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Claudia Leisinger


QUEEN, KING AND SCORSESE’S ACE: REFLECTIONS ON THE 79TH ACADEMY AWARDS

 

Best Supporting Actress

Movie debutante J-Hud, with her American Idol-reject fairy tale, had this category locked the moment she revved up Dreamgirls’ powerhouse theme tune “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’. Which is too bad, because whereas most people heard a soulful, heartbreaking tour de force, all Hudson’s vocal blitz did for me was fear that she’d literally bring the house down – demolish both the movie set she stood in, and the very cinema in which I was sitting. Hudson has an extraordinary set of pipes but whether “And I Am Telling You…”, or Hudson’s rendition of it, was good or not, I honestly don’t know – all I got was VOLUME.

Moreover, when Hudson wasn’t belting out musical numbers her acting ability left me far from convinced. Her character Effie White’s one-note defiant mannerisms – hand on hip, head pecking from side to side – screamed modern wannabe R&B diva, rather than ‘60s soul icon. The wigs and gowns may have been authentic, Hudson’s voice is real enough, but her actual performance was an awkward mix of karaoke queen and anachronistic sass. Yet no one seemed to bat a fake eyelash. Proof that Reality TV really does make the average American idle.

Of Hudson’s rivals, young Abigail Breslin was charming and unaffected in Little Miss Sunshine but you get the feeling she was picked for the ‘awww’ factor and it’s good she doesn’t have to live down the stigma of Junior Oscar Winner. Babel’s two nominees, Rinko Kikuchi and Adriana Barraza, were both bright spots in a horribly overwrought manifesto of misery. They deserve credit for stealing the limelight from stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal but that was always as far as they would go. Speaking of Blanchett, it’s a shame she won two years back for her Katharine Hepburn impersonation in The Aviator; it meant the Academy could easily overlook by far the most accomplished, most fearless of this category’s nominees. God forbid she prematurely become this generation’s Streep (who herself was wrongly overlooked for her gossamer-sensitive folk singer in Robert Altman’s swansong): nominated without fail but usually beaten by a bland flavour-of-the-month like Cher or Catherine Zeta-Jones. Still at least you know Cate will be back. With J-Hud, all bets are off, even without Simon Cowell making the decisions. 

Should have been nominated:   

Meryl Streep (A Prairie Home Companion)

Should have won (of the 5):        

Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal)

 

Best Supporting Actor

A competitive category ended up with an unofficial “Lifetime Achievement” award for a much-loved and respected veteran. Alan Arkin has been one of America’s best character actors for over forty years, and despite his stiff, scripted acceptance speech, Little Miss Sunshine’s salty grandpa is a great career capper.

Who would have predicted out of The Departed’s powerhouse funky bunch – DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, Sheen, Baldwin – that Marky Mark would be the lone nominee? Not that his gleefully profane Boston cop wasn’t worthy; Wahlberg was probably the movie’s brightest surprise and deservedly beat out Jaaack’s hammy excesses. Indeed Supporting Actor roundly turned its back on genuine movie stars this year, with highly fancied A-listers like Nicholson, Pitt and Ben Affleck all overlooked. This year’s selection were genuine support acts, rather than slumming A-listers seeking artistic credibility.

Comeback of the year was Jackie Earl Haley, a virtual forgotten man since his youthful successes in The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, whose creepy, self-loathing paedophile in Little Children was a revelation. On the other hand, you can imagine his nomination gaining roughly the same career traction as, say, Robert Forster’s nod for Jackie Brown, i.e. zilch. Djimon Hounsou continued his successful run of portraying exotic, suffering black men, something he does with rare power and dignity in the likes of Amistad, In America and this year’s Blood Diamond, but surely he’s proved himself worthy of a greater range of offers by now.

Anyway this year it looked as if another black actor was all set to be feted / forgiven by Hollywood: this was supposed to be Eddie Murphy’s year. His James Brown / Little Richard / Marvin Gaye hybrid in Dreamgirls had it all: singing, dancing, breaking down and a natty array of outfits. Despite some flashbacks to his Saturday Night Live soul man spoofs, Murphy did a grand job reminding people of what he’s capable of when given a fully rounded role. A comedian proving himself in a dramatic role – the Oscar was his lose.

Then came Norbit – a dire, fat suit rehash of his worst, broadesttendencies - released just as Academy voters filled out their ballots. It was so bad you’d imagine its release was co-ordinated by the Little Miss Sunshine marketing team. Whether Norbit directly contributed to Murphy losing can’t be proven, but it’s hard to imagine it helped.

Should have been nominated:

Michael Sheen (The Queen) – restored the much-vilified Tony Blair’s humanity and held his own opposite themajestic Mirren.

Should have won (of the 5):

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine).

 

Best Actress

The biggest sure thing of many an Awards season, Helen Mirren was guaranteed a win even if the real Queen Elizabeth had issued a warrant on her for artistic treason. As it was, the Queen owes The Queen and Mirren plenty for a right royal PR job. Her Majesty may be a pretty nice girl but she doesn’t have a lot to say; in an astonishing transformation – no one ever accused Elizabeth II of being a looker, yet silver fox Mirren looked and sounded like her doppleganger – Mirren imposed a proud, vulnerable and human face on the visage that stares out from every coin and postage stamp in the realm, making this year’s Best Actress race a foregone coronation.

Pity Mirren’s ladies-in-waiting then, since this was easily the strongest Final Five since 1991’s bumper crop (Silence of the Lambs’ Jodie Foster beating out, among others, both Thelma and Louise). Her fellow Dame, Judi, gave one of her strongest and least typical performances as a scheming, embittered old lesbian in the tart Notes on a Scandal; Kate Winslet was, predictably, bravely committed throughout the underwhelming Little Children – her fifth nomination and still only aged 31, a record – and Meryl Streep’s razor-sharp comedic timing and brave, breathy minimalism was recognised for The Devil Wears Prada. Can it really be twenty-five years since Streep won an Oscar, in which time Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino and Renee Zellweger have all snagged one, and Hilary Swank has bagged two?

Kudos also to Penelope Cruz for Volver, her first proper lead role that didn’t treat her solely as eye-candy (not that Pedro Almodovar’s camera didn’t practically drool all over her voluptuous – and padded – curves). Amongst such a stellar line-up it’s hard to imagine who should have made way for Laura Dern’s audacious digital video meltdown for her mentor David Lynch in Inland Empire. Honouring Dern’s reckless courage would also have been a way to acknowledge unquestionably the greatest Oscar campaign ever undertaken: namely Lynch sitting on a Hollywood street corner with a cow and a sign reading: “Without cheese there would be no Inland Empire. Vote for Laura Dern”. Genius. Especially given that without cheese, there certainly would be no Academy Awards.

Should have been nominated:   

Laura Dern (Inland Empire)

Should have won (of the 5):        

Helen Mirren (The Queen)

 

Best Actor

In contrast to Best Actress the leading men presented one of the weakest Best Actor fields in years, with barely enough legitimate candidates to fill five spots. An ideal year then, to go a little left-field, maybe herald Daniel Craig’s brilliant, bruising James Bond, Sacha Baron Cohen’s improv skills as Borat or best of all, the hit-and-miss Clive Owen, beautifully underplaying as a man seeking redemption for himself and the entire human race in Children of Men. Sadly none of these Brits could oust Hollywood heavyweights Will Smith for The Pursuit of Happyness or Leo DiCaprio, wrongly cited for Blood Diamond instead of The Departed, for which he may have been in with a legit shot at winning. Still, at least Ryan Gosling, excellent as a junkie school teacher in the little-seen Half Nelson, made the cut. Gosling could be the next DiCaprio if he wants (The Notebook, co-starring his real-life partner Rachel McAdams, has become a minor Titanic among swooning teen girls), but all the signs are, he doesn’t want to. At all. So more unheralded indie gems like Half Nelson, please.

No, this year was always going to be a two-horse race, between a much-admired, veteran workhorse and a former stud pony one trot away from the knackers yard. Forest Whitaker is one of those consummate pros who selflessly supports the A-listers in blockbusters and occasionally gets the stage to himself in more offbeat projects (Bird, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai). Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland was the perfect middle ground. Overlooked is the fact that Whitaker’s Idi Amin is at best a supporting catalyst to the tremendous James McAvoy’s lead. The bottom line is, he’s a notorious, exotic, real-life nutcase, requiring an accent and some choice monologues that make for great clips: award catnip if ever there was. Not to deny Whitaker’s exemplary efforts, but let’s face it, Ghost Dog, possibly his finest and weirdest work, had less chance than a ghost, or indeed a dog, to get a nomination.

Which meant Peter O’Toole will have to wait another year to “win the lovely bugger outright”, as he poetically put snagging a Best Actor Oscar when offered an honorary award a few years back. In theory, his ageing luvvie in Venus would have ideally fitted the bill; a character not a million miles away from O’Toole’s own boisterous life, confronting mortality with a bang not a whimper. In theory. In the flesh, however, there was way too much lusting after his nubile, curvy young co-star Jodie Whitaker. O’Toole’s Maurice was a reckless, randy old goat, not a sweet, wise old man and no doubt this counted against O’Toole in the eyes of many ageing Academy members (too close for comfort, maybe?). Either way, it puts O’Toole in the record books as the most nominated actor (eight nods) never to win; and while he undoubtedly should have won for Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest screen performances of all time, the lovely old bugger has at least cemented his place in film, and a less wanted place in Oscar, history.

Should have been nominated:    

Clive Owen (Children of Men)

Should have won (of the 5):        

Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson)

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Fully deserved for William Monahan’s inventive profanity and alert ear for Boston dialect in The Departed. How refreshing not to have another New York / L.A-set crime caper and one that uses its own history to inform the story. Children of Men’s gripping story and subtle ways of depicting its dystopian world disproves the theory that the greater the number of writers the worse the screenplay. It’s not the quality, more the category, that should discount Borat’s posse of writers. An adapted screenplay credit for Sacha Baron Cohen and co just because the character already exists? Last I looked, Elizabeth II predated The Queen, and she’s a real person, not a fictional one. And what about the supposedly ad-libbed responses from Borat’s victims, which make up at least half of the film’s gags? If you wanted a genuine reconfiguration of material, and frankly, a superior British comedy, look no further than the ever excellent, versatile Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script for A Cock and Bull Story. Cottrell Boyce took Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a book about the impossibility of writing, and rejigged it into a smart, sharp, very funny Michael Winterbottom movie about the impossibility of making a movie. Surely, as Charlie Kaufman would confirm, that’s the essence of adaptation?

Should have been nominated:        

Frank Cottrell Boyce (A Cock and Bull Story)

Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion)

Should have won (of the 5):             

William Monahan (The Departed)

 

Best Original Screenplay

A straight fight between two dysfunctional families, debut feature writer Michael Arndt’s the Hoovers in Little Miss Sunshine and the more high profile, if equally screwed-up, Windsors in Peter Morgan’s The Queen. Both scripts were well-structured, character-driven pieces with some choice one-liners (my favourite exchange from The Queen: “Tony, Gordon’s on the line.” “Tell him to hold on.”); but in the end perhaps the Americans simply chose to embrace their own misfits (though oddly enough at the BAFTAs, the Brits did too). Maybe what Morgan’s mob needed was Liz, Philip and Charles shaking their collective royal booty to a climactic dance version of ‘Candle in the Wind’.

Since foreign language films do occasionally get nominated in this category, it’s a shame that Florian Donnersmarck Von Henckel’s beautifully calibrated script for his surveillance thriller The Lives of Others was overlooked. Then again, the guy will just have to settle for winning the Best Foreign Language Film for his feature debut. Life’s a bitch, eh?

Should have been nominated:        

Florian Donnersmarck Von Henckel (The Lives of Others)

Should have won (of the 5):             

Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)

 

Best Foreign Language Film

Leaving aside the exclusion of Eastwood’s Letters to Iwo Jima (language Japanese, director American) or Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (language Mayan, director fluent Drunkenese) the hallmark of this year’s awards was its international flavour. From Letters to large chunks of Babel, to Penelope Cruz, you’d have to go back to the early 1970s when Bergman, Fellini and other big-name foreign filmmakers and their cohorts so regularly challenged for awards. Despite the worthiness of Algeria’s Days of Glory, India’s Water and the surprise inclusion of Danish drama After the Wedding, head-to-head for the prize were Del Toro’s beloved Pan’s Labyrinth and Germany’s The Lives of Others.

After Pan won three early awards, including the biggie of Best Cinematography, it seemed a sure thing for Foreign Language, only, in one of the evening’s rare surprises, to lose out to the splendidly monikered Baron Florian Donnersmarck Von Henckel (OK, I made the Baron bit up). Even this, though, wasn’t such a shocker, The Lives of Others being easily one of the year’s most accomplished movies and dealing with a very potent theme – state-sanctioned oppression and paranoia – with clear modern parallels (then again, Pan tackles very similar territory in Franco’s Spain). And this category has a history of upending the popular favourite – think Babette’s Feast beating Louis Malle’s Au Revoir Les Enfants in 1987 or Amelie losing out to Bosnian war drama No Man’s Land in 2001. Del Toro has at least paid more dues, though in the end either Pan or Lives would have been worthy winners. As would a couple of inexplicably rejected candidates, Volver, Pedro Almodovar’s latest modern classic, and, less predictably, Paul Verhoeven’s return to Holland and to form, after decreasing returns with Hollywood formula, with the rip-roaring World War two spy thriller Black Book.

Should have been nominated:                

Volver  (Spain)

Black Book (Holland)

Should have won (of the 5):                      

Pan’s Labyrinth / The Lives of Others

 

Best Director

The evening’s third foregone conclusion, longest overdue and most deserved award – though not, unlike Helen Mirren, for the movie in question – was the Academy’s Last Temptation of Marty; Scorsese finally got “made” by the Oscar mob, a shockingly belated omission from the guy who gave us Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. Even just writing out those three titles, never mind thinking about the actual films they describe, makes you a little embarrassed to jot down The Departed beside them. It’s an unashamed crowd pleaser, a rowdy thriller, a showcase for top-drawer, testosterone-fuelled thesping – and some way short of Scorsese’s best. People have criticised him for hustling for an Oscar with Gangs of New York and The Aviator, but for my money both, and certainly the former, show far more directorial range and passion. The Departed is no travesty, despite Jaaack’s out-of-place showboating and a snide final shot that ranks as one of the worst in movie history, so presumably we should be thankful for small mercies. It’s just a little hard to swallow when the big ones were repeatedly ignored.

Besides it’s not as if any of the other candidates was robbed. Clint Eastwood did his usual understated, craftsman-like work in Letters from Iwo Jima but since he’s already won twice and beat Marty last time they went head-to-head, a third triumph would have been unseemly. Paul Greengrass garnered vociferous praise for steering United 93 over its numerous sticking points but, despite its evident docudrama skill, the wholly imagined, wish-fulfilment onboard climax spoils the whole for me, therefore disqualifying the guy who imagined it from winning anything. Stephen Frears basically got out of the way of Mirren and co in The Queen, and did it well, but if such a visually uninteresting film were to win for Best Direction, we for one would not be amused.

The ubiquitous “three amigos” from Mexico were only represented by one of their number in this year’s Director category and wouldn’t you know, it was the least worthy of the triumvirate who got through. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is a talented filmmaker, it’s just that he needs some of the very borders that his film Babel critiques. Sections of the film, notably Rinko Kikuchi’s tangential Japanese storyline and the trippy scene in the nightclub from a deaf girl’s perspective, are masterfully handled. Others are just the worst kind of doom-mongering melodrama and it’s entirely Inarritu’s fault that they’re allowed to spiral recklessly out of control. 

Far more deserving were his compadres Guillermo Del Toro for deftly harnessing an adult slice of childhood fantasy and a chilling Fascist reality of Franco’s Spain in the stunning Pan’s Labyrinth; and Alfonso Cuaron, whose bleak, prophetic Children of Men was, for my money, the film of the year, its heart-pounding, rotating, one-take shot inside a car under attack, technically and emotionally the single most impressive scene of 2006.

Oh and another Spanish speaker, although much feted, chalked up another great movie this year – Pedro Almodovar and Volver.

Should have been nominated:   

Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth)                                       

Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men)

Pedro Almodovar (Volver)

Should have won (of the 5):        

Martin Scorsese (The Departed)

 

Best Film

See the comments on the directors, a solid selection that hardly sets the pulses racing. Letters from Iwo Jima? Too Japanese. The Queen? Too British. Babel? Too Crash-ish – the saving grace of last year’s undeserving, interlocking, overblown thesis-like winner is that it inadvertently stopped the same mistake being repeated twelve months on. Which leaves two. Since its multi-million Sundance deal and its cannily marketed sleeper hit status, there’s been a curiously vicious backlash against Little Miss Sunshine. Sure, it’s not a perfect film and the whiff of sitcom contrivance wafts up like the VW bus’s petrol fumes from time to time. But it’s got a fabulous ensemble of character actors working their socks off, a genuinely funny script with several standout set pieces (the pageant dance finale in particular) and a delicate questioning of America’s anointing of winners and losers. It’s also ineffably sad, something that seemed more apparent on a second viewing. When the VW bus pulls off into the distance in the movie’s final shot, the last thing it felt like to me was a happily-ever-after resolution.

Much ink was spilled this year over how open a race the Best Picture derby was this year. Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing, but realistically if Little Miss Sunshine didn’t drive off with the prize, it was only really ever going to go to The Departed. Firstly, a win helps legitimize Marty’s inevitable Director nod. Secondly, the Academy may prefer their worthy epics and period dramas to win the big one, but don’t let anyone tell you that straight-up genre entries don’t stand a chance. Annie Hall, Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven are respectively a romantic comedy, a serial killer thriller and a Western, that not only all won, but are among the best Best Picture winners of the past thirty years. Add in America’s most overlooked living director and an A-list acting roll call, and even a violent remake of a Hong Kong action flick doesn’t seem such a stretch.

Of course Children of Men should have been fighting it all the way but Universal’s marketing campaign was pretty much stillborn. And a note on the Dreamgirls omission: people were quick to decry any accusations of racism in a year where so many ethnically diverse talents, particularly black actors, were up for awards. I’m not so sure. Yes, the excessive hype may have counted against Dreamgirls, especially the foregone conclusiveness of some pundits that the film was sure to win, let alone be nominated. No, Dreamgirls wasn’t among the best five films of the year – but then neither was the last big musical, Chicago, or many, many former Best Picture nominees (Ghost? The Green Mile?) and even winners (A Beautiful Mind, the C-word from last year).

There’s also a big difference between voting for an individual performer of another race, or appearing to advocate an entire minority. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry winning acting awards in the same year doesn’t guarantee that a film that’s exclusively a slice of black history is on a level playing field. Just because Tom Hanks won an Oscar for playing a gay AIDS victim in Philadelphia, doesn’t mean that Brokeback Mountain wasn’t snubbed on grounds of homophobia. I wish I liked Dreamgirls enough to say it was robbed. But at the very least, its absence in the final five seems suspect.

Should have been nominated:                  

Children of Men

Should have won (of the 5):                      

Little Miss Sunshine

Leigh Singer

posted March 5th, 2007  

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