#0134 - HOLLYWOOD GOES TO WAR, PT. 2 - "If Washington is a Hollywood for ugly people, Hollywood is a Washington for the simple-minded." The quote of the month on celebrity activists comes from Senator John McCain, the man I now wish had won the 2000 election. I found it in Patrick Goldstein's L.A. Times column on the left-leaning tendency of the movie industry's more visible members, and now that the least-watched Oscars in recent memory are over, perhaps this will become less of an issue; certainly, we have a lot more to keep us occupied these days.
Goldstein's column touches on all the usual points - the usual suspects of the anti-war crowd (Sarandon, Garofalo, Clooney, Gere), the so-far unrealized threat of a "blacklist", the boycotts, the walks down memory lane to the bad old days of HUAC and and McCarthy. It reaches no particular conclusions, and identifies no leading trends mostly because, apart from the small but well-publicized chorus of dissent that probably peaked with Michael Moore's acceptance speech, there's been no salient outcome. As far as Hollywood is concerned, it's business as usual, early-21st century version. The USO no longer draws on ranks of patriotic stars to entertain the troops, and war movies can be relied upon to turn a profit, if not immediately in the theatres, then later on DVD and video, and the summer will see the release of a 3-disc special edition of Black Hawk Down.
Goldstein mentions Gael Garcia Bernal, the young Mexican actor who introduced Frida's Oscar-nominated song's production number with an invocation of the artist as someone who "would be on our side, against the war." Kahlo, Goldstein notes, was "a committed Marxist", like her husband Diego Rivera, and proceeds to name-check left-leaning or leftist artists like Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht, who were "hounded out of America in the early 1950s", which leads to a mention of Picasso, a longtime communist and painter of "Guernica", a copy of which was covered up during the UN Iraq debate - the symbolism of which he, like many, found sinister.
Artists, Goldstein says, "identify with the underdog. They tend to be disaffected outsiders and mavericks, skeptical of institutions, often uncomfortable with mainstream values. They find inspiration in change; their affection is with the dispossessed, not with the ruling order."
What Goldstein doesn't address is how a "disaffected outsider" like Kahlo could have so ferently idolized the institutional horrors of Stalin and his regime, though he does quote TV writer-producer and National Review contributing editor Rob Long, a representative of the industry's relatively muted conservative faction: "The artistic character is very individualistic, which is probably why the stories of a person struggling against insurmountable odds are so popular. But that doesn't mean liberal Hollywood has always been on the right side of history - I'm not sure I'd be terribly proud if I'd been a dupe of Stalin in the 1930s, like so many people were."
Or to continue supporting him into the 50s, as Kahlo did. Radical apostate David Horowitz is also called in to anatomize Hollywood's anti-war stance, which isn't in practice strictly pacifist, as he cites a string of pro-miltary films made by a supposedly anti-authoritarian industry: An Officer and a Gentleman, Top Gun, Rambo, Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down, When We Were Soldiers and Tears of the Sun, invoked by Horowitz as a counterweight to "a brief flurry of antiwar films in the late 1970s". The only problem with Horowitz' point is that, on the whole, the "pro-war" films he cites are hardly masterpieces. Some of them (Top Gun, Rambo) are downright awful, while the antiwar films he alludes to probably include Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, truly complex, interesting, and innovative movies.
These films, while not as technically adept at simulating the pyrotechnics and gore of battle as latter-day war pictures, beautifully depicted the social and psychological effects of Vietnam, both at the front and at home. Thanks to the political collapse of that war's support domestically, it was the first war that could be imagined on film without fear of "letting down the side". The public perception of Vietnam had been skewed negative; it was a time for dark visions of war, and corresponding bleak psychodramas on the home front. It was, without doubt, an exceptional period, and it ended by bequeathing an obligation that future war films would strive to rub the horror of combat in our faces, regardless of the political message.
I find it interesting that the only film to come out of the first Gulf War - Three Kings - begins with the "correct", endorsably cynical take on that war, but ends with a despairing regret that the Iraqi people were let down by that war's half-measure ending. It's interesting that George Clooney, a vehement Hollywood anti-war voice, was one of the film's stars, and even more that the film is rarely mentioned in debates about the current war, which both pro- and anti-war types probably agree will be considered a failure without the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime and the creation of a democratic Iraq. Interesting, and symptomatic of the confusion inherent in talking about the war in the framework of the movie industry and its products.
J. Hoberman's Village Voice post-mortem on the "anti-war Oscars" begins with a remarkably dismissive take on the graphic gestures anti-war stars had at hand for the ceremonies - the little green peace symbols and silver dove-squiggles they could wear to indicate their opposition to the war. On the truncated red carpet, Joan Rivers seemed clueless as usual, and had to ask her daughter what they meant. "Peace," she was told. "Every idiot in the world wants peace," Rivers snorted and, according to Hoberman, suggested "that the morning after, the pins will wind up for sale on eBay." For the first time in my life, I actually liked Joan Rivers.
Hoberman was disappointed that the most the industry could muster was this half-hearted show of cheap accessories and finger fins for the cameras. Even more puzzling was the apparent absence of "movieland's macho men" - Gibson, Willlis, Costner, Eastwood, Heston and Schwarzenegger - who Hoberman tritely, even bizarrely imagines having gone into survivalist lockdown mode, or repulsed by the "quasi-pagan ... Babylonian deco splendor" of the Kodak theatre, which "had the look of an Iraqi presidential palace." More likely they had stayed home out of a sense of unease at celebrating while the war was only days old, but the Oscars, even these austere "wartime" Oscars, are an spectacle unbridled by good taste, and Hoberman is intent on imagining them with the same logic as the politically melodramatic, often paranoid films they celebrate.
The quick history of Hollywood politics that follows - the best part of Hoberman's piece - points out the (mild) irony that the Oscars as we know them are a creation of World War Two, when the annual celebration went from being a relatively modest hotel banquet ceremony to a full-blown showbiz production, in aid of the war effort. This metamorphosis was something of a triumph for left-leaning members of the industry who had been denounced and investigated for what would later be called "premature anti-fascism", when organizations like the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League began agitating against Hitler, Mussolini and Franco in 1936. Joseph Breen's Legion of Decency and Martin Dies' embryonic HUAC both targeted the HANL as a communist front, while Breen and the Legion defended Leni Riefenstahl during her Hollywood visit, while attacking films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Great Dictator.
Isolationists critical of Hollywood's leftists were silenced by Pearl Harbor, but the HANL was already defunct, "effectively destroyed," as Hoberman writes, "by the Hitler-Stalin pact". While it's easy - and doubtless correct - to vilify Breen and HUAC, they did get one thing right - the HANL was a communist front, and it's facts like this that complicate any neat take, pro or con, on the old left. After Pearl Harbor, though, HANL supporters reconvened as the Hollywood Democratic Committee, an allegiance that, like many others, would put them under suspicion when HUAC revived itself after the war.
It's easy to view HUAC, McCarthy and the blacklist as the villains, and Hollywood exiles like Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and the Hollywood Ten as heroes, in the fifteen-year cultural Cold War that followed. An obvious talent like Welles is so much more sympathetic - especially to an artist - than a cruel, vulgar, opportunistic blowhard like McCarthy. But the fact of Stalin, and government infiltration by communist supporters like Alger Hiss, remains. The excesses of the blacklist are to be regretted, not only for the way they diminished basic civil rights, but for the way they gave credence to paranoia about American institutions abroad and, especially, at home, a paranoia that thrived through movies as disparate as The Manchurian Candidate and The Parallax View, and in the imaginings of Hollywood types as different as Oliver Stone and Mel Gibson.
Hollywood after WW2, HUAC, and the blacklist became a place that, increasingly, never met a conspiracy theory it didn't like. For every "pro-military" Tears of the Sun there a film like The Hunted, which can casually conjure up sidelong glances at special forces "black-ops" and government assasination squad "sweepers", then drop them, confident that these lethal, bureaucratic bogeymen have become an accepted part of our cinematic worldview. It's at times like this that the "underdog" Hollywood seems to intent on defending seems to be a backwoods survivalist, peering out the windows of their cabin, scanning the treetops for black helicopters.
This paranoia is, to some degree, the undigested legacy of the 60s and 70s, when the blacklist was broken and Vietnam, the rise of the counterculture, and the civil rights struggle set the tone for youthful, political, "cutting-edge" Hollywood. It's hard to imagine that there's a political continuum from Edgar G. Robinson to Frank Sinatra to Jane Fonda to Martin Sheen, but that's the evolution Hoberman's Voice piece describes, with some degree of accuracy. The truth is probably a bit more complex, but it's this sort of "right-on" passing of the torch that Hollywood relies upon to imagine its political culture's legacy of righteousness.
It's a bit harder to square when you look over the career of Jane Fonda, say, whose infamous trip to Hanoi happened months after she won the best actress Oscar for Klute. In Hanoi, she appeared in a red Vietnamese peasant's dress, stated that she was ashamed of America and swore that she would struggle along with the people of communist North Vietnam. In aid of that struggle, she returned to America and made Fun with Dick and Jane, The Electric Horseman, Nine to Five, and a phenomenally successful string of exercise videos.
It's this banal follow-through that makes movie stars such poor, even cheap, targets for opprobrium and outrage. Hoberman describes Hollywood as being mentally stuck in the privileged, flattered position it attained during the Clinton years, when it was made to feel that it mattered, that its voice and opinions were not only being listened to, but reflected the public at large; the dismay and defensiveness we see today might be the result of discovering that this era is over, and that they don't, on the whole, represent anyone but themselves. While "The West Wing" functions as a surrogate, fantasy White House, the world outside has become an awful lot harsher and polarized.
Without any sort of political figure to rally behind, the stars "are themselves stand-ins without a star." Fringe political figures like Ralph Nader are apparently without much cache or glamour these days, and the Democrats have largely gone to earth, leaving celebrity spokespeople like Sheen, Clooney, Garofalo and Jessica Lange to weather the inclement political weather alone, their glamour looking a bit diminished when they appear tense and defensive and - too often - lacking solid arguments on TV pundit fests and talk shows.
Just as the stars perform best "as fundraisers and campaign surrogates", Hollywood's liberal impulses are best expressed emotionally, in language that's neither strident nor divisive, as Michael Moore discovered when he faced an unexpected chorus of boos. It was Adrien Brody, as Hoberman and other writers have stated, who walked away with the evening, expressing fear, sorrow, and vague but heartfelt calls for unity, before pouring oil over troubled waters and reaching out to a buddy serving in Kuwait. Never mind that, as he said, his experience and opinions on war were formed by being in a movie about a war - most people in the west have their opinions formed by watching movies about war. It was probably the only thing he had in common with most of his audience, just at that moment, a highlight of his life that he'll be forced, for good or bad, to navigate from for the rest of it.
Fear and sorrow are vivid, and entirely appropriate emotions, no matter what your stance on this war, and no one but the most reactionary bigot would disparage "unity", though I'm sure most people, if asked, would define it very differently. The soldiers serving in the conflict deserve respect and support, since anyone who'd openly call for their death in the service of a defeat should very properly be seen as the real warmonger, willing to welcome a climbing body count as political capital accruing to a misguided sort of idealism. We haven't reached that point yet, thank God. In any case, anyone hoping to build a view of war based on movies or the people who make them is going to end up with a shanty of mismatched junk and ideological discards, a sorry sort of shelter in any kind of political weather.
(posted 12:45pm | 03.26.03)
#0133 - OSCAR POST-MORTEM - I suppose I could call it a pre-mortem, to be accurate, since the most interesting thing I've read since the Oscars is this 1948 Atlantic essay by Raymond Chandler on the awards. You deserve a place in the motion picture industry, he writes, "if you can stand the fake sentimentality and the platitudes of the officials and the mincing elocution of the glamour queens", anticipating Madonna's laboured Britspeak by five decades - very impressive.
"Show business has always been a little overnoisy, overdressed and overbrash," Chandler writes. "Actors are threatened people. Before films came along to make them rich they often had need of a desperate gaiety. Some of these qualities prolonged beyond a strict necessity have passed into the Hollywood mores and produced that very exhausting thing, the Hollywood manner, which is a chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing."
Chandler reminds us that the furious months of industry advertising and intense lobbying that seems these days to be the only ting Miramax does, when it isn't burying the other, unseen half of its release schedule, is hardly new. "The quality of the work is still only recognized in the context of success," he writes, describing the way that the industry's trade papers effectively give themselves over to Oscar campaigns from November to March.
In this light, he insisted that the industy should stop flattering itself by nominating foreign films - which, in 1948, included British films - that had no chance of winning. "I think it is about time for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to (be honest) by declaring in a forthright manner that foreign pictures are outside competition and will remain so until they face the same economic situation and the same strangling censorship that Hollywood faces."
It's interesting that, fifty years later, we've managed to arrive at this place - with Pedro Almodovar onstage to accept something other than the "foreign film" Oscar - without seeing any particular deluge of foreign films on the ballots. At the beginning of the 21st century, Hollywood still favors its own, and foreign films are still no kind of serious box office challenge to the industry, at least within its national home, even if the definition of "foreign" is probably in desperate need of re-evaluation.
Chandler was, in 1948, apparently convinced of the general artistic superiority of films made outside the U.S., comparing The Best Years of Our Lives - "It had that kind of sentimentality which is almost but not quite humanity..." - unfavorably with Open City and Henry V. I'm not sure if that attitude is at all prevalent today, in a Hollywood full of British and Australian actors, Mexican and Indian directors, and Polish and French cinematographers, all working on American adaptations of Japanese and Dutch movies. Yet another unexpected, underexamined symptom of globalization, no doubt.
Still, Chandler's bleak attitude is unsparing: "It you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good." Chanlder's essay - something of a classic, I'd say - is nonetheless somewhat confused. He disparages the Walter Benjamin-inspired intellectuals, who were deriding the movies as "mass entertainment" and therefore inferior by nature, by citing Medieval cathedrals and Elizabethan drama and classical music on the radio as proof that the masses were being underestimated. It's the old "optimistic populist" argument that's slowly eroded over the years, mostly because those who use it, like Chandler, feel obliged to grumble that "most fools", in the end, are incapable of loving "anything more literate than a comic strip."
"The motion picture," Chandler writes, "admittedly is faced with too large a mass; it must please too many people and offend too few, the second of these restrictions being infinitely more damaging to it artistically than the first." The movies will be saved, he suggests, when they find a way to offend as much as entertain. It was a popular argument for decades to come, right up until the "countercultural auteur" heyday of the 70s, when films, finally, became seen as provocateurs, not reactionaries, in the national debate.
It was a heady period, and a new kind of film began to emerge before the moment revealed that it had week knees in the face of changing social moods and the blockbuster. Faced with unprofitability, movies learned to take all that technical bravura and graphic, brutal openness about sex and violence and use it to sell sensation, not ideas. And so Bonnie and Clyde leads directly to Die Hard, Klute to Pretty Woman, and Last Tango in Paris to teen sex comedies giddy with gynecological curiosity. Perhaps if Chandler knew where his hope for an offensive cinema was headed, he'd have had some second thoughts.
(posted 10:40am | 03.25.03)
NEW REVIEW: Boat Trip - Straight dudes on a gay cruise; the "lad's mag" demographic gets its own La Cage aux Folles, sort of. Actually just a little bit subversive, if you look really hard. That's my job - thank you very much. NEW DVD REVIEWS - 8 Mile, In A Lonely Place, Das Boot (Superbit Edition) and two movie versions of Hemingway's short story The Killers in one package. A bunch of raves - you really should check these ones out.
#0132 THE OSCAR BLOG - 07:15pm EST: Oscars coverage here at work began a few minutes ago with the ritual transmission of the first picture of Sally Kirkland. The actress' most recent screen credit is "Emilia" in something called Mango Me. The last thing she did that I've heard of was EdTV; somehow she's as important to the Oscars as dreadful musical numbers and the montage roll-call of industry dead that, for most of us, is the most enjoyable thing about the whole evening, even if we're unwilling to admit it. I'm admitting it - call me morbid.
Also fresh off of Reuters comes other early arrivals, like Mickey Rooney, Margaret O'Brien (past Oscar winner: "outstanding child actress", 1944), Red Buttons, Celeste Holm (supporting actress, 1947) Shirley Jones (supporting actress, 1960) and her husband, Marty Ingels, showing off the American flag he's sewn into the lining of his coat to the cameras. The oldsters; stragglers from the studio system, happy to be early, unfashionably retro in their patriotism. Here's Peter O'Toole, tonight's recipient of the lifetime achievement award, also known as the "Oops, I guess we goofed" consolation prize. Thirty-five years after Lawrence of Arabia was released. Now that's what I call an oversight.
And here's Jennifer Garner, probably wondering who all these old coots are, making a mental note to herself to fire her personal assistant for getting all nuts about being early. Ohmygod, like, who is that weird old man staring at me? He looks like the guy who played the butler in King Ralph. Eeeew. Weird.
07:56pm EST: Kenneth Turan in the LA Times has a strangely reverent little piece about the Oscars, that begins with a nice little history of its rare cancellations (a flood, Martin Luther King's assasination, and Ronald Reagan's near-assasination) and wartime austerities (Oscars awarded during WW2 had a plaster, not a bronze, core.) He also recalls the good old days, when Hollywood movies were among America's most welcome exports: "...when they did travel abroad, (movies) were looked on more benignly and not often seen, as they are in certain parts of the world today (like Saudi Arabia, I suppose, and Utah), as invasive interlopers forcing violence, immorality and different values downt the throats of reluctant and powerless cultures."
I'm not entirely sure if he's innocent of a certain nostalgic wishful thinking; certainly some Catholic countries - even Catholics here in North America - saw Hollywood as a purveyor of filth, a stigma not even the Production Code could dispel. He's right, though, that those were the days when every national film industry modelled itself on Hollywood; even now Bollywood, at it's best, sometimes seems like a hypertrophied version of MGM in its heyday.
The Guardian has a tidy guide to the political map of this year's ceremonies, listing the adamant no-shows (Aki Kaurismaki, boycotting out of protest at US policy, Will Smith and Tom Hanks out of apparent discomfort with attending, Peter Jackson for reasons unknown), waverers (Cate Blanchett and Nicole Kidman, though no one seriously believes Kidman will stay at home), and likely squeaky wheels (Michael Moore - big surprise - U2 and The Hours director Stephen Daldry. Julianne Moore, Pedro Almodovar, Adrien Brody, Ben Affleck and Dustin Hoffman have pledged to wear peace signs as a form of silent protest.)
Reuters moved a photo on Friday of a "peace pin", an "anti-war symbol modeled after Picasso's Dove of Peace, commissioned by Global Vision for Peace... The pin, also made in gold and diamonds, will be worn by a group of Academy Award nominees, including Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese and Nicole Kidman as they arrive at the Oscar ceremony March 23 in Hollywood. The pin was created by Henry Dunay for Global Vision for Peace, a coalition of peace and human rights leaders and concerned individuals that use the global reach of media to further the message of peace." I wonder who would be so daft as to wear the "gold and diamonds" version? Scorched wood or recycled shell casings might have been a more appropriate material, I suppose. Frankly, the whole idea just edges the spectacle of celebrity protest further into farce for me.
08:24pm EST: Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon arrived flashing peace signs for the cameras. I don't know why, but Robbins in his "stern face of simmering, righteous outrage" mode reminds me more of Bob Roberts than anything other public face he presents. There's something supercilious and even creepy about his more than faintly condescending manner when he's in high political dudgeon. He reminds me of the bright but irritating "political guy" we all knew in school; he could be anthing from a Trotskyite to a die-hard Ayn Rand type but he'd still have the same ability to project an air of superior insight, regardless of how much cant he spouted, or how painfully recycled his arguments were. It was, more often than not, his principle edge in an argument.
08:36pm EST: "Mickey - I'm sorry we couldn't get you a better seat, but Vin Diesel is here!" Steve Martin to Rooney, seated well at the back of the Kodak Theatre. Nice one.
"I loved Lord of the Rings. That was a great download...oops." Martin again. I wonder if this will be this year's prophetic quote.
08:49pm EST: Best animated feature: Spirited Away. That's about right. I'd have stopped this right now if it was Treasure Planet.
08:57pm EST: Chris Cooper for best supporting actor. So far, so good. The first peace speech as well. I mean, who exactly doesn't want peace, I'd like to know? No, really - I'd love to meet this maniac.
08:59pm EST: Worst dress of the night, so far: Cameron Diaz.
09:09pm EST: Scratch that. Jennifer Lopez by a length.
09:14pm EST: Jennifer Garner and Mickey Mouse (poor girl - time to fire the agent, too) just gave the best animated short to "The Chubb Chubbs", which was actually pretty damn funny. They've done this Mickey as presenter thing before, haven't they?
09:19pm EST: Reuters just moved a shot of Andy "Gollum" Serkis holding up a "NO WAR FOR OIL" sign on the red carpet. So I suppose he'd be alright with a war in, say, Korea, where there's no oil, or a little action to take out Mugabe's horrorshow regime? No war for any reason, while indicative of a certain benighted idealism, at least has a certain kind of windowless logic. But if oil is actually involved here - and I don't doubt that it plays a part - I'd like to think if Serkis would like to make that argument to some Iraqi exiles, or anyone who's watched Saddam torture their child for some show trial admission of guilt? War for oil and basic human rights? Oil, basic human rights, and children who don't get tortured? No? Okay, so what, then? Sorry, I'm ranting.
09:38pm EST: Catherine Zeta-Jones, best supporting actress. The beginning of Chicago's sweep? She called this "a fantastic year for women". Both one and the other remains to be seen, doesn't it?
10:09pm EST: The long, routine middle stretch of technical awards and musical numbers continues. One of the guys who won for sound editing on The Two Towers opened his acceptance speech with something about "all the insanity in the world". I wonder just why previous years - which witnessed Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda and God knows what else - were so notably, comparatively sane? Why this year? Why now? Why did you just notice?
10:18pm EST: The documentary category is coming up. Here goes - the Michael Moore eruption we've all been anticipating...
Right on schedule. "Shame on you, Mr. Bush!" I just don't know what the fuck he was talking about when he said these were "fictitious times" (never mind the bit about "fictition"), except to set up a crack about the 2000 election. I suppose he's assuming that Gore would never have sent in the troops. It's a big leap of faith, to be sure, and the more I hear it, it sounds like a different result in Florida two and a half years ago might have changed everything, at least according to those people who rely on it so much. The towers would still be standing, the Taliban would have magically disappeared in a puff of smoke, and sanctions would have fortuitously deprived Saddam of the heart medication he needed when he collapsed in front of the TV late one night, alone, watching George W. Bush guest host "Saturday Night Live".
There was never a chance that Moore wasn't going to win, we all know that now. Hell, I suppose if the last two years had never happened, I'd probably still be a fan of the guy...
He got booed, though. I really didn't expect that.
10:33pm EST: Here comes U2's crap song from Gangs of New York, after a loaded little introduction from Colin Farrell. I swear, someday, someone has to save the Irish from themselves. What a sack of piss.
10:43pm EST: The "dead reel" just finished. Leo McKern, Katy Jurado, Dudley Moore, James Coburn, John Frankenheimer, Billy Wilder. It's been longer, some years - a few years back it seemed like five full minutes, like everyone under contract at Fox in 1943 had died all at once. I suppose we're seeing the last of the "golden age" survivors now, and slipping into a kind of lull, as people whose careers flourished during the post-studio years start to pass away, a few years to go before the boomers start their long, careening tidal wave of mortality.
10:50pm EST: Adrien Brody for best actor. Didn't see that coming, much as I tend to agree. The "wow" speech of the night, probably. I suppose I wouldn't cringe when people start talking about "wishing for peace" if it didn't seem that so many of them seemed to assume that this was their unique discovery - that peace is nice. But then he ends with a shout-out for a buddy serving in the Marines in Kuwait, and it all sounds okay again. Yes - end it soon, and end it well. Who doesn't want that; who doesn't want everyone to come home whole and well and sane and sure that it's all been worthwhile. But it just seems like there are a lot of people talking about peace who'd love nothing more than to deny those soldiers any hope of regarding their sacrifices as worthwhile.
11:01pm EST: Eminem wins for best song, and some guy who looks like the singer from Quiet Riot picks up the award. What? Huh?
11:12pm EST: If they'd given O'Toole the Oscar he really deserved - for Lawrence, almost four decades ago - he'd have been the Adrien Brody of his day. It was a class act kind of speech - "You are good." - but I would have preferred that he never had to make it, having won his statue when I was a child, and not a man about to have a child.
And I can't help it - when they ran that montage of best actor winners from the past - they're running the one for best actress as I write this - I can't help but marvel at what amazing performances, what amazing movies, we used to see. I'm sorry - what an amazing thing the movies once were...
11:18pm EST: Nicole Kidman. I just don't get it. Over Julianne Moore, yet. It's like a joke that everyone gets but me.
11:36pm EST: Every living Oscar winning-actor they could find, all on one stage. My God, Luise Rainer is still alive! There's Maximillian Schell - the Adrien Brody of 1961. And there's Tom Hanks - nuts to you, Guardian. Sheer, unnecessary padding, but strangely enjoyable, really. It's almost midnight; I have to watch three movies for tomorrow's DVD column, and I'm still at the office. I am so screwed.
11:47pm EST: Almodovar wins best screenplay. Makes a speech about human rights and "international legality". I'm glad to know that dictators have human rights, too, and since that's true, I suppose we're obliged to protect them, no matter what the cost.
I'm sorry, I still can't say that without laughing. I really do think Almodovar is a great director, though.
11:53pm EST: Polanski for best director. Come home Roman, all if forgiven. Well, not really, but think about renewing your passport, anyway. The right man won, in any case.
12:00pm EST: And Chicago wins best picture. Very diplomatic. Just so Harvey Weinstein doesn't have to drive up and down Sunset looking for people to run down. Midnight on the dot and it's done. I don't suppose they've ever considered getting some skateboard video director to work on this thing next year - it might be over in time for the news. That would be sweet.
(posted 12:55am | 03.24.03)
#0131 - YOU LIKE ME! YOU REALLY LIKE ME! - It's that time again. I have no Oscars predictions this year; I don't have the heart to secede everything to Chicago and The Hours before it actually happens, so I'm just going to opt out. Besides, for some reason, it just doesn't seem that compelling a distraction just right now. I'm glad they haven't cancelled it - at least, as of this writing, it's still on - and I'm just a little bit excited to see just how the war is going to force its way out through the mandated 45-second acceptance speeches.
I'm probably being a bit morbid - perverse, okay, I've said it - when I hope that it gets ugly. I'm hoping for three hours plus of Vanessa Redgrave on the PLO and Satcheen Littlefeather and Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement award and every other kind of unpleasantness. I want these Oscars to be like a bad family dinner, like a dinner party where old friends suddenly discover that they've grown decisively apart on what they always assumed were common beliefs. But that's just me - I'm a bit of an asshole that way.
The best Oscar prep piece I've read so far is this Slate e-mail exchange between critics David Edelstein and Virginia Heffernan and producer Lynda Obst. Edelstein gets things off to a running start by talking about "a brutal and unscrupulous dictator who runs roughshod over the lives of innocents. But enough about Harvey Weinstein."
Apparently - and since I don't read the trades or live in L.A. I don't know about this sort of stuff - the smear campaigns behind the scenes this year have been brutal, with Roman Polanski a particular target. Weinstein, with his Miramax juggernaut of December releases, ghostwritten letters, and whispering campaigns, is the prime culprit behind this campaign of intimidation. For some reason, though, it's hard to scrounge up much outrage; it's Hollywood at Oscars time, after all, and hardly a shimmering beacon of integrity by anyone's standards.
Edelstein confirms my own assertion that the Oscars are "about the way in which Hollywood wants to portray itself to the world - as a fount of ennobling (preferably liberal humanist) values." For that reason alone The Pianist, with its morally receding, solipsistic hero, doesn't stand a chance against Chicago, according to Edelstein. I'd say that The Hours stands a better chance by those rules, but we'll see, won't we?
I'll try to blog the Oscars tonight while I'm at work, with at least two televisions in the office tuned to the ceremonies, though I won't be able to post it till I get home. See you in a few hours. And since the best picture won't win - it isn't even nominated - I'll just say that, if all goes well, here's to some backstage slapfights and raised fists at the podium. Bring it on.
(posted 01:50pm | 03.23.03)
NEW REVIEWS! Lost in La Mancha: The "un-making-of" story of Terry Gilliam's lost film. I Am Dina: Completely insane Scandinavian melodrama; "Hedda Gabler" meets Gone to Earth. NEW DVD REVIEWS: The Ring/Ringu, Auto Focus, The Grey Zone and The Awful Truth.
#0130 - HELLO MUDDAH. HELLO DAUGHTAH. - Lloyd Grove in the Washington Post had a nice little item about Mark Russell's annual St. Patrick's Day party this week, where with Tim Russert, Maureen Orth, Chris Matthews and other Beltway media luminaries present, a 79-year old Florida retiree named Lenora Tomalin charmed all present with her feisty, staunchly partisan Republican attitude. There were apparently even more surprised when Mrs. Tomalin mentioned her daughter, Susan Sarandon, with whom it's generally assumed there's little political common ground shared.
"I am a conservative. I voted for George W. Bush and I simply agree with most everything he has said," Tomalin stated later for the Post. "It's not that I'm pro-war. It's just that I think that I trust my government more than I would empathize with the government of Iraq." Tomalin's attitude, while hardly given much space these days - at least if you're listening to Canadian or European media - is apparently the dominant one across the country as the war rolls into its initial, seemingly successful stages. It's the sort of attitude you'd expect from a Florida pensioner, perhaps even one whose daughter is one of Hollywood's highest-profile anti-war spokespersons.
Tomalin - who apparently has no problem with airing family issues to national newspapers - described a holiday collision between her politics and that of her daughter. For anyone who's experience of family Christmases is usually accompanied by a sharp tightening of the bowels, it's eerily vivid:
"When I visit Susan, I tread on eggs. The most difficult time was during the election of 2000. I live in Florida, and I was a Republican poll-watcher in Polk County. Afterward, I was sitting at the breakfast table with Jack Henry, my then-13-year-old grandson, and he looked over at me, with the sweetest little smile on his face, and said, 'I hear you voted for Bush.' I looked up at Susan, who's standing at the sink, and she says, 'All he wants to know is: How could you have voted for Bush?' And I thought, 'I'm not going to discuss my politics with a 13-year-old who's been brainwashed!' But I just let it go - even though I have never been as rabid as I have been in the past few years."
(posted 12:09pm | 03.22.03)
#0129 - YOU BETTER BE GOOD TO MAMA - It's Oscar time, and the cue's been given to start discussing the state of women's roles over the past year, a discussion that's begun to stake out alternate years with similarly earnest headscratching about the paucity or sudden abundance of decent roles for black actors and actresses. The discussion takes on an inevitable shape; it begins by recalling the dismal lowlights of previous years, lists the critically lauded, high-profile roles of the past year, contrasts them with equally, or more worthy, but overlooked performances from the same year, and ends with a note of cautious hope that, finally, things are changing, usually conveyed with a dessicated tone that suggests that the writer isn't staking their mortgage on it.
This year, the discussion has been further refined by concentrating on "older" actresses, and Carla Meyer in the San Francisco Gate provides a neat overview of this year's playing field, listing the Oscar-nominated suspects (Streep, Bates, Moore), and the ranks of significant but un-nominated also-rans (Sarandon, Weaver, Hunter, McDormand, Keener and Clarkson). (Curiously, Meyer completely overlooks Diane Lane, nominated for her role in Unfaithful, but I'd say that pretty much reflects the likelihood of Lane winning the award, to be frank.)
Meyer is an optimist, and sees this year as a watershed, the tipping point where, after years of disappointments, unrealized hype and dismal setbacks, "forward-thinking screenwriters and sexually vital actresses are crafting complex mother characters more reminiscent of Grace Slick than Donna Reed. She cites a list of films that came out over the last year or so, like Tadpole, Far from Heaven, All the Real Girls, The Safety of Objects, and Laurel Canyon, films where mothers are allowed to be frankly sexual, troubled, or less than saintly or even particularly maternal.
The key quote is from Patricia Clarkson, who essays the lion's share of these roles, asserting that "you can fight mother parts or say, 'Hey, not all mothers are alike'. They are different and unique, and you kind of have to remind yourself that most people my age do have children." Clarkson's nod to demography suggests - plausibly, to me - that we're seeing yet another cultural side-effect of the aging boomers, who've (finally, some might grumble) begun to define themselves as parents first and foremost and, with executive control of the high ground at the studios, have made the ground fertile for the depiction of offbeat, nontraditional, unconventional depictions of moms. No mention, however, is made of changing roles of dads in the movies - a suggested topic, perhaps, for some other enterprising writer?
Meyer also takes time to survey the state of damaged or even destroyed careers - actresses like Michelle Pfeiffer, who's seemingly unable to capitalize on the sudden bounty of roles for older women, Geena Davis, the victim of some bad choices for roles, Jessica Lange, Joan Allen, and Emma Thompson, seemingly retrenching in "quality" television, and Melanie Griffith, years past her heyday portraying "a male fantasy of the breathy seductress", hobbled by well-publicized addiction problems and some unfortunate cosmetic surgery.
Demi Moore, whose fall from grace is regarded with barely-concealed relish, is barely forty, but seemingly at the bottom of this heap. Her revival - a cameo on "Will & Grace" and a role in the new Charlie's Angels film, apparently - is surveyed with a gimlet eye: "It will be fascinating to watch an older Moore navigate an industry whose looksism she once so readily exploited." Meyer doesn't seem to hold out a lot of hope for Moore's future Oscar nomination, leaving the last word to Laurel Canyon director Lisa Cholodenko, who sees the survival of actresses into Oscar-worthy middle age as "Darwinian": "Once you no longer can hide behind your sheen, you have to be good. But it's that way for women all through the culture."
Molly Haskell, in a Guardian essay, is also frankly excited by this year's crop of Oscar-nominated actresses, and hails 2002 as "a watershed year", comparing it to a decade ago, when 1992 was declared "The Year of the Woman", a hype milestone which Haskell disparages as "a phoney annus mirabilis... an especially hollow gesture in a mediocre year in which the best woman's role went to a man: Jaye Davidson in The Crying Game."
It has been, Haskell says, a long time coming. The 60s and especially the 70s, dominated as they were by then-youthful auteurs like Scorses, Coppola, Schrader and the like, whose "personal, autobiographical films... pretty much ignored women, downgrading them to helpmeets or temptresses of macho or demonic males." The films from that long-ago time that Haskell cites as hopeful, but isolated, instances of women taking centre-screen and proving there was an audience for such a thing - Julia, The Turning Point and Nine to Five - don't resonate happily in my own memory. The last lingers in my mind as a shoulder-pad comedy, while the first two seemed, even at the time, sour and grim - not unlike The Hours, a film that I regard as a direct descendant.
Just as critics like Haskell looked to foreign films in those days to fill out the thin ranks of substantial female performances, she sees the current bounty of high-profile women's roles coming from outside mainstream Hollywood, from "the rise and diversification of independent cinema." Years of depairing for Hollywood, and the overall betrayal that older critics like Haskell and her husband, Andrew Sarris, have rightly felt as the urgent, sometimes despairing 70s gave way to the dismal, blockbuster 80s, has made Haskell's stance adamantly, undeniably adversarial.
"Hollywood," Haskell writes, "has become all but irrelevant to most of us. When people complain that Hollywood discriminates against women, I reply that it discriminates against adults, the ideal viewer-consumer being a subverbal and prepsychological adolescent male of no distinct cultural background, with a short attention span and an escalating addiction to violence."
Haskell's complaint has the virtue of coming from real hurt and outrage, but I'm not sure that it hasn't become less sympathetic by virtue of its repetition; I've heard it before, phrased in many different ways, and often with similar vehemence, but I don't know that it hasn't become an "old threnody... growing monotonous", as Haskell judges her own longstanding complaints about the paucity of decent roles for women.
Haskell's gratitude for the change she sees is attributed to younger directors and writers, like Burr Steers (Ibgy Goes Down), Steven Shainberg (Secretary), Rob Marshall (Chicago), and Stephen Daldry (The Hours), and even draws her net wide enough to include Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (Ten), making the movement - and the moment - seem global in scope. These men - it's interesting that she, much more than Meyer, concentrates on the men behind the moment - "have grown up with women as bosses and friends as well as lovers; they are comfortable with, curious about, women who are ambitious, smart idiosyncratic. Who are, in a word, interesting."
Her gratitude, and her optimism, is palpable, but there's something very specific, even generational, about Haskell's criteria for good, worthwhile roles and performances, a standard that feels a bit narrow and prescriptive, and which Stephanie Zacharek in Salon nails in an essay that so neatly contradicts Haskell's that, had it not come out within just a few days, might have been a blatant rebuttal.
Zacharek wasn't so impressed by The Hours, seemingly the omnibus film of this new, triumphant moment for actresses. "There's something distastefully prefabricated about the way The Hours has been lauded as a showcase for 'serious' actresses, as opposed to the others who, the common wisdom goes, just play hotties." Zacharek finds it telling that the film needs to portray its trio of leads as "decidedly unsexy" in order to portray "the life of the mind (whatever that is)". "Because the movie is about Women and their Problems, it comes to us wrapped up in the assumption that it's actually a serious, deep film, instead of a boring and ponderous one."
She cites a New York Review of Books essay by critic Daniel Mendelsohn, praising The Hours as a rarity, a benchmark for women's roles, the canonical attitude for fans of the film. Zacharek is impatient with this assumption:
"Mendelsohn never addresses exactly what's so 'rare' about this opportunity; we can assume that he means the characters in The Hours are serious women with lots on their minds, and that it's rare to find such characters in a mainstream film. But what it really means is that Kidman gets a chance to give a meticulously calibrated but drab performance, with a prosthetic honker as its center of gravity."
The issue boils down to the concept of a hair shirt being wrapped around the roles deemed most "worthwhile" and critically important, the notion of quality and "good" roles being somehow indistinguishable from a penitential experience of films. As Zacharek puts it, "Is it possible that the roles actresses themselves consider good aren't always the ones that translate best to the screen."
At two points in her piece, Zacharek blatantly contradicts Haskell. Haskell takes the standard line on Kathy Bates' nude scene in About Schmidt - it's brave, and daringly confrontational, not only to Jack Nicholson's character but to its audience: "she dares us to avert our eyes in embarassment; and even those like me who applaud her guts and inner beauty, can't suppress a shudder of primordial squeamishness over a scary, oversized woman flaunting rather than hiding it."
Zacharek isn't so convinced that Bates' key scene is such a spectacle of sensual empowerment, and is unable to ignore that director Alexander Payne does nothing to disguise Bates' "pendulous breasts and quivering-jelly thighs". Far from showcasing Bates' "inner beauty", Payne's "holding it up for our derision and ridicule." While she's willing to acknowledge Bates fearlessness, she's disappointed that Payne saw no reason to give her the benefits of the "Hollywood magic" that might have allowed Bates to appear, at least marginally, "more luminous or more slender than she actually is", a consideration allowed to almost any other actress regardless of their age. "It's the least that Bates deserves."
Most of all, though, Zacharek disagrees with Haskell on 1992, Haskell's "phoney annus mirabilis", which Zacharek recalls as "a year in which, for no discernible reason, the media raised a hullaballoo over the paucity of good roles for actresses." She remembers a TV commentator illustrating the story with dismissive clips of Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct and Michelle Pfeiffer in Batman Returns, "a neat way of diminishing both the roles and the actresses who played them in one quick, cheap shot."
Unlike Haskell, Zacharek has fond memories of these two women - now mere wallflowers in the current renaissance of women's roles - and these vampish yet kittenish, broadly-painted roles from their career heydays. They might have suffered - or even died, in Stone's case - but their characters weren't victims, and that's something Zacharek misses. Still, they weren't considered "serious" roles, probably because, Zacharek suspects, their characters were exceedingly beautiful. (I'd add that the films they were in were also wildly overwrought, one the work of a director who was coming to celebrate his crassness, the other the second entry in an oversold franchise, but Zacharek has invoked the critic's privilege of narrowing their focus on a role, not a film, and I have to respect that, if only for her argument's sake.)
By the logic of Haskell and most critics, people who, in Zacharek's mind, "hadn't bothered to look very closely at many of the performances out there or were judging them by some weird, predetermined parameters... a 'good" role for a woman was one in which she didn't play a woman at all." It was a role that wasn't too sexual, or where intelligence was apparent only in the service of some transparent good, or where beauty wasn't a defining aspect of the character. "By those standards, the ideal role for a woman might be a male 19th century cleric in a rough cloth robe."
"I prefer watching Meryl Streep drink, curse and take drugs in Adaptation to watching her soak her kitchen floor with tears in The Hours," Zacharek declares, but more than this, watching Streep onscreen has reached a "point where most of us are more conscious of the veneration of Streep than we are of her actual acting, which is always classy and professional at the very least, but not always invigorating or passionate."
We are, it seems, confused about beauty, and about what it means. "There are conventionally beautiful actresses who have very little character, and conventionally not-so-beautiful actresses whose charisma makes them stunning," Zacharek writes, and goes on to cite Kim Novak in Picnic as an example of beauty itself being enough, on its own, to fascinate an audience. I have found Streep to be incredibly attractive in The Deer Hunter, a film I like despite her being merely a "helpmeet to macho and demonic males", and Out of Africa, a reputable, literary film that utterly bores me to tears. I find it telling that, as she's become more venerated, I've felt nothing of that attraction, and I don't think it has anything to do with age.
When writing about Hollywood, you're lost if you ignore or underestimate the fantastically varied combinations of charisma, sex appeal, and physical beauty, in all its varieties, that constitute the star persona, in favor of beetle-browed emphasis on script and direction, a position Haskell and a lot of critics have been driven to after years of disappointment. Reading James Harvey's description of Kim Novak in Picnic reminds Zacharek of "the need for a kind of sensual openness when we're looking at actors or actresses - the need to recognize that sometimes what we accept as good acting is a facility with the technique and other times its an ember that burns inside. At its best, of course, it's an indescribable combination of both."
It's interesting that an industry that's so often attacked for its sexual vulgarity and its lack of restraint, for working without a moral compass, pushing back the borders of taste and decency and coarsening the social vocabulary, has come to celebrate its depictions of prudishness and occasional spectacles of shame, age, ugliness and failure (all of which Jack Nicholson depicts in About Schimdt - guaranteeing him yet another Oscar, perhaps?) at its annual awards celebration. It discards most of its box office successes, winnows out most of what it produces in the quest for the overvalued "youth market", and seeks to nominate only those films that reflect what it imagines is most valuable: instances of self-conscious artistry, earnest if often negligent historical consciousness, and vernacular fables based on generally accepted liberal humanist ideals, all of which are usually done with far more skill and effect at the low-budget fringes of the movie business, by foreign filmmakers less reliant on box office returns, and in the marginal realm of documentary and experimental film.
Spectacle, beauty, glamour and rock-ribbed, conventional storytelling, the pillars of Hollywood's golden age, are either exploited negligently by blockbuster filmmaking or treated with condescension by critics - who know how far we've fallen - or at awards time, when the industry wants, like Lena Lamont in Singin' in the Rain, to flatter itself that its not just rich and beautiful, that is has a brain, dontcha know? For all the talk of a sudden appreciation of older actresses being allowed to be both sexy and mature, Stephanie Zacharek poses this rhetorical question: "Has anyone ever seen definitive evidence from audiences that they don't want to see beautiful older people in the movies? I don't think so."
Haskell admits to being disappointed before, when brief flurries of decent roles for women gave way to the same old malaise when crass studio executives "see possible profit, promise to make more such movies, lose their nerve and don't". I'd shift some of the blame away from the much-vilified execs, and onto an industry that habitually misreads itself and its times, undersells its virtues and downplays just what its audience has always demanded - beauty, both epic and contained, and stories, told with confidence, skill and, when budget and time allows, a bit of intelligence. Concentrating on sex or race is a way to overlook a deeper problem, and as long as Hollywood remains vaguely ashamed of the beauty it can sell so well, mistaking what Zacharek sees as "dull worthiness" for quality, Haskell will always see her hopes dashed.
(posted 11:16am | 03.20.03)