That’s a Wrap: Oscars 2014/2015

23 Feb

Well, here I am contemplating today’s DFW metroplex ice storm, grateful for the opportunity that life has slowed down enough for me to indulge in my annual Oscar fascination even though I’m uncharacteristically uninspired by most of this year’s nominees. Of course, the good thing for any Oscar nominee is that it only competes against the year’s other films and not memories of Oscars past. If that were the case, I don’t really think too many of this year’s batch would even qualify for a nod, but I digress… I also freely admit that I used to be a much bigger Neil Patrick Harris fan than I am currently. Now, I find him mostly insufferable. Maybe he’s over-exposed?  Even as a nod to Birdman, his skivvies stunt was in bad taste, an all new Academy low, and I bet a lot of viewers turned off their TVs at that point. Didn’t Ellen do a bang-up job last year? Should we expect a ratings dip this year? Probably, but not just because of Neil Patrick Harris.

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In his speech, Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons implored viewers to call their moms; he emphasized that texting was not the same as calling. Good for him, (PHOTO: Getty Images via Examiner)

Okay, so after Mr. Harris’s lackluster but mercifully brief monologue, beautiful Lupita Nyong’o emerged to award Best Supporting Actor, and the winner, unsurprisingly, was J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) who has dominated his category this year thanks to his blistering portrayal of a merciless jazz conductor. I’m happy that it was this actor, who has been so good for so long in such enterprises as Law and Order and The Closer, not to mention those catchy Farmers Insurance commercials, which i’d still rather watch instead of Neil Patrick Harris. (His performance in Gone Girl was also a turn-off.) Plus, I LOVED Whiplash, the year’s sleeper Best Picture candidate, but I have a wee persnickety problem with Simmons,  and that is that it’s really hard to think of Simmons in Whiplash as a supporting player. Nope. He’s the second lead, the antagonist to star Miles Teller’s protagonist. Without Simmons, there is no movie. That noted, I don’t know that if I had had the chance I would have voted any differently even though Edward Norton was a lot of fun in Birdman. Right now, I can’t recall an outright supporting actor snub among 2014 releases.

Oh, and good call on the Academy’s part for honoring Whiplash‘s sound team. Perfect. The movie is all about its sound.. The audience has to hear every note–every nuance, every inflection–to fully absorb the story’s dynamics. What a way to go! Understandably, Whiplash also won for Best Editing, pretty much for the same reasons. What’s super amazing is that Whiplash won in a category normally dominated by movies that feature high-octane action sequences, including science fiction/fantasy extravaganzas and/or war movies: Gravity (2013), Hurt Locker (2009), Black Hawk Down (2001), Saving Private Ryan (1998), etc. Still, Whiplash, even as a micro-budgeted two-character study, is all about rhythm, so its  victory over the likes of American Sniper and the massive endeavor known as Boyhood (with 12 years’ worth of footage) is welcome, and, really, reveals Academy members to be quite astute. Yay! Three Oscars for Whiplash is smashing, but I was hoping that writer-director Damien Chazzelle would take home his own golden statuette for Best Adapted Screenplay. Oh, sure, Imitation Game‘s Graham Moore’s exceptional speech ranks among the evening’s highlights, no problem there, but Chazzelle’s story–based on his own short film–is quite the ride, with second and third act twists that up the suspense quotient. Now, that’s what I call storytelling.

Hooray for costume designer Milena Canonero of The Grand Budapest Hotel, her fourth win after Barry Lyndon (1975), Chariots of Fire (1981), and Marie Antoinette (2006); moreover, Canonero’s win signaled the first of 4 awards for Texas native Wes Anderson’s lavish comic caper, a win immediately followed by the Oscar for Best Makeup (Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier). Yay! On the other hand, I would have easily welcomed a makeup award for the super silly blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy. (Too bad Guardians of the Galaxy lost Visual F/X Oscar to the tiresome Interstellar, a major hit that did not snag as many nominations as predicted much earlier in the season.) Of course, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s production design team of Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock walked away with Oscars for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration. I think this has been a no-brainer ever since the movie opened last spring. Finally, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s composer Alexandre Desplat won his first Oscar after 7 previous nods, sort of, one of which was also 2014’s The Imitation Game.  Win some, lose some, right Alex? After all that, I was primed for Grand Budapest writer-director Wes Anderson to duke it out for Best  Original Screenplay honors with fellow Texan Richard Linklater (Boyhood).

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PHOTO: Huffington Post

Jared Leto sauntered onstage and made a funny joke about Meryl Streep, and then announced the winner for Best Supporting Actress. Again, no surprise: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), and she looked lovely! Well, good for her. Oh, and that speech about women deserving equal rights. WOW! Whatta way to tear the house down! (This a good thing, I assure you!) The audience ate it up, seemingly led  by, yes, Meryl Streep. Alas, after months of build-up, Boyhood stalled right then and there, a bit of a surprise  Sure, Alejandro González Iñárritu won the Directors Guild Award for Birdman, so his cleanup at the Oscars could hardly be called an upset; however, I really thought that Texan Richard Linklater’s vision and commitment  to Boyhood would impress Academy members more, resulting in a consolation prize in the screenwriting category. Nope. Linklater lost in the Best Original Screenplay category to  Iñárritu and company as well. (Unofficially, I still feel Selma‘s Carmen Ejogo was, to put it mildly, robbed.)

I wasn’t really surprised when Big Hero 6 won for Best Animated Film because my students overwhelmingly gave it their vote when polled about their favorite movie of the year. Okay, now I will definitely watch it. That noted, it was still a shock that the also incredibly popular Lego Movie was snubbed, meaning no nod at all. Less surprising though no less disappointing was the Academy’s snub of Rio 2, a great big colorful gift of a movie, but that’s just me I guess.

Applause, applause for Common and John Legend for “Glory” from Selma. The song was stirring, the audience loved it, and I respect anyone who quotes Nina Simone in an Oscar acceptance speech. I’m glad “Glory” won even though I have a soft spot for “Everything is Awesome” from the aforementioned Lego Movie. The other song nominees included the moving “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from the documentary chronicling 60-70s music and TV star Glen Campbell’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me (emotionally, if shakily, performed by Tim McGraw). Also, trivia alert in that “Lost Stars” from Begin Again (performed by Adam Levine of Maroon 5) is co-written by Danielle Brisebois, whose name is familiar with anyone who remembers her stint as young Stephanie, Edith Bunker’s niece, on All in the Family and the retooled Archie Bunker’s Place.

Most of the show was just dull, dull, dull, and so predictable. Do I care that Julianne Moore won an Oscar for Still Alice, a  movie that most Americans have not seen? (Approximately $8 million at the box office and counting.) Well, okay, I guess, and now the movie will likely expand its audience thanks to its Oscar cred. I guess that’s a good thing for a movie starring a reputable actress over 50. I like Moore well enough, and I alway have, but I can’t seem to work up much enthusiasm for watching her play a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. [Still Alzheimer’s?] I’d rather watch Glen Campbell’s documentary. At least he’s not ACTING, ACTING, ACTING for the camera. This is the one time when I feel like I must draw the line at what at least appears a calculated stunt on the Academy’s behalf. Over the past week, I’ve read articles unanimously agreeing that Moore surely had this one in the bag, on her fifth nod, while also arguing that she’s been better in other offerings, including her recent Cannes triumph, Maps to the Stars. Oh, and to clarify, I’m not especially bowled over by Redmayne’s gimmicky performance, but he at least has the advantage of portraying an important, complex, real-life historical figure. Still Alice is based on a novel, but it’s still fiction however well-meaning. I have a hard time believing the movie’s sole purpose is and was to land Moore an Oscar. My personal pick for Best Actress, among the official nominees, would have been Reese Witherspoon (Wild), and I have already gone on record with that. Unofficially? Hilary Swank, brilliant–as usual–in The Homesman, or maybe Jenny Slate in last summer’s buzzworthy indie, Obvious Child.

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Eddie Redmayne’s Oscar victory comes as he basks in the throes of newlywed bliss; he and Hannah Bagshawe married only two months ago. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

Again, even though J. K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette, and even Julianne Moore gave incredible speeches, their victories were entirely predictable. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne’s Best Actor triumph for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything was a wee bit of a surprise. Oh sure, Redmayne won the SAG award, a reliable Oscar indicator, so his Oscar win wasn’t a HUGE surprise, but given the Academy’s love for Birdman, Redmayne’s victory over sentimental favorite Michael Keaton has to register as an upset on some level, at least to Keaton. That noted, as much as I admire Redmayne, he wasn’t my first choice. I would have gone with either Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) or, yes, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper). Oh, I know, American Sniper has plenty of detractors, most of whom direct their vitriol toward the movie’s politics, but I see it much differently, to be addressed later; however, i have to say that Cooper’s performance as Texan Chris Kyle, the titular real-life figure ironically killed on American soil after serving multiple tours of duty in Iraq, took me by surprise. I’ve often found Cooper a lightweight: likeable, sure, but sometimes over his head in dramatic–or weighty–roles, but not so in American Sniper. There are moments in the film in which his acting choices startle(d) me, and I can’t say the same for Redmayne as his physically intense performance impresses on a much more obvious level. And I’m not alone. I read two articles over the past week heralding a last minute surge in Cooper’s favor. (Unofficially, I still think Selma‘s David Oyelowo deserves props.) 

In the end, the two most nominated movies, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, tied for the most awards: 4 for 9 in both cases. Birdman‘s take also included cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a rare back-to-back winner in his category. [John Toll was similarly honored in the 1990s with Legends of the Fall and Bravheart.]   Last year, you’ll recall, Lubezki finally took home the gold for Gravity in his sixth Oscar race. In Birdman, Lubezki creates movie magic by working in long, seemingly unbroken Steadicam shots. A neat trick, that, but I was rooting for 11 time nominee Roger Deakins (Unbroken). I loved Unbroken, maybe my favorite movie of all 2014, and Deakins is consistently worth watching as evidenced by the likes of Skyfall (for which he won the American Society of Cinematographers award), the 2010 True Grit reboot, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, among others.

Meanwhile, all 8 Best Picture nominees won awards. Aside from Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Whiplash: American Sniper (Best Sound Editing, aka Sound Effects), Boyhood (Best Supporting Actress), The Imitation Game (Best Adapted Screenplay), Selma (Best Song), and The Theory of Everything (Best Actor). On the other hand, how is it that the second or third most moving segment of the whole night had nothing, NOTHING, to do with any film released in 2014? Of course, I’m referring to Lady Gaga’s absolutely stellar rendition of songs from The Sound of Music, not the least of which was the gloriously rendered title tune. Then, for Julie Andrews to come on stage immediately afterward, so obviously moved, there’s that word again, so gracious. That’s the difference between making a movie for the ages and making one, such as Birdman, for the moment. Furthermore, keep in mind that in spite of all the huzzahs, Birdman has proven only slightly more accessible than Moore’s Still Alice. Per Box Office Mojo, Birdman has earned a relatively moderate 38 million on a budget of 18 million. Not impressive. No, the movie, about a former movie super hero trying to stage his own Broadway comeback, plays mostly to viewers who dig show-biz insider jokes (including, obviously, Academy members). Oh, and speaking of inside jokes, as tasteless as Best Picture presenter Sean Penn’s green card crack was regarding Iñárritu’s win for Birdman, I’m willing to let it go if Iñárritu is since he and Penn have a history, meaning 2003’s 21 Grams. Still, it wasn’t Penn’s best move, yet we’re used to it by now whether we should be or not, but I digress. On the other hand, and for what it’s worth, the one Best Picture nominee to overwhelmingly connect with moviegoers, American Sniper ($320 million + three weeks at no. 1) is also the title that has most seriously divided media hacks. Hard to imagine that fifty years from now anyone will care about the too-meta-for-its-own-good Birdman, with its trippy camera work, non-ending, and convenient casting (as a former Batman portrays the former Birdman), or even Neil Patrick Harris, but the hills will always be alive with the sound of music…

Thanks for your consideration….

Oscars 2014/2015: Best Supporting Actress

1 Feb

So, last Sunday night I settled in for the Screen Actors Guild awards, anticipating an outcome not unlike the Golden Globes, and that’s pretty much what I got, and keep in mind that as the Screen Actors Guild’s membership overlaps, somewhat, with the Academy’s actors branch, there’s every reason to take heed.

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Do you know one Best Supporting Actress award Patricia Arquette did not win this season? The one from the Los Angeles Film Critic Association. Of course, that’s because she actually won that group’s award for Best Actress, ha! (PHOTO: JoBlo via YouTube)

So, let’s take a closer look at this year’s Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress. The smart money is on Patricia Arquette (Boyhood). So far, Arquette has captured the greatest share of high profile prizes in her category: Golden Globe-check!; SAG award-check! Broadcast Critics’ Choice-check! Dallas-Fort Worth Critics Association award-check! Indeed, this has pretty much been Arquette’s race to lose ever since she won the first award of the season, from the New York Film Critics Circle. Well, even though I still have a hard time working up any enthusiasm for this movie, I am happy for Arquette. She, as has been duly noted, comes from a long line of performers–grandpa Cliff Arquette made his name by taking his “Charley Weaver” character on a number of TV shows, including Jack Parr’s Tonight Show stint and Hollywood Squares; sister Rosanna made a splash in the early 1980s with the likes of The Executioner’s Song, Baby It’s You, and Desperately Seeking Susan. After working steadily in movies for several years, starting in the late 1980s, she hit in her stride playing a psychic in TV’s Medium, for which she earned an Emmy. It’s funny to think that during the show’s run of six and half seasons, she was already in the midst of working on Boyhood.

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I’m happy for Dern, seen here in Wild.  I still think her performance as Citizen Ruth (1996) is one of the greatest comic inventions ever. EVER. If you have not seen this fearless wonder yet, please add it to your movie bucket list. (PHOTO: Fox Searchlight via GoldDerby.com)

In the event that Arquette loses her lead, Laura Dern (Wild) is well situated to pull ahead as a sentimental favorite.  Nominated for playing Reese Witherspoon’s much adored mother in a series of flashbacks, Dern is second generation Hollywood, daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, both with multiple Oscar races to their credit. Dad Bruce was nominated just last year for Nebraska (his second go-round) while two of mom Diane’s three Oscar nominations are in films co-starring her famous daughter: David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and Rambling Rose (1991), in which Laura portrayed the title character and earned her only prior Oscar nod. Acting since she was a teen, Laura Dern has chalked up an impressive filmography that includes everything from Mask and Blue Velvet (also David Lynch) to Jurassic Park; likewise, she has forged a successful TV career as well, earning Emmy nominations for Enlightened, Afterburn, Ellen (the famed “Puppy” episode), and Recount, in which she gave by all accounts an unforgettable performance, love it or hate it, as Katherine Harris, the snarky, self-important Republican lackey charged with supervising the recount of Florida’s ballots after the notoriously bungled 2000 presidential election. Her latest role is far removed from Harris. It’s somewhat slight in nature, which might explain why Dern has sat out much of the awards season, overlooked as a contender at both the Golden Globe and SAG awards, among others.

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Best Supporting Actress nominee Emma Stone (Birdman) is currently earning raves as Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of Cabaret.

Hooray, at long last, for wonderful Emma Stone (Birdman). I’ve been rooting for this dynamo to earn an Oscar nod since being wowed by her righteous comic turn in 2010’s Easy A, a high school variation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  Stone deservedly scored a Golden Globe nomination for that one–which I hope to write about in depth one day; the very next year she shone even brighter with splashy roles in Crazy Stupid Love and The Help, a box office blockbuster and Best Picture nominee. Regarding the latter, she was particularly good as an aspiring journalist–and well meaning daughter born of white privilege. In a cast that included Best Actress nominee Viola Davis, Best Supporting Actress winner Octavia Spencer, and Best Supporting Actress nominee Jessica Chastain, Stone held her own, and I could have easily supported a Best Actress nod had it materialized. For me, The Help reigned as 2011’s best acted movie, hence its SAG award for Best Ensemble, and everyone in it was award worthy, but I digress. Now, Stone is nominated for playing Michael Keaton’s slightly shifty daughter, fresh from rehab, in Birdman.

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Knightley was nominated for Best Actress for 2005’s big screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a mere two years after making a splash in a string of 2003 releaes: Bend It Like Beckham, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Love, Actually.

Kiera Knightley’s Best Supporting Actress nod for The Imitation Game goes a long way toward redeeming the actress after a lackluster performance in Anna Karenina, a lavishly mounted production–with Oscar winning costumes by Jacqueline Durran–that succeeded in spite of Knightley’s leading performance rather than because of it. Actually, 2014 was a pretty good year for Knightley, considering not only The Imitation Game but also the generally well reviewed Indie Begin Again, co-starring Mark Ruffalo (from writer-director John Carney, of Once). On the other hand, am I the only person who cringed every time the trailer for Laggies, with Knightley as an unemployed free spirit, played? In The Imitation Game, Knightley plays Joan Clarke, a brilliant mathematician who worked as code breaker right alongside Alan Turing during WWII; the two were briefly engaged to be married in spite of Turing’s homosexuality. As good as Kinghtley is as Clarke, I almost feel as though both she and Stone are slumming in this category. In other words, Kightley is a star, not a supporting player, and the Academy will have plenty of chances to honor her in a role more befitting her leading lady status, but this nomination is a nice touch for now.

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The role of Into the Woods’ witch has been played on stage by the likes of Bernadette Peters, Cleo Laine, and Vanessa Williams; meanwhile, original cast member Joanna Gleason won a Tony for her portrayal of The Baker’s Wife, now played on screen by Emily Blunt, one of Streep’s underlings in 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada.

The Witch is arguably the plum role in Stephen Sondheim’s revisionist take on such popular fairy tales as Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. Streep established her vocal chops awhile back–and she has a grand time playing this extreme character, bringing a lot of shading to the role; however, as wonderful as she is, I don’t think she has much of a chance. She’s going for Oscar number four, and it’s only been three years since she nabbed number three (2011’s Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady). Nobody will groan if Steep wins because she’s practically an institution and such fun at awards’ shindigs. Even if she loses, this lady is unstoppable as evidenced by the fact that six of her 19 Oscar nods have come in the past decade, and, to clarify, Streep is 65. Few of her peers work as steadily and on such a heightened scale. Listing her string of Oscar nominations is one of my favorite things. Here goes. First, two wins for Best Actress (Sophie’s Choice, 1982; The Iron Lady, 2011); one win for Best Supporting Actress (Kramer vs Kramer, 1979);  two additional nods for Best Supporting Actress (The Deer Hunter, 1978; Adaptation, 2002), and thirteen for Best Actress (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 1981; Silkwood, 1983; Out of Africa, 1985; Ironweed, 1987; A Cry in the Dark, 1988; Postcards from the Edge, 1990; The Bridges of Madison County, 1995; One True Thing, 1998; Music of the Heart, 1999, The Devil Wears Prada, 2006; Doubt, 2008; Julie & Julia, 2009, and August: Osage County, 2013). Brava.

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In Selma, Carmen Ejogo (l) etches a finely nuanced portrayal of Coretta Scott King (r), one that should be receiving major accolades, and not just because the actress uncannily resembles her real-life counterpart. That’s just a bonus.

Who will I be rooting for, come Oscar night? Really? Maybe none of the above. Oh, I like Arquette well enough, and I won’t complain if she wins, especially since I have not seen her performance. Maybe I’ll be a smidge happier if Dern wins, but I won’t be heartbroken if she loses. The truth is, I don’t think any of these performances come close to matching the power of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King in Selma. Born in London, of Nigerian and Scottish descent, Ejogo previously portrayed Coretta Scott King on television in 2001’s Boycott. Her credits also include the lead role in TV’s Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal. At any rate, Ejogo commands the screen in Selma, playing a woman who loves and supports her husband but refuses to be pushover even though doing so would be much more convenient. Ejogo plumbs emotional depths I had not expected; after all, she’s not the lead, and who expects a supporting player to make a vivd impression in a movie about such a towering historical figure as Martin Luther King? For my money, no performance, in any category, in all of 2014 was as persuasive as Ejogo’s.  She was robbed, and now I don’t care who wins Best Supporting Actress.

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Snowpiercer features a Tilda Swinton and amazing production design. Coincidentally, Swinton also appears in Best Piicture nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, a film also noted for lavish design.

Tilda Swinton, who won in this category for 2007’s Michael Clayton, was hardly robbed,  but reports persisted that voters were strongly interested in her performance as a sour faced lieutenant on a futuristic train with a militantly enforced class system in the slam-bang Snowpiercer, the English debut of South Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host). Indeed, Swinton eked out a nod for a Critics Choice award via the Broadcast Film Critics Association and picked up honors from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society. An Oscar nod for Swinton would have been a kick and added life to this roster. Alas, not to be. I was also hoping that Snowpiercer would have been recognized by Academy members for its over-the-top production design. Alas, also not to be though the film, also starring Chris Evans, Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and John Hurt, has scored multiple prizes at film festivals in Asia and in the United States.

 

SAG AWARDS UPDATE: 

No surprise that Arquette and J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) won supporting honors, but SAG voters still had a trick or two up their sleeves…

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Eddie Redmayne looks shocked as he holds his SAG award for The Theory of Everything. The 33 year old Brit also claims a Tony for Best Featured Actor for John Logan’s Mark Rothko inspired play, Red. (PHOTO: Reuters/International Business Times.)

We’ve known all along that the Oscar for Best Actor would likely wind up as a two man race between Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), but Keaton seemed to have a slight edge for two reasons: 1. Sentiment; 2. His Birdman is one of the year’s two most nominated flicks; however, SAG voters were more inclined to recognized Brit, and relative newcomer, Redmayne for his deep immersion into the role of genius Stephen Hawking. This is significant because the SAG winner for Best Actor almost always goes on to win the Oscar. Indeed, this has been the case for the past 10 years, so has Redmayne pulled ahead to the head of the pack?  Still too close to tell. On the other hand, Birdman’s cast was honored with the SAG’s best ensemble acting award, thwarting Boyhood‘s momentum.

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Even though I thought Julianne Moore’s SAG speech could have been more gracious, I loved her emerald gown. (PHOTO: Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, I did not love Julianne Moore’s SAG victory speech. The actress is sitting pretty now, only weeks away from what will likely be a triumphant Oscar night–for her fifth nomination. Just as I have a hard time getting excited about watching Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, I confess that I can’t work up much enthusiasm for watching Moore play a a woman with Alzheimer’s, that is, early-onset Alzheimer’s in Still Alice. I like Moore, especially in supporting roles, but I just don’t think I like her well enough to take Alice’s trip with her. At any rate, she lost me during her SAG acceptance speech when she more or less mocked her big break on TV’s classic daytime drama, As the World Turns. When Moore  began her stint on the show she was a mere 25, and she ultimately won a Daytime Emmy for her work as Frannie Hughes who also had a twin, Sabrina. Many young performers would be grateful for such an opportunity. There was no need for Moore to be so dismissive of her past just because she has gone to bigger and better things. I wish she hadn’t done that.

Next up? Best Supporting Actor

Thanks for your consideration….

 

Oscars 2014/2015: Best Actor

24 Jan
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In addition to the Academy’s snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay, I’m also calling foul on the omission of English actor David Oyelowo, simply mesmerizing as the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So larger than life, so steeped in legend, is King that portraying him presents a hefty challenge for anyone, the equivalent of playing Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln, per Ben Kingsley and Daniel Day Lewis, both of whom won Oscars, btw. Oyelowo perfectly matches King’s cultivated, mellifluous Southern tones, but this great actor truly triumphs as he shows a man who only gradually grows into –and realizes–his tremendous power. (PHOTO: Paramount Pictures vis NPR)

Before I review the Best Actor contenders, as I indicated I would in the last post, I want to revisit the Selma controversy and the fact that its director Ava DuVernay was overlooked, thereby missing out on the chance to make history as the Academy’s first ever female African-American Best Director contender. Of course, even during all those decades when the slate of Best Picture nominees was limited to five, it was just as common as not for the director(s) of one of those five finalists to be ignored in the Best Director race, as was the case with Steven Spielberg (both Jaws and The Color Purple), Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), Barbra Streisand (The Prince of Tides), and Joe Wright (Atonement); moreover, Streisand’s snub is comparable to those of Marlee Matlin (Children of a Lesser God), Penny Marshall (Awakenings), and Valerie Faris (one half of the team behind Little Miss Sunshine). Furthermore, two years ago the Academy nominated Kathryn Bigelow’s riveting Zero Dark Thirty for Best Picture and more, but Bigelow, who smashed the glass ceiling when she won the Best Director statuette for 2009’s The Hurt Locker, was ignored. Too much of a good thing? Okay, here’s my point: we know these things happen, but an open ended number of Best Picture slots–no less than five, no more than ten–only invites further discrepancies. I still think the Academy needs to stop chasing demographics by ensuring that there is room for a big “popcorn” extravaganza, the kind that excites 14 year old boys (or, okay, frat boys), just to boost ratings. By the way, how many escapist blockbusters are among the Academy’s final 8 this time? None, really, though for awhile it looked like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar had a chance. Instead, Interstellar finds itself competing in a smattering of technical categories. I actually find that encouraging since I also pretty much hated Interstellar. Meanwhile, going back to DuVernay, consider the following statistic reported by Entertainment Weekly, citing Los Angeles Times research from 2012: “the directors branch is 91 percent male and 90 percent white” (Sperling 82). Uh, doesn’t this represent a credibility problem on some level since these numbers in no way represent real life in the 21st century?

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So far, Michael Keaton has won a Golden Globe, the Online Film Critics Society award, the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association award, and a Broadcast Critics’ Choice award. He shares honors with Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) from the National Board of Review. He’s also in line for a Screen Actors Guild award.

Now, on to Best Actor. What we have right now appears to be a two way race that could easily turn into a three way race. On one hand, we have Michael Keaton (Birdman), a veteran enjoying his first nomination in a career that spans more than thirty years, everything from early comedy hits such as Night Shift (1982) and Mr. Mom (1983) to the ghoulish Beetlejuice and the hard hitting recovery drama Clean and Sober, both in 1988, followed by two installments in the blockbuster Batman franchise (1989, 1992). Keaton hasn’t had a strong leading role in years though he stole a few scenes in 2010’s The Other Guys. He’s ripe for a comeback, that’s for sure, and his role as a former movie super-hero trying to reinvent himself as a Broadway thesp, seems right on time. That Birdman has snagged 9 nominations only helps.

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Eddie Redmayne’s only major award at this point is a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama. Mostly, he’s been trailing Keaton. As of this writing, he is currently in the running for a SAG award and a British Academy Award.

On the other hand, relative newcomer Eddie Redmayne benefits from a role requiring complete transformation: British physicist Stephen Hawking, famous not only for the best selling A Brief History of Time but also a heroic, death defying battle against neurodegenerative disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Audiences, and that includes people who vote for awards, definitely respond to Redmayne’s strenuous effort, and his vehicle works on two familiar levels: a true story, AND, again, a role that requires physical transformation, thereby drawing attention to the most obvious aspects of an actor’s craft. He’s young, and now that he’s proven his acting mettle, he’s likely to receive more choice offers.

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Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) is on a roll. This is his third Oscar nomination in three years: Best Actor, 2012 (Silver Linings Playbook), Best Supporting Actor, 2013 (American Hustle), and now in the fact-based film based on the life of Texas native Chris Kyle, who was killed just as the film was still in pre-production. (PHOTO: Warner Bros./Very Aware)

I think American Sniper‘s Bradley Cooper is the potential upset in the bunch. I’m not predicting an upset, but I won’t be the least bit surprised if Cooper is called to the podium come awards night. Cooper was overlooked by both the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press (the Golden Globes) and the Screen Actors Guild. Furthermore, he was relegated to the “Action Movie” category at the Critics Choice awards; therefore, his presence among the final five here is, yes, a surprise, but it also means strong support for the movie as a whole–as further evidenced by its inclusion in the Best Picture category. Plus, American Sniper director Clint Eastwood is definitely known for his winning ways among actors:  Gene Hackman (Unforgiven, 1992), Tim Robbins (Mystic River, 2003), Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman (both in Million Dollar Baby, 2004).

Once upon a time, Cumberbatch played no less than Stephen Hawking in a BBC telefilm, earning a BAFTA nod in the process. Now, he’s for an Oscar and a BAFTA award in a race with another actor playing Hawking. Full circle.

If I were voting, I’d be inclined at this point–knowing that I’ve yet to see American Sniper though I plan to soon–to go with Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), my personal pick in the tortured British gents sweepstakes; the other being Redmayne as Hawking. Yes, Cumberbatch gives a commendable performance as Alan Turing, mathematician turned WWII code breaker, later vilified–criminalized–for being homosexual, but that’s not the only reason why Cumberbatch holds such appeal for me. What I really like about Cumberbatch is how he manages to be both serious actor AND full blown movie star. This six foot hunk of masculine gladness is incredibly easy on the eyes, sure, but he’s also an adventurous actor, from his work as Sherlock Holmes to a key supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and his standout villain, Khan, in Star Trek Into Darkness. He’s also appeared in The Hobbit movies and has even played Julian Assange. Plus, he made quite an impression as a relatively benevolent plantation owner in last year’s Oscar champ 12 Years a Slave. True movie stars are becoming rarer and rarer, but Cumberbatch wears the ideal well.

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Besides Oyelowo and Cumberbatch, my favorite male performance of the year–also un-nominated–is that of Brit Jack O’Connell, mind bogglingly good, in Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the incredible story of Louis Zamperini, an American Olympic athlete who survived one harrowing turn after another as a WWII soldier. Generally kindly reviewed and a bona fide box office smash, Unbroken was largely ignored by the Academy, which only fuels discussion that the directors’ branch is just a well heeled boys club. Unbroken’s only nod is for Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography, but with 10 prior nods, including 2012’s Skyfall and 2010’s True Grit, and no wins thus far. I am not too optimistic about his chances this year. I don’t know if sentimentality counts anymore. In the meantime, O’Connell has claimed “newcomer” laurels from the likes of the National Board of Review and is up for “Rising Star” from the British Academy. (PHOTO:  Universal/Derby Telegraph)

I generally like Steve Carrell, and I know he’s treaded near Oscar territory in the past, such as an attention getting star turn in Dan at 40, and colorful supporting performances in oh so many vehicles, such as Little Miss Sunshine, but I think his nomination for playing dangerously delusional John Du Pont in Foxcatcher is a sham, a waste. Overall, the movie is incredibly tense, maybe the most relentless movie I’ve seen in that regard since 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry, and while Carrell benefits from an effective makeup job, especially a proboscis that seems to enter a given space before the rest of his body, almost making it seem as though he really MUST look down his nose at everyone,  and while he sounds a lot like the real Du Pont in his halting monotone, the effect is still very much a stunt, a one-note wonder, and, again, I’m allowing that Carrell succeeds as a fairly accurate impersonation, and that he gives exactly the kind of single minded performance director Bennett Miller wants–as though Du Pont were somehow empty on the inside–but I just don’t think it’s worthy of highest honors. Again, while I’m generally a fan of both Carrell and Mark Ruffalo (a Best Supporting Actor nominee for Foxcatcher), I was most impressed by the same film’s Channing Tatum, who played the most difficult role, a down on his luck wrestler–and Olympic gold medalist–sucked into Du Pont’s lavish lifestyle but with unforeseen conditions and consequences. His character is the one who experiences the most emotional changes, and that’s what held my attention.

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Two years ago, the Academy nominated 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) for Best Actress. Barely a decade prior to that 13 year old Keisha Castle-Hughes snagged a nod for Whale Rider. Who knows why, but the Academy seems more inclined to recognize child actresses rather than child actors. Now 20, Ellar Coltrane, seen in this collage, was recently named the year’s Best Young Actor by the Broadcast Film Critics. PHOTO: Matt Lankes via The Guardian.

One more: with all the hoopla regarding the 12 years it took director Richard Linklater to complete Boyhood, and the lavish praise for supporting nominees, Patricia Arquette (the anointed frontrunner) and Ethan Hawke, it seems a little puzzling that Ellar Coltrane has not likewise been recognized since  his assignment, aging from 7 to 18 in front of Linklater’s probing camera, required the greatest risk, a willingness to be open and vulnerable while enduring his own adolescence. If Linklater had not cast just the right actor in the leading role, the whole project would have likely failed; after all, dozens upon dozens of child actors have fared delightfully well as half-pints only to lose their most adorable qualities during those trying teen years, often appearing embarrassingly stiff, amateurish, and out of place whereas they were once considered “naturals.” Now, of course, we know that Linklater must have chosen well since his film is such a strong contender.

Check here later for a SAG update and/or a rundown on the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress.

Thanks for your consideration…

Sperling, Nicole. “The Woman Who Made History.” Entertainment Weekly. 30 January 2015. Print. 6 February 2015.

Oscar Post 1: Crown Thy Good with Girlhood, Anyone? Anyone???

17 Jan


Well, I think we were all expecting something a little different from the Academy this week, and by that I mean what we expected to see were signs of progress in the Best Director race. Five years after the lone victory by a female in the Academy’s Best Director category (Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker),  many Oscar prognosticators anticipated a historic Best Director nomination for Ava DuVernay (Selma) which would have made her the first African-American female in her category. Would she have won? Who knows? Should members of the Academy’s male dominated–and likely white male, to be sure–directors branch have nominated DuVernay just to make history or to be politically correct? Of course not. But the whole thing still stinks. I think my sweetie nailed it when he opined that if Selma, which chronicles the landmark 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery led by Dr. Martin Luther King  Jr. and others, had been directed by a white man, it probably would have fared better. Yep, I can hear it now, some well meaning guy blathering on and on in TV interviews about how much he was influenced by Dr. King in college and all that, the director’s long held vision and all that. Once upon a time that would have seemed courageous, but now we know, among other things, that perspective is everything, and there are points of view that are equal to and sometimes even greater than that of the, what, staus quo.

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Director Ava DuVernay (Selma) came close to making history this past week as the first-ever African American female Best Director nominee. She also would have been only the fifth female and only the fourth African-American in the same category, a year after Steve McQueen and 12 Years a Slave. Of course, everyone who knows anything about Hollywood knows that African American females are simply under-represented in feature films, Tyler Perry’s steady output notwithstanding. TV, of course, is much more progressive, what with producer Shonda Rimes leading the way with the likes of Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, and the high stakes shenanigans of How to Get Away with Murder, starring the fabulous Viola Davis; meanwhile, DuVernay joins the ranks of Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and Dee Rees (Pariah), African-American women who wrote and directed highly praised films and then watched the Oscars from the sidelines. Still, DuVernay has made history in a different way as the first African American female to direct a Best Picture nominee, and that’s no small accomplishment. Furthermore, no less than Oprah Winfrey has made history as well as the first African American female to produce a Best Picture nominee.  I also feel compelled to include my own shout-out to Martinique born Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a feature for a major Hollywood studio, 1989’s anti-apartheid drama A Dry White Season, from MGM, for which Marlon Brando earned a Best Supporting Actor nod and for which Palcy won French César honors. Good company, indeed. (PHOTO: Collider.com)

Of course, the Academy’s directors branch is still very much a boys club, and even if those guys don’t mean to act aggressively or harshly toward women, they are still very much informed by their own myths and preconceptions. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not excusing them. No, no, no. On the other hand, I feel compelled to share that since Thursday’s announcement, I have discovered, per the IMDb, that the directors branch includes only two African-American women among its ranks, one of whom is DuVernay, invited on the heels of 2012’s acclaimed Middle of Nowhere; the other is Kasi Lemmons, whose filmography includes 1997’s mesmerizing Eve’s Bayou.

Meanwhile, to make a wee comparison, this year’s presumed Best Picture frontrunner is Boyhood, written and directed by Austin’s Richard Linklater. By now, everybody likely knows that Linklater and his cast, including Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominees Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, respectively, shot the film one week at a time over a 12 year period. I can’t seem to get too excited over this movie, and one reason is that it just reminds me too much of 2011’s Tree of Life, also from an Austin based filmmaker, Terrence Malick.  What do you think?

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Meet Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first ever African-American to serve as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and only the third woman to hold the position. This week, she was put in the awkward position of defending a slate of nominees that has been questioned for being too white and too male. (PHOTO: Reuters/International Business Times)

I loved Tree of Life, but enough already with the navel gazing infatuation with what it means to come of age as a white male in this culture. I don’t want to devalue the experience or knock Linklater, but this is familiar territory going as far back as, but by no means limited to, 1986’s Stand By Me, directed by Rob Reiner (based on a novella by Stephen King).  I was somewhat relieved when a morning TV show host expressed a concern that Linklater might very well be honored for Boyhood‘s behind the scenes narrative, the whole 12-years-in-the-making thing, rather than what’s on screen. I think this TV host is on the right track, and no surprise there, not really. Selling “narratives” is a huge entry in the Oscar playbook: the comeback, the hugely successful movie that nobody wanted to make, the actor laying everything on the line to sit in the director’s chair, etc. Look at Sylvester Stallone, a little known actor who wrote 1976’s Rocky as a leading role for himself out of desperation; ditto Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and  1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Meanwhile, what about Ana DuVernay’s narrative? She got the break of a lifetime when she stepped into a project for which Lee Daniels (an Oscar nominee for 2009’s Precious and the director of 2013’s prestigious The Butler) had already been signed. Remember when Meryl Streep stepped into 1999’s Music of the Heart with only weeks’ notice after Madonna bowed out of the fact-based film? More narrative, right? Plus, let’s face it, the scale of Selma, with huge crowd scenes, is impressive. Maybe not to the degree of Gandhi or The Last Emperor, but close.

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I don’t think Wes Anderson’s cartoony caper The Grand Budapest Hotel has much of a chance at the evening’s biggest prize, which will likely turn into a tight race between Birdman and Boyhood. Still, 9 nods is impressive. At the very least, I think we can expect Anderson’s film to walk away with Best Production Design, possibly Best Costume Design and Best Hair/Makeup as well. For my money, Anderson’s visually sumptuous romp is the most sheerly delightful entry in the bunch even though it’s hardly profound. Still, kudos to the terrific cast, which includes Tony Revolori, Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and Jason Schwartzman among others.

Still, maybe DuVernay might have been penalized due to controversies surrounding the movie’s historical accuracy. That seems a bit of a stretch given the number of biopics and/or docudramas that have also been called into question for one thing or another yet still managed to score with Oscar voters. On the other hand, maybe DuVernay, however hypocritical, is being held to a higher standard. Still, Selma was all but shut out of most races, including Best Actor (David Oyelowo), ultimately snagging only two nods, which indicates the movie just wasn’t liked by most Academy voters. On the other hand, the movie pulled in enough votes to earn a place on the Best Picture roster, along with Boyhood (6 nods), American Sniper (6 nods), The Imitation Game (8 nods), The Theory of Everything (5 nods), Whiplash, and the biggies: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel, both of which scored 9 nods; however, given the Academy’s track record of selecting Best Picture winners with corresponding Best Director nominees, the field narrows considerably from eight to four, with only Linklater, Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman), and Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) on board–well, on board with Bennett Miller, of Foxcatcher, whose chances are surely doomed since his movie is NOT in the running for Best Picture. Miller supplants The Theory of Everything‘s Morten Tyldum who, along with Linklater, Anderson, Eastwood, and Iñárritu are in line for the prestigious Directors Guild Award. The fact is that DuVernay, who was Globe nominated, was shunned by the DGA.

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Besides producing and starring in Wild (as seen here) and co-producing Oscar nominated Gone Girl starring Rosamund Pike, Reese Witherspoon also starred in 2014’s The Good Lie, a movie about Sudanese Lost Boys and the American woman who helps them settle into their new lives.

 With all the hue and cry about who didn’t get nominated, especially a certain female director, I do think Reese Witherspoon deserves credit for coming as close to anyone as this year’s Most Valuable Player. A whopping nine years after enjoying a Best Actress victory for her dynamic performance as country & western singer-songwriter June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, and suffering through a series of ho-hum offerings in the interim (though Four Christmases raked in considerable dough), Witherspoon restaked her claim as a major talent and a crackerjack business woman as well, what with producing the fact-based Wild, clearly a grueling enterprise, earning smashing reviews and a Best Actress nod in the process; moreover, the savvy Legally Blonde star also co-produced the crowd favorite Gone Girl, adapted by David Fincher from Gillian Flynn’s massive best selling mystery about the search for a missing woman (Rosamund Pike), one with famous parents, and the increasing scrutiny placed on the woman’s suspicious husband (Ben Affleck). Witherspoon bought the rights to Flynn’s novel soon after publication, no doubt as a vehicle for herself, but the director she hired had other plans. Rather than give into ego, fire the director, and regroup, Witherspoon trusted her instincts and allowed the director to do his job which worked out well, considering that Ms. Pike has now scored her first Best Actress nod, making Witherspoon the producer of not only her Oscar nominated vehicle but also the co-producer of a competing vehicle, but either way, it’s a win-win for the new mogul and likely an Academy first.  

In my next post, I’ll write about the Best Actor race.

Thanks for your consideration….

The Golden Globes and I Are Back. No Surprise?

11 Jan

Hi, long time no see. I’m glad to be back. I didn’t think it would happen. The past 7-8 weeks have brought some tumult in my life, too much for my comfort level, so I had to let a thing or two go and just deal with what was right in front of me. I will say right up front that my Oscar coverage will be limited this year. I know I will not be posting about the nominees this Thursday due to commitments beyond my control; however, I have already started writing columns about some of my favorite movies.

In the meantime, here are highlights from the Globes:

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Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash) Yay! These days, I have to really plan in order to go to a theatre to see a movie, and Whiplash, in which he plays a relentless conductor, is one that has eluded me. I hope Simmons’ award buzz keeps this one in theatres awhile longer. I’ve been a Simmons fan for quite awhile thanks to his TV series work, such as Law & Order and The Closer. I’ve got my fingers crossed for him to continue his roll with an Oscar nomination–at least.

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Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood) – Committing to a project 12 years in the making is huge, and Arquette has earned the best reviews of her career. She’s on her way.

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Best Director of a Motion Picture: Richard Linklater (Boyhood) – I don’t know why I can’t get excited about this movie, but I am happy that the Texas native is doing so well this season. Certainly, filming a movie over 12 years says a lot about his vision, determination, and ability to persuade.

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Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy: Amy Adams (Big Eyes) – Adams follows her Oscar nominated and Golden Globe winning role in 2013’s American Hustle with this Tim Burton biopic about the strange career of painter Margaret Keane, whose paintings of waifish, big eyed children became pop-culture sensations in the 1960s though Keane reluctantly allowed her business savvy husband to assume all the credit until after their divorce, at which point a lawsuit with a startling twist ensued. I liked Big Eyes, and I’m happy for Adams’s success, but the film may be a wee bit quirky for Oscar voters’ tastes. I’m not sure she’s a lock; after all, she did not make the cut for the Screen Actors Guild award.

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Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy – Michael Keaton (Birdman) – Is Birdman really a comedy? Yes, I laughed, but I don’t know that it was “Ha-ha funny” as the old saw goes. Still, the role of an actor trying to reinvent himself as serious thesp decades after walking away from a super-hero franchise seems tailor made for the versatile actor who achieved superstar status after playing Batman in two films in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama: Julianne Moore (Still Alice) – What a year it’s been for Moore, what with the Cannes Best Actress award for Maps to the Stars and, now, Still Alice. She actually earned Globe nominations for both films (one comedy, one drama). Unless she splits votes with herself, she’ll likely score a nod for Still Alice, in which she plays a linguistics professor with early onset Alzheimer’s.

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Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama : Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) – Good for Redmayne. He’s been working toward major stardom ever since the likes of My Week with Marilyn and Les Miserables. His performance as physicist Stephen Hawking, who has persevered, no thrived, in spite of ALS, is transformative. Even so, I was rooting for Benedict Cumberbatch as WWII code cracker, and father of modern computing, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. No matter, get ready for a showdown between Redmayne and Keaton with David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King Jr in Selma waiting in the wings.

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Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy: The Grand Budapest Hotel. Texas filmmaker Wes Anderson moves closer to Oscar glory, just two years after his delightful Moonrise Kingdom. This was one of the first truly heralded movies of 2014, and it was released as far back as March, but now it’s racking up awards. Oh, and between Anderson and Linklater, what a great night for Texas filmmakers!

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Best Motion Picture Drama: Boyhood. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel. this movie has been in play for several months. Right now, it looks like the Oscar favorite, but I think latecomer Selma has the best opportunity to generate momentum.

 

Thanks for your consideration. I’ll be back.

 

 

The New Yorkers Arrive, Heralding Texan’s Boyhood

1 Dec

Ah, just as surely Black Friday once followed Thanksgiving Day, the year end accolades begin arriving as early as December 1. First out of the gate are the winners of the New York Film Critics Circle, and here we go:

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Hooray for the native son, that is Texas based filmmaker Richard Linklater whose latest, Boyhood, may very well be the movie with the most year end buzz–not bad considering that it was released back over the summer. Linklater, whose credits include everything from micro-budgeted indie Slacker (1991), to Dazed and Confused (1993), the Before Sunrise trilogy (1994 – 2013), School of Rock (2003), and Bernie (2012), stretched himself yet again with a traditional feature film shot over a 12 year period, thereby charting the growth of child actor Ellar Coltrane who, per the IMDb, grew an incredible 27 inches during production. Linklater’s execution might be unique in that he shows his character, played by a single actor, age from 5 to 18 in the span of 165 minutes, but his vision is comparable to that of Francois Truffuat who featured actor Jean-Pierre Léaud as character Antoine Doinel in a series of films, spanning 20 years, beginning with 1959’s 400 Blows when the actor was approximately 15 years old. I have more to add, and I will later, but this is good news for Linklater fans for now. Good news for Patricia Arquette fans as well, I was beginning to think she’d never get another strong film role.

Best Picture: Boyhood

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night)

Best Actor: Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner)

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Screenplay:  Wes Anderson and Hugo Guiness

(The Grand Budapest Hotel, inspired by the works of Stefan Zweig)

Best First Film: Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)

Best Cinematography: Darius Khondji (The Immigrant)

Best Animated Film: The Lego Movie

Best Foreign Language Film: Ida (Poland)

Best Nonfiction Film: Citizenfour

Special Award: Adrienne Mancia

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I’m happy for Timothy Spall, a member of Brit director Mike Leigh’s repertory company. This time, Spall takes the lead as 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner. Spall won Best Actor honors at the most recent Cannes film fest, but he has not received as much media coverage as the likes of Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

^ J.K. Simmons is a regular acting demon. In Whiplash, he plays a demanding jazz conductor at a prestigious music school.  Watch the trailer for but a taste. I can’t wait to see the whole thing!

New York Film Critics Circle official site: http://www.nyfcc.com/awards/

Accolades and Actresses: Remembering Mike Nichols

29 Nov
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Mike Nichols was a movie industry giant; however, he only directed 22 films between 1966 and 2007. Even so, he earned accolade after accolade and repeatedly guided performers to new levels of greatness. His last film was the fact based Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who earned an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

So, here is how my mind works: Mike Nichols unexpectedly passed away last week at the age of 83.

  • Heralding him as a wunderkind is no overstatement as he is one of precious few individuals to have earned an Emmy (Wit and Angels in America), a Grammy (the landmark comedy album, An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May), an Oscar (The Graduate), and a Tony (actually several Tonys, everything from directing Neil Simon hits such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple to producing and or directing such smash musicals as Annie and Spamalot). Furthermore, he was still in his 30s when he won his Oscar–and for only his second film, on the heels of scoring a nod for his first: 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • I remember a skit from the old Carol Burnett show in which Burnett played a somewhat jaded sophisticate reunited with an old friend–played by Vicki Lawrence, of course–the latter having once looked up to the former something fierce. The gag was that Lawrence was on the verge of a huge showbiz breakthrough but Burnett’s character just couldn’t be happy for her friend’s success and kept trying to squash her hopes, pointing out how competitive Broadway is and that Lawrence’s chances for appearing in a hit play would depend on the auspices of an established playwright–to which Lawrence responded something to the effect that her play was written by Neil Simon. Undaunted, Burnett reminded Lawrence that even a well-written play was nothing without the right director. On cue, Lawrence came back with “Mike Nichols.” Sure she did, right?
  • Last week’s Entertainment Weekly features an Oscar preview, lamenting, of course, the relatively meager lineup of Best Actress possibilities, and that’s what gave me an idea about how to effectively address Nichols’ passing.

Burnett’s mean-spirited character was right. Having the right director can make all the difference to an actress, and Nichols certainly provided memorable showcases to some of Hollywood’s best. Not that it’s a contest, necessarily, but Nichols often brought out the best in actresses, particularly regarding awards consideration, more so, perhaps, than with actors though Richard Burton (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Al Pacino (Angels in America), and Clive Owen (Closer) might take exception to the notion. Consider the following:

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Elizabeth Taylor went for broke in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, snarling and growling all the way to her second Oscar victory as boozy Martha in the adaptation of Edward Albee’s Tony winner and Pulitzer contender. Whereas the Academy had–arguably–been generous with Taylor and her first Oscar for 1960’s BUtterfield 8, she more than proved her mettle with this demanding role, in which she played considerably older than  her actual age.

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Sandy Dennis won the Academy’s Best Supporting Actress statuette for her performance in the emotionally exhausting role of Honey, who spends an evening with Martha and George (played in the film by Taylor’s then real-life spouse, Richard Burton) that’s so volatile it causes the young woman to become physically ill. Dennis was an often mannered actress who truly needed the guidance of a confident director, and she got just that with Nichols. That he should direct two Oscar winners in only his first film ranks as a considerable achievement.

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Like Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bancroft might have seemed an unlikely choice to play brazen seductress Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s groundbreaking The Graduate. After all, Bancroft was still on the youngish side, approximately 36, not quite middle aged, and less than 10 years older than either Katharine Ross, as daughter Elaine (Best Supporting Actress nominee), or Dustin Hoffman, the titular recent college grad Mrs. Robinson so memorably seduces. Still, it was a career defining role for Bancroft who by that time had already won an Oscar for 1962’s The Miracle Worker. To clarify, Bancroft was bested for the 1967 trophy by Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’c Coming to Dinner).

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Nichols courted controversy with 1971’s Carnal Knowledge, playing hardball in an “obscenity” trial that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld the conviction of a theatre manager who exhibited the film though the court later reversed itself, attesting that the movie, however provocative, was not necessarily pornographic. Amid all the hoopla was and is Ann-Margret’s knockout performance as a needy high strung beauty Bobbie Templeton, whose relationship with priggish Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) proves her undoing. The actress, who up until that time had mostly played featherweight ingénues, immersed herself in the part of the damaged Bobbie, so much so that she reportedly pushed herself to the brink of a nervous breakdown. She won that year’s Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and was a favorite to take home the Oscar as well though she was outpaced in the final stretch by the equally memorable Cloris Leachman in Peter Bogdanovich’s shot in Texas, The Last Picture Show. To clarify,  Nicholson earned a Globe nod, but Margret was the sole Oscar nominee in a cast that also included Art Garfunkle, Candice Bergen, Carol Kane, and Rita Moreno.

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By the mid 1970s, Bette Midler had established herself as a campy, hotter-than-hot Grammy winning cabaret artist, and Hollywood came a-callin’, but Midler turned down one film property after another. Apparently. she had been approached by Nichols for the female lead in The Fortune, alongside no less than Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson, but for whatever reason, a deal never materialized and Nichols cast Stockard Channing in her first leading feature film role, fresh from her triumph in the Joan Rivers penned TV comedy The Girl Most Likely To. The Fortune, with Channing as a kidnapped heiress, was far from a hit though Channing garnered respectable notices and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Newcomer (or something equivalent), losing to Marilyn Hassett in The Other Side of the Mountain.

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After The Fortune, Nichols took a break from films but returned in fine form with 1983’s Silkwood, starring Meryl Streep (left) as the real-life union activist and nuclear power whistleblower who died under mysterious circumstances in 1974. Streep earned her third consecutive Best Actress nod for the role, a year after her singular triumph in Sophie’s Choice; meanwhile, Cher (right) scored a Golden Globe as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in the composite role of Silkwood’s housemate, a lesbian named Dolly. Stripped of her glamour and asked to play emotionally complex scenes, Cher proved a revelation in the film though the role is pathetic and ill-conceived, a rare false note in an otherwise exceptionally crafted film. Indeed, Nichols garnered his third Best Director nomination for the film as well. Nichols and Streep would work together again throughout the next two decades. To clarify: Cher lost the Oscar to Linda Hunt (The Year of Living Dangerously) while Streep was bested by Shirley MacLaine (Terms of Endearment).

In the early 1980s, Nichols was all over Broadway, directing Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Christine Baranski to Tony winning glory in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. Nichols was also instrumental in discovering comedian Whoopi Goldberg. The director had been given a tip about Goldberg’s downtown comic act and liked what he saw so much that he offered to help shape the material and mount a one-woman Broadway show. The rest is history. Whoopi was a smash, attracting the attention of no less than Steven Spielberg who catapulted Goldberg to movie stardom, and an Oscar nomination, for her big screen debut as the much maligned Celie in the adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer winning novel, The Color Purple. A few years later Goldberg nabbed the Best Supporting Oscar for her role as a psychic in the crowd pleasing Ghost.

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By the time Melanie Griffith appeared in Working Girl, she’d been acting in movies for more than a decade. having blazed across the screen as teenage sexpots in a trio of 1975 releases: The Drowning Pool. Night Moves, and Smile. The second generation starlet, daughter of The Birds star Tippi Hedren, earned raves in Brian DePalma’s Body Double and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild but under Nichols’ care, she acquired the aura of a star in the role of a corporate underling plotting to stay one step ahead of the competition, earning that year’s Golden Globe for comedy and scoring her one and only Oscar nod for Best Actress. The winner that year was Jodie Foster in The Accused. Unevenly mixing office and sexual politics, Working Girl proved hugely popular nonetheless, earning Academy nominations in  multiple categories including Best Picture and Best Director.

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Working Girl is at its best whenever Sigourney Weaver appears as Griffith’s sly fox of a boss. Weaver savors the comically sinsiter role, finessing each line for maximum punch. Her every word to Tess (Griffith) drips with condescension, veiled insults masked as helpful hints thanks to Weaver’s cultivated tone, her velvety delivery. Weaver scored rare double Oscar nods in the 88/89 Oscar race, competing against Griffith for Best Actress (per Gorillas in the Mist), and seemingly leading the pack in the race for Best Supporting Actress. History dictated that Weaver should have won the latter, consistent with previous double acting nominees, but Geena Davis took home the trophy instead.

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Joan Cusack competed against Weaver for the 1988 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Cusack played Griffith’s wisecracking best friend in Working Girl, her performance just short of a miracle given that Nichols did not do her any favors by having her appear with garish makeup and hair that even by 1980s big hair standards seemed ugly and exaggerated. Ultimately, the only Working Girl nominee to emerge victorious was singer-songwriter Carly Simon for “Let the River Run,” the anthemic track that opens and closes the film and provides the basis for the entirety of the score.

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After their lukewarm second collaboration, an adaptation of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Nichols and Streep reunited yet again for Postcards from the Edge, a a witty romp through Hollywood via Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel about substance abuse and recovery as seen through the lens of a second generation film actress. After a string of emotionally demanding–and Oscar nominated–roles, Streep had recently opted for somewhat lighter fare, and Fisher’s vehicle was a perfect fit despite the character’s desperate attempt to stay sober while filming a B-action picture. Ironic detachment, movie-biz inside jokes, and clever visuals help. Streep secured yet another Oscar nod though co-star Shirley MacLaine, as Streep’s dynamo of a mom, a still high-steppin’ musical comedy star (not unlike Fisher’s real life mom, Debbie Reynolds) was not as fortunate though she secured a Golden Globe nod. Ultimately, the Academy favored Kathy Bates (Misery) over Streep.

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Nichols was just about the perfect choice to direct 1998’s Primary Colors, based on the scandalous, reportedly fact based, novel that purports to take readers behind the scenes of Bill Clinton’s tumultuous first presidential campaign. John Travolta and Emma Thompson starred as the stand-ins for Bill and Hilary, respectively, but it was Kathy Bates (above), as a boisterous strategist who plays to win, that snagged the lion’s share of acclaim, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and taking home the SAG prize, among others. Nichols’ frequent partner Elaine May also earned an Oscar nomination for her script; however, both she and Bates went home empty-handed on Oscar night. Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) took Supporting Actress honors

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Before their work in Primary Colors, Emma Thompson and Nichols had worked together on 1993’s Best Picture nominee The Remains of the Day, a Merchant-Ivory production for which Nichols served as one of the producers. The Academy responded with nominations for both Thompson (a year after her Howards End victory) and Anthony Hopkins. In 2001, Nichols cast Thompson in HBO’s adaptation of Margaret Edson’s Pultizer winning play, Wit (also known as W; t). Not surprisingly, Thompson was in the running for just about every year-end award that season, including an Emmy (natch), but she was outmatched by no less than Judy Davis, strutting her stuff with considerable abandon as Judy Garland in the mini-series penned, in part, by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. Even so, Nichols actually earned an Emmy for his direction of the Edson project.

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Natalie Portman warranted an Academy Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance as an enigmatic stripper in 2004’s Closer, which also featured fellow Oscar nominee Clive Owen and headliners Jude Law and Julia Roberts. This love roundelay is not for the faint-hearted, drawing unavoidable comparisons to the users in Carnal Knowledge. Portman dazzled in an extended monologue, a showy, Oscar worthy  feat, but she lost the Oscar to Cate Blanchett (The Aviator) though she and Owen both secured Golden Globes.

Backing up a bit, Nichols defied all odds when he adapted Tony Kushner’s epic, Tony and Pulitzer prize winning Angels in America for  television via HBO in 2003. Jumping around time and space, Kushner’s two-part play (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika) runs approximately six hours and examines the early days of the AIDS crisis, mixing fictional characters (specifically Jewish and Mormons coming to terms with commitment and/or their sexuality) and such historical figures as Roy Cohn (who succumbed to AIDS) and Ethel Rosenberg. Although there had often been talk of bringing the epic to the big screen, going back a decade to when the play premiered, it seemed inevitable that TV would be a better fit, and Nichols directed with extraordinary care…

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Meryl Streep played three characters, including the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (pictured), in Angels in America and cleaned up at awards time, taking both the SAG award and an Emmy, among others.

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Mary Louise Parker also won an Emmy for Angels in America. She played the frustrated, Valium popping wife of a closeted Mormon. She and the drag queen known as Prior Walter (played by Emmy nominee Justin Kirk) frequently pop up in each other’s hallucinations.

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Thompson again, playing four roles in Angels, none more spectacular than the Angel whose entrance brings the first play to its thrilling climax. Thompson competed against Streep at the Emmys.

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Nichols, in front, accepting his Emmy for Angels in America. Behind him, the remarkable cast, including Emmy winner Jeffrey Wright (fifth from left), reprising the role for which he won also won a Tony, Emmy winner Al Pacino, as Roy Cohn (sixth from left), Emmy nominee Patrick Wilson (center), Emmy nominee Ben Shenkman (fourth from right), Emmy winner Mary Louise Parker (third from right), Emmy nominee Justin Kirk (second from right), and winner Meryl Streep (far right). Also featured is playwright Tony Kushner (fourth from left), who also won an Emmy for adapting his work.

Incredible, right? Angels, indeed. Thanks, Mike….

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