February 2, 2012

The Oscars: Why I Should Hate You, But Secretly Like You (And Not-so-secretly Want You)

OK, so the Oscars are flawed. Originally created by studios to market "good" movies that underperformed at the box office, an Oscar is the industry standard for excellence. Everyone in show business wants one, and - to some film artists - financial and critical success mean little without "Academy Award Winner" beside their billing.

Some question whether art should be measured in trophies. It boils down to intentions, whether the existence an award alters an artist's work. Indeed, some filmmakers and actors who feel their best work has been ignored tend to press in film choices. Martin Scorsese comes to mind. People debate his biggest snub: losing to Redford after directing Raging Bull; not getting nominated for Taxi Driver; losing to Eastwood after Goodfellas.

After getting bested by Polanski and Eastwood (again) in the aughts, he finally reigned one in for... The Departed. Now let's be honest: Departed wouldn't crack his Top 10. Sure, it was enjoyable but c'mon: a movie about betrayal ends with a rat crawling in front of the State House. Is the image somehow less laughable because it's Scorsese? Scorsese would laugh at it if he wasn't Scorsese!

Departed was successful in presenting a clever dual-narrative weaved together by snappy characters and catchy one-liners. It maintained an edge while softening (dulling?) the climax of its Hong Kong predecessor. It was Scorsese's biggest hit, it was enjoyable to critics and audiences, it was - Oscar bait... And the Academy lined up his '70s buddies to give him the statue.
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.
With actors, the joke is staring in a Holocaust movie, "going gay", or playing disabled nets you a statue. Of the 19 Best Actor winners since Pacino in Scent of a Woman, 12 fit the criteria. Not that every actor was fishing. Sean Penn felt inspired as Harvey Milk (though he WAS fishing in I Am Sam, and got nominated). Same with Brody. Benigni. Hoffman.

But awarding two of every three Oscars to these performances? The job of an actor is - simply put - to deliver their lines honestly while following the writer's intentions. The measure of their performance, therefore, is NOT how far they stray from reality, but in how they elevate and conceal the machinery of the screenplay. 

The voters seem to argue that "acting" is to pretend you have no legs or that you like boys. And it's not limited to sexuality and disability. DeNiro's two wins were well-deserved but were for one role in which he spoke Italian and another where he put on a record amount of weight. Critics said Phillip Seymour Hoffman "embodied" Truman Capote, but they can't seem to differentiate acting from mimicking. Showy roles are, frankly, easy to identify.
"Try ignorin' me wit' 70 extra pounds, y' pricks."
The year Hoffman won, Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain conveyed with little more than a stare all the depth and emotion and confusion and pain of his character. Had Ledger won, yes, he'd still be the actor who won for "going gay". But to me it was less about sexuality than about a man subdued his entire life, whose inability to love destroys the only person who inspired passion in his life, leaving himself alone, filled with regret. The story is plotted on Ledger's face, through subtle actions, and few words.

A showy role can still be well-performed, sure. But film is still a dramatic art, and in drama, subtext is currency. Subtext doesn't necessarily mean subtle. DeNiro's loud-mouthed Jake LaMotta couldn't conceal his jealousy, and nothing Christoph Waltz said in Inglourious Basterds could be taken at face-value; the most offhand comment was a probe.

But it takes an extraordinary talent to convey internal feelings in an external art form, to create between the lines. Before Ledger (who ultimately won for a showy role), there was Al Pacino in Godfather: Part I. I grew up knowing Pacino as a badass gangster, but in Godfather he was the quiet brother who wants no part of the family business. A crisis pulls him in, and he finds himself sitting with his family's enemy and a corrupt police officer. Though they believe he's making peace, he's there to kill them. But he's never killed anyone or done anything illegal, and for over a minute he sits silently, listening, and from his face we see him weigh taking this monumental step destined to change his life forever. 

Pacino didn't win that year (he even boycotted the ceremony feeling his Best Supporting Actor nod should have been Best Actor). Nor did he win for Serpico, Godfather II, or Dog Day Afternoon. After losing again for Dick Tracy, his friends noted bitterness. The next year, he won by playing blind.

I write that contemptuously, but it was still a good performance. And the thing about any other winner I criticize is that their victories are not undeserved. Winners are subject to debate, but the strength of the Oscars is that the nomination itself is an achievement and a sign of recognition. Thomas Hayden Church and Jackie Earle Haley's careers got a kick from their nods for Sideways and Little Children. Million Dollar Baby got a nation-wide release and made bank after the '04 nominations were announced. The 2011 nominations have already piqued interest in A Separation and A Better Life.

At the end of the day, artists are human and seek recognition for good work. If not via award statues, then somewhere else. But what the Academy offers is a committee of professionals who can identify the best and say, "THIS is how it's done." And if risk, skill, and imagination are recognized, both artists and audiences will be better; if ignored, kitsch will replace quality. Let's just hope Hollywood is not full of rats.
"The rat symbolizes obviousness!"

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