Feb 8, 2011
Oscar & Me: a personal history
So it all comes down to one thing: cinematography. That, sad to say, is the one category in the upcoming Academy Awards where I have an honest rooting interest. I would like to see Roger Deakins win for his compositions in True Grit, which, in their puritan minimalism almost count as a period detail unto themselves, were Arkansas of the 1880s to boast much in the way of cinematographers, which I gather it did not, but let's not quibble over details. I am not trying to be provocative when I say I couldn't really give a fig about any of the other categories. I would glean some pleasure from seeing Alexandre Desplat ascend the podium to collect an Oscar, his victory marred only the fact this his score for The King's Speech is his least inventive score to date. I guess, too, I would like to see Fincher hold onto Best Director, although the sheer amount of bad blood, sharp words and frankly apocalyptic reasoning flying around the Best Picture race has rather soured it for me. Let's see: if it's The Social Network, the Academy prove themselves a bunch of finger-snapping cahier-du-cinema-reading hepcats and if they chose The King's Speech they are damned to hell as old farts who can't untangle themselves from their oxygen tanks for long enough to fill out their ballots. Count me out of that particular snarl-up of pride and prejudice. I suppose The Social Network is the better film, there is that, although I've always found it helps to have your conviction as to a film's quality unshaken by anything as meretricious as a win at the Academy Awards. I was much happier when the Coens were rank outsiders, peering in through their spectacles; I saw the look of surprise on Frances McDormand's face when she won for Fargo, and frankly I could only sympathise: what kind of mixed-up world is it in which the Coens are crowned as awards darlings? It's a bit like seeing your parents in a nightclub, although I suspect that the alleged hipness of the Academy's choices, with wins for The Departed, No Country for Old Men and The Hurt Locker has been in part an optical illusion created by a set of economic, creative and commercial imperatives, otherwise known as: naff all else to pin a medal on. I suspect things are going to come unstuck this year for the Social Networkers, although I can only sympathise. There is nothing quite like your first true heartbreak at the Oscars. My primal scar came as the result of E.T, losing out to Ghandi in 1982 — oh the horror, the horror — although I have spoken to others who insist that Pulp Fiction losing to Forrest Gump inflicted the more lasting wound. The fact is, there have been so few Oscars awarded in my lifetime that truly lit my tail-feathers that the question of whether my tastes do or do not line up with the 6,000 odd total strangers simply doesn't exercise me as much as it should. I have a hard enough time agreeing with my beloved wife, whom I hand-selected through an online dating service that matched us on 29 of the deepest levels of compatibility including "cognitive traits", "emotional temperament", "physicality" and "social style" let alone worrying that I haven't achieved a Vulcan mind-meld with some Aussie set-builder who helped build the wattle-and-daub huts in Braveheart and now lives in Burbank with his wife and kids. There was a patch in the early seventies where the Academy and I kind of fooled around for a bit: Midnight Cowboy, The French Connection, Gene Hackman, The Godfather, Brando. That patch. Then, after the whole E.T imbroglio — enough to put me off non-violent protest for life— we weren't really talking for about decade until the early nineties, when The Silence of The Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler's List, The English Patient and Titanic all helped to thaw out our little detente, so much so that I now regard that decade as one of the great moviemaking decades, when all our hearts beat as one to shower hosannas on the same bunch of films, as critically acclaimed as they were commercially rewarded. Since then we've been back to our separate corners, staring sulkily at one another. I was pleased Million Dollar Baby won, and The Hurt Locker, but the acting categories went South with Halle Berry's inconsolable warblings in Monster's Ball, pushed further into the swamp with Charleze Theron's daring abjuration of hair conditioner, in 2003's Monster, and have yet to recover as far as I'm concerned. Only the supporting races hold any regular appeal. Whatever happened to Best Performances happening in Best Films? Great movies used to result when a director slings a film into orbit around a single magnificent sun — Brando in The Godfather, Nicholson in Cuckoo's Nest — along with a half a dozen supporting moons. Best Actor/Actress used to follow Best Picture over 50% of the time, but in the last decade only two Best Picture winners — Gladiator and Million Dollar Baby — have generated any Oscar heat for their leads. Now we have the Mr-Potato-Head-Oscars, where Daniel Day Lewis goes off to do his great acting all by his lonesome in something like There Will Be Blood, but renders the movie all but unwatchable in the process, while Best Film goes to some over-loud ensembles like Chicago, or Crash or Slumdog Millionaire. Where are the performances that sit at a movie's heart, lending it gravity, centripetal force, jump-starting it, but also drawing it into cohesion, the still eye at the centre of the storm? Renner came pretty close in The Hurt Locker, and Mickey Rourke was in every nook and cranny of the Wrestler but Tommy Lee Jones was left strangely sidelined in No Country For Old Men, and I'm not certain Nicholson knew what he was doing in The Departed, apart from lending Scorsese some cred with the Academy. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I think that directors have lost the art of collaborating with actors. Who out there is coming close to the match-up of Scorsese and de Niro, Allen and Keaton let alone Bogart and Huston, or Hitchcock and Stewart. Today's equivalents — Scorsese and Di Caprio, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton — seem more like marriages of convenience that increasingly play to the worst in both parties and have me screaming for a quick trip to Reno. I'm pretty certain I'm overstating the case now, as is the tendency with late-afternoon blog posts, but there's something here. Today's directorial hot shots — Fincher, Nolan, Boyle, Aronofsky depending — are not very performance-friendly. One more reason to look forward to a Di Caprio / Eastwood team up in J. Edgar, and Mortenson / Cronenberg reuniting for A Dangerous Method.