Politics and the Oscars
I've watched the Oscars almost every year for a long time, but I can't remember the last time I cared who won. In the past, I got some enjoyment out of trying to accurately predict the winners, but stopped caring about that a few years ago and tuned in this year primarily to see what host Chris Rock would say. I imagine that was what they were hoping when they hired him (not about me in particular, of course.) Rock is an entertainer I've enjoyed often, admired at times and been disappointed in a lot. I had all three experiences this time. During the opening monologue, I was already predicting this would be his last appearance as host of the Academy Awards and that impression was only clinched by the too-brief collection of bits from Johnny Carson's hosting. To be fair to Rock, he's got two masters in this job: the Academy who hires him and the audience who are not tuning in to awards shows as they used to. By turning to Rock, the Academy mandarins sought to put an "outside" face on the awards for the sake of viewers, even though they don't really like what outsiders have to say about them. Carson, although capable of jibing the entertainment industry, was a consummate insider who never conspicuously called into question the relevance of Hollywood values as Rock did. The ratings news on the awards this year is complicated, so who knows whether Chris will be invited back. If so, I think he should do the entire show as his character from "The Dark Side with Nat X" on SNL.
Caryn James in the NYT faults the stodginess of the movie establishment for the boredom of the awards this year, and while that's an easy (and broadly accurate) point to make, I don't really buy her elaboration of the observation. Rock's poorly-received poke at Jude Law and his visit to a Magic Theater for some moviegoer responses made essentially the same point, and while they may have fallen flat with the audience at the Kodak Theater, I thought they were hilarious. Sean Penn may think highly of Jude Law, as do all the casting directors and producers who keep hiring him, but he's not made any hit movies. Yeah, Million Dollar Baby has done pretty well financially given its budget, but its box office is still in the $60 million range. Hardly a blockbuster. The Rock-Penn exchange says nothing about the forward-versus-backward looking orientation of the Academy; it says everything about the point James trips over later, that the Academy is out of touch with moviegoers. "Artists" like Penn need the Oscars and award shows like it for validation that they are important despite not being able to sell movie tickets.
Warning: Spoiler about Million Dollar Baby after the jump.
James characterizes the choice of MDB for best picture as a safe, comfortable one reflecting a preference for Hollywood's past, but if retreating to the past was what they wanted, there were better choices. They could have chosen The Aviator, in order to finally reward perennial nominee Martin Scorsese for making a classic epic with classic moviemakers, or picked Ray, following the Grammy awards' posthumous recognition of a legendary entertainer. To me, the best thing that happened to Eastwood and Million Dollar Baby was the reaction of conservative critics to the euthanasia "message" they imagine in the movie (which I have not seen; blame Michael Medved.) I'll have to see the film to be sure, but I'm skeptical of James' claim that MDB is just a distaff Rocky with a tragic ending, and her comment about "grumbling from some advocacy groups" (by which I assume she means complaints from the disabled) is ridiculously blind to the more highly publicized and, to the entertainment industry, important responses of Rush, Medved and the like. Eastwood, long identified with conservative politics, found himself distanced from the Right again and got an award for it. His last Oscar winner, Unforgiven, was widely seen as an apology for the enthusiastic gunslinging of his previous screen characters.
Some might complain that looking for the "real reason" behind an Oscar award is unnecessary. The Academy members vote for what they think is the best performance or film of the year. Even the inverse relationship between the quality and Oscar success of movies can't completely discount this possibility. I'm sure that a lot of Academy members do vote for what they think are the best of the nominees, but I argue that what qualifies as "best" for movies is, in practice, some combination of certain technical qualities, some general sense of how a film is received by various audiences, personal affections ("You like me! You really like me!") and a substantial dose of response to what a movie "represents" or "means." This isn't different from how other people evaluate movies or whatever. Like everybody, people in Hollywood think about what it will say about themselves before they reveal a preference for something, and award selections are widely interpreted as broader statements about what Hollywood values. The popular acceptance speeches highlighted during the awards broadcast this year (from Tom Hanks for Philadelphia and Halle Berry for Catwoman, er... Monster's Ball) demonstrate this.
James' contrast of "past glory" and "the whiff of the future" doesn't ring entirely true either. I find it impossible to take James' characterization of Sideways as "original" seriously, let alone the description of Lost in Translation as "fine" and "innovative." The appearance of both films (which swept the Independent Spirit Awards in place of far better, more innovative and more independent choices) among the nominations resulted from the consistent tendency of the Academy to throw crumbs to critical opinion, which embraced both of those dubious champions. The fact that neither won doesn't mean the Academy is shying away from the future any more than the 2000 win of American Beauty meant that the Academy was embracing the future (thank God.) Having banished Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Passion of the Christ from the major categories, politics entered the only gap remaining and Eastwood's film became a literal cause celebre.
I can't say I had any strong feelings about the award recipients this year. In the recent past I've had feelings primarily about movies I really didn't want to win (all of which tended to win.) This year I've only seen two of the nominees, The Aviator and Sideways, and I guess I'm glad neither of them won, although it wouldn't have been so bad if one had. Neither is a terrible movie, and while it would be a shame for Marty to win for such a mediocre film, it's far from the first time someone won an Oscar as a consolation for previous, unawarded and superior work.
On a more positive note, it was nice to see Sidney Lumet get his lifetime achievement award because he was so happy about it, but the fact that he hasn't won one (joining Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Frederico Fellini and now perhaps Martin Scorsese) points out that it doesn't mean anything of significance. I've long thought that Lumet was criminally underrated, but I didn't know why until I read attacks on him by Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael. Despite disagreeing on almost everything else, both dislike Lumet's films primarily, it seems to me, because they are about something other than the medium itself. Lumet's films benefit from the curiosity the viewer brings to the work, something that neither Sarris nor Kael much value. Sure, there are some Lumet movies I don't care for or want to see again, but there are many I love and can watch again and again. Network and Prince of the City are both extraordinary films that hold up extremely well even as the world has overtaken them, and Lumet has done fine work before and since then. Especially check out some of Lumet's follow-ups to Serpico and Prince of the City: Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan. I'd also defend Power and recommend Critical Care and even Guilty as Sin, ridiculous as that sounds.