Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Two vignettes

Rather than one lengthy blog, today I'll venture two shorter ones, concerning issues very much on my mind.

1. The idea of free health care may make some of us feel warm and fuzzy inside, but we need to be mindful of its ripple effects. Along with this health care privision comes the hiring of three hundred new Internal Revenue Service agents -- in the area of enforcement. Better things for better auditing. Clearly the government is interested in squeezing every available penny from American taxpayers in order to fund this health care initiative. The idea of supplying every citizen with health care may sound lovely in the abstract, since after all, poor health is hardly a privilege. But would any non-politician favor bestowing more power on the IRS?

When politicians poke and prod the embers of tax warfare, the rich aren't the only ones who suffer. (Even if they were, however, do we really want to suck away the resources of those who, if they could afford it, might furnish us with employment?) In fact, tax warfare has no winners, except politicians themselves, who know they might ride to victory on a wave of dissatisfaction and wealth envy. I'm hard-pressed to imagine anyone outside of Washington, D.C. who rejoices at the prospect of an already painfully complicated system becoming even more complicated. Yet this is the price we pay when we trust the government to supply us with services -- and should the private sector become more depleted, we'll end up looking to the government to provide even more services. The vicious cycle won't stop.

Ideas that can make us feel really good in theory might well wreak havoc in practice. We voters would do well to remember that.

2. A lovely Massachusetts high school student named Phoebe Prince is dead by her own hand. She'd been subject to relentless bullying for months, until at last she found her life no longer worth living. Suicide is both tragic and terrifying; what must it take for someone to reach a point where life itself becomes more burden than blessing? Yet the motive behind Phoebe's act makes it all the more infuriating. She just wanted the bullying to stop, and she saw no other way.

Now nine teenagers are up on charges for driving this young lady to take her own life. As someone who suffered from a little bullying during her own high school years (though nothing nearly as severe as what Phoebe went through), I can't help wishing for those heartless, sociopathic little scumbags to be put under the jail. The trouble: I can't convince myself that jail time will give them the lessons in common decency they so desperately need. At the root of the problem here lies something that the government can't step in and control: poor parenting.

Poor parenting has always been with us, but in this Age of Entitlement it seems more prevalent than ever. I recall an incident at a junior college library, where a girl took a cell phone call and, completely ignoring the "quiet-please" policy, began a loud and distracting conversation. She was creating such a disturbance that one of the librarians approached her and asked her to step outside to finish her conversation. Rather than accepting this reasonable rebuke, the girl got angry and threatened the librarian, telling him that she would call "her daddy" and let him know how she was treated, and "daddy" would then let the librarian have it. Two people in this story should be ashamed of themselves: one, the girl herself, a poster-child for the principle of Entitlement, and two, "daddy" -- because if she really thought he would take her side in this case, he obviously hasn't been guiding her in the right direction.

Too many parents are letting their children grow into adolescence with the idea that the rules of courtesy and decency do not apply to them, and that they can behave as they like without caring who else might be hurt. These parents are so anxious to pump their children full of self-esteem that they forget to teach them a little basic consideration for the feelings of others. I doubt any of the bullies who tormented Phoebe Prince to her death has a self-esteem problem; most likely the nine teenagers in question have a little too much of that quality -- for, word is they think their actions were perfectly justified, or else they think their victim should have been "tough enough" to withstand their assaults. Do young people get this way on their own? Perhaps a small handful of them do, and learn to take satisfaction in others' pain in spite of all their parents' best efforts to teach them right from wrong. But I can't help thinking that 80% of the time, in back of bullies you'll find parents who aren't paying enough attention, and may even be feeding their children's sense of entitlement.

The responsibility for curbing bullies should not rest with district attorneys. It should rest with Mom and Dad. Sadly, the moms and dads who failed to stop their children from tormenting Phoebe Prince will now be so busy protecting those kids from the consequences of their actions that they won't realize their own guilt.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Itch to Write

It's called "cacoethes scribendi." I learned that, ironically enough, from a story I taught in American Literature, about a girl who did not want to be a writer. But I understand the term all too well. It's more than simply a relentless drive to shape one's thoughts and dreams into words on a page; it's also a restless dissatisfaction when the ideas aren't coming as fast as they should, or when your life fills up with so many tasks that you can't find time to plot out the jumble of daydreams that knock at your skull, demanding to be let out.

I'm not exactly sure how old I was when the images dancing through my head began to shape themselves into stories. But I do recall my eighth birthday, when my parents presented me with a most precious gift: a typewriter. (Yes, I am really that old.) As I played with my new toy, my calling became clear. I had to write.

At this point, my writing still qualifies as a "hobby," in that I have never made a dime with it. My works have never seen print, unless this blog spot qualifies. Yet it's central to who I am, not something "tacked on" to which I gravitate whenever leisure time presents itself. I don't write because I think it will win me fame and fortune; granted, J.K. Rowling-like renown would be nice if it came, but I don't need it in order to write. I write because I can't help myself. The tiniest thing may activate that itch. I'll hear a name or a word that I like (say, "Fortunati" or "simulacrum"), and before I know it, this name or word will form the kernel of a story; imagination will wrap around it with details of plot and character. My favorite source of inspiration are my folktale collections, from generic "around-the-world" omnibuses to Andersen to Jacobs to Grimm. (I'm probably the only person I know who owns three, count 'em, three translations of the complete Brothers Grimm.) Folktales provide bare-bones plotlines and character tropes to spark obsessions, and I have to credit them when I've completed my elaborations, even when my finished product bears little resemblance to the original inspiration.

As one might guess from my fondness for folktales, my genre of choice is fantasy. The fantasy genre is inherently metaphorical; it enables me to deal with real-life ideas and issues in an indirect fashion, without being too literal. If I have something to say about the fear of helplessness and dependence, and about how those fears might be overcome, how do I get it across? I write a story called Miss Foote, about a talented ragtime musician who is shrunk to twelve inches tall and must learn a new way of navigating the world. (The inspiration for this one, incidentally, came not from a folktale but from the scene with the little people in glass jars from The Bride of Frankenstein.) What if my mission is to take down so-called "Identity Politics," the notion that people's membership in a particular gender, racial, or ethnic group makes them special, privileged characters? I write Atterwald, a tale of human/animal shapeshifters whose society is structured around a heirarchy of "Tribes." Right now I'm intrigued by the importance of dreams and their link with madness, so I'm working on a story about a malign wizard who hopes to drive an entire village insane by sending a magical being to "curse" the villagers with recurring nightmares.

Silly, isn't it? Perhaps, but I still cherish the hope that one day my writing will count as a public good rather than a mere private indulgence. I've already made progress in that direction, thanks to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, a group to which I'm proud to belong. When I first joined the company in 2004, I thought to make my mark chiefly as an actress, my voice being my chief asset. But I quickly decided to try my hand at writing radio drama, and seven months later, I saw my first script, The House Across the Way, performed at Stone Mountain's Tomato Festival. Since then, the company has performed a number of my scripts, my favorites being The Worst Good Woman in the World (based on a folktale about a henpecked man forced to make a deal with the devil) and Nothing-at-All (an abbreviated version of Atterwald). I can't thank the good people of the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company enough for their willingness to give voice (and great voice at that!) to the ideas afloat in my head. Few things are more satisfying than hearing your daydreams come to life in the mouths of fine actors. (For the curious who might wish a taste of our work, visit www.artc.org and check out the podcasts thereon.)

When we hear the word "hobby," we tend to think of something frivolous and inconsequential, something we should be willing to toss aside, if need be, in favor of other concerns. But I do believe hobbies play a vital role in our existence. Not all of us enjoy the privilege of making an actual living doing what we love best -- and even if we do, our wage-earning work can't express all that we are. Hobbies give us a chance to tap into our creative energies. Whether it's hunting, baseball, or needlepoint, it gives voice to some crucial element in our characters. I'd hate to meet the person cut off utterly from his hobbies. (Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella The Yellow Wallpaper paints a terrifying picture of what can happen when a woman is denied the chance to do what she loves.)

My writing expresses a side of myself I can never show in everyday life. I can't even articulate it in literal terms, but I know it, I feel it when I finish a good scene. Those who read it are getting a look at the real, undisguised me. I can only hope they like it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Parents and the Movies

[In my previous blog I made a couple of mistakes, for which I apologize. The show "iCarly" is a product of Nickelodeon, not Disney. Also, A Little Princess was released in 1995, not 1994.]

Many a movie might make it onto my want-to-see list, but only about 30% of that list will I see in the theater. I can generally wait for video to see films with contemporary settings. I reserve my theater attendance for costume dramas (films with pre-1950s settings), sci-fi or fantasy, and animated films, since these films promise to transport me to a clime wildly different from the one in which I live, and the ambiance of the movie theater, in which I'm shut away from the "real world," helps that happen. Because I don't go to the theater to see just anything, I like my visits there to be special occasions.

While I don't like the theater to be overcrowded, neither do I want it to be altogether empty except for myself (which hasn't been a problem since I got married, but which used to be a not infrequent danger). When I arrived twenty minutes early to see Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, I was dismayed to find no one in the seats. Wait a while, I told myself, you'll soon be joined by others. So I waited, and I waited, until five minutes before the film was supposed to roll. I went out into the corridor, and I saw a family of three -- mother, father, little girl -- heading toward me. Oh, goody! thought I, I won't be watching this alone! They came closer, closer, closer... and then they walked right past me, only to disappear into the theater where The Exorcism of Emily Rose was playing.

It's not outside the realm of possibility, but I find it hard to imagine the seven-year-old girl who would enjoy The Exorcism of Emily Rose more than Wallace and Gromit. I find it impossible to imagine the parents who would consider The Exorcism of Emily Rose more suitable family entertainment than Wallace and Gromit -- of would consider it suitable family entertainment at all. Yet there they were, opting for half-baked and poorly-reviewed horror over witty animated comedy. The question of their aesthetic taste might be worth examining, but more to the point is this: Who really wanted to see The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- the parents or the child?

Where the movies are concerned, parents of young children often fall into one of two, both mistaken groups. The first are hyper-conscious about "inappropriate material" to the point where they forget that a good story can't exist without conflict. They believe that the best, perhaps the only acceptable children's entertainment depicts endless and uncompromised sunshine and roses: nothing bad ever happens, no one ever gets scared, parents never make mistakes and children never disobey their parents. There's no place in this eternally cheerful landscape for icily beautiful queens transforming into wart-ridden hags (Snow White), mistreated circus animals getting tipsy by accident (Dumbo), psychotic fashionistas threatening to skin puppies (101 Dalmatians), or happily married husbands losing their wives to illness and old age (Up). Granted, some children are more squeamish than others, and individual parents have to take that into account. But it seems a shame that in order to protect them from conflict, children should be denied the wonder and excitement that the best animated films have to offer.

At least this first group is consciously looking out for their children's best interest, which is more than can be said for the second group -- the too-cheap-to-hire-a-babysitter group, who will drag their children, however young, to any movie they want to see. Not only do they risk bewildering their children with genuinely inappropriate content, but they compromise the moviegoing experience of everyone in the theater, as those children grow restless and start to misbehave.

One of the most striking examples of this occurred when I went with my parents to see Martin Scorcese's The Aviator. Martin Scorcese has made many an intriguing and exciting film, but none of his work is appropriate for pre-adolescents, and The Aviator, the story of the brilliant but mentally unbalanced Howard Hughes, is no exception. It's a great film, and with his bravura performance, Leonardo diCaprio gives us a dauntless bantam-cock taking on The System, a figure to root for despite his questionable behavior. But while my folks and I were watching Hughes lock himself away in his bunker, completely naked, talking to people only through the thick wall, a tiny three-year-old girl was dashing up and down the aisle, heedless of the events transpiring on-screen. Not a single second of The Aviator would be remotely comprehensible to a child that age. But Mommy and Daddy wanted to see it, decided to spare themselves the trouble of finding a sitter, and brought their little angel along. Perhaps it's just as well she was running the marathon dash rather than paying attention to the movie; questions like "Mommy, why is he naked?" would have disturbed the rest of us even more.

Another incident involved a movie that could be considered a family film: Disney's live-action sports drama The Greatest Game Ever Played, an underrated film featuring an Oscar-caliber performance by Irish actor Stephen Dillane. The movie intrigued my husband and me from the get-go, being a little more complex than most sports movies, in that the audience is led to care as much about the inevitable loser as the eventual winner. To see a three- or four- or five-year-old at this film wouldn't have disturbed us so much, though it's probably better suited to ages eight and up. But one mother thought it appropriate to bring her infant with her. It makes no sense whatsoever to bring an infant to a film, any film, since the infant is incapable of comprehending what he or she is seeing. This infant, possibly teething, made sure none of us could forget he was in the audience. He was crying non-stop, and his mother was sitting comfortably in her seat, somehow managing to pay attention to the movie despite the bawling right under her nose. The rest of us, of course, weren't so lucky. It was getting on our nerves to the point where, when the usher finally asked the woman to take the baby out of the theater, half the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

It was then that the woman committed an even worse offense than bringing a teething or colicky infant to the movie theater -- she turned on the audience and invited us to... well, do something with ourselves. Though I managed to enjoy the movie, I left the theater wondering what kind of example this mother is going to set for her child as he grows older. What is he likely to learn, from her attitude even more than her language? What is the little toddler girl going to learn from her parents' insistence on taking her to "see" movies that make no sense to her?

The message is loud and clear: we can do whatever we please, and if other people don't like it, they can... well, do something to themselves. Our pleasure, our satisfaction is of paramount importance. Why should anyone expect us to wait to gratify our own wants until a sitter is available?

I like to think that most parents do the right thing where their kids and the movies are concerned. They listen when their kids start talking about a movie, and they make it their business to find out as much about it as possible before they take them to see it. When they take them, they're prepared to watch it and they're ready for any questions that might arise from the plot and the conflict. Not only that, but they have taught their children to be aware of others in the theater and to behave in such a way that they, too, can enjoy the movie.

But I wonder how much we have to pay for the ones who don't do the right thing -- and not just in the movie theaters. The Attitude of Entitlement is a dangerous poison, and sadly, many parents are passing it right along to their children.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Disney's "Boy Problem"?

Conventional wisdom holds that while young girls will gladly see films and read stories about boy protagonists, cheerfully imagining themselves in the shoes of those youthful heroes, young boys will avoid "girl-centric" movies as if they were typhoid and will identify with female protagonists only at gunpoint. With this wisdom as a guide, many studios regard family films with female protagonists as risky ventures, not worth taking. Sadly, box office returns tend to prove them right: witness, for example, the otherwise inexplicable tanking of 1994's superb "A Little Princess." Critics loved it; the studio heads were so anxious for its success that they released it twice; yet what boy over the age of three is going to push his parents to take him to a movie with that title?

Accordingly, Disney has decided it's unwise to release its upcoming 2-D animated film with the title Rapunzel. A much more boy-friendly title, they've decided, is Tangled; in marketing the film, they've chosen to emphasize its swashbuckling hero rather than its heroine with the long mane. In an article my husband e-mailed me, "Does Disney really know what boys like?" various critics and sociologists are questioning whether the Disney studio has a problem reaching boys, and what that problem might be. NPR's Linda Holmes suggests it's not the female protagonists that alienate boys; it's the kind of female protagonists the company is known for. It's princesses that boys disdain, while they'll gladly watch live action Disney TV shows like "iCarly," which feature tough, "today" female protagonists rather than fluttery, insipid fashionistas. If Holmes is right, Disney can attract boys by rejecting the princess model. In this case, I'm right with the boys; I'd be the first one to rejoice if fluttery, insipid fashionistas disappeared altogether from the Disney landscape -- make that the pop culture landscape.

Disney, however, hasn't given us that kind of heroine in several decades, save in the form of parody (e.g. Enchanted, which performed quite decently at the box office). Boys' disdain for helpless airheads can't explain the disappointing box-office performance of The Princess and the Frog, in which the titular "princess," Tiana, departs drastically from the damsel-in-distress model. Far more likely: with all the marketing surrounding Tiana, and very little push to sell the hero, Naveen, boys decided the movie had nothing to offer them.

Is boys' rejection of movies with female protagonists inevitable? If so, why do a handful manage to succeed, while the vast majority tank? Coraline offers an interesting case: it did respectable, though not blockbuster, business, but many regarded this dark-hued fairy tale as more appropriate for older than for younger audiences. More on-point is the success of 2000's Chicken Run, which featured a courageous and resourceful female protagonist. Ginger, the heroine, saves the day for herself and her fellow fowls. But boys and girls alike embraced this movie, because it boasted a funny and interesting male secondary lead, Yankee chicken Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson.

Chicken Run offers a valuable clue to how to give a family film cross-gender appeal. Even if a movie features a female protagonist, boys will go if they know a male character plays a significant role. It helps if said male character is funny and tough and voiced by a star they're familiar with.

As an animation fan, I pay attention to the releases in the genre, finding out as much about them as I can, to decide whether or not I will see them. I've noticed the tendency to avoid female protagonists, even when the featured characters should logically be female (the abysmal Barnyard, for instance, features udder-bearing cows speaking in male voices!). In recent years, Disney has tried to solve their "boy problem" by releasing films with no significant female characters at all (Brother Bear) or with only one important female character, and that one evil (The Emperor's New Groove). The latter manages to be enjoyable anyway; Home on the Range far less so -- not because of its female-heavy cast, but because of its weak storyline.

I don't want to see films in which female characters are marginalized; but I don't want to see uninvolving plots and half-baked characters, either.

My sole frustration with the otherwise wonderful Pixar Studios is that, heretofore, they have refused to give us a movie in which the central character is female. If any studio is likely to "get it right," it's Pixar, with their strong team of writers and directors and their knack for weaving involving storylines. (Word is that they'll soon be amending the problem, with The Bear and the Bow. I can't wait!) Yet despite their insistence, up to now, on male protagonists, Pixar knows how to create cross-gender appeal. Every single Pixar release, with the exception of the first Toy Story film, features interesting, funny, and/or helpful female characters. A Bug's Life features several, from impatient-to-grow-up young queen ant Dot, who flies to the hero to summon him to action, to the soft-voiced Black Widow, Rosie. The Incredibles may center on middle-aged superhero Bob Parr, but his wife and daughter, Helen and Violet, play crucial roles; both grow and change and save the day along with Bob. (Bob's son, Dash, is just the kind of boy the young male audience will want to identify with.) Hilarious supporting character Edna Mode is a nice bonus. And in WALL-E, it's possible to view female robot EVE as a co-protagonist, since she learns, grows, and changes as much as WALL-E does, and performs crucial action at the end.

All of these films succeed with both boys and girls, not only because both male and female characters "do cool stuff," but because the characters are painted along individual, rather than stereotypical, lines. They're not interesting as boys or as girls; they're interesting in and of themselves.

Can Disney 2-D solve the "boy problem" without pushing girls aside? It's been done in the past. Among their post-Lion King films, my favorite, in terms of cross-gender appeal, is Tarzan. Yes, the protagonist is male, and he acts it: tough and strong, yet capable of great tenderness in his scenes with Jane. However, the writers take the time and trouble to make Jane interesting, too -- smart, quirky, and funny as few Disney heroines are. The animal supporting characters also included females, a wise move even if one of them speaks with that annoying Rosie O'Donnell voice. That's what persuades me into the theatre: a strong hero, a funny heroine, and interesting supporting characters of both genders.

I wouldn't be surprised if many boys felt the same.

(NOTE: the next-to-last paragraph is drawn from an e-mail to my husband on this same subject. Even when I was writing it, I felt it belonged in a blog.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In Praise of Solitude

If you didn't come of age in the 1980s as I did, you may not be familiar with the song "Cool Change," a Little River Band single from the summer of 1981. In the opening lyric, the singer declares that the thing he misses most in his life is "the time that I spend alone."

I was young, and my opinions unformed, when I first heard the song. Like many young girls, I daydreamed love stories, and here was a man singing in praise of time spent alone. I interpreted the song as a rejection of girls and romance and, accordingly, hated it. I believed all songs should be about love. Now, of course, I see that the song is about love, though not the romantic love that fueled my early adolescent fantasies, and not the narcissistic self-love that reduces other people to mere functionaries. It's about love for a private identity, an essential self that one can only discover in solitude.

Who are we when we're alone? What do we love, dream, and think about when no one is looking? When we're not playing the roles of husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter, or one of an endless array of occupations? Relationships are to be treasured, certainly, as are the roles and responsibilities that reflect our values, interests, and talents. But I suspect that only in solitude do we learn what we truly love and value. The questions that fill the quiet tell us what we're interested in. The daydreams that keep the questions company tell us what we really want from life -- the kinds of people we want to be, the sort of work we want to do. When, in solitude, we come to understand ourselves, we have more to give others when we go out in to the world.

Solitude is one of life's underrated pleasures. Few songs other than "Cool Change" bother to praise it. Few movies or TV shows depict it as anything other than loneliness. (Books depict it a little more accurately, but then, books are read in solitude.) Many young people grow up completely unaware of its healthful effects, looking on it as something to be dreaded and fled. An acquaintance of mine shunned solitude to the extent that five minutes alone was unbearable; on getting home from work, she immediately phoned her best friend and dove into conversation to ward off quiet. Yet without solitude, how can we fashion any semblance of autonomy? How can we stop ourselves from becoming the sort of people who "power down" like robots whenever no one's around to entertain or be entertained by us?

In solitude I first "played classroom," and came to understand I wanted to be a teacher. In solitude I made the acquaintance of Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Shirley, Scout Finch, and Jo March, and I learned that I relish stories. In solitude I first experimented in making up my own stories, and discovered I wanted to write fiction. And I bless those in my life -- family, friends -- who taught me that "alone time" should be sought, not shunned, and thus helped me become who I am.

Furthermore, solitude is not, as I once thought, antithetical to romance. I had the good luck to fall in love with and marry a fellow introvert who understands well the pleasures of time alone. While we love to talk, play, and watch movies together, some of our nicest hours are spent sitting side by side on our couch, each of us with a book, perfectly comfortable in the quiet. Sharing space.

Sharing solitude.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Oscar Gets It Wrong: Grievances

I begin this essay with some trepidation, for we've all heard this sort of thing before: "How could THAT (or HE, or SHE) have won??" Essays and columns bashing Oscar's choices surely number in the hundreds, if not the thousands; books -- among them Peary's Alternate Oscars, well worth a read -- have covered the subject as well. Who needs another list of Oscar Grievances? And could such a list be made without mentioning those same bad decisions that have been covered so often before?

I may as well get this out of the way first: this blog will say nothing of the victory of How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane, or the victory of Ordinary People over Raging Bull, or the questionable victories of Titanic and The Sound of Music. I couldn't say anything on those subjects that hasn't been said before. Besides, though these may count as some of the Academy's biggest mistakes, other errors get further under my skin.

Here goes:
1. Happy Feet, Best Animated Feature, 2006
The previous year, any one of the three nominees would have been worthy choices (though Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit was my favorite). This year, by contrast, was distressingly weak. I like Pixar's Cars, but I have to admit it's one of the company's weaker features. The premise of the competing Monster House is interesting enough, but the heroic threesome come across as Harry Potter retreads (the brainy girl, the brave boy, the screw-up). Yet of all of them, I like Happy Feet least of all -- first, because the movie went on at least twenty minutes too long, and second, because it wears its political heart on its sleeve, leaving no room for complexity or ambiguity. It's populated less by characters than by devices through which its messages may be sent. Yet this film took Best Animated Feature, not in spite of its polemicizing but because of it. In the eyes of many in contemporary Hollywood, preaching an ideological gospel is a far nobler goal than telling a good story. I tend to prefer the way Classic Hollywood put it: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union."

2. Helen Hunt, Best Actress, As Good As It Gets, 1997
Hunt may not be a terrible actress, but her dull character is the reason I don't like this movie as much as I wish I did; alongside her male co-stars, Greg Kinnear and Jack Nicholson (particularly the latter), she comes across as crushingly ordinary. I see little dimension or complexity in this character, and while Hunt does a serviceable job in the role, I can't help thinking any moderately talented actress would have done all right with it. Yet what makes her victory infuriating are the actresses she defeated: Julie Christie (who has proven in recent years just how much more than just a pretty face she really is), Helena Bonham Carter (NOT one of my favorite actresses before I saw this film, yet so convincing and heartbreaking as a deeply conflicted and interested character), and especially Judi Dench (giving the performance of the greatest scope). Any of these women would have been better choices than Hunt, but the passing-over of Dench is particularly criminal. (Oscar too must have felt ashamed of itself, enough to give her a Best Supporting Actress consolation prize the following year.) How did Hunt manage to triumph? The suspicion: all the other nominees were British, and the Academy decided to Buy American.

3. Terms of Endearment, Best Picture, 1983
Despite a flashy, eccentric turn by Jack Nicholson (the go-to guy for flashy, eccentric turns), this film remains a disease-of-the-week Lifetime Television Event that somehow found its way onto the Big Screen. Its characters are not only unlikeable but uninteresting, a far worse flaw. The plot takes forever to go anywhere. The climax, which should inspire tears, instead inspires relief that the darn movie is surely almost over. If this is truly a year's Best Picture, then that year had no good movies. Yet 1983 did have good movies -- one in particular: The Right Stuff, a compelling and well-acted look at the early years of America's Space Program. Like the great ensemble drama that follows it by a decade (Schindler's List), this film works on a human level as well as a socio-historical one, giving us vital glimpses of the personalities of the many people involved. That's no easy feat. Oscar usually likes to honor Big Films, ignoring smaller movies that are sometimes far worthier. This year, Oscar chose to ignore a worthy Big Film in favor of an inferior smaller movie. Go figure.

4. The omission of Singin' in the Rain from the Best Picture nominees, 1952
This film is regarded by many as Hollywood's best musical, and with good reason: it's as good between the musical numbers as it is during them, and considering that the musical numbers include Donald O'Connor's wild-and-woolly "Make 'Em Laugh" and Gene Kelly's joyous title song-and-dance, that's saying quite a bit. Rather than a weak string of barely connected musical set-pieces, we get a smart, funny look at the headaches involved in the transition from silent to sound film in 1927. All the performances -- from Jean Hagen's horrid-voiced silent film queen to Debbie Reynolds' perky up-and-comer to Millard Mitchell's harried but authoritative studio head -- are spot-on. As a result, Singin' in the Rain stands the test of time far better than other musicals that actually managed to snag a Best Picture win (An American in Paris, The Sound of Music, West Side Story). But evidently, the Academy felt that having awarded An American the previous year, they could safely ignore Singin' in the Rain without fear of accusations of prejudice against musicals. Meanwhile, they handed the Big Prize to the ultimate unworthy Big Film: Cecil B. DeMille's lavish but dull The Greatest Show on Earth. That film's victory doesn't bother me half as much as Singin' in the Rain's snubbing. Fortunately, Singin' has plenty of fans, and not just among the older generation. In cinema memory it will easily outlast -- has, in fact, already outlasted -- DeMille's circus epic.