18, Perry tweeted about a song that did get a nod — "Til It Happens to You," from The Hunting Ground, the documentary about rape on college campuses. She said that she'd heard the song — credited as co-written by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga — before Gaga was aboard, and that it's the same exact piece of material that's now nominated, except for one little line! In other words, said Perry, co-writer Gaga could only have contributed a few words, at most! Responded Warren, "The song is the result of a special collaboration between myself and Lady Gaga. As Lady Gaga and I have said, 'Til It Happens to You' was inspired by the countless survivors of abuse who need our support and love so they know they're not alone." How's that for a vague reply? In any case, Perry graciously backed down, no doubt feeling that women-on-women verbal violence would not be advisable when you're dealing with a rape film. And the song will surely win, with Gaga saying more than one line at the podium. This is fine with me — the fact that Gaga will from now on be identified as "the Oscar-winning singer/actress" will drive Madonna crazy.
The Phantom Menace
Diversity might have been shockingly omitted from the slate of nominees, but familiarity wasn't; this time around, there are some movies people have actually heard of and even seen. Six years ago, they expanded the Best Picture field to a possible ten nominees in hopes of encompassing some flicks that were smashes, but it backfired, only resulting in more arthouse films in the running. Well, this time, the curse has been lifted, and nominated hits include Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and The Revenant. This means there will be some bells of recognition sounding amid the blank looks — even the juggernaut known as Star Wars: The Force Awakens is up for five honors, though it was denied a Best Picture nod basically because Mad Max is the action sequel to beat this year. Besides, once George Lucas called the Lucas-less smash "retro," its Best Pic chances were shot to oblivion and the Force went to sleep again. Like Linda Perry, Lucas then backtracked, but in this case, the damage was done — and it doesn't matter at all, since the Academy seems to feel that Star Wars already won the Powerball and is hardly in desperate need of prizes. Mighty white of them.
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