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Facts and Truth: Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Part II

4 Jun

I’m back. Again. A death in the family and another one of life’s little inconveniences delayed the final draft of this piece. Thanks for reading.

Several years ago, a man I dearly respected (now deceased) proclaimed, confidently, that “Facts are the enemy of truth.”  Let that settle for a moment. Facts are the enemy of truth. Facts may be indisputable, sure enough, but they might not illuminate the “whole truth.”  How does that work? Well, here’s how it might work. For instance, the truth is that The Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved movies of all time. Over several decades, its characters, music, imagery, and much of its dialogue have profoundly permeated our collective consciousness as relatively few films ever have; however, the fact is that upon its original 1939 release, The Wizard of Oz did not rack up big box office dollars, nor did critics lavish unanimous praise. Oh sure, it sold lots of tickets, hardly a total dud, but MGM, the studio that produced the film, struggled to recoup its investment–at least in its original run. One theory is that the film generated far more reduced-rate tickets for children than standard adult admissions, and that partially explains the shortfall (Harmetz 288). But that almost seems too pat as many other kiddie films have raked up big bucks both before and since. Of course, bookkeeping in Hollywood has always been a bit of a magic act, so it’s hard to know what to trust. Ask any participant who’s ever been promised a cut of the profits; likewise, while the movie was not universally panned, many reviewers carped over one thing or another, mostly, it seems, in reaction to changes made to author L. Frank Baum’s original text. Other critics balked at the vaudevillian spin offered by actors Ray Bolger, Jack Hayley, and Bert Lahr (former vaudevillians, all) in the key roles of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively; after all, as Aljean Hamertz notes, vaudeville was dead by 1939 (23), so what was the point? Those old enough to remember its demise no doubt scratched their head in confusion.

Still again, another set of facts arise to challenge, if not refute, the previous set. For example, in spite of its wobbly reception, The Wizard of Oz still scored a handful of Oscar nominations in that season’s awards derby, including, please note, Best Picture. Additionally, the film snagged at least one trophy from Gone with the Wind, the year’s reigning champ (that would be Best Score, officially credited to Herbert Stothart, btw) and garnered two other wins, both of them beyond reproach because, here we go, the truth is that we can scarcely imagine The Wizard of Oz without lead actress Judy Garland or without her immortal rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” (by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen).  For the ages, that, and the fact is that Garland snagged an honorary statuette (miniature, alas) for her outstanding “juvenile” performance, and her signature song (a song that ignited rounds of debate among studio personnel regarding its inclusion in the final print–after being excised temporarily) claimed Best Song honors. That the Academy awarded Garland an Oscar as a special achievement when no such accolade was required indicates that the film’s impact–regardless of what we presume are the facts–was considerable.

Garland never won a competitive Oscar. Indeed, in her entire career, and outside her honorary trophy for Oz, she was only nominated twice: Best Actress for 1954’s rousing remake of the well-worn Hollywood weepie A Star is Born, for which she famously lost (to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl) while still hospitalized after giving birth to son Joey Luft, and Best Supporting Actress for 1961’s star-studded Judgment at Nuremberg. West Side Story‘s Rita Moreno took the gold in that round. That’s all. Garland possibly deserved a little something for Meet Me in St. Louis when she was in the full bloom of her MGM stardom, but I digress. Back to Oz. Her performance ranks among the most memorable, most vivid, in all of cinematic history. Sure, intellectually we all know by now that she was 16 at the time the movie went into production and that, how to put this delicately, she was cinched and bound in order to suggest a more childlike, less womanly, profile. But even knowing that doesn’t destroy the illusion. For not one moment in the entire picture is she ever less than fully believable as the little girl lost from barren, sepia-tinted Kansas. We believe how caught up in the moment she is when Miss Gulch demands possession of Toto, the torrent of emotion in that single instant. Plus, later in the film when she cries out to Auntie Em via the crystal ball, and exclaims how frightened she is, we believe that too. We also believe, more than almost anything in the whole dang movie, just how much that girl loves her little dog.

The fact is that Victor Fleming, a rugged man’s man of a director, earned sole credit for his efforts on two of 1939’s most prestigious films: The Wizard of Oz, of course,  and the box office behemoth Gone with the Wind; however, the truth is that Fleming did not direct either picture in its entirety. For example, those sepia-tinted scenes that open The Wizard of Oz were actually shot after the Technicolor sequences that occupy the bulk of the film. By that time, Fleming was off, so to speak, to assume his duties on GWTW, and no less than King Vidor (The Big Parade, The Crowd, The Champ, and Stella Dallas) was assigned by MGM brass to wrap the production, albeit without recognition. It was Vidor, then, who can take credit for the impeccable staging of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Harmetz 164-165). Additionally, another director, Richard Thorpe had been hired before Fleming, but producer Mervyn Leroy found Thorpe’s work unsatisfying, so Leroy summoned George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, and Little Women) to help repair the damage–including scrapping all of Thorpe’s footage–before Fleming was fully locked into place (Harmetz 140-142). Interestingly, Cukor would segue to Gone with the Wind before being replaced by Fleming, but I digress. At any rate, Cukor’s lasting contribution, in his unofficial capacity, was fine-tuning the character of Dorothy–and shaping Garland’s performance. Apparently, in the Thorpe scenes, Garland sported a blonde wig and full makeup. Cukor pared back the look and reminded Garland not to forget that she was playing a child, a simple farm girl (Harmetz 143).

The cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Eldorado album, released more than 30 years after The Wizard of Oz, reveals one remarkable truth: without a face in sight, many of us recognize this image from The Wizard of Oz even if we don’t understand its relationship to ELO. Yes, I own a copy.

Cukor’s advice, and Garland’s adherence to it, is one of the reasons the performance is so successful. But there is another reason, something not often examined with the same affection or admiration as we carry for Garland. And that is, Garland’s performance is as successful as it is on some level because of the other members of the cast, specifically Margaret Hamilton and Ray Bolger, arguably the Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor to be overlooked by the Academy.

Given all we know about The Wizard of Oz’s reception back in the day, maybe it seems unsurprising that, again according to Hamertz, that a number of reviews at the time scarcely mentioned Margaret Hamilton’s performance…incredible as that might seem to generations of audiences since then who have curdled in fear of her wickedness (Harmetz 297). Sure, for example, Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West placed a righteous 4th place on the American Film Institute’s 2003 retrospective of moviedom’s scariest villains, impressively behind only Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs),  Norman Bates (Psycho), and Darth Vader (Star Wars), but I wonder if we ever fully acknowledge Ms. Hamilton, the venerable character actress, or do we simply take her performance for granted. I think she and the character are so melded in our collective consciousness that we forget that Hamilton was, in fact, a working actress doing the best she could [1]—as the second choice when first choice Gayle Sondergaard bailed–in a project that was one of many in production at the time on the MGM lot.

It might seem foolish to claim that anything about Oz was considered routine as the production posed one technical challenge after another and certainly cost the studio a great deal, but while everyone involved gave the project his or her all, no one expected it to become a timeless classic.

Back to Hamilton. Here are some points to consider. First, can you believe that she only has 12 minutes of screen time, per Harmetz (296)? Yet, her all-encompassing malevolence haunts us. We absolutely buy into Dorothy’s sense of terror because we absolutely buy into the witch’s every hateful word and deed, and that is a testament to Hamilton’s enormous skills as an actor; moreover, if you need a further reminder of, again, just how skilled Hamilton is, remember that she gives not one but two performances in The Wizard of Oz. In the early Kansas sequence, of course, she plays Almira Gulch, officious, small-town fuddy-duddy who uses her social and business connections to take possession of Dorothy’s devoted doggie, Toto, thereby setting most of Act I into action. The transformation from Miss Gulch into the Wicked Witch of the West is far from cosmetic. Everything about Miss Gulch is uptight, clipped, no-nonsense. Dry.  She moves and speaks with crisp efficiency and is obviously humor-impaired. Hamilton’s witch, on the other hand, is fluid and pulsating. She growls, cackles, and shrieks while her body language is anything but stiff. She bends, stretches, and acts all the way to her trippy, elongated fingertips. And she revels in her own badass-ness. Miss Gulch, understand, hides behind the law because she can. Two distinctly different characterizations, courtesy of one resourceful performer. In contrast, remember that the Kansas farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr essentially preview the characters of the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion they respectively portray during the remainder of then film. Their Oz inhabitants are “bigger” but not necessarily distinct from their Kansas counterparts. Hamilton is the only one whose portrayals are decidedly and magnificently tonally different.

Bolger also makes a fascinating case. The actor was well-established on Broadway before he came to the movies, and while he did well enough in pictures, besides Oz his finest work was arguably onstage. For example, he won a Tony for the long-running Where’s Charley? How good is he in The Wizard of Oz? Good enough to make it hard to imagine anyone else in the role, but that is almost exactly what happened. For example, the well-known fact is that no less than Buddy Ebsen was originally cast as the Tin Man but suffered a near fatal allergic reaction to the aluminum dust originally created for the character’s makeup,  thereby opening the way for Hayley, but the truth is that Ebsen, an established hoofer, was actually the first choice to play the Scarecrow (Harmetz 118). Bolger was first approached to play the Tin Man (Harmetz 112) though who among us can believe that the remarkably agile, loose limbed Bolger could have ever been the first pick to perform in a stultifying tin can? Thankfully, wiser-heads prevailed, and Bolger was cast in the part for which he heavily campaigned.

Backing up just a bit, no less than Margaret Hamilton believes that Jack Haley never got the acclaim he deserved as the Tin Man due to the fact that he had to find a way to act and to convey his lovelorn character’s predicament in spite of the constraints brought on by unforgiving costume and makeup (Harmetz 176). I see her point, but I still think Bolger’s performance rates the more vivid accomplishment, and for two specific reasons. First, the miracle of Bolger in The Wizard of Oz is that he makes the sheer physicality of the whole thing, literally playing a character without a spine, seem so gosh darn effortless when it had to be anything but. The audience doesn’t see the work. Instead, just as is true for Hamilton, by now we all just see the Scarecrow–and not the skilled actor who makes it happen. Keep in mind that he also had to create his character with an unforgiving rubber bag glued to his face, restricting his ability to sweat, something akin to suffocation given the soundstage’s hot lights, as Harmetz relays (169.) Furthermore, when Dorothy confesses that she will miss the Scarecrow most of all, we naturally believe her, we’re touched, moved, what have you, because Bolger has convinced us  of his character’s fierce devotion in every instant of his character’s screentime; likewise, we understand much sooner than the Scarecrow does that he already has all the smarts he needs.  Bravo.

Years after the fact, Bolger seemed to understand, perhaps better than Haley or Lahr ever did, his role as a goodwill ambassador for the film, content that he would forever be identified as the Scarecrow, long after the luster of his other accomplishments had faded, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of being part of film history and, in true Scarecrow fashion, functioning as a guardian for the memory of Judy Garland. He died, btw, in 1987 at the age of 83.

^ Hard to imagine, isn’t it, that anyone at MGM could have looked at this clip of Ray Bolger from The Great Ziegfeld, 1936’s Best Picture winner, and exclaimed, “Let’s put him in a clunky tin costume that will completely restrict his movement!”

So, that’s my two cents, a little tribute to the greatest pair of supporting performances overlooked by the Academy.  This is not to sleight the talents of Hattie McDaniel and Thomas Mitchell, 1939’s actual Best Supporting Actress and Actor winners, and their contributions to Gone with the Wind and Stagecoach, respectively. McDaniel made history as the first African-American to win an Oscar, and the truth is her contribution to GWTW’s success cannot be underestimated even though the mere fact of that fabled film becomes progressively harder to reconcile with each and every passing year; likewise, the fact is that Thomas Mitchell officially won his Oscar for Stagecoach, but the truth is his performances in other notable 1939 releases, including Gone with the Wind (as Scarlet O’Hara’s downtrodden dad) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (another Best Picture contender) were probably key to his victory.

My goal is not to rewrite or to second guess Academy history, but to pay sincere tribute to a pair of performances that endure, legendarily so, without Oscar approval, specifically two purely supporting performances that work by effectively enhancing audiences’ appreciation of the film’s leading player. In this case, the truth supersedes the facts as recorded by Academy historians, and moviegoers benefit in a way that none of the principal players in the magical tale could have ever imagined.

Thanks for your consideration.

 

[1] –  Hamilton, mid to late 30s at the time, was divorced and raising a son on her own. She learned how to hustle for work, preferring to land as many gigs as possible without pricing herself out of the market. A two week gig often stretched to 6 weeks. She hit the jackpot with Oz as the shoot extended to 7 months.]

 

Work Cited

Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz: Move Magic and Studio Power in the Prime of MGM –  and the Miracle of Production #1060. 1977. Delta, 1989.

Mother: The Next Big Short*

3 Apr

Family, friends, and fans of Darlene Cates suffered a tremendous loss last week when the Forney based actress passed away at the age of 69. Without any formal training, she rose to prominence with her role as housebound matriarch Bonnie Grape, fiercely protective mamma to then rising stars Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio in 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, but, make no mistake, Ms. Cates more than held her own among her high-profile co-stars and went on to appear in a handful of movies and TV shows, always turning in riveting performances; however, as amazing as she was to watch onscreen, she was just as amazing in her off-screen life, effortlessly slipping into her roles as devoted wife (of more than 50 years), loving mother and grandmother, sister, role model, and dear friend. She shared her story, her warmth, and her talent with the world and inspired many, many of us in the process, and, now, the world will be a much different place without her though still a better place for those whose lives she touched with her affection, kindness, and laughter. As tribute, I am reposting this piece from 2014 and the occasion of her last film appearance. Rest in peace, dearest Darlene.

Confessions of a Movie Queen

I sometimes think that if a good movie gets made these days, it must be an accident. I mean, it must be a miracle. Of course, money is the biggest issue. Even the most low budget offering still costs thousands if not millions of dollars, and there are no guarantees that backers will ever see a return on their investments. Also, distribution–getting the finished film into theatres–is a racket unto itself. Of course, social media have made marketing more accessible than ever as evidenced by the whole Sharknado phenomenon. True independent filmmakers often take enormous risks to get their visions onscreen, and if/when that happens, well, yes, it’s a miracle. Miracles are good.

Mother poster designed by Jonas de Geer Poster for Franz Maria Quitt’s short film, Mother (2014), designed by Jonas De Geer. Clockwise from top: Darlene Cates, Ryan Jonze, Alexander Rolinksi, and Kaylyn Scardefield. I think Quitt’s movie is exquisite on its own terms though…

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The Best Best Supporting Actress and Actor Who Were Never Nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Actor, Part I

25 Mar

Hmmm, well the recent winners of Academy awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor offer startling contrasts. In Best Picture winner Moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is situated in only the first act of a three-act tale, yet he makes a vivid impression that lingers throughout the remainder of the film; moreover, Ali rises, impeccably, to the challenge of a scene that requires him to act more internally  than externally. In other words, Juan is almost at a loss when asked difficult, troubling, questions,  but he knows he must answer truthfully, so he suffers silently while delaying the inevitable, choosing his words carefully.  Masterful. Ali packs a wallop, silent film style, with minimal dialogue.

In contrast, Viola Davis offers a much more robust portrayal as Rose, the  put upon wife of Denzel Washington’s Troy in Fences. Cliches be damned, Rose’s trajectory provides Davis the opportunity to navigate, full-throttle, one hell of an emotional roller coaster. Rose, god love her, wears her heart on her sleeve, and Davis, among our most majestic–and gutsiest–actresses, brings her speeches to brilliant life in scene after vivid scene.  It’s a startlingly raw performance rife with Davis’s own sweat and tears.  Ali’s and Davis’s portrayals are considered award worthy by Academy standards though they could hardly be more unalike.

Of course, I’m not here to second guess the Academy’s choices. Mainly, I just feel the need to reaffirm that, like so many other things associated with the Academy (and with life itself), there is almost no rhyme or reason when it comes to the supporting categories. Of course, after launching in the late 1920, the Oscars had been ambling along for just under a decade before the Academy expanded its acting awards from two to four.  The move was designed to improve the Academy’s numbers by luring members of the newly formed Screen Actors Guild into the fold. Let’s back-up just a bit. Seems by the mid 1930s, many actors no longer believed the Academy served their interests regarding representation within the Hollywood hierarchy (Wiley and Bona 55). Keep in mind that the Academy was formed not with the intent of awards but with the purpose of mediating labor disputes between talent and studio brass. (The awards were an afterthought, albeit self-congratulatory, but I digress.) The idea was that such governance in the form of an “academy,” so to speak, would preclude the need for unions, but the perception, not without some merit, was that the Academy failed to serve all members’ interests, thus the creation of the SAG (Wiley and Bona 47). To counter, the Academy offered to spread the wealth and create space to honor the achievements of so-called character players, thereby increasing its memberships since, after all, one had to be a member in order to vote for the awards (Wiley and Bona 70).

From the Nate D. Sanders auction house, circa 2012, this is the second Academy award for Best Supporting Actor, per Joseph Schildkraut (The Life of Emile Zola, 1937), the second such winner in Academy history. I often refer to this Oscar-variation as a plaque, as do many of the history books, but it functions more like a paper weight. Btw, the Academy’s advice to winners (or their families) who might want to auction off their trophies: Don’t. Since 1951, the Academy reserves first right to buy back all trophies for the tidy sum of $10.00. According to Stephen Ceasar of the Los Angeles Times, the Academy has the legal muscle to protect the integrity of its world famous its copyrighted trademark.

The Academy’s welcoming move also provided a convenient way to relegate character actors/actresses in such a way that would not necessarily pull focus from established brand name stars when it came time for awards consideration. Keep in mind, for example, that in 1935, the year prior to the creation of the supporting categories, three actors from Mutiny on the Bounty, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone, duked it out for Best Actor. Laughton and Gable, as Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian, respectively, were clearly co-leads in the famous tale, but Tone, in the lesser of the three roles, attracted attention based on one particularly showy speech toward the end of the picture (Wiley and Bona 60). Creating categories for secondary players would resolve such, er, uhm, inconsistencies. Oh, and keep in mind, as well, that the first few recipients of these newly created awards did not actually win traditional Oscar statuettes but plaques that featured a 3-D representation of the celebrated trophy. (Not to be confused, to clarify, with the “special” pint-sized versions of the trophy the Academy bestowed upon such juvenile stars as Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, or Judy Garland [See photo].) So, a year after Mutiny on the Bounty, and spurred by other factors, the Academy awarded its first ever supporting acting awards to Walter Brennan (Come and Get It) and Gale Sondergaard (Anthony Adverse). Btw, Gable, Laughton, and Tone lost to Victor McLaglen in The Informer.

Eventually, the Academy saw fit to award supporting players actual Oscars, beginning with the 43/44 edition (that is, the 1944 ceremony honoring 1943’s films). Those history making recipients were Charles Coburn (TheMore the Merrier) and Katina Paxinou (For Whom the Bells Toll); however, confusion was still very much in play, per Barry Fitzgerald who, yes, earned nominations for BOTH Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor for 1944’s Going My Way. Though unexpected, the rules allowed for Fitzgerald’s double whammy. Fitzgerald won the latter while top-billed co-star Bing Crosby took top honors, and the hit film took Best Picture as well.  The Academy responded by establishing a policy that left designations for leading and supporting to studio executives, responsible for submitting potential candidate rosters to the Academy in anticipation of first round voting.

That seemed to work, better than nothing, for awhile though egos had to be placated when studios wanted to hedge their bets during campaign season, meaning that some stars, reportedly, did not appreciate their star status being called into question for expediency’s sake. For example, look no further than Anne Baxter, the titular Eve in 1950’s smash All About Eve. She didn’t take too well to the suggestion of competing for Best Supporting Actress alongside Thelma Ritter and Celeste Holm from the same film (Miller n.p.). Sure, Eve manipulates much of the action, undeniably, but Baxter lacks the star power of Bette Davis, at her brilliant best as Margo Channing, the Broadway legend around whom most of the story–and ALL other characters–revolve. Clearly, Baxter fulfills the role of a second lead: the antagonist to Davis’s protagonist. Nonetheless, Baxter got what she wanted: a Best Actress nomination, and in so doing she may have very well split votes and cost both herself and her co-star the trophy. Judy Holliday, reprising her stage role in Born Yesterday, won Best Actress, and even Anne Baxter later expressed regret at her choice (Miller n.p.); however, that wasn’t the only hitch in the process.  Famously, the story goes that a typo cost Roddy McDowall consideration for his stand-out supporting performance in 1963’s lavish Cleopatra. Apparently, a memo from Fox, the studio that released the picture, to the Academy misidentified McDowall as a leading player, and that was that. The Academy wouldn’t budge, and Fox claimed its hands were tied in the matter (Wiley and Bona 358). So, the Academy changed rules yet again to give the ultimate say to the voters themselves, regardless of studio promotional campaigns (358).  Even with powers voters enjoy, studio heads and actors still attempt to exert control and sway outcome.

In the years since Cleopatra, controversies over such designations are commonplace because such designations are arbitrary, subject to whim. For example, juvenile performances that are for all practical purposes “leading” are often–not always– categorized as “supporting” out of concern that younger, relatively untested players (such as Timothy Hutton in 1980’s Ordinary People) cannot successfully compete against established veterans in starring roles. The strategy worked, btw, in Hutton’s case. The same studio that released Hutton’s Ordinary People, Paramount, marketed Susan Sarandon as a Best Supporting Actress candidate for 1981’s Atlantic City even though she was clearly the film’s leading lady and more than held her own against legendary Burt Lancaster in the same film (Wiley and Bona 606). Maybe Paramount execs felt that Sarandon, hardly an unknown at the time, needed a showier role in order to be a truly competitive Best Actress candidate. Maybe, on the other hand, studio brass felt that Paramount could not effectively support three Best Actress hopefuls among its stable, the others being Diane Keaton in Reds, who ultimately earned a slot on the final roster, and Faye Dunaway (Mommie Dearest), who did not–in spite of a genuinely buzzworthy performance that had actually made a showing in the award season derby. At any rate, even Sarandon expressed surprise that she was ultimately nominated for Best Actress (606), a move that showed Academy voters still have minds of their own in such matters, despite studio machinations.  Btw, no less than already legendary Katharine Hepburn made Oscar history that year, garnering an unprecedented 4th performance Oscar, per her leading performance in the hugely popular On Golden Pond. It would take Sarandon a decade for a second Oscar race (1991’s Thelma & Louise), and few more unsuccessful bids for her crowning achievement with 1995’s Dead Man Walking.

Other times, star players, even when playing subordinating roles–with limited screen time–scoff at the very notion of being promoted as a supporting candidate, feeling such a move is akin to begging for an easy win (per Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, among others) (Wiley and Bona 830). Still again, studios often see the Oscars as nothing more than a numbers game, such that performers who clearly function as an onscreen team, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, OR Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, to name only two, have to be split for awards consideration in order to increase a film’s awards potential. For example, if Ledger and Gyllenhaal are both nominated for Best Actor, and the film as a whole is up for 8 awards, that means, at best, the film will only take home 7 awards, as one actor’s win assuredly equals the other’s defeat, provided, of course, that they don’t actually cancel out one another (and let’s not forget that ties almost never happen). In such a case, shaky distinctions are made that place Ledger and Travolta as leading while forcing Gyllenhaal and Jackson as supporting in order to improve the odds.

Then, of course, there’s the whole “supporting” thing. What does it mean to be a supporting actor? Keep in mind that the Tony award equivalent is “featured” rather than supporting and is based on barely more than, 99.9% of the time, whether a player is billed above or below the title. Simple. But when the word “support” is used, we expect to see one actor in service of another, and that isn’t always so apparent. That noted, I remain fairly convinced that Ed Harris lost at least one, possibly two, of his four Oscar races for playing roles that were not as “supporting” as they might seem at first glance. For example, he mostly acted in a vacuum in 1998’s The Truman Show. Sure, his performance, as the mastermind behind the whole Truman escapade, showed plenty of skill, but, really, how did his performance actually support that of lead actor Jim Carrey as Truman? Did the two actors ever occupy the same space, playing off one another? In a word, no. Carrey’s Truman goes about his life in a picturesque coastal community (real-life development Seaside, Florida), and Harris’s Cristof surveys his creation from the safety of a secluded control tower. Simply, the two actors never had to meet in order to film their scenes, thereby calling into question the nature of “support.”

On the other hand, consider controversial Vanessa Redgrave in 1977’s Julia. Yes, Redgrave is clearly billed above the title, and, more, the movie is named after her character; however, Redgrave’s “Julia” functions as barely more than a memory of playwright Lillian Hellman, played by Jane Fonda, the obvious protagonist who carries most of the picture. The relationship forged by the characters when they were still children (framed in flashbacks with teen actresses) is what drives most of the story, but, tellingly, the audience only ever sees Julia, that is, Redgrave, through Lillian/Fonda’s eyes, and their few shared sequences are like puzzle pieces as Lillian revisits her past in fleeting glimpses, trying to make sense of the wealthy enigmatic friend who leaves America in order to study in Europe and joins the Nazi resistance. The audience waits for the moment when the two friends are reunited, at last, and it’s a doozy, with each actress spurring the other to greatness in a scene fraught with love, tears, and, oh yes, plenty of tension. Redgrave’s is the very example of an outstanding supporting performance, no doubt. Her award was almost a foregone conclusion; likewise, 2015’s Best Supporting Actor winner Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) portrayed the character whose actions set the story in motion, but, make no mistake, Tom Hanks’s real-life James B. Donovan dominates the picture though he and Rylance strike a compelling dynamic.

Back to the present. What I so admire about Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning performance in Moonlight is that he makes the most of his limited screen time, and his character is supporting in the most literal sense as in the sequence in which he teaches young Chiron (protagonist) how to swim in the ocean.  Perfect.

Davis’ performance more squarely follows the pattern of the “supportive spouse” that appeared with great frequency earlier this century, beginning with Dallas native Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock, 2000), Jim Broadbent (Iris, 2001), and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) up through Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, 2015). No doubt, cases could be made that any or all of the above might just as easily be recognized as secondary leads. Again, these are roles that provide actors and actresses sizable opportunities (and a lot of screen time) but fall short of being their respective projects’ true protagonists.

Wow. I certainly did not mean to write so much about this topic. I intended a few short paragraphs as a build-up to a piece on two extraordinary supporting performances–one female, one male–that the Academy somehow overlooked. Of course, context and timing are everything as we know that history is 20/20. So, I’ll stop for now, and save THAT post for the near future. In the meantime, what about you, dear reader? Dare you try to guess the two performances that I aim to spotlight next? My only hint is that they are included in the same film. Give it your best shot.

Thanks for your consideration….

Works Cited

Ceasar, Stephen.   “Winning an Oscar is priceless, but selling it gets you exactly $10.” Los Angeles Times, 25 February 2016.  Accessed  25 March 2017.

Miller, Frank.   “All About Eve (1950).”  Articles. TCM.  Accessed  25  March  2017.

Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona.  Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy  Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition, edited by Gail MacColl. Ballantine Books, 1996.

Oscars 2016/2017: Fashion Gallery

12 Mar

I know, it’s been close to two weeks, but the Oscars never really end, especially debates about who wore what. I have three rules governing my approach. First, I don’t believe in plugging names of designers who ply actresses with expensive loaner gowns in exchange for free publicity. Tacky. That’s a game that gets plenty mileage elsewhere. Next, I refuse to dwell on the negative. I only spotlight my faves. If I like it, I feature it. If I don’t like it, I’ll skip it rather than demean it. That noted, sometimes a gown that looks fabulous on TV doesn’t translate as well to still photos, so I’ll take a pass. Anyway, please look somewhere else for cattiness. Finally, aside from the top pick, there is no particular reason preference unless specifically noted.

Fasten your seat belts…here we go…Oh, and I do not hold rights to any of these images.

Hidden Figures star Taraji P. Henson didn’t score an Oscar nod for her memorable performance, but she wins my vote for Best Dressed. (IMAGE: Life and Style)

 

Scarlett Johansson’s Oscar nominated flick, Hail Caesar! (from the Coens) went home without the gold in the Art Direction category, but Johansson is a stunner though, perhaps, not to everyone’s taste.

 

Best Actress nominee Natalie Portman (not pictured) missed the ceremony due to pregnancy related complications, but ever glamorous Isabelle Huppert, nominated for Elle, flew in from France on the heels of winning her country’s Cesar award. (IMAGE: Pintrest)

 

Best Actress nominee Ruth Negga (Loving) makes a vivid impression in red. Her bright blue ribbons shows support for the ACLU.

 

Jessica Biel, all golden loveliness, dazzled on the red carpet. Besides being a vision herself, she was on board to support hubby Justin Timberlake, who performed his Oscar nominated tune, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls. (IMAGE: Glamlog)

 

Kirsten Dunst. featured in Hidden Figures, makes a bold statement in basic black.

 

2001’s Best Actress honoree Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball) is a perennial winner on the red carpet. (IMAGE: Seattle Times)

 

Actress Leslie Mann dazzles in a magnificent ball gown. (IMAGE: JustJared)

 

Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis (Fences) proves that the third time is truly the charm. (IMAGE: oscar.go.com)

 

Best Supporting Actor nominee Dev Patel (Lion) escorts his beaming mom Anita Patel. (IMAGE: IndianExpress)

 

In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali revealed that he and his wife welcomed a daughter into their family only four days earlier. Congratulations!

 

To be perfectly frank, one of my favorite looks of the whole awards season was this fun frock singer-actress Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures AND Moonlight) wore to the Golden Globes in January.

Thanks for your consideration and, please, feel free to leave comments…

As the Gold Dust Settles, Moonlight is Stellar

5 Mar

So, this year’s Oscars included a hiccup or two, a couple of easy calls, and a few surprises. You know what surprised me the most? Not that Moonlight won Best Picture necessarily, but that its director (and Oscar winning co-screenwriter) Barry Jenkins DID NOT win in his category. As it goes, Damien Chazzell, at all of 32 years old, scores as the youngest ever Best Director winner for his original musical romance, La La Land. Well, good for him. I guess.

Barry Jenkins (l) and Tarell Alvin McCRaney (r) accept their Oscars for co-writing Moonlight, which Jenkins also directed. Their victory serves as hope to young people of color, and young people who do not necessarily conform to the gender binary, that their stories are not to be ignored any longer.

Barry Jenkins (l) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (r) accept their Oscars for co-writing Moonlight, which Jenkins also directed. Their victory serves as a message of hope to young people of color, and young people who do not necessarily conform to the gender binary, that their stories are not to be ignored any longer. Hopefully we’ll one day arrive at a point in which films such as Moonlight are no longer unique exceptions to the norm…but we’re not there yet; after all, no black person has won Best Director…yet, and we still only have one female Best Director winner–and no female nominees since Kathryn Bigelow won for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, only the fourth female so nominated.

As I wrote last week, Chazzell clearly had a vision and the fortitude to make that vision a reality; however, my previous thought was that the Academy would have likely surprised us all by honoring La La Land, the safe and easy crowd pleaser, with the top award while singling out Jenkins for his work in the less overtly commercial, and arguably more challenging, endeavor. After all, Jenkins was, reportedly, working with one of the lowest budgets ever recorded for a Best Picture winner, and he had the daunting task of directing three actors, two of whom are juveniles, portraying a single character at pivotal moments in his life. How is that possible? Not magic, that’s for sure, but beyond that Jenkins also, as previously noted, directed yet another trio of actors playing a secondary character who steps in and out of lead Chiron’s life over the course of the movie’s dozen-plus years; moreover, what about this? Moonlight’s Best Supporting Actress nominee Naomi Harris, as Chiron’s mother, shot all her scenes on a tight three-day schedule. Again, a remarkable feat considering her character’s huge arc , including the aging process AND the fact that the native Brit learned an American accent.

I think that’s pretty stellar, definitely worthy of Best Director AND Best Picture accolades.  That Moonlight even got made, let alone made well, while also landing distribution, registers as nothing less than a miracle.

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Now out on DVD and Blu-Ray, Best Picture winner Moonlight.

Moonlight‘s Best Picture Oscar signals a number of Academy milestones.

  • For example, this is the first LGBTQ entry on the Academy’s Best Picture roster–11 years AFTER the allegedly groundbreaking Brokeback Mountain. And good for Moonlight for its role in cinematic history!
  • Furthermore, Moonlight is the first Best Picture winner directed by an African-American. And good for Barry Jenkins! Also, what about Jenkins’ award winning screenplay collaborator, Tarell Alvin  McCraney? Good for Tarell too!

Wait a second. You’re probably thinking, “Hey, wait a second, what about 12 Years a Slave? Didn’t that win in 2013?” Well, yes, but even though 12 Years was indeed directed by a black man, Steve McQueen, he hails from England. Not the same thing. But good for him, anyway. Even so, McQueen lost that year to Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity).

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    The leading men of Moonlight (l-r): Former Texas resident Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert, and Ashton Sanders.

    Moreover, Moonlight is not only the first Best Picture winner to be directed by an African-American, it is also the first Best Picture winner to star a an all-black cast unlike, say, 12 Years a Slave or even Best Picture nominee Hidden Figures, which, yes, spotlights high profile black actresses (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae) as groundbreaking real-life NASA “computers” but still features the likes of white cast members Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, and Kirsten Dunst in secondary roles.  Not so, Moonlight. And good for Moonlight and its wow of a cast for breaking the Academy’s color barrier!

  • Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali is also the first Muslim actor to win an Academy award. And good for him!
In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight's Mahershala Ali revealed that he and his wife welcomed a daughter into their family only four days earlier. Congratulations!

In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali revealed that he and his wife welcomed a daughter into their family only four days earlier. Congratulations!

I’m as happy as I’ve ever been following an Oscar ceremony. And good for me. Of course, this year’s landmark victories do not necessarily mean that the Academy or the Hollywood moviemaking machine is suddenly colorblind, meaning parity and/or equal opportunities for one and all; after all, 15 years after Halle Berry made history as the first ever African-American to earn the Academy’s Best Actress statuette (for Monster’s Ball), her triumph seems…isolated, for lack of a better term. In other words, not only has Berry struggled to find another role of equal award worthy caliber, the number of African-American Best Actress nominees in her wake is paltry, a walloping three, to be precise (Gabourey Sidibe, Precious, 2009; Viola Davis, The Help, 2011, and Quvenzhané Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012). Of course, this year also saw the nomination of Ruth Nega, born in Ethopia and raised in Ireland, as African-American Mildred in Loving, based on the historic Supreme Court case that paved the way for interracial marriage in the United States…but I digress…

And, of course, blacks are not the only people of color who still fight for better representation in white-dominated mainstream media; moreover, even though the first decade of the 21st century saw a trio of African American Best Actor winners, beginning with Denzel Washington (Training Day, 2001), followed by Jamie Foxx (Ray, 2004), and Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2006), well, those victories are starting to look…somewhat distant; after all, Whitaker’s victory was 10 years ago. And he was so very good in 2013’s The Butler (rather, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), for which he earned a SAG nod, but nada from the Academy.

Of course, speaking of Denzel Washington, many of us thought he was bound for his second Best Actor Oscar for Best Picture nominee Fences, which he also directed. My thought was that Washington’s work both in front of and behind the camera warranted the Academy’s full consideration as the more significant achievement among his fellow nominees; however, I guess I under-estimated the difficulty of convincing the Academy that third Oscars are a good thing; after all, Washington already has,  as noted, a Best Actor Oscar, but he also won Best Supporting Actor for his supporting turn in 1989’s Glory.  Maybe the Academy doesn’t want to appear too hasty? Look how long it took Meryl Streep to finally earn a third Oscar after winning two in something akin to rapid succession early in her career–and snatching up more than a dozen nominations in the decades long interim (that is, between Sophie’s Choice in 1982 and The Iron Lady in 2011). Furthermore, look how Tom Hanks, a back-to-back Best Actor winner for Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), has had difficulty scoring a nomination in recent years in spite of Academy-friendly fare such as Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies (both Best Picture nominees) and 2016’s Sully, for which he seemed an early shoo-in, at least for a nomination. Third Oscars are a rarity unless one is Daniel Day-Lewis who won his second and third statuettes in something like five years (and I’m not complaining), but I digress*. So, no third Oscar for Washington, but I think he still has additional nominations, additional chances, in his future.

So, even without the hurdle of a third Oscar for Washington, I’m still surprised that the Academy rallied in favor of Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea),  considering well-documented allegations of sexual assault leveled against the actor. Obviously, members of the Academy were moved by his performance in the widely hailed if downbeat offering. Indeed, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan netted his own statuette for his screenplay. Even so, I half-expected either Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) to emerge victorious in the absence of a Washington triumph. Meanwhile, I’m sure nobody missed the frosty reception last year’s Best Actress winner Brie Larson accorded Affleck as he accepted his award. I would say good for her for sticking to her principles in light of Affleck’s rap, but maybe he knows something the rest of us do not. Larson, if you’ll recall, played a survivor of such assault in her award winner, 2015’s Room.

After the hullabaloo over Moonlight, my next favorite win has to be the Best Animated Feature Film award for Zootopia. Even after basking in the greatness of both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, and a few others, including La La Land, Zootopia still rates very high on my non-existent list of favorite movies from 2016. I don’t actually, physically, make a list, but I know what I like, and I keep a running list in my head. Even so, I would have loved for Zootopia‘s “Try Everything,” performed on the soundtrack by Shakira, to have been recognized as a Best Song nominee. No matter. Best Animated Feature is the biggie. I actually enjoyed “City of Stars,” the Best Song winner from La La Land though I’m a bit surprised that the Academy didn’t take the bait and cap Lin-Manuel Miranda’s historic year (winning the Pulitzer and multiple Tonys, among others, for Broadway blockbuster Hamilton) for his contribution to the Moana score. When the gold dust settled, btw, La La Land claimed victories, including Best Cinematography and Best Production Design, and Best Original Score, among its record-tying 14 nominations. And Good for La La Land.

Also, what an amazing evening for sound mixer Kevin O’Connell!  After earning 21 nominations over more than three decades, he finally won an Oscar–for Best Picture nominee Hacksaw Ridge;  to clarify, he was one of four recipients on the winning team, but, clearly, his hard earned victory captured viewers’ imagination. His first nod, btw, was for 1983’s Best Picture winner Terms of Endearment, and his other nominated efforts include Top Gun (1986), Twister (1996, starring the late Texas native Bill Paxton, who died last weekend shortly before the Oscar telecast), and the first Spiderman reboot.

Per the Wikipedia, btw, O’Connell’s mother worked in the sound department of 20th Century Fox once upon a time and helped him secure a job as a projectionist when he was a mere 18 years old. He holds an Emmy for his work on Lonesome Dove.

No doubt, Best Supporting Actress winner Viola Davis (Fences) gave the acceptance speech of the evening. Davis endears herself to audiences because she is seemingly incapable of being anything less than her genuine authentic self. Her performance in Fences is also no less than a master class in acting, in storytelling. She is an inspiration to anyone who has had to fight, to work hard, to make a name for herself, coming from a background steeped in poverty and oppression. Now, she has steered the heights to glorious success. And good for her.  She is also now the first African-American actress to win an Oscar,  an Emmy, and a Tony in performance categories. Make that two Tony awards. One for the revival of Fences and another for Best Featured Actress in King Hedley, written by the late August Wilson who also penned Fences. That’s huge. Good for Viola. (To clarify, Whoopi Goldberg has also won an Oscar, an Emmy, and Tony, but she won her Tony not for performance but as one of the producers of  Best Musical winner, Throughly Modern Millie–and Good for Whoopi!)

In addition to her Oscar, Emmy, and two Tonys, Viola Davis has earned an incredible 5 Screen Actors Guild awards. And good for her!

In addition to her Oscar, Emmy, and two Tonys, Viola Davis has earned an incredible 5 Screen Actors Guild awards. And good for her!

Yes, Davis’s Oscar victory is the stuff that dreams and legends are made of, but I still think, Halle Berry’s Best Actress award would be less lonely at the top, today, if Davis and the powers that be had pushed harder to have the actress’ performance recognized in the Best Actress rather than Best Supporting Actress category. Maybe I shouldn’t be so puzzled, all things considered, and maybe I should just let it go….and maybe Emma Stone should have REALLY THANKED Davis in her Best Actress acceptance speech because I think Davis had as much to do with Stone’s victory as anyone involved in the making of La La Land, and I DON’T mean because Stone and Davis once shared the screen in The Help. Think about it.

Thanks for your consideration…

The fashion gallery will follow shortly. Thanks for your patience.

Enough said.

Enough said.

*Besides Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis, the only other three-time performance winners are Walter Brennan, Ingrid Bergman, Jack Nicholson, and Katherine Hepburn, the latter of whom actually won four times. Brennan snared a trio of Best Supporting Actor awards in a five year period in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including, to clarify, the very first Best Supporting Actor award (for 1936’s Come and Get It, starring Edward Arnold and Frances Farmer). Incredibly, Brennan’s record is 3-1, losing only in his fourth bid for 1941’s Sergeant York.  Next, Bergman’s first Oscar was for 1944’s costume melodrama Gaslight. After a tumultuous period in which her love life became scandalous news, she made a comeback with 1956’s Anastasia, and the Academy responded in kind. Her third Oscar, almost 20 years later, was for a supporting turn in the deluxe adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Jack Nicholson’s second Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor (Terms of Endearment, 1983) came 8 years after winning Best Actor for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His Best Actor trophy (As Good as It Gets) followed in 1997. Finally, Hepburn’s second and third Best Actress Oscars arrived back to back in light of such triumphs as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Lion in Winter (1968) though, technically she tied for the latter with the one and only Barbra Streisand in her film debut, Funny Girl. Just over a dozen years later, Hepburn reigned once again for 1981’s On Golden Pond, opposite Best Actor winner Henry Fonda. Whew!

 

For Your Consideration: Best Actor, Best Picture, and More…

25 Feb

Okay, here we go…

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With his Screen Actors Guild award signalling the way, Denzel Washington in Fences (pictured with Supporting Actress front runner, Viola Davis) looms the obvious frontrunner in the Best Actor category, and good for him. He’s a national treasure, as much a true-blue actor as he is a bona fide movie star.  His Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Glory, 1989) and Best Actor (Training Day, 2001) already make him the most honored African-American actor in Academy history (that is, excluding Sidney Poitier who counts 1 competitive and 1 honorary Oscar among his victories) ; moreover, his total of 8 Oscar nods, 7 for acting and 1 for producing Fences (a Best Picture nominee) puts him in the same league as such luminaries as Marlon Brando. Peter O’Toole, Jack Lemmon, Richard Burton, and Dustin Hoffman, among a slight few others.  He’s already in such rarified company as  the aforementioned Lemmon, Robert De Niro, and Kevin Spacey as supporting winners who further earned trophies in the leading actor category unlike, say, Jack Nicholson and Gene Hackman who won their first Oscars for starring roles before picking up second statuettes as supporting candidates.  As with Nicholson, if Washington wins, he’ll be one of a select few actors with three golden boys: Walter Brennan, Nicholson, and Daniel Day-Lewis; moreover, if Washington wins, and it’s a  mighty powerful performance to be sure, he’ll take his place alongside Sir Laurence Olivier (Hamlet) and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful, 1998) as the only performers to direct their own Oscar winning performance. Not a bad way to be remembered in the history books. Once upon a time, this prize seemed destined for Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), but Washington’s effort as, again, his film’s leading actor, director, and co-producer registers as the more significant achievement.

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I haven’t actually seen Viggo Mortensen (right) in Captain Fantastic, one of the few 2016 releases that I somehow missed during its first run; nonetheless, I have only heard wonderful things about it. I’m glad to see Mortensen back in the Oscar race. Can you believe it’s been a walloping 9 years since his first (and until recently only) nomination for the riotous  Eastern Promises? I hope to catch up with this one soon.

Regarding Best Actress, meh. With Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures) out of the running and Viola Davis (Fences) relegated to supporting actress status, I’m at a bit of a loss. My sincere belief is that Davis would have won in this category, and handily, if Paramount (with the actress’ consent) had chosen a different campaign strategy. Early enthusiasm for Natalie Portman’s mannered, if effective, portrayal of widowed First Lady Jackie Kennedy seems to have evaporated. Maybe it’s because she already won an Oscar (Black Swan, 2010) and her career in the interim as, till now, been…nothing special.  Personally, I’m still kicking myself that I missed seeing Ruth Negga in Loving in what seemed to be an abbreviated theatrical run in the DFW area. I know many people who still hold high hopes that she’ll win. We’ll be watching it in our household soon. I also wish I’d seen Isabelle Huppert in Elle, directed by always provocative Paul Verhoeven. Huppert is always worth watching. She and her film, btw, just won top honors at France’s Oscar equivalent, the César awards. I don’t consider myself a true Meryl Streep devotee. Instead, I take her on a case by case basis, but it’s hard to knock a track record that includes 20 Oscar nominations. I actually think her turn as Florence Foster Jenkins ranks as one of her best, and I’m thrilled that the Academy saw fit to recognize such an unlikely vehicle (a summer release based on the life of an amateur opera singer of minute talent and deep pockets), but this isn’t the film that will earn Streep a fourth Oscar. Barring an upset by Negga, La La Land looks to be Oscar gold for Emma Stone, her first Best Actress race (after being nominated as a supporting player for 2014’s Birdman). Stone is a refreshing talent, and she brings such tremendous enthusiasm to La La Land that it’s hard not to like her in it, but I don’t think it represents her best work, either.  Meanwhile, what about Amy Adams (Arrival), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), and Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train)? Not to mention, again, Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis?

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For Best Picture, La La Land‘s 14 nominations, a three way tie with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) as Oscar’s most nominated pics (both Best Picture winners, as well), will be hard to beat in the final stretch. Michael and I saw La La Land on Christmas Day, and we both enjoyed it tremendously. Believe me when I say there wasn’t a single frame in which I was anything less than entertained. I truly believe it is one of the best movies of the year, and I applaud the efforts of all involved getting an original live-action musical through the development phase and on to the big screen, a no doubt heroic feat–though not necessarily more heroic than the effort it must have taken to see either Hidden Fences (headlined by three African-American actresses, two of whom are over 40) or Moonlight (a movie about life on the streets and the effect of drugs, minus stereotypical gang warfare, that is, excessive gun violence ) to fruition, but I digress.   That a dicey proposition such as La La Land should catch on like gangbusters has to be quite a thrill. But I don’t think it’s THE best film of the year, and that’s my prerogative. It’s my opinion. Do I think a certain amount of La La Land backlash has set in? Yep. But I also think that is to be expected, and I don’t really think it will matter so much. After all, Titanic faced similar last minute harrumphing to no avail.

If I were voting, I’d be torn, and I do mean torn, between Hidden Figures (above) and Moonlight (below). I love, love, love the former because it tells a never before told true story, a story that needed to be told, and has proven to be monstrously popular. It also features a host of lively performances, giving such reputable performers as Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress nominee), Janelle Monáe, and Mahershala Ali, a chance to shine. That’s quite an accomplishment, one that registered strongly enough with members of the Screen Actors Guild to warrant its top prize. Of course, in 2011 the SAG accorded similar honors to The Help though it could not get around the Academy’s love for French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius’s cheeky Hollywood send-up, The Artist.

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As much as I love Hidden Figures, and applaud its massive success, I think the greater artistic achievement lies with Moonlight, tied with Arrival as the year’s second most nominated movie with a total of 8 nods, including two for director and co-screenwriter Barry Jenkins.  He shares writing credit with Tarell Alvin McCraney upon whose semi-autobiographical play the film is based. Whatever its strengths, Moonlight runs short on the crowd pleasing pizzaz that marks both Hidden Figures and La La Land, making it tougher sell; however, in its depiction of a young back male living in poverty, from elementary school through the teen years and beyond, Moonlight exudes rare insight into the world that shapes who we are, and almost no film in recent memory demonstrates greater clarity  of what it feels like to grow up queer in a world of heteronormative expectations.  What it really asks from audiences is understanding. Understanding.  A win for Moonlight, over shiny, candy-coated La La Land, won’t necessarily rate as a stunning upset, but it will be startling. Kudos, by the way, to Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, all of whom play the main character over the course of Moonlight‘s three acts. What an amazing achievement for these actors and director Jenkins, especially as three performances meld into a seamless whole, with middle (Sanders) and concluding (Rhodes) portrayals echoing the first (Hibbert).  Actually, a similar effect is achieved through the clever casting of Jaden Piner, Jharrell Jerome, and Andre Holland who all share the role of lead Chiron’s lifelong bf Kevin.

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The delightful Zootopia (l) wherein a rabbit from the countryside (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin)  tries to score big as a police officer in the big bad city (with unlikely assist from a fox voiced by Jason Bateman) sat unchallenged as my favorite 2016 flick for most of the year. Its message is one of hope and positivity, but it’s not heavy-handed. Mainly, it’s just fun.  Though not as widely hyped as its Disney sister Moana.  Zootopia is turning out to be the toon to beat in the Best Animated Feature film category. It all but swept the Annie awards (specifically honoring the work of artists and technicians in the animation field), capturing top honors along with a Golden Globe, a Producers’ Guild Award, and accolades from, among others, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association.  Almost nothing will please me more than for this one to win in its only category though I keep hearing rumblings about Kubo and the Two Strings.

My vote for the movie most inexplicably ignored by the Academy is the lush melodrama The Light Between Oceans, adapted by writer-director Derek Cianfrance from the best selling novel by M.L. Stedman. The movie was hardly a box-office hit, likely because today’s moviegoers aren’t receptive to its melodramatic (there’s that word again) flourishes, so it’s not surprising that it was glossed over, say, for Best Picture or Best Director. Okay, sure. On the other hand, the performances by Michael Fassbender (in the running last year for Steve Jobs), Alicia Vikander (last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner for The Danish Girl), and Rachel Weisz (2005’s Best Supporting Actress for The Constant Gardener) were on-point; however, the biggest omission, by far, is that of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw who wasn’t singled out for any year-end honors, not even among members of the American Society of Cinematographers. La La Land, all colorful, sunny, and sparkling, might have the lead here,  but Arrival and Lion have admirers as well.

All right, now, fasten your seat belts….and thanks for your consideration.

 

For Your Consideration: Best Supporting Actor

18 Feb

This year’s race for Best Supporting Actor includes a previous winner–with a total of 7 nominations–an additional previous nominee, and three Oscar newcomers–but one such exciting newcomer, at least to the Academy,  will give the previous champ a run for his money.

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Prior to his whiz-bang 2016 breakout performances in Moonlight (above) and Hidden Figures, Mahershala Ali racked up impressive credits in the likes of Crossing Jordan, The Curious Cage of Benjamin Button, House of Cards, The Place Beyond the Pines, and Luke Cage, proof that overnight success rarely occurs overnight.

Drumroll please…and the likely victor…more drumroll…is…Mahershala Ali in Moonlight. Officially, Ali is in the running for his performance as a shady if well-meaning mentor to the main character, a boy named Chiron being raised by a single mom. Chiron is the film’s central character, and the movie charts his life over a period of more than 10 years, from elementary school to several years after his teens, with three mostly well-matched actors playing the character as he grows from boy to man.

Ali’s Juan functions as an unlikely father figure who takes to the shy boy and wants to teach him about life,  how to stand up for himself against the bullies on the playground. But Juan really isn’t the right man for the job. He’s a bit of a thug himself, a criminal, and his hands aren’t exactly clean as Chiron comes to realize in one of the film’s tense, awkward scenes, the moment when Juan has to “be a man” and answer Chiron’s tough questions. It’s an incredibly well-played, understated  moment. Ali only appears in the first third of the film, but he makes a lasting impression in a true supporting role.

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In addition to a host of awards he has claimed during the current awards season, Mahershala Ali earned two trophies at the recent Screen Actors Guild awards: one for his specific supporting performance in Moonlight and another as part of the Hidden Figures ensemble cast.

I think what propels Ali to frontrunner status, besides his obvious, complex talent, is the added bonus of his recent Screen Actors Guild award. That has to be a plus considering the voting body overlaps with that of the Academy; moreover, Ali has dominated the competition for most of the awards season, laying claim to prizes from the likes of the New York Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics, the Broadcast Film Critics, the National Society of Film Critics, and the DFW Film Critics. I would definitely call that a streak. Add to all that, the bonus of appearing in not one but two Best Picture nominees: both Moonlight and Hidden Figures. In the latter, he portrays real-life army officer Jim Johnson who courts widowed Katherine Johnson, memorably played by Taraji P. Henson. He makes a dashing romantic lead, to be sure, and when taken together, both performances showcase good ole fashioned versatility. No doubt.

I say Ali is the man to beat because, besides all of the above, Moonlight is an amazing film, one of the most incredibly insightful films I have ever seen. No, it’s not a crowd pleaser on the order of La La Land or Hidden Figures,  but its impact is hard to shake, and Academy members are likely to respond.

One of the few awards that somehow bypassed Ali is the Golden Globe. Instead, the Hollywood Foreign Press opted for Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), grizzled and ornery as ever, as a Texas Ranger in determined pursuit of a pair of bank robbers, siblings, portrayed by Chris Pine (exceptionally strong) and Ben Foster. A decade ago, Bridges was a four time nominee with 0 wins. Then, came 2009’s Crazy Heart, in which he played a broken-down country & western singer trying to pull himself back together. Suddenly, on his fifth try, Bridges was everywhere, winning awards all over the place, and the Academy followed suit. Then, Bridges scored his 6th nomination the very next year when he more or less stepped into John Wayner’s Oscar winning shoes as “Rooster Cogburn” in the Coens’ reboot of True Grit. Now, in Hell or High Water, Bridges plays a character not unlike Cogburn, and that’s why I think he won’t win. The Academy has already seen this portrayal in a different film, and Bridges is no longer the hard working vet who has yet to be honored with a statuette of his own. That noted, Bridges has one truly sublime scene, a confrontation with Pine that is just as powerfully underplayed as the scene between Ali’s Juan and Chiron in Moonlight. So, maybe it’s not over…yet. Btw, Bridges’ six previous nominations stack up as follows: Best Supporting Actor for The Last Picture Show (1971), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and as the President of the United States in The Contender (2000), along with Best Actor nods for Starman (1984), Crazy Heart (2009), and True Grit. Whew!

Meanwhile, sitting in the wings as a possible spoiler is no less than Dev Patel for the highly promoted, fact-based,  Lion. Moviegoers have enjoyed this exciting young actor for almost a decade, beginning with 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire and up through The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) and TV’s Newsroom. He’s a stunner, but he’s also young and will likely have better opportunities. Technically, he plays the lead character–but only as an adult. Apparently, the bulk of the story is told through flashbacks with a much younger actor essaying the role. Speaking of young, Lucas Hedge, of Manchester by the Sea, is only 20, about the same age as Timothy Hutton when he triumphed for 1980’s Ordinary People. But remember this: Hutton’s film was a major contender, plus he was second generation Hollywood; plus, it was just, again, obvious that Hutton had the showiest role in his respective film. Hedge fights an uphill battle. Despite reams of critical acclaim that greeted Manchester by the Sea, interest in it seems to have waned compared to, say, La La Land, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight. Did you know, btw, that the Academy members have historically been less responsive to juvenile actors than, say, juvenile actresses? Okay, so, technically Hedge is not necessarily a juvenile actor, but the role is that of a juvenile. Will that make a difference?

Finally, the wild card: Michael Shannon, back in the race almost 10 years after his first nod for 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Now, he is in the running for his turn as a detective in Nocturnal Animals‘ film within a film, that is, the dramatization of one the main character’s novels. Sounds quirky? That’s what Michael Shannon does. Quirky. Nocturnal Animals is the second feature film from designer-turned-director Tom Ford, who previously guided no less than Colin Firth to his first Oscar nomination–for 2009’s A Single Man, but I digress. Since Revolutionary Road, Shannon has garnered attention for the likes of Mud, Take Shelter, 99 Homes, and TV’s Boardwalk Empire. He even played Elvis Presley opposite no less than Kevin Spacey in Elvis & Nixon, as in Richard Nixon. See? Quirky, right? No doubt, Shannon is a hard worker, and he excels, kind of like Josh Brolin, in roles that might intimidate other actors. Plus, he’s been around for years, with credits going back as far as 1993’s Groundhog Day. The question is, whether the Academy believes Nocturnal Animals is a significant enough achievement to push Shannon to the head of the pack. I don’t see it. After all, look how long Bridges had to wait. FYI: Did you know that Shannon and Ali are about the same age, with the IMDb showing both of them born in 1974?

Did the  Academy overlook any worthwhile contenders? Well, yeah, maybe. Oh, I’m all about Mahershala Ali, the first and best choice, but I was also rooting for Alden Ehrenreich as the young (dare I say, “dim”) singing cowboy in the Coens’ salute to 1950s’ Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! This exciting actor created a little buzz during the current awards season, but not enough. Enjoying a slightly higher profile is Simon Helberg, Golden Globe nominee for playing Florence Foster Jenkins‘ put upon pianist.  Both actors turned in crowd pleasing performances, no doubt, but not enough to sway Academy members. Maybe their high profile efforts in 2016 will net better opportunities in the future.  

Right now, hopefully, it’s Mahershala Ali’s moment to shine.

Thanks for your consideration…