“Imagine there’s no heaven,” sang John Lennon. “It’s easy if you try.” Okay, let’s. Imagine a world with no Marx Brothers films, no Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. A world in which Cary Grant was never born and Preston Sturges is just a rumor. Dutifully, the populace trudge beneath skies the color of porridge towards box-like movie theatres where they consume their weekly dollop of gloom, as served up in with movies like A Life of Emile Zola, Marty and Crash. In this alternative universe, movie-going is a bit like going to the dentist, only without the laughing gas. Films that stand any chance of raising a smile have been expunged from the records although you will occasionally hear talk amongst those old enough to remember of something called Some Like It Hot, and — even more mythic — Bringing up Baby. But it is quickly shushed by those with wiser heads. It only leads to trouble. Best forget. Come, eat your gruel, chilluns. Before the rats come.
Actually you don’t have to try too hard. This vale of sorrow is the version of movie history as reconstructed entirely from past Oscar winners. The academy’s prejudice against comedy is well-known and long-standing, the exceptions coming about once a generation: It Happened One Night in 1934, The Apartment in 1961, Annie Hall in 1978. “It's been like five times in a zillion years that [a comedy]'s won Best Picture,” complained Judd Apatow last year after Bridesmaids failed to garner even a nomination, squeezed out by the likes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film inferior to it by just every sane or reasonable criteria for sorting good movies from bad. So David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which goes into wide release this week, has an uphill climb at the Oscars this year, despite constituting the one of the most exuberant, sustained and humane feats of direction by an American in 2012.
It’s not a director’s film in the common sense of that term — there are no battles, or thousands of extras, or virtuouso editing sequences — but equally, it could have come from no other man but Russell, who has had a hard slog back to favor after a string of films — Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees — left him with reputation for volatility bordering on the radioactive. Six years and one abortive film project later, Russell showed up with The Fighter, his abrasive manner now tempered by some compassion, both onscreen and off, the film won an Oscar for Melissa Leo. Russell’s method in Silver Linings Playbook is much the same as it was in The Fighter. Take a bunch of characters — a bipolar divorcee played by Bradley Cooper, a cop’s widow played by Jennifer Lawrence — then pile on some more — a father and fanatical Eagles fan played by De Niro — and then, just when you think the scene can take no more, throw in a shrink or a cop for good measure, watch the whole thing teeter in the breeze — everyone shouting and fighting and weeping — then shake it to see what truths fall out. As De Niro told the New York Times:—
"David has a very unusual style of directing. You’ve got the camera moving around, he’ll push the camera over to this character, to that character, he’ll throw lines at you and you repeat them… It’s a particular way of working and gets right to it and it’s spontaneous. You just have to go with it. He understands that whole chaotic thing. It’s part of his — I don’t want to say meshugas, but maybe it is. It’s his craziness. But a lovable craziness."
The result is a kind of screwball humanism, rowdy and rich with risk, “Like a singer who quavers tauntingly, thrillingly close to going off-key,” said Manohla Dargis, “ the movie has the sting of life.” Unfortunately, it also happens to be wildly entertaining. The premise of the Oscars being to keep in place the fig-leaf of denial that Hollywood is even in the entertainment business, the film faces something of an uphill climb at least least as far as wins for Best Picture of Best Director are concerned. Yes it’s Harvey at the helm and Harvey won before with Shakespeare in Love won but that was the Academy’s one and only shot at giving an award to anything brushed with the creative molecules of William Shakespeare. Yes, there’s some stuff about being bipolar and meds and sex addiction in here, but the script would have to pull a much longer face about these things to start to see the benefits accrue. The Academy’s fear of comedy comes from the source of all philistinism: a deep fear of being thought philistine. As comedian Jim Piazza has written:—
“Hollywood was the invention of fist-in-your-face immigrant tycoons who, for all their sudden wealth, couldn’t get past the gates of Newport and Palm Beach. The Academy Awards became their pitch-imperfect bid for respectability. Pratfalls, cream pies and wisecracking dames may have paid for the Beverly Hills knockoff Versailles with the polo ponies in the backyard, but they weren’t quite up to snuff for front-room company. That was reserved for important pictures with high ideals that made you drowsy enough to think you were sitting with all the swells in Carnegie Hall.”
Despite their bad rap, the Golden Globes are not so afflicted. The true scandal about the Golden Globes is not that they are handed out by a bunch of star-struck, scandal-ridden foreign hacks with lucrative sidelines in the world of hairdressing and personal fitness; the great scandal is that a bunch of star-struck, scandal-ridden foreign hacks with lucrative sidelines in the world of hairdressing and personal fitness have consistently shown far finer taste when it comes to good acting than the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They consistently reward performers while the sap is still rising in their veins, before they have had all the fun stewed out of them in the bid for respectability. They gave an award to Nicole Kidman for her frisky, star-making turn in To Die For, rather than wait for her to don a false nose in the droopy The Hours; they gave it to Tom Hanks for his virtuoso turn in Big, years before Forrest Gump came on the scene; to Julia Roberts for Pretty Woman, not Erin Brockovich; to George Clooney in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, not the interminable Syriana. Oh and they gave a globe to Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. Murray has yet to receive a single Oscar. I rest my case.
Given all this, why — you might ask — is Jennifer Lawrence the front-runner in the race for the Best Actress Oscar, a position she has held since July, handily seeing off threats from Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Kiera Knightley in Anna Karenina, Helen Mirren in Hitchcock, and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour? Of the Great Unseen she has only Jessica Chastain, in Zero Dark Thirty, left to fear, if Lawrence even knows that emotion. It seems unlikely, given her performances in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Russell recently called her “one of the least neurotic people I know.” The scene in Silver Linings Playbook in which Lawrence walks into a room containing a fire-breathing and, within two minutes, has the master of Method eating out of her hand, could well seal the deal all on its own.
Nor will it hurt that she plays a cop’s widow, clad alternately in Goth gear and figure-hugging lycra, who recently lost her job for sleeping with everyone — everyone — at her office. “Yes, I’m Tommy’s crazy whore widow minus the whore thing sometimes.” The Academy are old goats for young actresses playing tarty, admittedly more in the supporting actress category — see Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny in 1992, and Mira Sorvino’s for Mighty Aphrodite in 1995. Lawrence is also only 22, but Best Actress is skewing younger these days, she’s riding the tail of a huge blockbuster (The Hunger Games), and most importantly of all, her performance covers new ground: “It’s Lawrence who knocked me sideways,” said David Edelstein. “ I loved her in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games but she’s very young — I didn’t think she had this kind of deep-toned, layered weirdness in her.”
The other race Russell’s film could show a burst of speed is Best Supporting actor: De Niro’s Eagles-Fan father, so obsessive-compulsive about possible jinxes he has a meltdown when anyone touches his TV's remote control, is easily the best work the actor has done in over a decade, a thrilling fusion of the broad-brush cantakerousness he took for a walk in Meet The Parents with the filigree neuroses that veined Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy back in 1983. Of the others in the Best Supporting Actor field — the as yet unseen Leonardo Di Caprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Alan Arkin coasting on auto-grump in Argo, Phillip Seymour Hoffman cutting a Wellsean dash in The Master, Tommy Lee Jones bawling out racists, baroquely, in Lincoln — I would guess that Jones is De Niro’s stiffest competition. But the Academy make a point of checking in with the greats (Streep, Nicholso) at various stages of their careers. De Niro may be old enough, and grey enough to merit such institutionalization. Call it the ‘When Did You Last Call Your Grandfather?’ vote.