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.

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