On Thanking Joanne Woodward…

18 Mar

“Joanne Woodward: I want to thank you for your encouragement and generosity…”

Allison Janney, accepting her Oscar (March 4, 2018)

 

Few if any of us were surprised when Allison Janney won this year’s Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, per her to-the-hilt portrayal of  bulldozing LaVona Golden, disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding’s ornery tank of a mom in I, Tonya. Golden is a big personality, to be sure, and Janney played her the only way she could be played: straight over the top, but deftly so, enough that the audience finds her absurdly comic. A feat, that.  In the weeks leading up to the Oscars, Janney took a commanding lead, leaving likely nearest competitor Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), well, back on the ice, let’s just say. Again, no surprise. Janney is a formidable talent whether  in the movies, TV (including Emmy winning roles on Mom and The West Wing), and even Broadway. Her stage credits, btw, include a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical for assuming the role of Violet, originally made famous by Lily Tomlin, in the musical adaptation of 9 to 5.

So, good for her, and, again, no surprise.

JWoodwardOscarGown57_58 (1)

When Joanne Woodward won Best Actress for 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve (as seen here with no less than John Wayne in the background), she rocked a home-sewn emerald-hued strapless gown. She reportedly spent $100.00 on the fabric and worked on it for two weeks. When asked to donate it to a museum in her home state of Georgia, she declined, explaining that she was almost as proud of her handiwork, designing and sewing the dress, as she was of her Oscar (qtd. in Wiley & Bona 290). Meanwhile, Hollywood style maven Joan Crawford was not amused, lamenting that, “by making her own clothes,” Woodward set “the cause of Hollywood glamour back twenty years” (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 291).  Sorry, J.C., but I like the gown, and have from the first time I saw a picture of it, and that was before I knew she made it herself.  IMAGE: http://therecessionista.com/oscar-dress-cost-100-joanne-woodwards-gown/

Yet for all that, Janney’s Oscar victory very much came with a surprise, at least to me, and that was the moment when she offered kind words to no less than Joanne Woodward during her acceptance speech.  Once upon a time, Janney was directed by Joanne Woodward’s husband (you may know him as legendary superstar Paul Newman) in a college production. That is how Janney and Woodward met, and it was Woodward who later encouraged the young actress to move to New York and audition for the Neighborhood Playhouse. Janney did just that, and the rest is history. Indeed, the actresses even worked together in 1993’s Hallmark Hall of Fame TV special, Blind Spot–for which Woodward earned an Emmy nod. I have seen/heard Janney deliver acceptance speeches at plenty of awards shows over the years (Emmys, SAGs), but I do not recall her ever mentioning Joanne Woodward.

Per the IMDb, Joanne Woodward is now 88. She hasn’t acted for either big or small screen in a few years, but her filmography speaks for itself.  Among the American name-brand actresses who rose to prominence at the same time as Woodward, Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn no doubt achieved the pinnacle of superstardom [1], but Woodward accomplished the feat of longevity, continuously acting in worthy projects in a career that spanned decades. Consider, if you will, the simple fact that Woodward’s four Oscar nominations date from 1957’s The Three Faces of Eve through 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge–with highlights along the way including 1968’s Rachel, Rachel, and 1973’s Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams. That’s not just four Oscar nominations. That’s four nominations in four decades, a nifty trick for anyone.

The 70s also brought acclaim, and a Cannes Best Actress award, for 1972’s The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds, and stellar TV work with the likes of Sybil (as controversial psychiatrist. Cornelia Wilbur) and See How She Runs, as a fortyish woman who enters the Boston Marathon; Woodward earned an Emmy nomination for the former and the actual trophy for the latter. To clarify, Woodward spent many years honing her craft back in the days of live TV, well before her big screen breakthrough in The Three Faces of Eve, and to TV she often returned in prestige projects.

The 1980s began with Emmy nominated Crisis at Central High (1981), depicting the 1957 integration of nine African American students into an otherwise all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas–with Woodward on board as the assistant principal, Elizabeth Huckaby, upon whose account the movie was based. In the same decade, Woodward won her second Emmy for 1985’s Do You Remember Love?, a for the times groundbreaking look at Alzheimer’s disease. In 1987, she attracted awards buzz for tackling the legendary role of Amanda Wingfield in husband Newman’s big screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ classic The Glass Menagerie, a recreation of a successful staging of the play for the Williamstown Theatre Festival sometime earlier. Woodward’s Amanda earned the actress an Independent Spirit nomination.

After the relative success of 1990’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Woodward continued in a variety of projects, such as providing delectable narration for Martin Scorsese’s heady imagining of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, portraying Tom Hanks’ stalwart, yet devastated, mother in Philadelphia (both in 1993). Once again, the small screen provided such opportunities as the aforementioned Blind Spot and yet another Emmy nominated turn–for an adaptation of Anne Tyler’s Pulitzer winning Breathing Lessons, opposite James Garner. Arguably, Woodward’s last role of consequence was in the 2005 mini-series Empire Falls, also translated from a Pulitzer novel, per Richard Russo. Woodward yet again earned an Emmy nod; more significantly, perhaps, is that Empire represents the last time Woodward appeared in a project with her longtime mate, Paul Newman–even if they did not necessarily share intersecting storylines. Newman passed away in 2008.

In between her awardworthy roles, Woodward enjoyed as many big screen hits as misses, no doubt, often though not always paired with Newman (many of which I’ve seen at least once); among them: A Kiss Before Dying, The Long Hot Summer, Rally Round the Flag Boys, From the Terrace, The Stripper, Paris Blues, A New Kind of Love, They Might Be Giants, along with forays into television, including All the Way Home and even a “fresh” teleadaptation of Come Back, Little Sheba along with The Shadow Box. Once again, per the IMDb, Woodward’s filmography, strictly as a performer, boasts an astonishing 79 credits, starting with 1952’s Tale of Tomorrow all the way up through 2013’s Lucky Them.

The Three Faces of Eve (1957):  Woodward had been working steadily in films, TV, and onstage since the early 1950s when, at age 27, she landed the plum role of a young woman with what was once known as Multiple Personality Disorder. First, Eve White, the despairing milquetoast housewife, slowly coming apart at the seams, with blackouts on top of debilitating headaches. Next, Eve Black, party girl and a threat to everything Eve White holds dear. Finally, Jane, not another splinter but the best of who Eve really is with the identities merged into one new and improved self.  To get there, the woman must first revisit the traumas of the past. Of course, we now know a lot more than we did back in 1957. First, as noted, no one uses the term Multiple Personality Disorder. The more correct, more descriptive term is Dissociative Identity Disorder, and even now it’s still a controversial diagnosis. Second, The Three Faces of Eve is  loosely based on an actual case study. Years after the film’s release, the subject was revealed as Chris Costner Sizemore. She wrote her own book, The Final Face of Eve, revealing far more struggles with reconciliation, years’ worth, that the film could scarcely portray. So, by today’s standards, The Three Faces of Eve seems heavy-handed and might prompt snickers as a result. Nonetheless, Woodward, for all that, is extraordinarily watchable; moreover, she proves her versatility in one bold stroke. Of course, she won an Oscar for such a demanding role, one ripe with conflict and emotional complexity–and against serious contenders: Deborah Kerr (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison [a personal fave]), Anna Magnani (Wild is the Wind), Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree County), and Lana Turner (Peyton Place). Interestingly, Woodward’s was her film’s sole nominee. And she won. She won without the p.r. boost of a film with multiple nominations to generate and maintain voter interest, reportedly the first in the Best Actress category since Bette Davis triumphed with 1935’s Dangerous. And we all know Davis’s first Oscar was a consolation prize for bad luck the previous season with the missed opportunity known as Of Human Bondage. No such overture for Woodward. She won because Academy members had their respective socks knocked-off. Clearly, this role primed Woodward for her later turn as Dr. Cornelia Wilbur, the woman who treated the similarly afflicted title character known as Sybil, an Emmy worthy turn by Sally Field, in the mid-70s TV adaptation.

Rachel, Rachel (1968) :  Woodward married Paul Newman in early 1958. It was his second marriage, her first. He was five years older.  Their partnership endured for 50 years, with multiple professional collaborations as well, including this 1968 feature film, Newman’s directorial debut; to clarify, he did not actually appear onscreen. Woodward plays, alas, a bit of a cliché, a small town “spinterish” school teacher who lives with her mother (Kate Harrington), but the story cackles with promise as Rachel enjoys a summer rendezvous with a former classmate, also a teacher (James Olson); he’s not exactly a scalawag, but he’s hardly a pillar of virtue either, and the romance, such that it is, does not end well though Rachel emerges with hope; elsewhere, Rachel experiences an awkward encounter with yet another teacher, played by the one and only Estelle Parson, fresh from her 1967 Best Supporting Actress victory in Bonnie & Clyde.  The cast is rounded by the great Geraldine Fitzgerald, as an evangelist,  and Nell Potts (daughter of Woodward and Newman), as a younger version of Rachel in flashbacks.  Rachel, Rachel not only earned Woodward her second Best Actress nod, 11 years after her triumph in The Three Faces of Eve, but also scored nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Parson again), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Stewart Stern, from the novel A Jest of God by Margaret Laurence). Still, love was not all around as the director’s branch overlooked Newman in his category even though he’d been so nominated for a Directors’ Guild award and even though he and Woodward won his and her accolades from the New York Film Critics. Of course, this kind of omission happens frequently, per the recent Oscars in which director Martin McDonagh was glossed over by the peers even though his film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was up for Best Picture in addition to three performance nods, resulting in wins for Best Actress (Frances McDormand) and Best Supporting Actor (Sam Rockwell). Back to Woodward.  Understandably livid, she threatened to boycott the ceremony in light of Newman’ snub, but she experienced a change of heart. Even so, 1968 was extremely competitive, with three of the five Best Actress nominees, including, again, Woodward, starring in Best Picture contenders. When Ingrid Bergman announced the winner, the results were a tie between Katherine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). The lineup also included Patricia Neal (The Subject of Roses) and Vanessa Redgrave (Isadora). Parson lost to Ruth Gordon (Rosemary’s Baby), and Oliver! snagged the Best Picture trophy.

This image, likely from a VHS edition, looks pretty much the same as the film’s poster, less all the critical blurbs and the immortal tag: “Beautiful. Frigid. She is called a Snow Queen.” How ominously alluring is that? (IMAGE: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15359180

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973): Hard indeed to explain the hold this movie had on me back in the day. Of course, I didn’t see it. I was an 8th grader living in Garland, Texas, at the time, for cryin’ out loud, and we didn’t have that many opportunities for moviegoing in our household; plus, while Garland was hardly a barren wasteland in regards to movie screens, I somehow think a movie, a character study about a 40ish woman, wife of an eye-doctor (still reeling from his own trauma) and mother to two grown–estranged–children, experiencing mid-life crisis, exacerbated by the sudden death of her mother, would have been playing at any of the neighborhood theatres. Nope, this would have meant destination movie-viewing in Dallas, and, again, why does an 8th grader in Garland, TX, circa 1973, want to see a movie called Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams?  Anyway, so this was Woodward’s third Oscar nod. Maybe it was her cool–frosty–glamour (see image on right), or maybe it was a clip featuring a dramatic scene, amid bustling New York streets, with veteran great–and Best Supporting Actress nominee–Sylvia Sidney that prompted my attention, but what mother would drive an 8th grader to see such a movie? At any rate, I caught up with it decades and decades later and like the landmark An Unmarried Woman (1978) starring the late great Jill Clayburgh, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, looks hopelessly dated now, especially in its treatment of, gasp, homosexuality. Nonetheless, when Oscar time rolled around, Woodward, who’d already claimed Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics, among other accolades, appeared to be neck and neck with no less than Barbra Streisand, iconic in the extremely popular The Way We Were.  That’s my recollection at least. I do not remember Marsha Mason (Cinderella Liberty) being lauded as a heavyweight contender, in spite of wonderful reviews (and a Golden Globe). I also do not remember so much Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) and Glenda Jackson (A Touch of Class) generating considerable heat even though they both starred in Best Picture contenders. No, I’m pretty certain the heavy betting was on Woodward and Streisand.  The winner? Jackson, generally perceived as a surprise if not an upset. She had won three years previously for Ken Russell’s beguiling–artsy–adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. A Touch of Class was a light, frankly adult comedy about a married man, American, (played by George Segal), who embarks on what is supposed to be a no-strings affair with Brit Jackson.  At any rate, Jackson didn’t attend that year’s ceremony. She feigned work obligations, perhaps underscoring the idea that even the lady herself didn’t feel she had much of a chance. Sidney, meanwhile, lost to child actress Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon; meanwhile, please consider the following. First, the film was written, presumably with Woodward in mind, by Stewart Stern, who also scripted Rachel, Rachel. (Stewart also tackled the job of adapting Sybil for the small screen.) The film was originally titled Death of a Snow Queen, which is problematic enough. Woodward, reportedly found the resulting title too generic (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 484). I won’t disagree, but I also find it part of the movie’s mystique. The director,  btw, is none other than Gilbert Cates, with hefty credentials though perhaps best known as the producer of the annual Oscar telecast during the years in which the show was revitalized by the presence of frequent host, Billy Crystal.

Behold the former Miramax’s tricky marketing ploy. Cast middle-aged superstars in leading roles and then obscure their faces in the promotional materials, lest anyone confuse the film with, say, Driving Miss Daisy. IMAGE: By POV – Impawards, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6196057

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (1990): I have written about this movie at least once over the years, most notably when I looked back on the films of the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate. This is without question my favorite Joanne Woodward performance, and, I believe, a far worthier choice for that year’s Best Actress Oscar than Kathy Bates (Misery), and I like Bates. A lot. But I find that 99% of the time in Misery Bates’ portrayal of a deranged–fanatical–caretaker plays like, well, a performance, a feat of acting  calisthenics. But enough about Bates.

Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, which once again, pairs Woodward with Newman is based on two novels by Evan S. Connell. He published Mrs. Bridge in 1959, and Mr. Bridge followed in 1969 though, to clarify, each novel reportedly tells the same basic story, save for difference in point of view; moreover, the stories are set much earlier, beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1940s. Connell long went on record that the Bridges were based on his own parents, an affluent couple raising their children amid Kansas City, Missouri’s, privileged country-club class. Mr. Bridge, seemingly having no patience for emotional displays (though not without moments of hard-earned tenderness), is a lawyer of some renown while Mrs. Bridge is cheery, gracious, a bit naïve, and, like her husband, prone to self-protection in the form of good ole Midwestern reserve. Okay, let’s be clear. The lead actors are probably a bit too old, honestly, to be cast in their roles. When the story begins, at least one of their three children is still in high school; the other is soon off to college. Teenagers, right? 40ish, right? Mid-forties, maybe? But the stars were 60ish when they shot the movie, so what gives? Well, it works because one gets the impression that, at least by today’s standards, the Bridges thought and acted, well, you know, old.  Fuddy-duddys. Plus, Woodward and Newman look great, all things considered between the hair, makeup and lighting crew–and with Woodward’s eyes being especially clear and bright.

Here’s the thing, and I think I have written about this at least once, previously. As Mrs. Bridge, Woodward brings to mind a high school classmate’s sort of eternally perplexed mom. Stay at home wife and mother, excellent homemaker, dabbles in art-classes, defers to the husband even when he is being negligent (if not outright cruel), dotes on her unforgiving kids, oh, and, of course, passive aggressive to a fare-thee-well. Still an essentially good and kind person but almost unable to help herself from, at least, appearing ridiculous when, perhaps, she sees herself as sensible. It’s all there in one devastating performance, one without a single false note and several more-than-right ones.  To clarify, it’s a subtle portrayal with few opportunities for histrionics, and that may very well prove problematic for fans accustomed to bigger-means-better acting demonstrations. Among the choices bits are:

  • An especially awkward–painful–moment during son Robert Sean Leonard’s Eagle Scout ceremony. (Again, it plays as uncomfortably true to life based on my own observation.)
  • India Bridge (Woodward) sounding positively daft as she explains what she knows, or doesn’t know, about voting to her flighty pal (Blythe Danner) during, what else, art class.
  • Back to Leonard: late in the movie, Woodward can’t stop herself from resorting to the strategies she once used to motivate her son when he was a small child; the effect is heartbreaking and, again, maybe even embarrassing.

The films of Merchant-Ivory were noteworthy because they afforded compelling talents, such as Woodward and Newman, to practice their craft in prestigious projects, but they did so in films justifiably celebrated for richly detailed production design and costume design–on, by all accounts, miniscule budgets and, even more miraculously, breakneck shooting schedules.  Mr. and Mrs. Bridge was no different with locations ranging from Kansas City, Missouri, to Canada, and Paris, France. The grueling pace prompted Woodward to describe the experience as “tough” and explain that after working for 14 hours at a stretch, she was ready to slip into “the tub with a glass of sherry and two Advils” (qtd. in Wiley and Bona 790). Good story. Another good story is that I have great confidence that the Kansas City home that houses the Bridge family is now a popular B&B, the very one that Michael and I stayed in when we finally made it to the beautiful, fountain-filled city. Kind of surreal, that, and definitely a coincidence.

So that’s that. 4 Oscar nods, for Woodward, including one win (on the first try) spread out over 4 decades.  Maybe one day, you should scroll through her entire list of accolades, per the IMDb. The awards and nominations are far more than I can list here.

So, I began writing this piece about a week after the Oscars, most of it in one quick burst, but I got lazy over spring break and then stopped completely after I learned some discouraging news about a friend who’d been very ill. Still, I managed to finish at last.

Now, especially, all things considered, I want to thank Allison Janney for inspiring me to write about Woodward in the first place. Now, especially, I am grateful for the opportunity to pay tribute to the great Joanne Woodward while she is still very much with us.

Thanks, Joanne.

[1] Yes, technically, Elizabeth Taylor was a working actress, a child star, well before moviegoers had ever heard of Woodward, but Taylor’s most successful career stretch began as a young woman in the 1950s, comparable to Woodward in that regard. Indeed, as noted, Taylor’s first Oscar nomination was for 1957’s Raintree County, the same year that Woodward triumphed with The Three Faces of Eve.

Wiley, Mason and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards, 10th Anniversary Edition.  Ballantine, 1993.

Janney’s interview in Forbes, detailing her early days and the Woodward-Newman connection: https://www.forbes.com/sites/russespinoza/2018/02/18/why-oscar-nominee-allison-janney-never-cashed-in-her-favor-from-paul-newman/#74f7e0ba4a3a

 

 

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That’s a Wrap: The Shape of Oscar at 90

6 Mar

So how is Oscar holding up at 90? Pretty well, I’d say. Last night’s annual star-studded bash had a little something for everyone with women breaking new ground, people of color breaking new ground, nominees almost as old as Uncle Oscar himself and one nominee hardly old enough to remember back when Frances McDormand won her first Best Actress Oscar; plus, the celebrated movies included blockbusters (Get Out, Dunkirk, and Coco) along with middling hits and critics’ darlings (The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri) and the occasional curiosity piece (The Phantom Thread). How did it all go down?

First, I’d like to thank host Jimmy Kimmel for being an affable host and for a mostly glitch free evening.

Per tradition, the show began with an award in the supporting categories. In this case, that would be Best Supporting Actor. The victor? No surprise: it’s Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Well, he was clearly the frontrunner going into the final stretch as evidenced by such high profile wins as the Screen Actor Guild award. Good for him. I’ve been a fan for awhile, going back to at least Box of Moonlight, opposite John Turturro (then the more recognizable of the two) in the mid 1990s.  Many of us truly believed his role in 2013’s The Way, Way Back would be his ticket to the Oscars, but nope. So, he wins on his first try. It’s a little surprising because his nominated co-star Woody Harrelson (to clarify, in the same category) had what appeared to be the more nuanced role, a conflicted police chief. Rockwell comes on strong right from the beginning, but the character–Harrelson’s hot headed, corrupt right hand man–slowly reveals himself to be more than he originally seems though it takes awhile before the layers begin showing themselves.

The early Best Supporting Actor frontrunner, btw, was no less than Willem Dafoe in his third run for The Florida Project. I confess that as much as I wanted to see Dafoe’s film, I somehow missed the connection and never saw it. Rather, I have not seen it yet. I know it’s available for home viewing, and I intend to make that happen soon. That noted, I am a huge Dafoe fan, and I was and am thrilled that this role has brought him renewed acclaim. To back up, Dafoe was previously nominated for Platoon (1986) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000).

All that aside, I must likewise confess that I was not-so-secretly rooting for Christopher Plummer, mesmerizing as late billionaire J. Paul Getty in fact-based All the Money in the World, detailing the bizarre story of a kidnapping gone wrong in the early 1970s. Maybe I’m just in love with the backstory. For the uninitiated, Plummer took over the role of the seemingly heartless tycoon who refused to pay his grandson’s ransom, a role originally enacted by two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey. To avoid backlash regarding sexual misconduct allegations against Spacey, who portrayed Getty with heavy prosthetics (as Getty was 80 at the time of the events, and Spacey is in his late 50s), director Ridley Scott turned to Plummer who, on the eve of  his 88th birthday, stepped in, well after  production had wrapped, for  a flurry of reshoots–all in a matter of weeks. This whole turnaround presented a mad dash in order to complete and edit new footage into the existing cut in order to roll the film out for its scheduled December premiere. Whew! That along makes Plummer a supporting player above all reproach on the surface of it, but that’s not the whole picture. Damn, he’s good in this role, y’all. Whereas early clips featured Spacey playing Getty with a slightly ironic bent (often his worst tic as an actor), Plummer plays it straight: dead on the inside, barely human anymore as he is consumed by his wealth and creature comforts. Of course, we all remember Plummer as the stern disciplinarian transformed by love in 1965’s Oscar winning behemoth The Sound of Music, but that was different. Also, it’s been a few years since Plummer won an Oscar, at long last, for Beginners. As an aging gay man coming out of the closet, Plummer was giddy, delightful. All the Money in the World is miles removed. Perhaps if the film as a whole had been better received, Plummer might have walked away a two-time winner, but it floundered at the box office, lost in the holiday shuffle led by the likes of the latest Star Wars epic and the Jumanji reboot.

Interestingly, Donald Sutherland, one of this year’s honorary recipients (featured in a clip from a previous non-televised ceremony) is set to play the elder Getty in a tele-adaptation of the same story. I can imagine Sutherland in the role even if I can’t imagine that he will obliterate my memory of Plummer.

Best Supporting Actress? Again, not a surprise. Allison Janney, already a multiple Emmy winner, took home the award for playing controversial ice skater Tonya Harding’s domineering battle-axe of a mom in I, Tonya. Again, Janney had won the last several major awards of the season though Laurie Metcalf seemed well positioned for playing the well-meaning mess of a mom–to Saoirse Ronan’s titular Lady Bird. Janney’s hardened “LaVonna” is so far gone that she makes Plummer’s tightfisted billionaire look like St. Francis of  Assisi. I’ll give Janney all the credit in the world, so to speak, for perfectly capturing LaVonna’s mannerisms, as seen in actual news footage both old and new, but I’m a bit surprised Academy voters took the bait because the role is so completely over the top. Not much subtlety. Of course, the Academy has long favored obvious acting, and this falls squarely within that realm. The most touching moment in Janney’s speech was when she thanked Oscar winner Joanne Woodward, all but disappeared these days, a mentor from her early years as a struggling actress. Woodward is an acting giant in my book, so I find it was cool that Janney reached out to her in such a gracious, public, manner.

This was certainly an exciting category. Historic, even. For instance,  Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) is now tied with Viola Davis, last year’s supporting actress winner (Fences), as the most nominated Black actress in Academy history. Of course, Spencer won for a memorable turn in 2011’s blockbuster hit The Help and was back in the race for last year’s smash Hidden Figures (both Best Picture nominees, btw). This is her third race, and now in a Best Picture winner; moreover, she is now the first Black actress to enjoy back-to-back nominations. Gotta love that. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Spencer is a national treasure. (Oh, and Denzel Washington, of Roman J.Israel, Esq, is enjoying his 9th nomination, 8 for acting, 1 for producing, but, importantly, he is also now the first Black actor with back-to-back nods, owing to 2016’s Fences.) You know who else made history in the Best Supporting Actress category? Mary J. Blige, that’s who. She is now the first performer nominated for acting AND songwriting in the same year. To clarify, she appeared in the indie film Mudbound, for which she also c0-composed and performed the Oscar nominated tune, “Mighty River.” Wow. Good for her.

I did not have a clear preference in this category though I must say that Lesley Manville tickled me in The Phantom Thread as Daniel Day Lewis’s no-nonsense manager/sister. It’s a quiet performance, save for an especially dexterous TKO in the final round, per the featured clip during the presentation of nominees. All in all, a delicious take on Judith Anderson’s oddly butch housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Best Picture winner, Rebecca (per Daphne Du Maurier’s celebrated gothic). I also appreciated Metcalf’s tightly wound performance, especially an airport sequence full of such confoundingly conflicting emotions it’s a miracle that anyone could play it. But, of course, we know that Metcalf is a seasoned veteran with multiple Emmys and a Tony. Astonishing. Elsewhere, I wish Lily James had garnered more traction for her key role as Winston Churchill’s stenographer in Darkest Hour. She serves as the audience’s surrogate in the film and delivers a memorable performance, both nuanced and sharply observed.

WOW! A standing ovation as James Ivory takes the stage to accept an Oscar for adapting Call Me by Your Name. Amazing to see the 89 year-old earn his first ever Academy award after decades of quality filmmaking in tandem with producer Ismail Merchant and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvalla, both since departed. In their heyday, with Ivory on board as director, the trio crafted some of the most acclaimed films of the 1980s and 1990s, most famously A Room with a View (1986), Howards End (1992), and Remains of the Day (1993), all of them nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay–with Jhabvala earning trophies for A Room with a View and Howards End. Now, Ivory has his own Oscar, and, yes, goody-goody gum-drops to him for writing a movie that has dazzled younger generations of moviegoers who might not be familiar with his previous works. As Ivory so eloquently stated, we all remember what it’s like to fall in love for the first time, hopefully, no matter our orientation. Indeed. Love is love.

Still, this year’s Best Adapted Screenplay roster was historic as well for the inclusion of co-scripter Dee Rees (with Virgil Williams) for Mudbound, which she also directed. Rees is the first Black woman ever nominated for screenwriting, in either of the two screenplay categories. In 2018. 90 years.

Likewise, YOWZA to Jordan Peele for earning Best Original Screenplay honors for Get Out, his first produced feature length script, which we know he also directed and produced. Get Out was not only one of 2017’s biggest hits, it was also 2017’s most audacious, most talked about film–and all of that begins with the screenplay. Always. Good for Mr. Peele, whose win is also historic in that he is the first Black screenwriter to win in this category, and only the fourth Black screenwriter to be honored in either category, coming on the heels of Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney for 2016’s Moonlight’s adaptation, which, of course, went on to capture Best Picture honors. Peele’s victory was especially sweet given the tight competition, meaning Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water), Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani (The Big Sick). I don’t think anyone would have complained, too much, if one of the others had won. Each brought something fresh and unique to the party, but Peele is the clear standout, and his victory is just.

So Gary Oldman wins Best Actor for playing legendary British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, again, no surprise, and doesn’t he look and sound like such a distinguished statesman at the podium, and I believe his speech to be sincere, heartfelt.  How touching to thank his 99 year old mother. Such a change, such a change. I didn’t love Darkest Hour, but I recognize Oldman’s brilliance, sure.

Meanwhile, Timothy Chalamet, all of 22 years of age (but not the youngest ever Best Actor nominee), should have plenty of chances if his enthusiastically acclaimed performance in Call Me By Your Name is any indication. What a year this young man has enjoyed. Besides a Best Actor nomination, he appeared in TWO Best Picture nominees, the first being Call Me By Your Name; Lady Bird being the second. Btw, the youngest ever Best Actor nominee is Jackie Cooper, all of 9 years old when he was nominated for 1931’s Skippy. Mickey Rooney follows at 19 for 1939’s Babes on Broadway. The youngest winner is Adrien Brody. He was 29, but just days from turning 30, when he triumphed for 2002’s fact-based Holocaust drama The Pianist.

Because Oldman’s victory long seemed predetermined, I never entertained the idea that there might be an upset even though strong cases could be made for the two Daniels: Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Daniel Day Lewis (The Phantom Menace). Furthermore, I am beginning to wonder what Tom Hanks has to do to earn another Oscar nod, given his work in recent Best Picture nominees, Captain Phillips (2013), Bridge of Spies (2015), and, now, The Post, not to mention the all-but shut-out Sully (2016). To clarify, I am not an ardent Hanks fan, and I respect the Academy for resisting the knee-jerk nomination, but even I’m surprised that he has had such a dry spell. To clarify, his last nod was for 2000’s Cast Away, and, neighbor, that’s a mighty long time. Have a bowl of chili on me, Tom.

All that aside, I wonder why there hasn’t been more backlash regarding the omission of Doug Jones, for playing the amphibious creature at the heart of Shape of Water. His was not a complete CGI concoction, but an intricate blend of actual footage with Jones in costume, under all that makeup, with effects added digitally; plus some motion capture.  See Gary Oldman isn’t the only actor to transform himself for a role.

Just for the record, to clarify, I’m still all about Jeremy Renner in Wind River.

Moving on…

For me, the highlight of the evening was seeing Jodie Foster and Jennifer Lawrence together onstage, the latter a knockout in an exquisitely fitted shimmering gown, presenting Best Actress, that is, presenting Best Actress specifically to the one and only Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for my money THE performance of the year in ANY category. Onscreen and in real life, McDormand cuts through all the b.s. and  speaks her truth.  And what a mighty truth that is, especially when she asks every single female nominee in the performance hall to stand up and bask in the moment, what we hope is a true moment of change, of true change, not just at the Oscars, but in the business and culture of movies. Oh, and this is McDormand’s second Oscar, and what I love about it so much is that she is not playing a tragic or defeated character. Flawed, yes, but not a victim, not really. Certainly not a whiner.

I just dig her, y’all, and her feistiness, that loopiness that allows her to make a spectacle and ask all the women in the audience to bask in the victory of just being able to work and to succeed in an extremely cut-throat masculine-oriented business.

Did I have a second choice for Best Actress? A backup I could live with just in case the odds somehow turned against McDormand? In a word, no. Not even. That noted, Margot Robbie performs heroically in I, Tonya–and props to her business savvy as one of the film’s lead producers.  I also must once again plug the remarkable Vicky Krieps as DDL’s muse and mistress of manipulation in The Phantom Thread. No, she wasn’t among the Academy’s picks, but she more than holds her own, acting opposite a true living legend (three time Oscar winner Daniel Day Lewis). Once she gets her mojo going, she plays to win, and the effect is thrilling. Hopefully, we’ll see her again soon.

Technical awards?

  • What a great thing for costume designer Mark Bridges to win for The Phantom Thread. Oh my, Bridges had been my favorite all along. I love his witty take on 1950s couture, London style. Plus, he won the jet-ski, the reward for the evening’s shortest speech.
  • Oh, and congratulations to all the sound designers, engineers, and mixers on Dunkirk for sweeping BOTH sound categories: Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. Good job.
  • Likewise, Dunkirk’s editor, Lee Smith. He certainly rose to the challenge of Christopher Nolan’s far flung war narrative with criss-crossing storylines, on land, on water, and in the air.
  • This is Smith’s first win after two previous nods, including Nolan’s The Dark Knight, but, oddly, not the same director’s Inception though it scored multiple tech awards. Anyway, it’s all good now, right Lee?
  • Kudos, as well, to the design team led by Paul D. Austerberry, along with Shane Vieau and Jeffrey A. Melvin (as listed per the IMDb) for their masterful job on The Shape of Water. Awash in sea-green and cold-war industrial elements, the movie simply does not look like any other. The look of it contributes to the story itself. Incredibly, the members of this team are first time nominees. Nicely done, fellas.
  • Composer Alexandre Desplat won Oscar number two for his score to The Shape of Water, a few years since first winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel. He’s earned a total of 9 nods in just about a decade, going back The Queen (2006).
  • Of course, Desplat’s victory comes at the expense of Johnny Greenwood for The Phantom Thread. Greenwood, perhaps most famously known as a member of the rock band Radiohead, also scored Phantom Thread director Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood (2007) though his celebrated composition was disqualified on a technicality. For many fans, Greenwood was the obvious, and seemingly unbeatable frontrunner for his lush new score, but, alas, that is not to be.
  • At long last, cinematographer Roger Deakins wins a competitive Oscar–for the Blade Runner reboot. I loved the original. Never saw the latest installment. I can’t criticize something I haven’t seen, and I won’t. But I am a Deakins fan, and have been rooting for him, oh, about 13 other times, especially for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Skyfall.
  • Here again, though, as thrilled as I am for Deakins at long last, I really thought this one was destined for either Dunkirk (Hoyte van Hoytema) or The Shape of Water (Dan Lausten) though kudos to Rachel Hudson (Mudbound), the first ever female cinematography nominee.

And who doesn’t love Disney-Pixar’s Coco, the delightfully colorful animated flick that celebrates love, family, culture, and music, music, music? This was an easy call for Best Animated Feature.  Bravo to one and all. I’m also pleased to report that, despite a live performance that began a bit on the wobbly side, Coco‘s “Remember Me” won Best Song honors as well. What I find especially appealing about this specific award is that recipients, the team of Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, can now bask in the, what, relief of knowing they will no longer be known only as the duo behind “Let It Go,” the monster–inescapable–hit from 2013’s Frozen. I still love “Let It Go,” but, well, it would be unfortunate if its popularity proved too overwhelming for its creators.

Michael and I saw Coco together, and we both loved it. We also loved The Boss Baby, which also competed for Best Animated Feature. There was never any doubt in my mind that Coco looked like a winner, but I’m surprised at how many eyebrows were raised at the inclusion of Boss Baby among the nominees. Really? It was a HUGE hit, not as big as Coco, obviously, but it was also hilarious, maybe the funniest movie we saw last year. I was thrilled by its nomination even though, again, it was hardly a threat to Coco‘s domination.

So, this is how it looked in the Best Picture race. 9 nominees and out of those, 7 won in at least one category, such  that:

  • Call Me by Your Name -1
  • Get Out -1
  • The Phantom Thread -1
  • Darkest Hour – 2 (including Best Makeup…for Oldman’s stunning transformation)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2
  • Dunkirk – 3
  • The Shape of Water – 4

This means that, after months of build up, Greta Gerwig’s much admired Lady Bird goes home empty-handed, and that is a little sad; likewise, The Post, its profile boosted by the likes of stars Meryl Streep and Tim Hanks, led by director Stephen Spielberg (each claiming multiple Oscar victories in the past), also goes home with nothing.

Of course, the two biggest awards of the evening, Best Picture and Best Director, went to Guillermo del Toro for his The Shape of Water, hardly a surprise. But 4 wins from a pool, so to speak, of 13 nods is hardly a sweep. The director’s urban fairy tale has certainly connected with scads upon scads of moviegoers, not to mention critics, and I applaud the efforts of one and all, especially Guillermo del Toro for his dogged determination to pursue his vision to its full realization and the art of persuasion it took to make that happen. Plus, kudos to the director for coaxing a trio of Oscar nominated performances: Sally Hawkins (Best Actress), Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress), and Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins).  But you know who else coaxed a trio of Oscar nominated performances, two of which went on to win in their categories? Martin McDonagh of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, that’s who. And he wasn’t even nominated, though, to clarify, the movie was also up for Best Picture. You know who else spoke about the grit and determination it took to make one of the year’s most buzzworthy films? Best Original Screenplay winner Jordan Peele (Get Out), that’s who–and his movie, improbable as it might have once seemed, actually had widespread appeal. My final thought is that I’m glad so many people enjoy The Shape of Water because it is quite lovely, but I don’t love it. I like it. But only as a friend.

And that’s the shape of Oscar at 90.

Stay tuned for the fashion gallery.

Thanks for your consideration.

For Your Consideration: Best McActress

24 Feb

Fair warning. I’m pretty sure I’ll be utterly destroyed if Frances McDormand loses Best Actress for her whopper of a performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.

As Mildred, the grieving mother who is out for justice first, then vengeance come what may, McDormand fully embraces the challenge of delving into the psyche of a damaged, if understandably so, character. Mildred wants something to hold onto, as we all do. Before the movie ever begins, she has suffered through her daughter’s horrific murder, so soon on the heels of a marriage gone sour. Bad to worse. Worse to terrible. And Ebbing Missouri’s law enforcement is either terminally stumped, disinterested, or lazy. Why isn’t more being done, meaning find the perp, make an arrest, make a case, and make it stick? Maybe she can shame the force by leasing titular billboards. But her rage–laden as it is with guilt–blinds her to some harsh truths. Oh, and that mouth of hers. Good gawd.

Since I began writing this piece, McDormand has triumphed over the likes of Hawkins, Ronan, and Robbie for top honors at the British Academy Awards. Could this portend accolades to come? IMAGE: http://thecabot.org/event/three-billboards-outside-ebbing-missouri-2

This is a full, rich characterization, and it marks a triumphant return to star status for one of this country’s most formidable actresses after years of sharply observed supporting roles, per nominated perfs in Almost Famous (2000) and North Country (2005). As an actress of “a certain age,” McDormand found greater opportunities in TV, per her Emmy winning Olive Kittridge, when top tier film roles turned sparse. Of course, she is most famously known for her Oscar winning spin as Fargo‘s Sheriff Marge Gunderson, the unfailingly polite but super-sharp sleuth trying to solve a grisly homicide. So iconic was McDormand as no-nonsense–and quite pregnant–Marge that the character was hailed by the American Film Institute (AFI) as one of the 50 Best Heroes in its 2003 Heroes and Villains retrospective. (To clarify, McDormand’s first Oscar nod, well before Fargo, was also for a supporting role, per 1988’s Mississippi Burning.)

Of course, naysayers point out that McDormand already has an Oscar, right? True, but Fargo was more than 20 years ago (1996), and her new character is worlds removed from Marge in multitudinous ways, but McDormand has audience goodwill on her side, not to mention incredible skill and/ or range, so moviegoers are willing to give her a chance even during Mildred’s darkest hours.

McDormand, by virtue of her SAG, Golden Globe, and Critics’ Choice awards, along with other high profile wins seems comfortably situated here; however, Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) loom as awfully close competitors. English born Hawkins, whose previous credits include such critical darlings as Happy-Go-Lucky, Made in Dangenham, and Maudie, is a previous Best Supporting Actress nominee for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013). In Allen’s update on Tennessee Williams’ legendary A Streetcar Named Desire, Hawkins effectively plays “Stella” to Cate Blanchett’s “Blanche,” with, of course, the latter actually snaring that year’s Best Actress Oscar. But I digress. Back in 2013, Hawkins could have hardly hoped to undo the momentum that had propelled Lupita Nyong’o to frontrunner status per her devastating portrayal of tortured slave in 12 Years a Slave. Now, Hawkins is a good position to capture the prize by virtue of appearing of in the year’s most nominated film. Simply, the odds are in her favor. Plus, she scores points for degree of difficulty in that her character is mute, meaning that Hawkins has to bring the character to life without the benefit of being understood via spoken dialogue. Historically, similar roles have scored well with Academy voters, per Holly Hunter’s universally acclaimed turn as the Victorian era mail order bride in The Piano, what was that, whoah, more than 20 years ago. Hawkins has a wonderfully expressive face, and that helps make her and her character endearing; moreover, while she did not nail some of the more recent high profile awards, she has hardly gone home empty handed the rest of the season, per the likes of the New York and Los Angeles critics’ voting.

Meanwhile, Lady Bird‘s Saorise Ronan thrives as a kind of acting genius. All of 23 years old, soon to be 24, she is enjoying her third Oscar race.  She clinched a Best Supporting Actress nod 10 years ago, yes, when she was 13 going on 14. The film was Atonement. In her first true attention grabbing role, she played Kiera Knightley’s horrid little sister. Okay, I get it, she was a child and did not, could not, have understood the consequences of her actions…but…shudders.  Atonement wasn’t the Irish lass’s first gig, but it was a game changer, for sure. Two years ago, Ronan was back, all grown up, as a young Irish woman trying to build a life for herself in 1950s New York, per Brooklyn. What a magnificent film. I don’t know a single person who saw it who didn’t love it. If only she had won. Now, a number of enthusiasts believe the Academy might, well, you know, atone for slighting Ronan previously and while this appears a tempting scenario, it’s not one that fully registers. First, it’s hardly as though Ronan was actually robbed two years ago. The trophy went to Brie Larson, the widely hailed and long acknowledged frontrunner, for Room, an extremely intense film about a young woman who’d been kidnapped, raped, and held hostage along with the resulting child for several years before emerging uneasily if heroically. Ronan’s film and Larson’s films were both Best Picture contenders, and almost no one thinks Larson wasn’t deserving even if we preferred Ronan. It wasn’t an injustice, so why would the Academy feel compelled to rectify? Plus, Ronan is still young. She has a great future and undoubtedly more opportunities. Sigh. Part of me just cannot grasp the idea that Lady Bird is  truly significant achievement, so an Oscar seems a bit of a stretch. Still, after years of seeing male coming of age stories, such as 2014’s acclaimed Boyhood, it is nice to finally see a young woman’s coming of age story being hailed as more than a mere “chick flick.” Plus, she definitely had to learn a convincing American accent as anyone who has ever heard her  Irish lilt can attest, moreover, she has fun and owns the role of the mouthy high school misfit even though, again, she’s nearing her mid 20s. But does she go to the same emotional places as McDormand, or even Hawkins? That might just be a matter of interpretation.

Next on the list is the fabulous, Aussie born Margot Robbie, reinventing herself as disgraced former Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding in I, Tonya. Okay, I first noticed her in the short-lived but tremendously fun TV show, Pan-AM, a few years back. Soon, she began making a name for herself in the likes of Focus, The Legend of Tarzan, and, most especially Suicide Squad, 2016’s horribly reviewed comic book movie that survived all naysayers to earn a whopping 325 domestically (per Box Office mojo) with Robie’s Harley Quinn seemingly the only cast member to break from the pact, becoming an Internet and Halloween sensation  and earning a Saturn nod. Now, in I, Tonya she has once again performed the impossible, that is, humanizing a true-life tabloid perennial that many Americans, at least those old enough to remember Harding from her heyday in the late ’80s and up to the mind ’90s, had long written off as simple white trash. But Harding, for all her faults and/or bad decisions, is more than her publicity might suggest, which is not to say that the filmmakers excuse anything she does. The objective is show another side to the story of two top competitive figure skaters and the “rivalry” that created an international furor when someone in Harding’s camp assaulted perceived “Golden Girl” Nancy Kerrigan with the intent not to kill but to render the latter unable to complete in the 1994 Olympics.  It’s an interesting take, and Robbie nails it, including some, not all, of the skating sequences and trying on an American accent. For all that, my guess is fascination with the darkly comic I, Tonya has peaked already and ultra glam Robbie will have to be content with her nomination and a Broadcast Critics Choice award for Best Actress in a Comedy. Likewise, I’m not sure the Academy wants its awards to effectively serve as Harding’s redemption ceremony.

The final nominee in this bunch is none other than the woman Sylvester Stallone once dubbed, “Marvelous Meryl Streep.”  In The Post, Steep plays Katherine Graham, the formidable publisher of the Washington Post; this, back in the days (late 60s early to mid 70s) when the paper’s coverage of such scandals as the Pentagon Papers and Watergate propelled it to the forefront of a new level of investigative journalism–in an era when newspapers were still considered integral to the daily landscape. Graham, of course, had much to prove at a time when women were, quite simply, not running empires.  She inherited hers in a curious fashion. Her father had been the publisher and on his death he left it, not to Mrs. Graham–but her husband, and it was his passing that ultimately put the paper in her control. The movie is as much about Ms. Graham adjusting to her role in as it is about D.C. skullduggery. Fascinating stuff, and Streep plays it to the hilt, but she is not enjoying the momentum of her co-nominees in this her 21st Oscar race, a stupendously colossal achievement that puts Streep in a league solely her own. At this point, with 21 nods and 3 wins, it seems almost no one will ever catch up with her in the record books. She won an early prize this season, from the National Board of Review, but excitement has cooled as has enthusiasm for the picture as a whole even though it is, yes, a Best Picture nominee.

Funny, that. Four of this year’s Best Actress nominees, Streep, McDormand, Hawkins, and Ronan, all appear in Best Picture nominees–a kind of rarity in that women are not always as well represented in the Best Picture category–or a film’s sole nomination might only go to its leading actress. The gig this year is so tight that there was no room for the likes of relative newcomer Vicky Krieps (a “wow” opposite Daniel Day Lewis in Best Picture nominee The Phantom Thread) in addition to Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), or Michelle Williams (especially laudable in All the Money in the World), along with Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner) and even Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman). We all win. Moviegoers win. All of these vibrant actresses win.

Thanks for Your McConsideration…

Best Director: The Vision is the Thing

11 Feb

I have not had any qualms expressing my view over the last several years regarding the Academy’s decision to expand the roster of potential Best Picture candidates to 10. I believe the official ruling is no less than 5, per decades of tradition, but no more than 10. I guess there is some predetermined rubric to measure what that means exactly, whether the cut-off is, 8, 9, or 10, for example. All I know is that doing so only makes the Best Picture race less, not more, exciting because the race becomes looser, not tighter.

That noted, the Academy has made some excellent choices this year, nominating a wide array of films, from flat-out commercial blockbusters, per Get Out and Dunkirk, to more idiosyncratic choices. Two of those being, say, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name. Of course, I remain miffed that with such leeway, Wonder Woman was still shut out. In every category. Stupid.

On the other hand, I think this is the most exciting Best Director race in some time. What I like is that every single nominated director is not a mere hired hand for a big studio offering, but a true visionary.

Guillermo del Toro, pictured here at the Shape of Water premiere, is a previous Oscar nominee for writing 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, which racked up 6 nods, including Best Foreign Language Film (Mexico), ultimately earning statuettes for its cinematography and art direction. IMAGE: https://www.hindustantimes.com/rf/image_size_960x540/HT/p2/2017/12/03/Pictures/premiere-the-shape-of-water-arrivals_b5c3637e-d810-11e7-8802-68a15924f886.jpg

Early buzz no doubt favors recent Directors Guild of America victor Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water, reworking the classic 1950s monster flick The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a Cold War era romantic fantasy, complete with undertones of that era’s politics and, sure, a nod to the perennially told tale, Beauty and the Beast, and a splash, so to speak, of self-gratification. For grins. Simply, even with Disney’s recent B & B rehash, The Shape of Water doesn’t look or feel like anything else. All of it, the stylized industrial production design, the sea-green palette, is clearly the realization of its director’s vision–made possible, of course, by a battery of artisans and technicians, but all in service to the overall conceit. Thirteen nominations isn’t a record–so far, only three films have earned as many as 14 (last year’s La La Land being the most recent)–but it is considerable and on par with the likes of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Chicago, Forrest Gump, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mary Poppins, From Here to Eternity, and Gone with the Wind (among scant few others). In the technical categories, The Shape of the Water will be hard to beat. But wait, there’s more. The film’s kudos also include three performance contenders: Sally Hawkins (Best Actress), Richard Jenkins (Best Supporting Actor), both previous nominees, along with prior winner Octavia Spencer (Best Supporting Actress). This isn’t nothing. This is a film with widespread support, and I think it makes Guillermo del Toro the favorite for now. To reiterate, the DGA prize serves as an often unbeatable indicator of Oscar glory.

With 8 nods, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is the second most nominated flick, a war saga presented on a massive scale and shot on actual wide screen film, old school style. Impressive, but I don’t necessarily see Nolan as del Toro’s nearest competitor.  My instincts tell me that Jordan Peele has a super-strong chance thanks to the overwhelming success of Get Out, a creepy social satire that skillfully walks a thin line between horror and uncomfortable laughs. The obvious antecedent would be The Stepford Wives, but in this case it isn’t the women in a suburban hamlet who are being repurposed to better serve the patriarchy. Instead, Get Out throws a mad light on the state of race relations in the USA, a time and place in which many people–white, mostly–would like to pretend that equality prevails for one and all in spite of racial differences when reality is murkier, witness no less than 2015’s headline grabbing Rachel Dolezal. Remember her? The white woman who misappropriated African-American culture, indeed, identity, for professional and political gain? That is, until she was exposed as a phony.

Peele brings a lot of lot of variables, a lot of oomph, to the final stretch of the Oscar sweepstakes. First, his movie, about a young black man whose visit to his white girlfriend’s affluent parents’ country estate goes diabolically wrong, was made for a relatively modest 4.5 million–and in what universe is 4.5 million dollars considered modest, relatively or no–and ultimately grossed 175 million (per Box Office Mojo) domestically, with another 75+ million internationally, an amazing return by any measure; moreover, Get Out became a genuine pop-culture sensation, immediately becoming the centerpiece of discussions just about anywhere and everywhere: Internet, TV talk shows, classrooms, etc. Make no mistake, no movie enthralled audiences during the waxing months of 2017 more than Peele’s celebrated offering. To clarify, this is not only Peele’s first Oscar race, Get Out is his feature film directorial debut. Previously, he was best known as a force in TV comedy, such the Key and Peele sketch show. Today, he now holds the distinction of being the first African-American to be nominated for writing, directing, and producing a Best Picture nominee.  This record breaking fact may prove irresistible to many Academy voters as a statement, but it won’t necessarily be the deal maker or the even the deal breaker. On the other hand, actors-turned-directors are a known Oscar quantity, per the likes of, say, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Kevin Costner, and Mel Gibson. Still again, Peele’s film only scored one performance nomination, for lead actor Daniel Kaluuya, and many Oscar analysts believe acting nods provide a window into the Best Director thought process. In other words, actors, the largest branch of the Academy, are likely to consider a director’s worthiness for the top prize based on how well a given director works with other actors. Makes sense, kind of, but it’s not full-proof. Just ask Rob Marshall. In his first outing as a feature film director, Chicago, he guided FOUR performers to nominee status–kind of a miracle–but he still went home without the trophy even though Chicago was the evening’s big winner.

Greta Gerwig has directed Lady Bird, which many prognosticators hail as the year’s most acclaimed, and, therefore, arguably “best” film.  She is only the fifth female nominated in this category, and there has only been one such winner. That would be Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker)–and that was a whopping 8 years ago, also the last time a female directed film landed in this category; Bigelow was perhaps not so inexplicably overlooked for 2012’s Best Picture nominee Zero Dark Thirty, but I digress. Back to Gerwig. The versatile actress-turned-director who began making a name for herself with buzzworthy roles in the likes of Frances Ha (2012), which she co-wrote, has nabbed honors this season from the likes of the National Board of Review as well as the National Society of Film Critics along with a steady stream of additional nods, such as the DGA. All fine and well. Plus, again, the Academy likes to honor performers who shift their talents behind the camera (see above), and, yes, Lady Bird boasts two performance nominees: Saorise Ronan (Best Actress) and Laurie Metcalfe (Best Supporting Actress). Still, Gerwig faces what could be a deal breaker though I don’t think we’re supposed to talk about it. See, Lady Bird, which follows a young woman through her last year of high school, and all the ups and downs as that entails (especially prepping for the next adventure, meaning college) plays suspiciously close to Gerwig’s own story. She grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girl Catholic school, graduated in the early 2000s, and her mother worked as a nurse. This pretty much also describes Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, yet Gerwig scoffs at the notion that her film could be construed as autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Yes, of course, she acknowledges some resemblance to real-life but also believes that too much emphasis on said resemblances detracts from her vision as a filmmaker and all the effort that went into the creation of Lady Bird, getting all on paper and then making it happen. Sounds good, but does it measure up to the sheer imagination of, say, del Toro? What do you think? It would be a mistake to rule Gerwig out completely because, again, a victory for her gives the Academy an opportunity to make a statement, that is, reaffirming, or maybe just affirming, that women have indeed come a long, long way in the Hollywood hierarchy. Still, for all her movie’s heart, with its two nominated performances, Lady Bird is not as technically accomplished as either The Shape of Water–with its three nominated perfs–or Dunkirk. Plus, Gerwig is still a novice compared to some of her competitors. Okay, Peele is also a novice, but his movie scores as a pop-culture phenom.

Dunkirk provides Christopher Nolan his first ever shot at the Best Director Oscar though he boasts previous noms for writing, or co-writing, screenplays for Memento and Inception, both of which he directed; of course, the latter was a big-time blockbuster that also scored a 2010 Best Picture nod, seizing 4 technical awards (from a pool of 8 noms), but, again, no nomination for Nolan as director? Really? How’s that? Nolan may very well be overdue here, and, certainly, Dunkirk works as a smashing testament to his talents. Again, a war film that shifts from land to sea to air with each unfolding scenario populated by its own unique cast of characters–until, of course, everything converges in a tense finale. No nominated performances, but that might not matter given the sheer number of actors that Nolan directs–everything from such stars as Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance (2015’s Best Supporting Actor), Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Harry Styles, to less familiar players in secondary roles, along with hoardes of bit players and extras. All this on top of the technical challenges of creating (or recreating) a war epic on film, widescreen no less. Oh, and Dunkirk performed impressively at the box-office, earning over 500 million worldwide (180+ million in the states). A bigger concern than the lack of performance nods, something that did not hinder the likes of, say, Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, ’87), Mel Gibson (Braveheart, ’95), or Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 2003), again, among precious few others, is the simple fact that Academy members have already honored directors for war films, three of the most famous being Oliver Stone (Platoon, ’86), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, ’98), and the aforementioned Kathryn Bigelow (2009’s The Hurt Locker). This is not to say that Nolan can’t win; after all, his nomination definitely puts him in the game, but my thought is his skillful handling of Dunkirk‘s tricky narrative pales against del Toro’s creative vision. Unless, of course, the Academy feels Nolan is somehow overdue harking back to his body of work that also includes, besides the above titles, such behemoths as Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar.

The final nominee is Paul Thomas Anderson for The Phantom Thread, perhaps this or any year’s drollest romantic comedy. Of course, the film originally generated scads of attention when lead actor Daniel Day-Lewis, already a three time Oscar victor, announced that he would be retiring from films upon completing this project which reunites him with his There Will Be Blood director (aka Oscar number 2). The story concerns a fastidious 1950s era London based fashion designer (Day-Lewis), managed by his dour-around-edges-sister (Best Supporting Actress nominee Lesley Manville), and the peculiarly obsessive relationship he develops with a waitress (knockout Vicky Krieps) whom he casts as one in a string of muses. But this one is different from the others. She has a mind and a will of her own, and that’s a game changer for the workaholic designer. This is a comedy but only in retrospect; the full-blown value of its joke is only apparent upon reflection. Thank goodness the trailer gives away almost nothing. The point is, while DDL’s Best Actor nod was almost a foregone conclusion once the reviews began, Mr. Anderson’s film has exceeded such expectations, corralling a total of 6 nods, including Best Picture and what I believe is a surprise nod for Manville. I, for one, do not recall much buzz around her performance as a possible finalist. The Academy really likes this movie, apparently, and Anderson boasts previous nods for directing (There Will Be Blood) and writing (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood), so that puts him on par with Nolan in the matter of possibly being ripe for “body of work” consideration. Furthermore, make no mistake, even with references to Hitchcock and Welles, of which there are plenty (subtle and not so subtle), this film is still the product of its enterprising director. Oh, and here’s another thing. When Anderson’s favored cinematographer, Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood) proved unavailable, Anderson served as his own director of photography. Double duty. On the other hand, the film isn’t pulling in the numbers to elevate it to the level of a significant achievement, and that likely hurts given this year’s roster of strong competitors.

If I were voting, I’d vote for…wait for it…Martin McDonagh, the UNnomimated director of  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, boasting 7 nods, including Best Picture and a trio of acting nominations for Frances McDormand (Best Actress), Woody Harrelson (Best Supporting Actor), and Sam Rockwell (the favored Best Supporting Actor champ). How McDonagh slipped through the first round of balloting is beyond me–but oversights like this happen frequently. To clarify: McDonagh, along with del Toro, Peele, Gerwig, and Nolan, was in the running for the DGA prize. Apparently, he was bested in the Oscar balloting by Anderson. So be it. I’m fine with any of the official nominees if slightly biased toward Peele or Anderson, but del Toro is the single candidate with a film that scores as a technical achievement as well as a showcase for performers in three categories.

Thanks for your consideration…

She Lives: Natalie Wood’s “Stranger” Star Wattage

4 Feb

“I’m going to have a baby.”

The line comes barely seven minutes into the movie. It might only be the character’s third line. At that point, the audience knows nothing about the woman. Nothing. With that in mind, why would we, or should we, even care? In the next breath, she asks the good looking man standing in front of her if he can help secure the services of a doctor who will help terminate the pregnancy. Of course, she doesn’t come right out and articulate her request directly, per 1963 mores, but her meaning is unmistakable: she wants an abortion, and she needs help. Presumably, the guy she corners in the middle of a bustling union hall is the father though his memory is, well, a little cloudy. The audience knows only slightly more about him than her. He’s a musician who hustles for gigs and has an eye for the ladies, so he needs a minute to collect his thoughts.

Interestingly, in spite of Love with the Proper Stranger‘s seemingly unconventional storyline, star Natalie Wood was not the only 1963 Best Actress nominee who portrayed an unwed expectant mother. French actress Lesley Caron, who had made a huge splash in American movie musicals, and Oscar winning Best Pictures, such as An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) scored a nod in the British made The L Shaped Room.  Both lost to veteran Patricia Neal in Martin Ritt’s Hud. Author Danny Peary snatches Neal’s Oscar and  awards it to Caron in his book, Alternate Oscars. He doesn’t give Wood so much as an Honorable Mention for Love with the Proper Stranger; however, he writes  glowingly of Wood elsewhere in the book, rhapsodizing about her 1961 Oscar contender, Splendor in the Grass. If there were ever a year in which a performer seemed particularly ripe for Academy honors, it was Wood in 1961. First, she pushed herself to extraordinary heights as a young woman suffering the crushing confusion of her first sexually charged romantic attachment (in the form of no less than studly Warren Beatty, his film debut) in William Inge’s Splendor, a hit with the public and critics alike. In one scene she tries so, so hard to maintain after being put on the spot in a high school English class, but nerves get the best of her, and the defeat is overwhelming. Another standout is when what should be a relaxing soak in a warm bath turns into a well meaning but awkward confrontation with her mother,  one that sends the frightened young woman into a furious panic that is impossible to dismiss. Brilliant. But that’s only half of what Wood accomplished in 1961. She was also star-billed in the year’s leading contender, the big screen adaptation of West Side Story,  Broadway’s landmark musical update on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, reimagined as a stylized tale of warring gangs on the streets of New York, marked by Jerome Robbins’ innovative choreography and Leonard Bernstein’s thrilling score (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim). It scarcely mattered that Wood was cast as a Puerto Rican character, that she had a wobbly accent, or that her singing was dubbed by ever-reliable triller Marni Nixon (whom I love), because she brought emotional authenticity and a lilting presence to her character, and the public ate it up, resulting in  long runs in theatres (such as Dallas’ own Esquire), beaucoups soundtrack sales, and a whopping 11 Oscar nods, the most of any 1961 pic. By any measure, Wood had enjoyed phenomenal success in 1961, but she still went home empty-handed even though West Side Story cleaned-up, nabbing trophies in 10 categories, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno), and Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) while Splendor’s William Inge was likewise honored by the Academy. Wood lost in her category to Sophia Loren in Two Women, a history making win for a performer in a non-English language film.

I bring this up to make the point that in order to begin a film exactly as I have described, the director surely knows that if he (in this case, yes, he) expects the audience to stick with the story for its duration, said audience has to connect the speaker straightaway. It’s a matter of trust. Here is where being a great star is probably more important than being a great actress (or actor). In this case, the speaker is none other than Natalie Wood, a child actress (1947’s Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, among others) who grew up to be one of the biggest stars of the late 50s–and beyond though her heyday was clearly the early-to-mid 1960s. Her male co-star in this scenario, btw, is no less than Steve McQueen, but, take note, the charismatic actor is/was second billed to Ms. Wood, a powerful testament to the actress’s uncontested stature in the Hollywood hierarchy [1]. The movie is Love with the Proper Stranger, directed by Robert Mulligan, this, a year after his instant classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I have plenty of reasons, good reasons, to rhapsodize about Love with the Proper Stranger. First, it’s relatively new to DVD. As far as I can tell, its September release, per Kino Lorber, is its first-ever in DVD format–oh yeah, and Blu-ray. This is a movie one of my best friends and I have been waiting to find on home video for a long, long, time. Both of us were certain that once the studios, most famously Warner, ventured into print-on-demand DVDs, it would only be a matter of time before Love with the Proper Stranger would be lifted from the vaults. Indeed, it was a matter of time, a long time.

I think, more importantly, Love with the Proper Stranger is noteworthy because it represents Wood’s third and final Oscar nomination, following a supporting nod for 1955’s Rebel without a Cause (at age 17) and a Best Actress bid for 1961’s Splendor in the Grass (age 23). Wood still had her share of hit films after Love with the Proper Stranger, including Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and the moderately successful The Last Married Couple in America, with George Segal, along TV triumphs such as fresh adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and From Here to Eternity along with The Cracker Factory, and others. To further clarify, a reminder of Wood’s third and final Oscar nod in her decades long career is worth noting because it re-emphasizes what a huge talent, and, yes, a huge star she was.

See, a few years ago, Debra Tate, the sister of the late Sharon Tate, wrote/published a magnificent coffee table book, Recollection, celebrating her exquisitely beautiful sister’s exciting life. Per the surviving Tate, the public’s fixation on Sharon’s savage murder has overwhelmed the reality of who she was as a person. For example, as much as I have read about Sharon, and for all the times I’ve watched her seemingly effortless performance as a doomed starlet in Valley of the Dolls, I didn’t know she was born in Dallas, at Methodist Hospital, until I read her sister’s book; likewise, a long time ago I wrote that Rock Hudson’s stature as a genuine movie idol has long been overshadowed by his unfortunate passing. Much the same cane be said for Wood. Every now and again, a source comes to light regarding Wood’s mysterious death in 1981, drowning after falling from a yacht–named Splendour–following a night of alleged revelry during a break from shooting a movie entitled Brainstorm. Briefly, the “mystery” is whether Wood, who had a long-avowed fear of water, actually fell from the yacht–or was she pushed? If so, who did it? The likely suspects, or persons of interest, include a famous co-star or her husband.

This ongoing circus of sensationalism, surrounding a tragedy that might never be resolved, unfortunately distracts from Wood’s breathtaking career, her talent, and, yes, even her dark eyed beauty. She had a face that could hold the camera, so to speak, and seemingly from any angle. Not to mention a knockout smile, a saucy voice, a hearty laugh, luxurious dark hair, and a heck of a figure.  Curvy but extra petite. Yet for all that,  Wood possessed a simmering talent, one that took awhile to emerge, but once it did, she knocked the socks off critics and audiences alike, and they rewarded her by buying tickets and propelling her toward the tops of the box-office charts.

So, Love with the Proper Stranger. Wood portrays Angie, a Macy’s sales clerk who can’t get away from her traditional Italian-American family’s cramped apartment soon enough, especially as that pertains to the ever-watchful eye of older brother (per Herschel Bernardi). Besides the tailing and snooping Angie endures, Angie’s fretful mother aligns with Bernardi, routinely, to fix the young woman up with a suitor–for her own good, of course. The unrelenting pressure on Angie pushes her to a breaking point, and she dodges the household just long enough to seek momentary comfort in the arms of a stranger, McQueen, again, if only for a night. To reiterate, their tryst occurs off-screen before the  film ever begins, and the audience can’t be certain how the lovers’ paths ever-crossed in the first place, given that Angie scarcely finds a moment’s privacy amid the day-to-day familial dynamics; nonetheless, Angie finds a way to escape the constant gaze, leading to the complication that prompts her to track down McQueen’s Rocky at the union hall. Clearly, they are not an item, with Angie holding no illusions about her value to the musician with his roving eye.

Make no mistake, Love with the Proper Stranger thrives on the star wattage generated by Wood and McQueen, not just because it opens with the announcement of an unwanted pregnancy, but because however well done, it’s an obviously uneven film. The first half concerns itself with the two leads working toward the goal of eliminating said pregnancy: first by securing the funds–there’s always a catch, right?–and then by eluding Bernardi and others, such as a second brother played by Harvey Lembeck [2], who have pieced together the complete picture of Angie and Rocky’s dilemma and want McQueen to pay, flesh and blood style, for his role in the deed. That this is the driving point of a major studio release–Paramount–in the early 1960s, staggers the imagination. The whole thing builds to a harrowing encounter that pushes Angie to emotional exhaustion. Afterward, Angie and Rocky begin learning more about each other and sorting whatever feelings they have developed in the process. Incredibly, after such a dramatic start, the second half is noticeably lighter, more comedic, in tone. Plus, the movie doesn’t seem to end as much as it just seems to stop–and rather abruptly. Uneven, right? Even so, the star players make a compelling, fascinating,  onscreen duo, bringing out the best in one another even, or especially, in the quiet moments.

Interestingly, it’s McQueen’s Rocky who pushes for a more committed relationship, including marriage, but Angie isn’t so sure. She knows she’s sexually attracted to McQueen–she has a pulse, after all–but she can’t determine if she genuinely likes him for who he is, nor is she certain his feelings for her or genuine. Plus, even though she has recoiled at some of her family’s well-meaning match-ups in the past, she entertains the advances of such a suitor, a timid–clumsy–restaurateur from an equally opinionated family. Angie is sure she doesn’t really love this “Anthony Columbo,” but it matters less to her than the idea that he’s devoted and has the potential to be a good provider; after all, McQueen’s Rocky is a musician without a steady paycheck, not to mention a sometime squeeze played by vivacious glamourpuss Edie Adams. To Angie’s mind, the trappings of romantic love–bells and banjos, she describes them–are not only unnecessary but messy and complicated. She makes a good argument, but, then, that’s one of Wood’s strengths as an actress: making sense of difficult emotions in order to foster audience empathy.

Btw, Angie’s mild mannered suitor, Anthony Columbo, is spectacularly played by no less than Tom Bosley, who would later become a TV staple, mostly through his beloved role as Mr. Cunningham on Happy Days in the 1970s; however, before settling into steady work on the small screen, Bosley had already conquered Broadway as a Tony award leading man in 1959’s hit musical Fiorello, based on legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (yes, of the same LaGuardia airport); that same show’s honors, btw, include multiple Tony wins and a Pulitzer, but I digress. Bosley’s Columbo looks too old for Angie–and that’s probably true. Bosley was in his early-to-mid thirties at the time, but only a year or two older than McQueen.

Love with the Proper Stranger opened to “brisk” business as described by Christopher Nickens in the book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs (121); moreover, the movie scored in numerous other ways, earning a Writers Guild nod for scripter Arnold Schulman. Interestingly, Schulman was nominated in the category specifically for comedies though Wood and McQueen competed for Golden Globes among the entries for drama. Again, the movie is uneven, difficult, and difficult to categorize. The film as a whole earned 5 Oscars nods, including one for Schulman along with nominations for its black and white cinematography (Milton R. Krasner, All About Eve, Three Coins in a Fountain, etc.), art-direction, and costume design–no less than the redoubtable Edith Head. Nominations for Bosley and legendary composer Elmer Bernstein would not have been out of the question. Alas, no wins though Wood was likewise in the running for a Laurel Award, per trade mag Motion Picture Exhibitors.

So, here we have it. One of Natalie Wood’s most celebrated films is finally being released on home video, providing fans an opportunity to fall in love with her all over again and creating opportunities for the uninitiated to discover one of the brightest stars from a particular era in Hollywood’s history, but once again, the headlines are full of renewed investigations into her demise. Of course, justice must prevail, but I heard a morning TV show commentator say something to the effect that it was her death that made her legendary, and I firmly and fervently disagree. She’s a legend because she lived.

Thanks, Natalie…

[1] Regarding McQueen’s billing, please note that he was not the first choice for the role. By many accounts (including one of the DVD commentators), the first choice was no less than Paul Newman, a more firmly established star than McQueen at the time. Who knows if Wood could have retained top-billing if Newman had been cast. At any rate, McQueen quickly caught up with Newman in terms of box-office clout, and the two superstars enjoyed a kind of not-so-friendly professional rivalry that peaked with 1974’s The Towering Inferno, a box office blockbuster and major Oscar contender, their only joint-venture, that is, after failing to come to terms regarding 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and only after exacting contract negotiations on Inferno regarding star billing and even parsing the number of lines each spoke in the script.

[2] Coincidentally, Lembeck, known for his work on TV (The Phil Silvers Show) and the movies, playing biker Eric von Zipper in all those Beach Party flicks in the early 1960s, also worked as Tom Bosley’s understudy in Fiorello! on Broadway.

 

Don’t You Forget About Bea…

22 Dec

Dear Mr., Ms., or Otherwise Academy Member:

In my last post, I asked, and humbly I believe, for you not to forget Jeremy Renner’s taut performance in Wind River when marking your ballot for Best Actor. Are you listening? I hope you are. If so, no one else is, apparently. So far, save for a Golden Satellite nod (being the far less respected cousin of the Golden Globe), Renner has been glossed over the by the likes of the National Board of Review, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the DFW Film Critics Association, not to mention the nominations pool for the likes of the Critics Choice awards (per the Broadcast Film Critics Association), the Screen Actors Guild awards, and the almighty Globe awards. Heck, Renner didn’t even make the cut for an Independent Spirit Award. Really? Is it because the film came out too early? If August can be considered “early.” Is it because the movie carries the unfortunate stench of being too closely associated with Harvey Weinstein? I hope not. Renner’s performance as a wildlife agent with a powerful motive to find a young Native American woman’s  murderer is the real deal.  So, what are you going to do about it?  As often as not, the year end awards bonanza doesn’t always foretell what Academy members like. Surprises frequently abound.

Right now, the various societies, associations, and guilds are gravitating toward the likes of Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), natch, Timothee Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), and Tom Hanks (The Post) for Best Actor—with Daniel Day Lewis (The Phantom Thread), James Franco (The Disaster Artist), Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out), and Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel, Esq.) still in the game. For now. Kamail Nanjiani (The Big Sick) holds a slim chance for the semi-autobiographical flick he also co-wrote with wife Emily V. Gordon. Alas, not much traction for Renner or even Sam Elliott for The Hero, and I seriously wonder what Elliott will ever need to do in order to be considered Oscar-worthy.

The race for Best Supporting Actor appears to be led by Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) though Armie Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) and Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) may have very well found their breakthrough roles for Academy consideration. Woody Harrelson, no stranger to the Academy (with a pair of nominations, one leading and one supporting), looks strong for a nod as well, also for Three Billboards etc. Oh, and then there’s Christopher Plummer, already a winner in this category for 2011’s The Beginners, who could emerge as a heavyweight in light of his speedy call to action to replace Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. Stay tuned.

Best Supporting Actress may turn out to be a furious fight to the finish between (in no particular order) Laurie Metcalfe (Ladybird), Holly Hunter (The Big Sick),  Mary J. Blige (Mudbound), Alison Janney (I, Tonya),  and Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), all of them formidable candidates. Of course, Hunter and Spencer are Oscar veterans, each with a trophy of her own and additional nods as well. If nominated, Blige, Janney, and Metcalfe will be in their first ever Oscar race though they are awards derby newbies with prizes and/or nominations in multiple arenas: TV, film stage, and music; meanwhile, now that I have seen Darkest Hour, I’m a little perplexed that Lily James isn’t getting more buzz for a role that largely positions her as the audience surrogate.

Now, about Best Actress.  Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards…), and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) are all well situated, and I don’t even want to try to guess who brings the most to the table, but of course, they only represent three of five possible nominees. With that in mind, how else might this go? The presence of Meryl Streep (The Post) can never be underestimated, and Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game) has two Oscar runs to her credit; meanwhile buzz surrounding Margot Robbie’s turn in I, Tonya builds daily, what with her status as a contender confirmed by way of the SAG nominations.  And, as with Streep, Judi Dench (Victoria and Abdul) should never be dis-counted. Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World) is another frequent nominee looking for another shot. Last year’s winner Emma Stone perhaps holds a whisper of a chance for Battle of the Sexes, but not really. Also, I guess pretty much nobody can visualize a nod for Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) though it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it happens.

McDormand reminds me how important timing is in the Oscar race. Twenty-one years ago she won Best Actress for playing Fargo‘s straight-arrow police chief Marge Gunderson, well deserved at that. I know only a few people who objected at the time. Interestingly, McDormand’s victory runs counter to the well-known trend of studios releasing Oscar caliber films in the last 4 months of the year, more likely the last 1-2 months. For example, Fargo was a March release. Right off the top of my head I can add that Jodie Foster (Silence of the Lambs, 1991) and Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich, 2000) also won Oscars for movies released in the first quarter of their respective years, but they–like McDormand–are exceptions. The more widely prevailing strategy is that movies released too early in the year tend to be forgotten during the crush of year-end releases.

With that in mind, I’d like to direct Mr. or Ms. Academy member to this past summer’s well reviewed Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek. Of course, the actress made headlines recently with a blistering attack on Harvey Weinstein with whom she collaborated on Frida, the 2002 Miramax biopic of legendary Mexican-born artist Frida Kahlo for which Hayek ultimately earned a Best Actress nod.  The project was an obsession for Hayek, a point of national pride, and Weinstein–allegedly–used his power against the more vulnerable actress in a predatory way. Allegedly. Hayek’s account is devastating and raw though Weinstein, not surprisingly, offers a slightly different take, attempting to recontextualize certain charges as a savvy  businessman no doubt would.

Can a low-budget summer release challenge flashier year-end offerings in the race for Oscar glory? Salma Hayek (center) as the title character in Beatriz at Dinner is certainly worthy of such consideration. Btw, that’s Connie Britton on the left, and John Lithgow on the right. (IMAGE: IMDB)

I’m inclined to believe Hayek, mostly because I already know too much about Weinstein NOT to believe her. In the meantime, I’d like to praise Hayek for her particularly deft portrayal of title character Beatriz in the Mike White scripted comedy-of-manners, that is, a dark, particularly well-timed, comedy-of-manners, directed by Miguel Areta. Simply, Latina Beatriz, a  gifted, hard working massage therapist (“a healer”) with a hefty list of clients spread out all over Los Angeles, arrives for an appointment one afternoon at the opulent home of a frequent contact, Cathy (always affable Connie Britton), who shares a sad history with Beatriz. Previously, Beatriz had helped treat Cathy’s cancer-striken daughter. In so doing, at least Cathy believes, a familial bond developed, but the danger of that kind of bond in a one-sided relationship is that thinking of Beatriz as family effectively diminishes Beatriz’s agency; after all, she has her own family, her own concerns. She may very well love what she does and feels kindly toward the people she serves, but it’s still a business transaction and to characterize it as anything else is a dangerous mistake. It sets up a sense of entitlement on the part of the employer by blurring what should be a clear boundary. In this regard, Beatriz at Dinner partially resembles 2017’s breakout smash Get Out, but I digress.

That evening, after experiencing car trouble for the umpteenth time that day, Beatriz finds herself stranded in the client’s driveway. No problem, Britton enthuses, Beatriz can stay for dinner and even overnight if needed. Of course, the client’s husband (David Warshofsky) is celebrating an important business deal, and that means a small dinner party with likes of Chloe Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and John Lithgow–the latter whether intentional or not evokes the one and only current POTUS, Donald Trump. You know the type: a wealthy real-estate developer–hotels, especially–who confidently blurts whatever is on his mind, no matter how seriously misinformed, ignorant, or hurtful. That’s the character. I guess the rest is a coincidence, but the resemblance to a certain real-life someone is hard not to notice.

With the exception of Lithgow’s ever-pragmatic Doug and Cathy’s nitwit-ish hubby, Britton’s character and her friends believe themselves to be generous and open-minded–but that’s only because they fail to recognize the privileged point of view from which they operate, especially the imbalance of power in relation to Beatriz, but Beatriz is nobody’s fool. She’s canny enough to “know her place,” especially as a guest in a client’s domain, but she will not subjugate herself, blend into the background, and pretend not to have an opinion. She knows how to defend herself and her beliefs. White’s script hits all the right notes–if hitting all the right notes means keeping the audience in knots for most of the film’s running time.  I felt tense the whole time, but exquisitely so, given that the movie unfolds at what should be a simple dinner party. No zombies, no mass-murderers, but the unshakeable feeling that something awful will erupt. Again, the film approaches a dynamic similar to that of Get Out.

At first glance,  Hayek’s performance might seem to rely too heavily on Beatriz’s drabbed down appearance: what with her shapeless clothes, ponytail, and truly unflattering bangs; after all, Hayek ranks as one of the most glamorous women in all of moviedom. Seeing her as plain-faced Beatriz is a slight jolt,  but the performance is more than a cosmetic makeover (or makeunder, as the case may be). Beatriz’s strength is her ability to listen, to assess. It’s what makes her empathic, essential to being a healer; plus, again, she has acclimated herself to an employer-employee dynamic especially as that entails being a woman of color in white dominated society. She’s not going to rock the boat. Not easily, that is, and not at once. Until she does, and the effect is jarring, we see in Hayek’s face the constant processing of information, building and building, and we applaud the release as much as we are shocked by it.

I think Hayek’s performance is a winner, and I tried to imagine whether it could go the distance when I first saw it over the summer, early summer. Michael and I both loved it, and talked about it for days, both Hayek, White’s screenplay, and the movie itself.  Alas, the movie appears to be almost forgotten–not entirely, but close.  Yes,Ha the movie was one of the top indie picks, per the National Board of Review, and Hayek was nominated for an Imagen Foundation award (for promoting positive portrayals of Latino culture) though she actually lost to herself for How to be a Latin Lover. Director Arteta earned an Imagen award for Beatriz though the film lost the Best Picture trophy to the aforementioned How to be a Latin Lover. Currently, Hayek and White are in the running for “Spirit” awards, aka the Independent Spirit Awards, but Hayek is a contender in a category featuring the likes of the aforementioned McDormand, Robbie, and Ronan, so she faces an uphill challenge to overcome the competition, all of whom inhabit much showier roles, but maybe the interest of “Spirit” award voters will catch the attention of Academy members, thereby spreading word-of-mouth and renewed interest.  To clarify, I can’t imagine Hayek winning an Oscar for Beatriz at Dinner, but a nomination would be timely, all things considered, and well-deserved.

 

Thanks for your consideration…

Hayek’s New York Times article: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/13/opinion/contributors/salma-hayek-harvey-weinstein.html

 

For Academy Consideration: Wind River’s Renner

26 Nov

Dear Mr. or Ms. Academy Member:

I hate to interrupt you with another plea for Oscar consideration, but I feel that I must. I know everyone and his mama are trumpeting Gary Oldman as this season’s probable Best Actor victor, for playing no less than Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, and, really, I’m pretty sure that’s a good thing. I haven’t seen the film yet, but it’s high, high, high, on my list–right after Coco; we just saw Lady Bird and Three Billboards…, btw–and I know Oldman is a wonderful actor. I even lavished praise on him a few years ago after he earned a well-deserved Oscar nod for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, so, yes, I hope Darkest Hour is everything it is supposed to be, and, again, good for Oldman if it is.

In the meantime, with such an onslaught of year-end awards contenders, please, please, take one more look, if you have not done so already, at Jeremy Renner in Wind River, a late summer, relatively low-budget, release that garnered critical praise and even turned a tidy profit after a slow rollout. Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, known most recently as the Oscar nominated screenwriter of  2016’s Hell or High Water, which also earned nods for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Jeff Bridges), Wind River is a brutal suspense-filled whodunit set on a snowswept, icy-cold Native American reservation. Renner portrays a federal wildlife agent reluctantly paired with an FBI rookie (Elizabeth Olsen) to crack the case. Renner’s Cory Lambert has barely come to terms with the disappearance of his teenage daughter, in a scenario that resembles the latest crime, that is, a young woman’s lifeless body found in the snow–the victim of a horrific attack. The cast, btw, is rounded out by Graham Greene, fondly remembered for his Oscar nominated turn in 1990’s Best Picture winner Dances with Wolves, and whose credits also include The Green Mile (a 1999 Best Picture nominee), Transamerica, and even The Shack, also from 2017.

JRenner_WindRiver

Per the IMDb, Jeremy Renner had been acting professionally for more than a dozen years before he garnered wide spread critical attention and a Best Actor nod for 2009’s The Hurt Locker. also the year’s Best Picture winner. A year later, the actor cinched a Best Supporting Actor nod for The Town. Since then, he’s scored a flashy role in American Hustle, a 2013/14 Best Picture nominee, and has appeared in such high profile entries as Mission Impossible, The Avengers, a reboot of the Bourne franchise, and 2016’s Arrival, yet another Best Picture contender. The sense of immediacy that Renner brought to his Hurt Locker role as a soldier assigned to defuse or dispose of explosives in hostile environments serves him well in Wind River. He’s utterly believable–by word and gesture–in every situation  he faces. Audiences never have the opportunity to doubt him. (IMAGE: Photo by CANNES FILM FESTIVAL/HANDOUT. Jeremy Renner in “Wind River”; http://www.indiewire.com/2017/08/avengers-jeremy-renner-wind-river-career-watch-1201867129/ )

Renner’s film is now problematic for Oscar voters because, alas, it carries the Weinstein Company banner. Oh dear. By now, anyone who knows anything about the movie biz, and the Oscars specifically, knows, as well, about the heaps and heaps of allegations of sexual misconduct leveled against Harvey Weinstein, the more visible of the two Weinstein brothers who founded their self-named company after fleeing Miramax (their previous company) and ending their often contentious relationship with the Disney corporation (which purchased the then indie outfit in the early 1990s) amid a swirl of controversy, mostly due to lavish spending and questionable accounting. Never a good mix. Well before Weinstein’s behavior as a sexual predator–okay, alleged sexual predator–became headline news, he’d long been known as a bully and a braggart, as much of a sore loser whose temper-tantrums made the rounds of industry insiders as he was a sore winner seemingly hell-bent to take more credit than he was due, but that just made him annoying, and it never stopped the Academy from lavishing his company’s films, such as The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, and Chicago (Miramax) or even The King’s Speech (Weinstein), and, ugh, The Artist (Weinstein), with honors even though his fervent campaigning often bordered on ludicrousness [1], to put it tamely.

Nonetheless, now that Harvey Weinstein has been booted from his company in disgrace over such charges of sexual harassment and other similar transgressions, the Academy might be less inclined to show any tolerance, any consideration, toward Weinstein product, and that is to be expected [2]. Even so, I still think Renner’s performance in Wind River is a stunningly accomplished piece of acting, mainly because it hardly seems like acting at all. Instead, Renner’s character just seems “lived-in” in  a way that doesn’t necessarily draw attention to itself, that is, to the technique involved. Instead, the actor makes unexpected choices that catch viewers off-guard.  In contrast, almost everything about Sheridan’s previous effort, the aforementioned Hell or High Water (which, to clarify, he did not direct), seems entirely too schematic, and much ballyhooed Jeff Bridges’s performance, as an ornery Texas Ranger on the trail of bankrobbers, is too showy by half, such that he seems more like “a character,” for the sake of being a character (or acting for the sake of acting), and less like a fully fleshed out human being. In Wind River, Renner keeps cutting to the truth, honing in on Browder’s heart and humanity. But no matter. Browder self-identifies as hunter, so he does his best to compartmentalize–and hunts. And it’s pretty exciting to watch. Another element Renner plays against is not just that he’s grieving his daughter’s demise but that his marriage has crumbled as a result of that tragedy; moreover, his ex-wife is Native American, and that is a source of tension among some members of  the reservation population.

Interestingly, Sheridan’s film while not based on a single specific incident, serves as an alarm for the growing number of young Native American women who are not only highly susceptible to rape but frequently vanish with little or no trace. Shockingly, as the film’s coda explains, there are no official statistics on the number of women missing from reservations, likely due to contradictory laws and crime reporting procedures [3]. Of course, reading this certainly reminds me of the mysterious 2014 death of Native-American movie actress Misty Upham (Frozen River and August: Osage County, among others). Still puzzling.

When I first saw Wind River months ago, I was sure that I was seeing what could be the next Best Actor winner, but that was then. An August release, especially for a middling hit, seems like a long time ago, especially when Hollywood publicity machines are getting cranked up for the year-end glut of prestige movies seemingly tailored made for Academy consideration. When you factor in a company tainted by misdeeds at the top level, suddenly the odds seem ever less in Renner’s favor, but the performance is the real-deal and deserves every possible consideration. Thanks in advance for that consideration.

 

[1] A partial rundown can be read via the following:

http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/miramax-oscar-campaigns-harvey-weinstein-timeline.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/robcain/2017/10/12/weinstein-company-can-kiss-its-oscar-prospects-goodbye/

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/oscars-harvey-weinsteins-days-as-an-awards-season-power-player-appear-1046684

[2] A “new” wrinkle in this story as the Tunica-Biloxi tribe backs Oscar campaign in light of Weinstein disgrace: http://ew.com/awards/2017/10/25/weinstein-co-exits-wind-river-oscar-campaign/

[3] Read more, per a 2016 Indian Country Today report: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-news/missing-and-murdered-no-one-knows-how-many-native-women-have-disappeared/