Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Academy
To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, 2005 was a very good year for film. And overall, that is true — but also misleading. There were many pretty good films with potential that came out, yet it was a few great ones that raised the entire batting average. I’m pleased to say that Oscar, in all his rather finite wisdom, has done a pretty good job in reflecting the last year in film.
Commercial movies did not dominate this year’s list of Academy Award nominees; rather, word-of-mouth propelled films to this year’s short list. Though The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence, Match Point, Syriana and Walk the Lineall lobbied hard, they failed to make the final cut, paving the way for critical darling Brokeback Mountain, the biopic Capote, racial drama Crash, the Edward R. Murrow drama Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich, Steven Spielberg’s treatise on the vengeance that followed the 1972 Olympic massacre.
It’s not exactly a fab five: TV scripter Paul Haggis’Crash provides a veritable ABCs of how not to make a movie: artless, base, condescending, the list goes on. The film, a contrived racial relations drama, follows the Robert Altman/ Paul Thomas Anderson blueprint by presenting a cross-section of intersecting lives in Los Angeles. The politically correct puzzle piece is marred by shoddy production values and unfocused performances yet despite a minimum of acclaim, a massive yearlong marketing strategy has kept it in the zeitgeist. Luck certainly has the look of a classic due to Robert Elswit’s impressive black-&-white cinematography, and while it is assured filmmaking, (director/co-star George Clooney definitely avoids the sophomore slump), it is an imperfect rendering that fails to capture the true urgency of the HUAC hearings and legacy of broadcasting pioneer Murrow, despite an astonishing portrayal by David Strathairn. Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov’s choice to focus on a supposedly clandestine relationship between Joe and Shirley Wershba was an especially big goof.
Capote, on the other hand, set a lower degree of difficulty for itself and exceeded it by leaps and bounds. Bennett Miller’s crisp direction of actor Dan Futterman’s script works on many levels – the story of one insensitive writer and the people he nonetheless keeps in his thrall, of a small town’s reaction to a senseless crime, of the struggles one has with the creative process, of two outcasts from various backgrounds who find a kindred spirit with one another. It’s the last point that I found to be Miller’s only flaw in the movie – Capote’s relationship with murderer Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.) made the man so likable that it is ultimately difficult to perceive him as a cold-blooded killer.
Only Munich and Brokeback Mountain can be considered unparalleled. The former suffered from Spielberg’s refusal to mount a massive publicity effort. He only offered one magazine interview, and DreamWorks opted out of the usual spate of appearances and meet-and-greets of which the above-mentioned movies took advantage. While writer Tony Kushner makes some off-kilter choices in the film’s final quarter, Spielberg’s work is nonetheless a stunning cross-breed of the effect violence has on politics and the human heart, with some of the most suspenseful sequences mounted since the days of Hitchcock. Hopefully, in time, his film will take on greater significance than it has in the short-run.
It is Ang Lee’s elegiac Brokeback, oddly enough, that seems to have struck the greatest chord with audiences this year. Far more than the “gay cowboy movie” people anticipated, this adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story is a devastating account of two men and a shared love that is doomed because they live in a time and a place that forbids them from fully understanding that love’s boundaries and its possibilities. Lee’s visual acuity is what makes Brokeback pure poetry, forever, from his image of a river as salvation, to two soiled shirts entwined, and to a final haunting image of a postcard against a barren vista. Brokeback is a masterpiece on par with very few films, and deserves the Best Picture and Director statuettes reserved for it at ceremony’s end.
The Best Actor race includes four first-time nominees, but Philip Seymour Hoffman had Oscar from Capote’s first falsetto-voiced “hello.” After a decade-and-a-half of film, television and theatre work, Hoffman’s moment has come. His triumph is in inhabiting a character with abhorrent personality traits, rather than an outright villain, and making him nonetheless sympathetic. I was not impressed with either of the musical performances in this group – Terrence Howard is a ball of kinetic energy in Hustle and Flow but I never fully bought him as a put-upon pimp, and Joaquin Phoenix looked like he was working too hard to channel Johnny Cash’s volatile demons in Walk —- Cash may have endured personal turmoil, but when he sang, that voice should have been effortless. In contrast, character actor Strathairn, a longtime film MVP since his debut in John Sayles’ early indie films, is such a beacon of precision as Murrow that I remain in awe months after my first viewing. Heath Ledger, too, is a marvel as the centerpiece of Brokeback, able to articulate a lifetime of love and longing with a minimum of dialogue and expression. Do I think he will take home Oscar gold? No. Will he ever get another role that he connects with like this one? I doubt it. But his performance here is one for the ages. He, Strathairn and Hoffman all deserve the prize, but watch Hoffman walk away with it. Interestingly enough, he once made a bet with director Miller that if he won, he would bark his speech. Let’s hope he’s a man of his word.
2005 saw some terrific performances by some of today’s best working actresses: Joan Allen (The Upside of Anger), Glenn Close (heights), Laura Linney (The Squid and the Whale), Julianne Moore (The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio), Robin Wright Penn (Nine Lives), and Sigourney Weaver(Imaginary Heroes) were all sensational. And yet, ludicrously, none of these actresses earned a spot on the Best Actress roster this year, making the finalists for this year’s girl quite an unceremonious lot. Judi Dench is gifted, but Mrs. Henderson Presents is a weak retread of her character in HBO’s The Last of the Blonde Bombshells. I never felt the flourish of true love in Keira Knightley’s Pride and Prejudice performance, and while Charlize Theron acquits herself nicely in North Country, the film never rises above movie-of-the-week territory. Only Felicity Huffman does superlative work as a male candidate for transgender surgery meeting his long-lost son in the road movieTransamerica. It is deep, stunning work, but the movie had few viewers and many still perceive Huffman primarily as a television actress. That paves the way for movie star Reese Witherspoon, already a veteran at the ripe young age of 29, to emerge victorious for her hollow work in Walk.
Witherspoon has done good work in the past, from Freeway to Pleasantville toCruel Intentions, and especially in Election, but I found several problems with her performance. First of all, it is not a leading role – she doesn’t even appear during the long film’s first third. I never felt that she bore the weight of a life performing on the road and in a tough business that June Carter Cash would have emitted. To me, Witherspoon merely played Witherspoon – just a competent pro who knew how to hit her marks, but in her scenes with Phoenix, I never once felt an inkling of the symbiotic relationship the movie so literally tells us defined the Cash union. There have been outstanding performances by actresses in musical biopics before. I recall Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, who demonstrated every nuance of Lynn’s maturation as a woman and performer (and also did her own singing, which was spot-on, unlike Witherspoon’s sweet but soulless renderings). How can anyone forget Angela Bassett’s transformation as Tina Turner, standing up against an abusive husband and prevailing with a solo career? And Judy Davis, channeling no less a muse than Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows?
To continue with my soapbox, here is a small list of exemplary performances that have earned Best Actress gold: Meryl Streep, shouldering a guilt no mother should bear (and with multiple accents) in Sophie’s Choice; Jane Fonda, still the epitome of method acting at its finest in Klute; Kathy Bates, showing the horrifying effects of child abuse as a murderous fan in Misery; Shirley Booth as a long-suffering housewife in the classic Come Back, Little Sheba; even Glenda Jackson, radiating the heartbreak of an affair that has come to an end in the comedic A Touch of Class. I may be beating a dead horse, but Witherspoon doesn’t possess an inkling of their gravitas, and it’s her Hollywood connections alone that will let her prevail over Huffman come Oscar night. I’ll chalk it up to yet another misstep by the Academy – but that’s a quickly-growing list.
While not a sure thing, golden boy Clooney is the expected winner in the Best Supporting Actor category for his work in Syriana. Interestingly, by campaigning in this category for what is ostensibly the lead role in Stephen Gaghan’s poorly-structured attack on the oil industry, Clooney may have edged out Frank Langella, whose work in his own Luck deserved the trophy. But Clooney employed the powerful management/ publicity one-two punch of Hollywood’s Huvane brothers, and by emphasizing the thirty pounds he gained for the role as De Niro-esque, has positioned himself in the lead. He faces competition from Paul Giamatti, nominated this year for Cinderella Man but who also carries a lot of weight with those who feel he was snubbed last year for Sideways. (He was.)
I didn’t totally believe Jake Gyllenhaal as he aged into his forties in Brokeback, but sentiment for the film and affection for his family (both parents are industry power players) will help him accrue some votes. Matt Dillon should have already been nominated for films like Drugstore Cowboy and The Saint of Fort Washington, so his nomination here for a two-dimensional racist cop in Crash is overdue, and likely stops there. Meanwhile, William Hurt was a revelation in A History of Violence, but with less than ten minutes of screen time, the nomination should be honor enough for the past winner. Though Giamatti could pull off an upset, look for Clooney to grace the stage and give one of the evening’s more amusing speeches.
I expected Violence co-star Maria Bello to be nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category, but, alas, she didn’t make the final five. Who did? Frances McDormand as a truck driver suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease in North Country. I don’t think she is much of a threat this year, and sadly, neither is Catherine Keener, nominated as Harper Lee, the id to Hoffman’s superego inCapote. Through her eyes, we actually saw how one could put up with Capote’s shtick. This was a great year for Keener, who also played vibrant, complicated women in the Ballad of Jack and Rose and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, but I think her work her is too quiet, especially compared to the two front-runners, who get to do some shouting and crying: Michelle Williams in Brokeback and Rachel Weisz in the Constant Gardener. Best Picture winners often carry along victories in this category (i.e., A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, Shakespeare in Love), and Williams, who recently had a baby in real life with co-star Ledger, could find herself carried along by a sweep. But as in the Best Actress category, I suspect voters will pick another “R.W.” Weisz, whose career has included many diverse characters in a wide variety of commercial and independent film, is really a co-lead in Gardener, as a doomed crusader against big business; Gardener suffers when she disappears. I won’t dispute a win for her, but my vote is with Amy Adams, the Southern zealot who talks a blue streak in Phil Morrison’s observant Junebug. There was so much going on in that performance, it reminded me of some of the great characters in literature, from Henry James to Edith Wharton. Of the nominees, Huffman, Ledger, and Strathairn are all exquisite, but Adams’ is the performance of the year.
There is one other award to be bestowed Sunday night that for me will be the highlight of the telecast no matter who else wins. Hollywood renegade Altman, a five-time directorial nominee will receive the lifetime achievement award. What with massive-cast efforts this year like, Crash and Syriana, it is clear that the influence of the octogenarian moviemaker behind M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Playerand Short Cuts has not waned. Expect his speech to be equal parts ribald candor, humble appreciation, and entirely memorable.
As for how memorable the rest of the telecast will be, that remains a mystery I leave up to host Jon Stewart to solve. Stay tuned.