Oscar showing his true colors.
THE BIG (BLACK AND WHITE) PICTURE
So here’s my two cents.
I was talking to a theatre friend the other day about the Academy Awards and whiteness, and how it kind of makes this year’s Oscars like Moby-Dick, complete with harpoons in its flanks, and I said: “Y’know, if any of the movies up for Best Picture had been staged as plays in New York in the last twelve months, there would have been multi-cultural casting all over the place.” And my friend said “Except Manhattan Theatre Club,” and we both cackled with glee, because MTC is doing its White Male Season this year. But with that notorious exception, theatre in this city, for the most part, has it all over movies because the world which theatre is trying to reflect is New York City, and you can’t get more diverse. The world that movies is trying to reflect is the LA version of Davos.
YOU: What’s Davos?
ME: It’s where the World Economic Forum is held.
YOU: Ah—rich white people.
ME: Rich anybody—because as long as you’re rich, you’re honorary white. All of them reaffirming the bubble they live in.
YOU: New York is a bubble too.
ME: Yeah, but its gum has more flavor.
The point being, if it doesn’t say THIS GUY IS BLACK in the script, Hollywood doesn’t even think of casting a person of color in the part. Which is sadly one of the few times it ever actually honors the wishes of a writer.
HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: You didn’t say he was black.
WRITER: If I said he was black, you would have asked me to make him white.
HOLLYWOOD PRODUCER: And I cast a white guy anyway. See? It all works out!
And you won’t hear it out loud for publication, but you can bet that someone somewhere in LA is saying “Black movies don’t make money,” or “Black actors don’t deliver good opening weekends,” which is the capitalist form of racism, as if movies can take on the color of a lead actor, or an actor’s connection to his or her audience is based not on talent but on melanin. It’s the same dismissal you get when movies are defined as “women’s films,” or when producers believe that boys will spend money to see Scarlett Johansson kick ass but not kiss assholes; and if it didn’t piss me off so much, I would pity these poor dopes, because they cannot view the world except through categories. They do not see people; they see types of people, they see metrics and they make assumptions about income and likes or dislikes based on an arbitrary category—the most public of which is the audience age breakdown that always gets talked about with each new movie. “We’re targeting males from 18 to 30!” the studios cry, and I would just love it if some nothing-to-lose reporter would respond by asking: “So are those white males or what?” Which, when it comes to Hollywood, is a rhetorical question.
And I’m sorry, but adding people of color to the Academy voting rolls or their board of advisors, or whatever the hell they have, is pointless. Making the referees black doesn’t change an all-white football team. You need to field a team with diversity. If the product the Academy is judging for an award isn’t diverse in the first place, then the judges are still going to have to pick an MVP from that all-white roster. It’s Hollywood that needs to change; not just the Academy.
Will it change? Doubtful. The whole Hollywood system is supported and perpetuated by its ability to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to money versus art. When people blame Hollywood for being artistically irresponsible, you get: “But we’re a business, we’re marketing a product here, and that has nothing to do with art.” And then when you accuse them of being the worst kind of crass number-crunching plutocrats, you get: “But movies are the cultural mainstay of our society, they’re the highest art form in creation, and that has nothing to do with money. And can somebody look up plutocrats for me?”
The truth is that, in the eyes of Hollywood, art is valued at precisely 1/365th the value of money, because that’s the ratio of how many days a year box office totals come first and how many days a year the Oscars are given out.
(And that was actually about twenty cents; sorry.)
So. On to the Awards.
THE WHO CARES AWARDS
The trick to gaming the Oscars is trying to figure out how Old White Guys with gorgeous twenty-year-old female assistants will vote when presented with a list of films they slept through. Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s hard. But it’s always a window into their brains. In the minor awards area, that window opens out onto a stage where Inside Out should win Best Animated Film and Amy should win Best Documentary; Foreign Language Film is either going to be Son of Saul or Mustang (probably Son of Saul because Holocaust); Original Score will go to either Morricone for Hateful 8 or John Williams for Star Wars: The Sequel Awakens; and Best Song will go to “Til It Happens To You” from a movie nobody saw because Lady Gaga.
THE CYNIC IN ME: And by the way, Academy, you should be ashamed of yourself for nominating that feculent howler of a song from Spectre for ANYTHING. I mean, there’s clueless and then there’s fucking clueless, okay?
The writing awards are a little trickier. I’d give Best Adapted Screenplay to The Big Short, because it was both a well-told story and an entertaining lecture. My other choice would be Room, for opening up the first-person narration of the novel without losing any of the charm and wonder of that point of view. Which one will the Academy pick?
THE CYNIC IN ME: The Martian, because it had the snappiest dialogue, and the Old White Males probably think Matt Damon wrote it.
Best Original Screenplay could legitimately go to any of the nominees except Bridge Of Spies and I would be happy. (Have I told you how much I hated Bridge of Spies? No? Then you need to read this.) Inside Out was smart, Ex Machina was brilliant, Spotlight was solid, and—wait, there’s a movie about non-whites in this category? WTF! Wow. This could be where the Oscar actually attempt a little atonement. Bu-u-u-u-ut it won’t be, because none of the Old White Voters went to see it, thus fulfilling their prophecy that people don’t go to black films, and inadvertently clarifying their definition of “people.” Who will win? Smart and brilliant don’t stand a chance against solid in this world; Spotlight should get it.
THE CYNIC IN ME: But solid doesn’t stand a chance against didactic, and that’s Bridge Of Spies to a T. Which is why I say Bridge of Spies.
The shorts and the animated stuff: I usually see these at Landmark, but I didn’t this year, so I have no clue. And when I have no clue, I usually go by The Unwritten Rules Of Oscar. To wit: in anything live action, Holocaust trumps race; race trumps children; and children trump women. If there is a current medical issue, that pulls away in the stretch, as does any horse from the Middle East. As for the animated shorts, Pixar trumps everything, with the possible exception of Wallace and Gromit. Good luck.
The rest of the categories all have Best Picture implications, because they are the early contests in which The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road are up against each other. They are: Cinematography, which should go to The Revenant; Costume Design, which should go to MM:FR; Film Editing (a toss-up; I’d give it to Mad Max); Makeup and Hairstyling (Mad Max 4ever); Production design (Mad Max 4sure); and the crucial Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, which are usually key indicators of Best Picture. Again, a toss-up. As for visual effects, this may well go to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, not so much for breaking new ground but for replicating the old ground so exactly. If SW:TFA doesn’t get it, then I think the winner of this award will get Best Picture.
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
This should go to Mark Rylance, who’s the only good thing in Bridge Of Spies. (Okay; I’ll stop now.)
THE CYNIC IN ME: No I won’t.
Tom Hardy plays one note in Revenant, and he does it so well that you feel like every other character on-screen with him has to be blind and deaf not to see and hear that he’s a craven little shit. Christian Bale is also one note, but it’s a more complicated note: what every other character on-screen with him sees has nothing to do with his inner self, and he’s a good enough actor to let us see that and not them. Sylvester Stallone? In a way, I’d love to see him get it because it’s just so typically Hollywood to give an award to the old white guy in the movie that stars the young black actor who should have been nominated but wasn’t. And then there’s Mark Ruffalo, who got the nomination because of his One Big Speech in Spotlight, but also because he’s just so Mark Ruffalo. If it’s not Rylance, then I think it’s going to be Ruffalo; and if he does win, then he’ll be winning as a representative of the entire cast, which means that Spotlight has a great chance to win Best Picture.
Notably missing in this list: Benicio Del Toro in Sicario. (I really liked Sicario.)
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
This is an odd category this year, because it includes two women who should be up for Best Actress and aren’t: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl, and Rooney Mara for Carol. One of these two should win, and rightly so—neither of their movies would work without them. Mara totally looks like 1950’s Audrey Hepburn, which sells the period completely; plus she has the stillness to balance and anchor Cate Blanchett’s theatricality. And to my mind, Vikander is the Danish girl of her movie’s title. The heart of the movie lives in her, and her reaction to what and who her husband is. Either one would be a fabulous choice, and the only edge Vikander has is that she’s won earlier awards in the same category. As for the others, Jennifer Jason Leigh is a long shot for H8teful, Rachel McAdams is solid but not quite the female Ruffalo in Spotlight, and Kate Winslet is actually better in the five seconds she shows up in the Triple 9 trailer than she is in all of Steve Jobs.
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
And the losers are: Cate Blanchett for Carol, who was a little too theatrical for my taste. (And besides, Sarah Paulson should have played Carol. She wouldn’t have been as glam, but I think Blanchett’s obvious flashiness was the main reason why the movie wasn’t as good as it thought it was. Paulson would have raised the movie to the next level. Given that she’s essentially the GBF in this film, what a missed opportunity.) Also a loser: Jennifer Lawrence, who had the misfortune to be great in an ambitious but so-so film; Charlotte Rampling, who was great in a small but slight film; and Saorsie Ronan, who was nowhere near as great as she’s been elsewhere in what is basically a Lifetime movie.
That leaves Brie Larson, and the award is hers to lose. And rightly so. This movie punches your heart in so many different ways, and she's half the reason for that. The other half is Jacob Tremblay. The chemistry between the two of them is one of those HFS things that can move creative mountains. When Larson wins this award, it'll be his as much as hers.
Notably missing from this list: Emily Blunt in Sicario. (I really really liked Sicario.)
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
And the losers are: Bryan Cranston for Trumbo (It’s an honor to be nominated, Brian); Matt Damon for The Martian (Remember the five minutes when The Martian was going to win everything? Good times.); Michael Fassbender for Steve Jobs (has anybody spouting Aaron Sorkin dialogue ever won an acting Oscar?); Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl (you won it last year, pommy boy; and besides, it’s Alicia Vikander’s movie); and Michael B Jordan for not even getting nominated for Creed while Stallone was.
That leaves Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant, the odds-on favorite to win the male version of the Uglified Babe Oscar that went to Nicole Kidman for The Hours and Charlize Theron for Monster. Because really, all he does in this movie is grunt and look like shit. Which you and I do before we shower every morning, so where’s our fucking Oscar?
Personally, I think the Oscar should go to one guy who deserves to be on this list and isn’t: Tom Hardy, for Legend. Even though it wasn’t the greatest movie in the world, and I was one of maybe 50 people in the country who saw it, the work he did to make each of the Cray twins unique was phenomenal. It’s on par with what Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers, and you all know how great that was.
YOU: I don’t.
ME: Then you need to WATCH IT RIGHT NOW. Plus it’s a Cronenberg movie.
YOU: Hot damn. Wait—it’s not crappy later Cronenberg, is it?
ME: Nope. 1988—between Dead Zone and Naked Lunch.
All five nominees here are also up for Best Picture, and only one nominee has won before, so does the Academy go for the double-play or do they mix and match? Will they give Alejandro Innaritu his second Director Oscar in a row? Will they give it to George Miller for basically being the Bernie Sanders of directors (age and politics both)? Or do they reward the Funny Or Die cleverness of Big Short, the solid workmanship of Spotlight, or the subtle handheld brilliance of Room? All I can say is, I really want to see George Miller win this. In fact, I would rather see him win this instead of Best Picture, because he shares one thing in common with Innaritu—the movies they made would look and feel completely different if anybody else had been at the helm. The only other film I think you can say that about is Big Short; it has a very specific stamp on it, and it’s not Adam McKay’s usual stamp. Room and Spotlight are stampless—the direction serves the story, which makes it invisible, even when it’s unique. So which way do you lean? Direction that’s invisible, or direction that looks like DIRECTION?
THE CYNIC IN ME: We’re talking Hollywood. Guess.
Flashy it is then. My heart says Miller will get it. But my head says Innaritu. But my inner Old White Guy says Tom McCarthy for Spotlight.
The great thing about great movies is that you can re-watch them over and over and still get something out of them. The sad thing about the Oscars is that they almost always go to a movie that you only watch once.
ME: Seriously: who’s seen The King’s Speech or Slumdog Millionaire recently? Anyone? I didn’t think so.
YOU: But then: Lawrence of Arabia. Casablanca. So it cuts both ways.
ME: Maybe so, but the watch-it-only-once side is the thicker cut.
In the Re-Watch Me Race, Mad Max: Fury Road is the frontrunner. I could see that again right now, which I certainly can’t say about Bridge of Spies even if you put a Kalashnikov to my head. (Okay; I could re-watch all the Mark Rylance scenes, but that’s it.) And Brooklyn was sweet but a little too Masterpiece Theatre safe, and The Martian was fun but it’s one of those films that seems bigger than it really is when you see it in a theatre—watch it on TV and it’s not going to have the same (cough) Gravity (cough). Spotlight and The Big Short are flip sides of the same ripped-from-the-headlines coin, one earnest and one snarky—and yeah, I could re-watch them if they showed up on HBO, one because it’s comforting, one because it’s confrontational—so they each have possibilities. But really—is there anyone with a certificate of mental health who wants to sit through The Revenant again?
YOU: Not me, and I’m half-crazy.
ME: And I’m the other half. I liked this movie a lot better when it was Jeremiah Johnson.
That leaves Room, which is the one movie in this list which was so powerful and wrenching that it’s not that I don’t want to see it again, but that I don’t think I can, because it’s either going to put me through the same wringer all over again, which would be devastating; or it won’t, which would be even more devastating. To my mind, that’s the kind of movie that deserves awards: the kind you’re wary of seeing twice because you’re afraid it might wreck you all over again and even more afraid that it won’t.
Will it win? Probably not. Judging the movies against each other on their own Oscar-Worthy merits thins the field in a different way. The Big Short is too snarky, Room is too disturbing without being appropriately uplifting and comforting (in other words, it tells a disturbing story without undercutting it with a unrealistically comforting message, which is Death To Oscar), and Mad Max: Fury Road is a stealth-female-lead action-adventure movie that tells the same story twice—once from right to left, once from left to right.
Now by rights The Revenant should be in this group as well, because it’s basically a revenge western, and when not even The Searchers gets nominated for an Oscar, you’re talking genre suicide.
THE CYNIC IN ME: Trivia question: what is the only award that The Searchers won when it came out? A Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer: Patrick Wayne. Ah-hahahahahaha!)
But—and it’s a big old but—the way The Revenant was filmed, with its long single-shot takes and natural lighting cinematography, are like a neon sign saying THIS MEANS THE MOVIE IS AN ARTISTIC STATEMENT. Because if you take those two things away, all you have left is an Anthony Mann western with a shitty script. I mean, look at the title. When the title is a word that the old men in the Academy have to ask their twenty-something female assistants to look up in the dictionary, that spells ART.
So The Revenant gets into the Oscar-Worthy group because it plays into the Academy’s self-importance when they say The Movies are all about Art and not money. And the other movies in the group? They are all, at bottom, inoffensive. Bridge of Spies isn’t even dramatic; Tom Hanks is always right, and everybody else is a shallow moron except for the Russian spy he defends, who is the only real human being in the whole movie, thanks to Mark Rylance’s performance. Brooklyn is a feel-good movie about the European immigrant experience, which is the only immigration experience that speaks to Old Man Hollywood; he gets to watch this and say “We did all right by those Irish and Italians, didn’t we?” The Martian, which (not counting all those Native Americans in The Revenant) actually has more diversity in its cast than all the other nominated movies combined, is MacGyver In Space, which is an inherently fabulous pitch, a delightfully entertaining movie experience, and an ultimately weightless affair. Which leaves us with Spotlight, whose implied message of good-old-American can-do truth-revealing reporters-against-a-conspiracy-of-silence gumption is just the kind of message Old Man Hollywood loves. If it was just set in LA, it would be a shoo-in. (Rumor has it that, during an early script conference, some studio DB actually suggested that the story be set in LA because “movies about Boston never make money.”)
ME: No, I just made that up.
YOU: Doesn’t sound made up.
ME: I know; sad, isn’t it?
So. As much as I’d love to see Mad Max: Fury Road win, if only because it would the second-ever movie with a colon in its title to get Best Picture, it’s either going to be The Revenant or Spotlight. Revenant is the front-runner based on earlier awards, but I think the Old White Males who run the show behind the show want to feel good about themselves this year, and what better way to do that than to vote against child abuse by giving the Oscar to Spotlight?
THE CYNIC IN ME: Hey—that’s my line!