Tuesday, March 28, 2006

One Last B-day Gift to Mimi

Even The New Yorker is riding the train. Delish—though the article does fail to mention that the Glitter soundtrack, despite the awfulness of the movie, is one of her most confident, best, and most "pop" albums.

(Somewhere—actually nowhere, except in my mind—Phyllis Nagy is wondering what she is doing in between two paeans to Mariah Carey.)


Finding 'Never Land'

For the flatmates of D––––– St.

Phyllis Nagy's Never Land is the best play I have read so far this year, or at least the most interesting. I picked it up based on The Webloge's vehement recommendation of Nagy in general; Never Land, as I understand it, is not her favorite among Nagy's works, but it's one of only three that my university library owns, and you've got to start somewhere. If, however, the correct implication is that Nagy's other plays are even more ambitious and unsettling, then I've got a new name to add to my list of favorite modern playwrights.

Never Land takes place in the south of France and concerns itself with the three Jouberts: Henri, a middle-aged Frenchman who works at a perfume distillery, though neither his head nor his heart is much there; Anne, his tart and witty wife, loyal throughout his string of failed enterprises but longing for her own, different life; and Elisabeth, their thirty-something daughter, comfortable bathing in front of her parents in the very first scene but adamant in keeping them from meeting her fiancé. The first scene of the first act is the only one where les Joubert reserve the stage to themselves, all together and unaccompanied. The bulk of Nagy's three-act script showcases the Jouberts' strained relations to four other characters: their married friends the Caton-Smiths, petits-bourgeois from England; Albert Montel, the jocular owner and foreman of the parfumerie where Henri works; and Michael Carver, an African-American employee of a nearby casino, and Elisabeth's lover. The last scene of the last act, in a bitter symmetry, will again focus solely on the Jouberts, though a crucial series of entrances and exits will keep them from sharing the stage all at once, or ever again.

The most obvious theme of Never Land is the pathetic and oddly Sisyphusian way in which Henri dreams of abandoning his homeland for England. This longing so encases the other aspects of his character that Nagy's dramatis personae describes Henri only as "a middle-aged Frenchman who only speaks perfect RP." Henri's Anglophilia elicits both pity and discomfort, from his intimates as well as Nagy's audience, as he reprimands his daughter and his boss for addressing him in French, insists on referring to the wine he drinks as "tea," and even goads his dinner guests through impromptu recitals of skits from Fawlty Towers (where Henri, oddly, plays a Spanish character). It is a hot, passionate thing, Henri's craving for England, even when it courts absurdity and incites plunging melancholia. Doubtless, Nagy's play communicates something different to readers better-versed than I in the particulars of English-French relations, although the elliptical register of her setting and dialogue, all of them strongly redolent of subconscious urges and psychic states, all but neutralize the specificity of France and England within the logic of the play. The Jouberts live on the top of a high, muddy precipice, while the admittedly sheltered Caton-Smiths describe their neighborhood in London as a rare bulwark against the encroaching emptiness and lawlessness of Britain. Uniting all of the characters, though none too chummily, is a desire for geographic distance, mirroring a desire for personal solitude. This is not one of those plays about "alienation" where modernity's castaways hunger for a closer connection. Instead, Nagy's characters, already divorced each from the other, including spouses in lasting marriages, including couples from their friends, including parents from their children, can be roused to trembling aggravation at the slightest hint of companionship.

Working out a heady array of formal inroads to this sad and often angry emotional territory, Nagy fills her script with interesting conceits that are never quite systematic: they permeate the play, but not always in the same way, and not in a way that actors, directors, or audiences will easily put their finger on. Though Nagy subtly quotes at least one O'Neill title in the play and conjures his ghost in many other ways, her characters' curious and almost unpunctuated soliloquies do not separate public behavior from private obsession in quite so clean a way as the monologues in Strange Interlude or Mourning Becomes Electra do. The "(Beat)"s peppered all over the script are not necessarily pauses, and despite surface appearances, the story and the characters in Never Land differ from Pinter's example as much as they invoke them. Pinter often does what Henri does at his job: he distills essences, condensing subtle strains of meaning and feeling into overwhelming atmospheres, as a means of both defining a place and implying where else its inhabitants wish they were. Nagy, though less innovative in her style, is more complex in her tones and admixtures. Never Land sees its characters as discrete, if not altogether incompatible, and the different kinds of disunion that define their psyches and plague their relationships do not boil down into any universal statement. Indeed, it would defy Nagy's point to court any such goal. Rather, by shuttling us amongst comedy, eroticism, and panic, she all but changes the mood and rhythm of the play with every new scene, and she refuses the audience any ironic superiority over her characters' knowledge or self-knowledge. She does not shy from outsized staging effects—a huge vat of boiling fragrance, a thunderous rainstorm—but these are neither so predominating nor so numerous as to disguise her primary interest in her people.

And it is in people, not in any one person, that Never Land maintains its deep, disturbing fascination: in how they flee each other, even in the very midst of seduction; in how they send each other on errands they would rather not commission upon themselves; in how parents sometimes dispatch their own children before moving onto the business of more fully reckoning with each other, or with themselves. These group phenomena seem to me to suit Nagy's style much better than her recent film Mrs. Harris, now playing Stateside on HBO. That script, directed by Nagy's own uncertain hand in a medium she understands much less well than she does the theater, boasts an array of complicated ideas about Jean Harris but shockingly few about her underwritten and dissonantly acted allies and adversaries. Working only on the evidence of these two works, I admire the audacity of her writing: so enviably gifted with elucidating imbalance, estrangement, and disappointment within unexpected life stories, she all but consigns herself to accusations of unevenness—her pitfall as a writer as well as her forte.

Never Land wavers a bit for me whenever the character of Michael shows up, possibly because the script limns his Americanness a bit more rigidly than it does the Frenchness of the Jouberts or the Englishness of the Caton-Smiths, and the rigidity in this case stems not from the characters, but from the play. Nonetheless, Michael comprises the only uncertain note within the utterly persuasive and absorbing discordance of a brave, tricky script, full of speeches and exchanges that are credibly playable in any number of ways. Its portrait of an endangered marriage and an inchoate anxiety with life in toto comes impressively close to the high summit of Albee's A Delicate Balance. The dark, rumbling melodies it both hears and repeats inside words like "menace" and "miscalculation" are equal to the best moments in Mamet, in The Cryptogram or Glengarry Glen Ross. But Nagy is not Albee, or Mamet, or Pinter—or Churchill, or Beckett, or Kane, or Dorfman, or Parks. She aligns herself with the overriding concerns of modern British and American drama but doesn't simply repeat them, and with compelling strokes you don't see coming or don't grasp until much later, she corners her readers into a rich and under-explored terrain of modern introspection.

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Monday, March 27, 2006

L'Anniversaire de Mimi

Yes, yes, I'll be back soon enough with a book review, some film write-ups, and my own weighing in on the Hills Have Eyes question, now that I'm back from a long weekend trip to see my mother and brother. It's all coming. But you know what's faster, easier, and more urgently of the moment? Mariah is turning 36. Only a year ago, I was one of a precious handful of Mimiphiles still in this girl's camp. Three years before that, I was still carrying her train, even though she had so suddenly become the Corpse Bride of American pop culture. Now, as she so memorably told Barbara Walters last month, "Well, I guess anybody who counted me out is just going to have to count me back in." Against all odds, guess who's back in the m****af****n' house?!

We belong together, M, despite all the ineffable ways you make things so easy for your enemies. You'll always be my baby, 'cause I'm a sucker for a talented ditz—I think of myself as a sort of talented ditz—and anytime you need a friend, I will be here!


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Big Cheers to...

...The Scene Stealer, the best young critic on the Web, and a recent recipient of wonderful news that's hugely well-deserved. Consider taking a moment to offer your congrats.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Birthdays, at the Top of the Hour

Personal idol Holly Hunter turns 48 today, while mid-80s heartthrob and recent Oscar nominee William Hurt turns 56. No one who reads this site even casually has any doubt about how best to celebrate Holly's genius, but Hurt, as oddball as his stardom and persona might seem in retrospect, was no slouch, either, in his heyday. Obviously, the perfect way to fête both actors is to savor their above-the-title collaboration in Broadcast News, one of the best romantic comedies of the 1980s and unquestionably the biggest plume in James L. Brooks' directorial hat. If you already know the plot and the terrific dialogue by heart, cast an eye toward the photography: easy to overlook in such character-driven movies, but subtly inspired work for famous d.p. Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant).

Otherwise, William Hurt's best unheralded performance is in Carl Franklin's affecting One True Thing. Hunter, however well-known, is still under-recognized as one of our greatest and most surprisingly versatile actresses. She's a jewel in Home for the Holidays, in Jesus' Son, in Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her, in Thirteen, in the newly released Nine Lives, and even in films that even she can't fully rescue, like the moribund and perversely misnamed Levity. All hail, sincerest thanks, happy birthday, and call me soon, Holly!


The Week in Movies: Home Theater Version

A quick run-through of movies I screened at home and in my classes for the first time last week, many of which involved Cary Grant, since I was preparing a review for Stop Smiling of the new Cary Grant 5-disc Box Set that bowed last month. Assigned to watch 10 hours of Cary: life's tough, huh?

Anna and the King of Siam (1946; dir. John Cromwell) - Hollywood's first version of the tale that would later be musicalized as Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I. This Anna aims for a somewhat ambitious median between gentle farce and a typical Dream Factory version of liberalism abroad, but I can't say I really bought it. It helps to have Irene Dunne starring as Anna, but even aside from their impolitic casting as Southeast Asians, Rex Harrison is typically precious as the King and Linda Darnell vamps blandly as a star of the harem, whose reversal of fortune isn't much worth crying over. Gale Sondergaard, who plunged much more memorably into wild Orientalisms in William Wyler's The Letter, scored a supporting Oscar nomination as the King's "wise" and "dignified" wife, but—like photographer Arthur Miller, fourth-billed star Lee J. Cobb, and writers Sally Benson (Meet Me in St. Louis) and Talbot Jennings (Northwest Passage)—she's shown herself to much better advantage elsewhere. Yes, you make allowances for the political climates of earlier eras, but this particular drama of cross-cultural empathy just doesn't work when such crude, myopic forms of narrative and imagination are being evinced. C–

Butterflies on a Scaffold (Mariposas en el andamio) (1995; dirs. Luis Felipe Bernaza and Margaret Gilpin) - An interesting and culturally distinct companion piece to Jennie Livingston's better-known Paris Is Burning, this documentary about drag culture in modern-day Cuba is extremely likely to challenge outside perceptions of this island in particular, and of life as lived under hegemonic states more generally. We meet more than a dozen performers in a drag revue that is regularly produced as lunchtime entertainment in—get this—the cafeteria of a virtually all-female construction crew building new tenements in an especially depressed area of Havana. How does a queen assemble a fabulous outfit amidst utter poverty? Is there a way of recuperating drag as compatible with Castro's Revolutionary ethic? These questions are raised in lively ways, though the film's approach to drag itself is much less interesting (it appears to match one-to-one in everyone's mind, including the filmmakers', as synonymous with male homosexuality), and the technical modesty curtails some of the film's revelatory potential. Also unexplored is the mind-boggling uniformity of the drag personae, in marked contrast to Paris Is Burning's rampant diversity of fabricated/"real" façades. Still, a memorable trip, and a legitimate provocation. B

His Girl Friday (1940; dir. Howard Hawks) - Y'all already know I love this, but who could resist another visit? Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy's commentary on the new DVD is reasonably involving, but nowhere near as illuminating as simply diving back into the movie itself, which is so dense with humor, irony, and detail that it simply never exhausts itself. Watching Rosalind Russell march into the newspaper office in the first scene, dismiss the love-advice columnist with a hilarious and barely-heard murmur, and strut right into ex-husband Cary Grant's office is like watching the rebirth of love as an elevated form of wit. Grant himself is an absolute dream, giving his own work in Holiday and The Philadelphia Story an impossible run for his own money as the best male performance in a screwball comedy. The supporting cast outclasses even the gallery of rascals and wiseacres in Sullivan's Travels, and the mile-a-minute punchlines hit home every single time. The photography is exquisite, capturing the bustle of the profession without losing sight of the central and shifting bond between Russell and Grant—and then taking major tonal detours in scenes like the death-row interview, without ever seeming incongruous. Not a minor miracle, but a major one, and still the Big Dipper in one of American cinema's most celestial traditions. A+

Only Angels Have Wings (1939; dir. Howard Hawks) - By contrast, I found Hawks and Grant's previous collaboration to be a strangely gratuitous affair. All the earmarks of a Howard Hawks movie are there—the intimate, inbred society of male co-workers, the estimable women arriving in their midst, the blend of spectacular action with energetic dialogue—but it all registered with me as too overt, like a subpar director chasing Hawks' own tropes and technique. Based on a short story from Hawks' own pen, the movie also has an almost embarrassingly juvenile and quite repetitive awe for aviation as virile sport, not unlike Faulkner's attempts in novels like Pylon to associate himself with the august rituals of flight. Jean Arthur is typically engaging in an underwritten part, while Grant is her opposite on both counts: weirdly uningratiating, even taking into account that the character is supposed to be a tough nut to crack, and saddled with far too many motivations and backstories. A mature Bogart would have sailed through it, but Grant strains and cracks. For my money, the best way to save the film would be to hand it to Josef von Sternberg, who would loll with less embarrassment in the silly, exoticized locale, take a healthier ironic distance from the skyward exploits and male-male bathos, and show the audience a redolent good time. But, alas, this is the movie we got: passable, dotted with tiny glories (many of them care of antique star Richard Barthelmess and rising goddess Rita Hayworth), but still not worth anyone's time capsule. C+

Penny Serenade (1941; dir. George Stevens) - Lots of Grant fans who champion Only Angels Have Wings would probably shrug off Penny Serenade, which looks suspiciously like the kind of sentimental drama to which Oscar's inexplicable black sheep finally sell out in order to secure a long-postponed nomination. Penny Serenade accomplished just this for Grant, but it's no I Am Sam, and in the hands of director George Stevens (Alice Adams, The More the Merrier), it emerges as a credible melodrama. Grant co-stars with his Awful Truth flame Irene Dunne, and while the film is on shaky legs throughout their acquaintance and early marriage, climaxing in a rather risible earthquake in Japan—a rather stentorian metaphor for miscarriage, even by Hollywood standards—the adoption drama which follows is rather nicely played and paced. Dunne and Grant aren't doing career-best work, but they're still quite good, and they act with an ease and synchronicity unique to actors well-known to each other, able to save several scenes from their weepiest possible pitfalls. The arrival of costars Edgar Buchanan and Beulah Bondi also accomplishes a lot for the movie, and the screenplay doesn't take all the turns you expect. Even the obligatory climaxes, like Grant's impromptu oratory in a lawyer's office, are credibly written and staged. Maybe I'll return to Penny Serenade someday and reconsider my current admiration for it; it's certainly not lacking in hoary devices. But for now, I'm squarely on its side. B

The Talk of the Town (1942; dir. George Stevens) - Swiping a structure from His Girl Friday (civic crisis juxtaposed to romantic roundelay), a female lead from Only Angels Have Wings (Jean Arthur), and a director from Penny Serenade (George Stevens), this Best Picture-nominated comedy from 1942 plays like more of a greatest-hits pastiche from Grant's peak years than a perfectly integrated object unto itself. Grant stretches a little to play convicted arsonist and murderer Leopold Dilg, who is actually a small-town political dissident standing on the wrong side of powerful industrialists. It's a difficult character to know what to do with, and both the actor and the movie hold him somewhat in abeyance while generously ceding the movie to Jean Arthur, perkily hiding Grant from the law, and to Ronald Colman, an esteemed legal theorist who doesn't know he's befriending a fugitive. The trouble is, neither of these characters fully congeals, either, and the film's thematic arc about the nature of jurisprudence feels a little outsized to the momentary pleasures of deft actors keeping a light, fragile birdie in the air. Fun, but best taken as a pleasant sorbet after richer, more flavorful movies. B–

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I Love the World, I'm So Happy!

Heard that one before? It was initially delivered in a climate of teary, jubilant thanks, just as I'm delivering it now. Truly, this blog is not specifically intended as an open-ended paean to Tim R., but as soon as one of y'all sends me a Region 2 DVD of The Piano—available Stateside only in this meager and frequently bargain-binned version—I'll start gushing over you too, m'kay?

Suffice it to say that, while I've been kicking around the idea of a region-free DVD player for many years, and feeling grumpy and wallflowery about all those unreleased foreign titles that we don't get to see in Region 1, I didn't actually splurge and make the commitment... until encountering the phrase "Commentary from Director Jane Campion and Producer Jan Chapman." At that point, it was about 45 seconds before I 1-Clicked over on Amazon.com and bought this reasonably priced little beauty, which also shows easy, uncomplicated love to those DVD-R's which my normal Toshiba unit so haughtily rebuffs. Anyway, the Piano DVD arrived yesterday in the mail (Tim, you are A DOLL), the player tonight, and...

Reader, I really wouldn't be so asinine as to post about splurge purchases if it weren't such a huge thing for me to see how this movie is finally, at long last, presented. I haven't even listened to the commentary track yet, but the separate on-disc interview with Jane Campion, dating from 2003, involves a full hour of her talking, with no intrusive questions, just reflecting on her film and how and why she made it and what it says to her. I cannot quite describe how this feels to me, given the movie's pivotal role in my life, except to say that I feel a little like Hortense in Secrets & Lies, finally meeting my mom face-to-face (except that Jane, praise heaven, doesn't turn out to be a half-sunken and atrabilious mess).

Showing us her workbook sketches of Ada and Flora from a full decade before shooting started, describing how you summon confidence when working around people much more experienced than you are, laughing about how "this film has probably fucked up heaps of women!" because it describes a mythic reality about possible empathies achieved through surprising channels, showing off her Palme d'Or from Cannes with the relish of proudest possible show-and-tell, and describing how much more it means to her than her Oscar... Jane is an angel. Reader, Nick'sFlickPicks wept. Producer Jan Chapman is also an absolute love in her own 15-minute interview, among other things elucidating what an independent film producer working across continents actually does. (Fact: CiBy 2000, the now-defunct French corporation that financed The Piano, as well as other personal pets like Taste of Cherry, Georgia, The Straight Story, Lost Highway, and yes, Secrets & Lies, was an industrial construction company, owned by un homme who happened to love the arts. I love that homme! Find me that homme!)

Is it wrong that I am leaping all the way to a sweeping conclusion, based only on anecdotal evidence, that obviously the rest of the world truly loves movies and only the U.S. subliminally and neurotically hates them, based on the fact that The Piano (still the greatest movie ever, clearly) is showcased so lovingly and evoked in such telling detail on R2/PAL, whereas the R1/NTSC Artisan disc basically shills it out as though it were Universal Soldier or Earth Girls Are Easy?

Whatever. I am going to go watch my favorite movie again and just hug myself. Later, I'll file an order for one of the few other movies in the world that makes me feel this giddy. Thanks, all, for your stamina through this gush.

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Best Ides Ever

Sure I'm still moling my way through the piles of letters of recommendation and papers that need grading on my desk and in my apartment... but BUT, at least so far, March 15 is kicking its bad karmic habit:

1) My students can really write, and they have interesting ideas! Yay!

2) David Cronenberg, one of my absolute favorite directors, turns 63 today. I've been interested in his movies since being seriously freaked out by my uncle's VHS copy of Dead Ringers when I was 13. I have loved them since seeing Crash in the theater in 1997, and trying to convince my friend Bill that it was terrific. Dead Ringers, Crash, Naked Lunch, The Brood, and The Fly are all enormous favorites, as is eXistenZ, which seems finally to be building the vociferous cult following it always deserved. I wasn't totally wild about about Cronenberg's last two movies, Spider and the new-to-DVD A History of Violence, despite their stunning and controlled technical realizations. Then again, lots of people think these are his peak works, and that's one of my favorite things about the DPC: he's a totally different director in the eyes of almost everybody, and his work is always exciting.

3) Tim R's countdown of his personal canon hits an excitingly distinctive K2 today, with the Everest announcement to follow shortly. (If you've been tracking, you already know what it is.) More on this list later, but it's already my favorite canon out there, and the Comments sections have been a blast.

4) I'm being taken out to a free dinner by a colleague—one of those situations where she thinks she owes me, and I absolutely disagree, but I couldn't talk her out of it, and hey, why not gnosh?

5) It's been a great teaching week: Paris Is Burning. Billy Budd. Eve Sedgwick. Beau travail. Marat/Sade. Antonin Artaud. Jean Genet. Bliss, all of it. (If occasionally funky or scary-ass bliss.)

Last but certainly not least...

6) Today was D(elivery)-Day for Girl Scout Cookies in our department, c/o the daughter of our beloved office assistant. Is there anyone alive who doesn't effervesce at the sight of Girl Scout Cookies? Is there anything you can't tell from a person based on their preferred delectable? For all of you caloric astrologers, I am a Do-Si-Do man myself, with a house in Thin Mint, and strong Rising Signs in Tagalong and Trefoil. Seriously, putting a sleeve of Do-Si-Do's in front of me is like putting dust bunnies in front of a vacuum hose. Of course, I've probably spoiled my appetite for my free dinner. But that's not bad, as far as Ides go.

Now back to this grading, before my students quite justifiably tie me to the mast.


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Oscar Files: Best Picture

One last category to survey before I bound onward into more screenings. Recall again that I have a thing for round numbers: 100 Best Actress nominees left to see, 100 Best Supporting Actress nominees to see, and in Oscar’s top category, where 450 movies have been nominated as Best Picture, I’ve seen 300, a ratio of exactly two-thirds. Exquisite, like a lunar eclipse!

The wide range of quality for which Oscar is so notorious has been pretty well indicated by my last two forays—on the good side, George Cukor’s cheeky and genial Born Yesterday, in which Judy Holliday brings a minor explosion of inspired creativity to almost all of her scenes, and on the far side of sub-mediocrity, Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman wilting before the stultified camera and dead air of Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Like most of us, I have the recent years in Oscar annals better-covered than the early history. I’ve seen every nominee from the past 21 years, a streak that halts at Norman Jewison’s A Soldier’s Story (1984), whereas more than half of the films I’ve missed date from 1943 or earlier—a.k.a., from the first 16 years of Academy voting, when the Best Picture list often encompassed as many as 10 or 12 films per year.

As I mentioned in the Best Actress post, Goatdog is way out ahead of me in covering the Best Pictures, and I gather from all of you who have posted comments recently that he’s probably not alone in having me beat at this game. But, to quote the title of one Best Picture nominee, the more the merrier! At this point, I’m having even more fun reading all of your lists than I am making my own, so I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, etc.

And, given that we're dealing with almost twice is large an archive with Best Picture than we were with Supporting Actress, allow me to expand the range of my lists:

Nominees I Have Left to See: 9The Broadway Melody (1929), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Life of Émile Zola (1937), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Gandhi (1982)

My Ten Favorite Winners So Far:
1. Casablanca (1943)
2. All About Eve (1950)
3. It Happened One Night (1934)
4. Annie Hall (1977)
5. The Godfather (1972)
6. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
7. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
8. Rebecca (1940)
9. Gone With the Wind (1939)
10. Titanic (1997)
Note: I saw Hamlet (1948) and The Godfather Part II (1974) so long ago that I almost don't feel that I've seen them. I doubt Olivier's film will shake up these lists all that much, but upon revisiting, Coppola's well might. Oh, and I'm not offering any apologies about Titanic.)

My Ten Favorite Losing Nominees:
1) The Piano (1993)
2) Citizen Kane (1941)
3) Nashville (1975)
4) Chinatown (1974)
5) Grand Illusion (1938)
6) The Thin Red Line (1998)
7) Taxi Driver (1976)
8) Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
9) Apocalypse Now (1979)
10) The Conversation (1974)

My Least Favorite Winners:
1) Out of Africa (1985)
2) Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
3) Rain Man (1988)
4) Going My Way (1944)
5) Forrest Gump (1994)
6) Braveheart (1995)
7) Gladiator (2000)
8) Cavalcade (1933)
9) Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
10) You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Years in Which I've Seen Every Nominee: 27 — 1945, 1948, 1964, 1968, 1975, 1981, and every year from 1985 through the present

From Among These Years, the Best Overall Fields...
Privileging consistent high quality over peak contenders
1) 1975Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville (my pick), and *One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (for my money, the only non-masterpiece)
2) 1993The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano (my pick, obviously), The Remains of the Day, and *Schindler's List (not a bum in the bunch)
3) 1996*The English Patient (a great literary epic), Fargo (a brilliantly mordant comedy, and my pick), Jerry Maguire (a great mainstream romance), Secrets & Lies (a great drama), and Shine (four out of five ain't bad)

Hon. Mention: Sorry for the cliché, but 1939: Dark Victory, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz are all stunners, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Wuthering Heights have their moments, and I have high hopes for Love Affair, Ninotchka, and Of Mice and Men

...and the Worst
1) 1945Anchors Aweigh (subpar Gene Kelly hoofer), The Bells of St. Mary's (lame proselytizing), *The Lost Weekend (awkward, overdone Expressionism), Mildred Pierce (enjoyably slick trash, and thus my pick), and Spellbound (subpar Hitchcock)
2) 1989Born on the Fourth of July (turgid), Dead Poets Society (mawkish), *Driving Miss Daisy (feeble), Field of Dreams (whaaa?), and My Left Foot (literally, the redeeming feature)
3) I don't think any of the others I've checked off deserve to be on this list, though there's a lot of pressure on M*A*S*H and A Soldier's Story to make up a lot of lost ground in 1970 and 1984.

Ten Remaining Nominees I'm Most Psyched To See...
1) I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1933)
2) The Turning Point (1977)
3) The More the Merrier (1943)
4) Dodsworth (1936)
5) Tess (1980)
6) Sons and Lovers (1960)
7) The Racket (1928)
8) M*A*S*H (1970)
9) Heaven Can Wait (1943)
10) Four Daughters (1938)

...and Ten I'm Putting Off
1) Doctor Dolittle (1967)
2) Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
3) Fanny (1961)
4) The Longest Day (1962)
5) Wilson (1944)
6) Here Comes the Navy (1934)
7) The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
8) Cleopatra (1963)
9) Test Pilot (1938)
10) 100 Men and a Girl (1937)

P.S. I'll follow up some time with Oscar Files for Director (sooner than later), Actor, Supporting Actor, and Cinematography (truly, later). I've already got my work cut out for me in these categories, plus there are exceedingly few male actors who incite my loyalty, and there were sooo many nods for so many decades in Cinematography, my other favorite category, that it's an enormously daunting task.

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Monday, March 13, 2006

Oscar Files: Best Supporting Actress

Lesbian film theorist Patricia White has written sensationally about the odd predisposition of other film theorists, even the queer ones, to overemphasize the starring players, as though no one ever identified with anyone else in a movie, except under duress. Why, she asks, in the context of classic Hollywood, would anyone want to be Jane Wyman or Olivia de Havilland or Susan Hayward when you could be Agnes Moorehead or Thelma Ritter or Mercedes McCambridge? Not just for queer audiences, the supporting cast is often the place where all the interesting stuff in a movie is happening. Freed from the obligation to "carry" the film or conform to an archetype, actors can flex, lurk, suggest, insinuate, imply, surprise, conceal, and entice. And where most films have no more than one or two leads, especially female leads, the supporting cast can be a Whitman's sampler of diverse delights, from heavily showcased second-tier roles (Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce, Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist, Virginia Madsen in Sideways) to piquant sideshows or single-scene accents (Eve Arden, Amy Wright, and Mary-Louise Burke in the same films).

So while I'm beavering away at the 100 past nominations for Best Actress that I have left to see, don't you know my eyes are just as keen on their supporting sisters. Most recently from this bunch, I saw Edith Evans lord it over her hellion granddaughter Hayley Mills and cryptic governess Deborah Kerr in The Chalk Garden (1964), one of those movies whose title metaphors is a real groaner, though the movie itself is an odd sort of fun, like nothing they'd ever make anymore; and, too, the nominated duo of Celeste Holm and Elsa Lanchester in Come to the Stable (1949), a pleasant but featherweight entry in that genre of pop sanctimony that gave us Boys Town and Going My Way. Holm speaks in a French accent and plays tennis in a full wimple and habit, while Lanchester wields a paintbrush and some especially marmy wire-rims as a pastoral artist, and though sheer likability is always in favor of both actresses, it's hard to know how they distracted Oscar from the absent Miriam Hopkins in The Heiress or Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives, both of them in Best Picture nominees.

So if it's symmetry you seek, you'll find it here at Nick's Flick Picks, because surprise surprise, I have exactly 100 Supporting Actress nominees left to go, too. After yesterday—the single best-attended day ever at this blog, thanks to all you idol worshippers—you all know the drill. Comment away. List-make, and list-monger! And don't omit that by total coincidence, another blog you should be reading, by the self-deprecating StinkyLulu, is about to get into the same mischief. He'll be following a strict once-a-week diet of Sunday posts, as though going to Best Supporting Actress is like going to church, and reader, that is an attitude that Nick's Flick Picks vehemently encourages. But you know this blog: it's more of a feast or famine gig, so expect big binges with ample digestion times.

Winners I Have Left to See: 15 — Gale Sondergaard (1936), Mary Astor (1941), Teresa Wright (1942), Katina Paxinou (1943), Ethel Barrymore (1944), Anne Baxter (1946), Josephine Hull (1950), Gloria Grahame (1952), Jo Van Fleet (1955), Miyoshi Umeki (1957), Shelley Winters (1959), Margaret Rutherford (1963), Goldie Hawn (1969), Eileen Heckart (1972), and Tatum O'Neal (1973)

My Six Favorite Winners So Far:
1) Vanessa Redgrave in Julia, 1977
2) Rita Moreno in West Side Story, 1961
3) Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986
4) Sandy Dennis in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966
5) Mercedes McCambridge in All the King's Men, 1949
6) Jane Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath, 1940

My Six Favorite Losing Nominees: (this was murder to whittle down!)
1) Celeste Holm in All About Eve, 1950
2) Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street, 1953
3) Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear, 1991
4) Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain, 1952
5) Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, 1992
6) Susan Tyrrell in Fat City, 1972

My Least Favorite Winners:
1) Shelley Winters in A Patch of Blue, 1965
2) Helen Hayes in Airport, 1970
3) Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express, 1974
4) Renée Zellweger in Cold Mountain, 2003
5) Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, 2001
6) Maggie Smith in California Suite, 1978

Years in Which I've Seen Every Nominee: 20 — 1949, 1956, 1986, 1988, and every year from 1990 through the present

From Among These Years, the Best Overall Fields...:
1) 1995 – Allen in Nixon, Quinlan in Apollo 13, Sorvino in *Mighty Aphrodite, Winningham in Georgia (my pick), and Winslet in Sense and Sensibility
2) 1996 – Allen in The Crucible, Bacall in The Mirror Has Two Faces, *Binoche in The English Patient, Hershey in The Portrait of a Lady (my pick), and Jean-Baptiste in Secrets & Lies
3) 2005 – Adams in Junebug (my pick?), Keener in Capote, McDormand in North Country, *Weisz in The Constant Gardener (my pick?), and Williams in Brokeback Mountain

Hon. Mention to 1940, where I'm still missing Rambeau in Primrose Path, but just about the best acting field ever is shaping up amongst Anderson in Rebecca, *Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath, Hussey in The Philadelphia Story, and O'Neil in All This, and Heaven Too (my pick)

...and the Worst:
None of these are awful, but great winners emerged from lame packs
1) 1949 – Barrymore and Waters in Pinky, *McCambridge in All the King's Men (duh), and Holm and Lanchester in Come to the Stable
2) 2000 – Dench in Chocolat, *Harden in Pollock (duh), Hudson and McDormand (the only other viable nominee) in Almost Famous, and Walters in Billy Elliot
3) 1993 – Hunter in The Firm, *Paquin in The Piano (duh), Perez in Fearless, Ryder in The Age of Innocence, and Thompson in In the Name of the Father

Six Remaining Nominees I'm Most Psyched To See...:
1) Thelma Ritter in The Mating Season, 1951
2) Jo Van Fleet in East of Eden, 1955
3) Marjorie Rambeau in Primrose Path, 1940
4) Grayson Hall in The Night of the Iguana, 1964
5) Barbara Harris in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, 1971
6) Alfre Woodard in Cross Creek, 1983

...and Six I'm Putting Off:
1) Edna May Oliver in Drums Along the Mohawk, 1939
4) Miyoshi Umeki in Sayonara, 1957
3) Margaret Wycherly in Sergeant York, 1941
4) Glenn Close in The Natural, 1984
5) Mildred Natwick in Barefoot in the Park, 1967
6) Aline MacMahon in Dragon Seed, 1944

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Sunday, March 12, 2006


I spent a lovely afternoon at Hartford Stage attending a matinée performance of their terrific revival of A Raisin in the Sun, and giving an invited lecture at the end of the performance. Even before that alarm clock sounds and the action begins amidst deceptive sleepiness, this is a strong production: the set is superb, cheerfully dingy if that makes sense, and deftly detailed. The actors are a strong group, especially Billy Eugene Jones' lucid but empathetic take on Walter Lee, who says some terrible things and is too easy to dislike in the hands of lesser interpreters (and, perhaps, too easy to like in the form of Sidney Poitier). Lynda Gravátt and April Yvette Thompson are also standouts as Lena, the play's dowager empress, and Ruth, Walter's subtly incisive wife. In fact, only Albert Jones, who is much too eager to telegraph the superficial vacuousness of the gentleman caller he plays, sounds a wrong note in this impressive and engaging ensemble.

The real star, though, as it should be, is Hansberry, an utterly underrated playwright and enormously promising intellectual who died at age 34, as her criminally short-shrifted play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window was closing its unsuccessful Broadway run. Hansberry was a brilliant writer, an inspired sketch artist and painter, a librettist, a witty correspondent, a real in-the-trenches activist, a proud Marxist (and this in the 1950s, before she had any celebrity to insulate her from attack, and when celebrities themselves weren't insulated anyway), an associate editor of Paul Robeson's radical leftist magazine Freedom, a reputed bisexual and dues-paying member of the Daughters of Bilitis (offering regular columns to their journal, The Ladder), an aspiring novelist, and an articulate grasper of global systems and political complexity. She thought and understood at the same level as James Baldwin or Tony Kushner, and she was able to get her audience to think at that level, too. Raisin is her most conventionally realist work, but it is layered, ambiguous, and fine-tuned as few American dramas are—it's better, I think, than anything by Miller—and hearing its impeccable dialogue and its stunning syntheses of familial, racial, local, sexual, sociological, and international tensions ring through the electrified air of a sold-out theater is a great way to pass a day.

And a lucky day it is, if you live in Hartford, or near it, since the show has been extended an extra week, through March 26. So pony up!


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Oscar Files: Best Actress

I grabbed a few hours over the past busy, busy week to see two performances that scored Oscar nominations in their years, both of them the sole nods for their films. Rosalind Russell is not necessarily sensational in Sister Kenny (1946), playing the Australian nurse who revolutionized therapies for juvenile polio against much medical opposition, but she does a very good job of aging, she avoids sanctifying her part, and best of all, it's a much less strenuous perf than her usual. Glenda Jackson, though an utterly different kind of actress, is comparably good but comparably not great in Trevor Nunn's Hedda (1975). Her best moments are when she lightens the character with savvy brushes of morbid humor, or a droll fascination with the moral weakness of her intimates and acquaintances—but as ever with Jackson, she has default modes of arch knowingness and dark neurosis, and whenever she reverts to them, you feel that she hasn't connected sufficiently with the part. (Tragically, I had to pass up an offered ticket to see Cate Blanchett this Tuesday night, wowing audiences at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in their limited-run production of Hedda Gabler—very apt casting, I should think, and her notices have been dreamy. )

And here we get to the best part: yes, I count, and having notched these two, I have exactly 100 performances left to see from the 388 Oscar has ever nominated in my favorite category and yours, Best Actress. That means I've seen about 74% of the nominees, though after the next three, I'll be at exactly 75%, another deliciously round number. (This is a good time to remember that I love numbers, especially fractions, especially when they correlate to finite lists, especially when the lists are movie-related.)

So, while the esteemed and lovable Goatdog keeps cranking his way toward seeing all the 450 Best Picture nominees (453 according to Mike, since he counts the "Artistic Quality of Production" nominees from Oscar's first year—and why not, when they're as good as Sunrise, Chang, and The Crowd), I've got my own quarry to chase with the leading ladies. It's a project doomed to failure: Jeanne Eagels' legendary performance in The Letter (1929) is only extant in a single, unfinished version, the one surviving print of Ann Harding in Holiday (1931) is sealed off in the Library of Congress, and if Betty Compson's work in The Barker (1929) or Elisabeth Bergner's in Escape Me Never (1935) is anywhere accessible, I've never heard of it.

Still, a fella can give it the ol' college try. And heck, of the 100 perfs I have left to see, ranging from Compson, Eagels, and Corinne Griffith in 1929 through Jane Alexander and Julie Walters in 1983, I own 73 of the relevant films on tape. (72, really, but The Turning Point double-counts for Bancroft and Maclaine.)

Look for countdowns and short reviews of these last 100 as I get to them, but for now, here are a few more stray statistics and impressions of what I've seen and what's still coming:

Winners I Have Left to See: 7 — Luise Rainer (1936), Ginger Rogers (1940), Greer Garson (1942), Olivia de Havilland (1946), Grace Kelly (1954), Ingrid Bergman (1956), and Susan Hayward (1958)

My Five Six Favorite Winners So Far: (that's for you, par3182)
1) Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951
2) Holly Hunter in The Piano, 1993
3) Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, 1934
4) Marie Dressler in Min and Bill, 1931
5) Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, 1939
6) Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, 1968

My Six Favorite Losing Nominees:
1) Jessica Lange in Frances, 1982
2) Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, 1974
3) Katharine Hepburn in Long Day's Journey into Night, 1962
4) Julianne Moore in Far from Heaven, 2002
5) Bette Davis in The Letter, 1940
6) Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, 1935

My Least Favorite Winners:
1) Mary Pickford in Coquette, 1929
2) Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter, 1947
3) Sally Field in Places in the Heart, 1984
4) Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8, 1960
5) Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, 1953
6) Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967

Years in Which I've Seen Every Nominee: 29 — 1928, 1950, 1951, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, and every year from 1984 through the present

From Among These Years, the Best Overall Fields...:
1) 1950 – Baxter and Davis (my pick) in All About Eve, Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, *Holliday in Born Yesterday, and Parker in Caged
2) 1996 – Blethyn in Secrets & Lies, Keaton in Marvin's Room, *McDormand in Fargo (my pick), Scott Thomas in The English Patient, and Watson in Breaking the Waves
3) 1987*Cher in Moonstruck, Close in Fatal Attraction (my pick?), Hunter in Broadcast News (my pick?), Kirkland in Anna, and Streep in Ironweed (my pick?)

Hon. Mention to 1974, where I'm still missing Perrine in Lenny, but am left breathless by *Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, Carroll in Claudine, Dunaway in Chinatown, and Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (my pick)

...and the Worst:
1) 1984 – Davis in A Passage to India, *Field in Places in the Heart, Lange in Country (my pick), Redgrave in The Bostonians, and Spacek in The River
2) 1994 – Foster in Nell, *Lange in Blue Sky, Richardson in Tom & Viv, Ryder in Little Women (my pick), and Sarandon in The Client
3) 2005 – Dench in Mrs. Henderson Presents, Huffman in Transamerica (my pick), Knightley in Pride & Prejudice, Theron in North Country, and *Witherspoon in Walk the Line

Six Remaining Nominees I'm Most Psyched To See...:
1) Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, 1954
2) Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier, 1943
3) Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964
4) Greta Garbo in Anna Christie, 1930
5) Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point, 1977
6) Shirley Maclaine in The Turning Point, 1977

...and Six I'm Putting Off:
1) Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc, 1948
4) Sophia Loren in Marriage, Italian Style, 1964
3) Audrey Hebpurn in The Nun's Story, 1959
4) Maggie Smith in Travels with My Aunt, 1972
5) Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners, 1960
6) Norma Shearer in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1934

Now y'all know you wanna comment.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day, and as you'll learn on the website, the occasion was always intended to honor the local, "ordinary," and culturally anonymous women who sustain countries, families, institutions, communities, farms, banks, schools, churches and temples, archives, traditions, and ideas the world over. In this way, the event is not primarily designed to honor the women we usually honor—although certainly no quota should ever be imposed on how often or how much we express our admiration, cultivate our knowledge, and combat our ignorance about all the women in the world, even the most famous of them, and all of the work that they do.

My heroes have always been women, and on an occasion like today's, I still can't help but think back on the three great heroes of my childhood, not counting little yellow bears from the Hundred Acre Wood: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Madonna. I know, I know, one of these things is not like the others. But these are the people that I read about, talked about, thought about, gave book reports and school presentations about over and over. Sojourner Truth because the "Ain't I a Woman" speech is a clarion call for justice that even a third-grader could understand, and because she showed so clearly how women's rights and the abolitionist cause were really one in the same struggle, and because the fact that it was always hard to know such simple things about her as when she was born and how old she was made me realize, at age nine, that history risked omitting some of its greatest people, and I wanted to know why that was.

Harriet Tubman because her acts were so simple and yet so herculean in their bravery (again, something that even a small child can understand), and because even her name was not her own, and because her story was my single-handed introduction to the world's complexity: I also admired Thomas Jefferson when I was little, and one day it occurred to me that admiring them both was a difficult and somewhat contradictory thing to do (and yet, in both cases, an impossible thing not to do). This Friday is the 93rd anniversary of her death. Save a thought.

Madonna because even when I didn't understand what she was singing about, her creativity with her music and with her own image, and her obviously total devotion to everything she did, and the fact that she got a rise out of people I know in every generation, set a real example for me about following one's own path and insisting on your own voice, even in ways that didn't look like conventional "leadership." And you could dance to it!

Side by side with these fantastic and humbling and utterly improbable women were the women in my own life whom I treasured, and who gave so much to me and to other people: my mother, who always gave love so fully and freely, and who taught me from a very early age without ever talking down to me; my maternal grandmother, who graduated from college in the 1940s when no woman in her family had ever done this, and most women still didn't; my paternal grandmother, who was a constant wellspring of affection and mischief; my aunt Lisa, who seemed so well-read and did everything her own way; my first-grade teacher Rachel Simmons, who saved me from shyness and self-consciousness at such an early age, and who shaped my personality so hugely that my dissertation is dedicated to her; my elementary-school math teacher Becky Salp, who would give me extra games and challenges because she knew how much I liked them; my fourth-grade teacher Judith Ward, who sang the same songs in the hallway and under her breath that I did, and who always asked what I was reading, and who reamed out a fellow teacher who laughed at me when I showed up on Halloween dressed in clip-on earrings and a jean skirt, and didn't let it rest until the other woman apologized to me.

Spotted in and around the culture, as I grew up: Rosa Parks, Christa McAuliffe and her shuttle-mate Judith Resnik, Geraldine Ferraro, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Corazon Aquino, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Nancy Drew, Clarice Starling, Claire Huxtable, Ellen Ripley, Cokie Roberts, Roseanne Barr, the actresses, the writers, the artists. Discovered at the library: Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, "Lemonade" Lucy Hayes, Queen Elizabeth, Shirley Chisholm, Jane Austen, Jane Addams, Abigail Adams, Florence Nightingale, Hester Prynne, Harriet Jacobs, Laughing Water in The Song of Hiawatha, the suffragettes, the abolitionists.

Today, most broadly: women worldwide who work, nearly always for less, very often for pennies; women who nurture and raise, which is work; women who teach; women who do; women who agitate, for labor laws and justice and better government; women who work and collectivize from the literal ground up, like Vandana Shiva; women who use literary celebrity as a platform for articulate protest, like Arundhati Roy and Edwidge Danticat; women who are the lifeblood of local banks, volunteer health-care, and so many of the local-politics movements that are bandaging desperate communities around the world; women who pose the toughest questions in the Senate, like Barbara Boxer; women who are scrutinizing and challenging the machinery of politics, both figuratively, like Cindy Sheehan, and literally, like Bev Harris; women who write, create, perform; women who love women; women who counsel; women who are still disproportionately our teachers, social workers, and non-profit volunteers; women who are my most recent mentors, like Elaine Scarry, Hortense Spillers, and Amy Villarejo; women who are my friends and colleagues and students; my landlady and best friend in Hartford; the women who run the entire department at my bank; the women who organize and ensure my health benefits; the women who find time to do everything else they do while they're already doing all of this. All women, give or take Ann Coulter.

You can find a list here of worldwide events tied to International Women's Day. Trinity is selling T-shirts and raising awareness of the day around campus. Many places are doing something similar or something more. Even if it's just a thought or a thank-you: have it, and say it, and pass it on! And pass it on here, too—leave a comment, tell us all about a woman we should know about.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's Hard Out Here for a Gay Cowboy Movie

I'm not sure what to say about the surprise victory of Crash as Oscar's Best Picture of 2005. I don't even know what's been said, or if there's anything left to say—as a rule, I stay off of most Oscar-focused websites that aren't written by the close friends whose hype I actually believe, most of whom I watched the show with last night, and most of whom were clearly devastated. (Note: I wrote this entry a day before I could post it.) I've stayed off even their sites today, because I'm still sorting out my own response. I have to admit that, as agnostic about Brokeback as I am, and as cognizant as I was of Crash's sharp resurgence during the balloting period, I was still caught utterly off-guard by its victory, and I still haven't settled into any emotion beside surprise.

The truth is, I like and admire Crash and Brokeback Mountain about equally as films, and I think they're comparable as political platforms. Crash chases its human canvas of class- and race-based suspicion into some impressively bracing exchanges of dialogue, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing lack of aesthetic finesse. Brokeback Mountain distills its potent essence of sexuality- and class-based emotional prisons into some haunting tableaus of tragic reticence, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing surfeit of self-beatification. They both engender more than just devotion in their biggest fans, but a kind of epiphanic and deeply personal release; others are left utterly cold. I didn't feel more or less "manipulated" by either project, and I'm not sure that manipulation is such a terrible thing in art (or if it's ever even absent from art). Brokeback invests such compassionate confidence in its binding argument, that repressed desire wrecks not just couples but entire vicinities of people, that it permits itself some rather maximal emphases within its pretense of restraint. Crash also errs frequently on the side of exclamation, and occasionally, in its case, on the side of idiocy, though for all it can seem like self-flagellating liberal agitprop, I haven't yet heard a convincing one-line summary of the film's contentions, and some of the urban dismay it so amply uncorks more than justifies, to my mind, its tinniest rhetorical gaffes.

Everyone who cares about the Oscars will take his or her own measure of the films' respective merits, but even those who harbor no doubt, in either direction, about which is the better film do not seem to be responding to the Best Picture outcome in those terms. I know the theories that are probably flying, the ones that felt the most immediate and the most hurtful last night at Nathaniel's party, in a room literally full of gay men who were all expecting a watershed cultural moment. Even as one of the few who liked other movies better, I was surprised by how summary and instantaneous the loss of Brokeback felt, but at risk of willful naïveté or quietism about the perceived homophobia underlying Crash's win, I would like to submit the following, just as a partial tonic... not because I think I know better than anyone else, or because I doubt that homophobic discomfort with Brokeback's premise probably factored in, but just to assert that even if that's true, I don't think it's a full or even necessarily a primary explanation.

1. Two-for-One In the forty years from 1956 through 1995, the Academy only split the Picture and Director prizes five times, or roughly once every eight years. In the eight years since 1998, however, they've made the same split four more times, or once every two years. Clearly AMPAS voters are cultivating a taste for recognizing two films they love by divvying up their two top awards, virtually always by giving the more critically certified film the Director trophy: Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, The Pianist, and Brokeback, as compared to the more ephemeral but widely ingratiating Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash. Clearly there was strong Academy support for both Brokeback and Crash this year, and just as clearly, neither film appealed widely enough to power a sweep: Crash couldn't win a Song Oscar over a rap track about pimping, and the determinedly picturesque Brokeback couldn't swipe Cinematography over the disturbingly vacuous Memoirs of a Geisha, which won as many Oscars as Crash and Brokeback did (and King Kong, too, for that matter). I'm betting that both films inspired fierce factional support but not consensus enthusiasm. I seriously doubt Crash nicked the win by very much of a margin, especially as it wouldn't have required more than a few fence-sitters to lean the outcome in this direction. (I'm thinking that no one, no one, voted for Brokeback and Haggis.)

2. DVD Palooza Crash's early release date would have been a liability for a different kind of film, but for a word-of-mouth hit that friends pass to friends, and that sports easy points of entry for all kinds of viewers, it was surely a major asset. Academy members have had months, not weeks, to watch Crash on DVD, even before Lions Gate's carpet-bomb strategy with its DVD screeners during January and February, and not to mention that Crash retains its basic virtues on a small screen while Brokeback loses some of its own. For all the railing we heard last night against DVD culture, it's clearly shaping Academy tastes and behaviors as much as those of the public.

Note, too, that I am not necessarily arguing that voters who watched Crash, on DVD or otherwise, didn't watch Brokeback. But the chance to watch Crash earlier and more often; to have it be the film you watch because your friend or colleague exhorts you to, instead of the film you watch because it's a front-runner and it arrived in the mail; to have it be the film that seeps in and lingers, overriding the glut of movies you might be watching in the short space of awards season... this is a formidable advantage, especially for a film whose appeal rests entirely on empathetic connection, a gut-level response to contemporary life (and in the city where most voters are living and watching, no less).

3. Critics Groups Are Not Crystal Balls Oscar voters are people who vote their minds and hearts, and who are largely sure they know movies better than critics do, notwithstanding annual embarrassments like the Narnia Makeup citation. That Brokeback swept so many critics' groups and even the Guild groups (minus, crucially, the enormously influential Screen Actors Guild) needn't imply a huge amount in terms of the film's Oscar destiny, though it sure seemed that way. Ang Lee, having missed a Director nod for Sense and Sensibility and a widely predicted Director trophy for Crouching Tiger, to say nothing of Oscar's unceremonious rejection of The Ice Storm, is clearly not a unanimous pet of AMPAS—whereas, given Million Dollar Baby's triumphs last year, Haggis' writerly brand of morbid fatalism quite clearly plays to the group's appetites. It was always going to be close, even on grounds of artistic sensibilities. Moreover, the sheer number of critics' prizes won by Brokeback Mountain can be a misleading argument, both because there are so many more critics groups in existence now than there were even ten years ago, and because the smaller critics groups are even bigger copycats of each other than the Academy is of any of them.

4. And Yes, They Might Be Homophobic ...and anyone who is, or who just wasn't taken or moved by Lee's movie, wouldn't likely make the error of throwing a vote to certain bridesmaids Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., or Munich. Anyone with a Brokeback beef could only look to Crash as a viable trump card.

So, adding all of this together, I don't know what, or whether, to make anything of Crash's come-from-behind Oscar coup except to say that in retrospect—fully admitting that I was as dumbfounded as anyone in the moment of its victory—it doesn't seem quite so unaccountable, whether or not Hollywood homophobia is ascribed as a motivation. I am positive that Hollywood, and the AMPAS voters in particular, are appreciably more conservative than their popular-media reputation as bastions of political and sexual radicalism would have us believe. Then again, though, the kind of conservatism that I expect predominates in Hollywood—a bottom-line conservatism eager for new niche markets, a self-congratulatory conservatism that enjoys the pathos of subversive subjects well-accommodated into benign and pretty packages like Brokeback's—could easily have endorsed Lee's film, if they really felt passionate about the picture. I'm just not sure that they did, and I'm not comfortable with assuming that sexual or political attitudes wholly explain the gulf between admiration (three wins, after all) and adoration (which no single film this year seems to have inspired).

And let's not forget, too, that even if we're totally displacing the myth that the Academy endorses the "Best" and focusing solely on their role as arbiters of the zeitgeist—and yes, I realized on Monday night that I really wanted their seal of approval, however dubious and no matter the film, to grace an accomplished and popular gay movie—that those of us, God help us, who measure social progress in Hollywood by the yardstick of the Academy came away with quite a few victories. For all the hoopla when Halle and Denzel won their dual Oscars in '01, where's the excitement that a non-white filmmaker has finally won Best Director? And doesn't Crash possess by far the most multicultural cast of any Best Picture winner, making a strong case for more films to be written and cast across the spectrum of race? It's easy to see actors, that massive plurality of the Oscar voters, being eager to champion that kind of cause, and if, as a white gay man, I didn't feel so immediately partial to the plights of gay representation, I might have had a clearer head through the weeks of Oscar build-up that a film with white American, Asian-American, African-American, Latino and Latina, and Arab-American leads was a strong dark horse for the top prize. Yes, I'd like for Crash to be better: on my own gradient of historical Best Picture winners, it hovers alongside films like Marty, Terms of Endearment, The French Connection, and Rocky, which exert a certain kind of competent populist appeal within quite evident limitations of style and form. Brokeback would have fallen into just the same zone, even though I can see now that for personal and communal reasons, I would have been happier to watch it join the constellation. But honestly, the grudge I feel about this is not very large, and the homophobia that may or may not play into it has nothing like the degree or the weight of much more destructive homophobias that are evident in so many other places. This isn't to step on the toes of anyone else's hurt feelings, especially people whose hurt feelings matter a lot to me, and whose reasons for being hurt I so fully relate to. But this is just my 2¢.

More Oscar responses later.

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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Oscar Anomie

In which the sad and peculiar truth is revealed that I just don't care much about this year's Academy Awards. Every year I look forward to writing the Oscar prediction features on my website, but this year, aside from having no time, I just haven't had any inclination. There have been worse Oscar years, but none in recent memory that have left me so frankly apathetic about this year's big show. I'm still trying to understand this, but here are my best guesses:

1. Brokeback As time goes by, I like the prohibitive favorite in this year's top races less and less. And I feel bad about this, because as a progressive cultural marker, I want to be excited about it. If a big gay love story is about to win Best Picture at the Oscars, I'd love to feel like cheering. And the movie's okay, an easy trade up from early 00s Best Picture winners like Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. In fact, Million Dollar Baby is the only Picture victor of the whole decade that I've found all that moving, though Chicago was good and plucky, and I'll take the Return of the King win as an oblique nod to The Fellowship of the Ring. But that's just the thing with Brokeback Mountain: it isn't the best, it isn't the worst, and its competence feels neither engagingly plummy nor aesthetically ambitious. Nothing in the film has the charge of the premise; subversive subject aside, the movie is just as determinedly middlebrow and almost as domesticated as traditional bait like The Cider House Rules. To me, everything impressive about it also feels glassed-off and distant. As it has loped to the forefront of the competition, its own remoteness has come to define the whole derby. (It hasn't helped that none of the key players—not the fratty and giggle-prone Ledger and Gyllenhaal, not the perpetually scowling Williams or the vapid cockatoo Anne Hathaway, not self-serious writers Ossana and McMurtry or the chirpily apolitical Ang Lee—have inspired any affection as podium personalities.)

2. Best Actress This category, perennially my favorite, is at best a compromise solution. Knightley, winning as she is, is beautifully courted by the camera and woven in by the editing. Considered in the abstract, apart from all the pristine favors done her by the film, what's special in the performance fades a bit. Huffman's proficiency feels a little cold, once you're out of the theater and away from Transamerica's thin, homespun charms. Theron's stuck in a frightened film that seems to cut away from her own best ideas about the character; Dench is an instant irrelevance. And then there's Witherspoon. The almost certain winner has one sterling scene—her first, slightly hoarse barroom rencontre with Cash—but the role is written within hoary limits, and there's every reason for her to fall back on her usual diet of knitted brows and saucer faces, which is just what she does. Voting for any of them feels like voting for John Kerry. Most years, even the lean ones, at least have a Moore in Far from Heaven or a Theron in Monster to inspire idolatry; sometimes, like last year, the leading women outstrip the men without breaking a sweat. This year's bum crop just feels inert.

3. I Don't Even Feel Like Continuing Who needs this? I don't feel as bilious toward this year's awards as I'm sounding like I am. Honestly, I'm just indifferent. But this is what happens every time I start writing about them, or even thinking about writing about them. (Cue Sandra Bullock: "I'm whiny all the time, and I don't know why!")

To resist this slide into grouchiness, I'd like to salute the nominees that do make me feel proud to watch the show, and have a little of that Academy magic attached to them. I wish there were more of them, but these'll do for an Honor Roll of the legitimately Oscarable:

Best Picture

Best Director
Bennett Miller, Capote
Steven Spielberg, Munich
(the latter for the film's wild ambitions and strongest passages, forgiving its lapses—it's the one political "issue" movie of the year that feels genuinely courageous, pushing itself to all of its own edges)

Best Actor
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
(Ledger has slipped a bit in my regard, and Strathairn is strait-jacketed by Clooney's stunningly narrow conception, but I will say that Phoenix unexpectedly improved on second view—a truly promising performance in need of a more daring director. Like, say, Bennett Miller.)

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener

Best Original Screenplay
Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale
(the ending notwithstanding)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Dan Futterman, Capote
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich

Best Cinematography
Emmanuel Lubezki, The New World
(by many leagues the year's best nomination, in any race)

Best Original Score
Dario Marianelli, Pride & Prejudice
(judicious and delicious understatement, perfectly matched to the film)

Best Original Song
"Travelin' Thru" from Transamerica

Best Sound
War of the Worlds

Best Sound Effects Editing
War of the Worlds

For the record, I'm predicting most of the same winners that everyone else is, but they go like this: Picture/Brokeback Mountain, Director/Lee, Actress/Witherspoon, Actor/Hoffman, Supporting Actress/Adams, Supporting Actor/Giamatti, Original Screenplay/Crash, Adapted Screenplay/Brokeback Mountain, Cinematography/Brokeback Mountain, Foreign-Language Film/Tsotsi, Film Editing/The Constant Gardener, Art Direction/Good Night, and Good Luck., Costume Design/Memoirs of a Geisha, Original Score/The Constant Gardener, Original Song/"Travelin' Thru" Sound/Walk the Line, Sound Effects/War of the Worlds, Visual Effects/King Kong, Makeup/The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Documentary Feature/Murderball, Documentary Short/God Sleeps in Rwanda, Animated Feature/Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Live Action Short Film/Six Shooter, Animated Short/9

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