The Ghost Writer, or The Riddle of “How Many Best Picture Nominees Does it Take..?” Part Two

1 Aug

Part II –  Among the 2010/20101 Best Picture nominees, I was most pleased to see the field being led by the likes of  The King’s Speech (12 nominations, and, ultimately, the evening’s biggest winner), and Inception (eight nominations, 4 wins); likewise, I was a true fan of the Coens’ True Grit reboot (10 nominations, 0 wins) as well as the modestly scaled but astonishingly potent The Winter’s Bone (4 noms, 0 wins), but what I find hard to fathom is that even with an expanded pool of ten candidates, the Academy somehow skipped over The Ghost Writer–and not just for Best Picture, but in all categories.

Pierce Brosnan as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, uh, I mean Adam Lang

Tautly directed by Roman Polanksi, and based on the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris, The Ghost Writer stars Ewan McGregor  as an unnamed scribe hired to assist a former British Prime Minister (a Tony Blairish type played by Pierce Brosnan) to complete his memoirs after the PM’s previous ghost writer, and longtime aide, dies mysteriously. Was it suicide or murder? Hmmmmmm…meanwhile, the PM is accused of actions linking him to war crimes. Hmmmmm…..again.

Things for the new writer take a turn for the worse immediately after he’s hired when he gets mugged right outside his residence. The action then swiftly shifts from soggy London to an even drearier island near Cape Cod where Brosnan’s enigmatic Adam Lang is holed-up in his American publisher’s Bauhaus style beach digs. Once there, McGregor finds himself caught up in a contest of wills between Lang’s eagerly officious administrative assistant (Kim Cattral trying hard to evince a British accent) and his bitter controlling wife (Olivia Williams). The PM himself appears amiable enough, maybe a little dim even, until he’s agitated, at which point his demeanor turns quite abrupt. Additionally, the PM’s original manuscript is kept under strict, state of the art lock and key, and McGregor also appears to have a stalker,  a man whose son was “killed in one of Lang’s illegal wars.” Eventually, the controversy surrounding Lang becomes so overwhelming that his handlers arrange a diversion by sending him to Washington D.C. for a a brief round of high profile meetings (including photo-ops with the vice-president and a Secretary of State who looks a lot like Condoleeza Rice). At the same time, McGregor relocates from his creepy seaside inn to the guest quarters of the beach house, specifically the room which had once been used by the now deceased ghost writer.

Ewan McGregor as the unnamed “ghost”

“Hitchcockian.” There it is. The word has been overused, I know, but in this case, it truly applies.  Simply, McGregor’s writer is the proverbial outsider who gets sucked into a scenario far more sinister and complex than he could ever imagine.  While making room for his things in the guest room closet, the writer stumbles upon a secreted stash of photos and documents that call into question Lang’s account of his own entry into the political realm. McGregor’s snooping leads him to a revealing encounter with a withered old islander played by Eli Wallach. Soon, McGregor becomes the target of a conspiracy, or at least that’s what he believes after venturing off the island in a borrowed vehicle in one of the film’s tensest sequences.  I’ll stop there. The rest you need to experience for yourself.

Olivia Williams in a role worlds removed from the mournful wife in The Sixth Sense or the object of affection in Rushmore

Aside from the knotty script, co-written by Polanski and Harris, The Ghost Writer also benefits from a host of sharp performances, which includes not only Brosnan and McGregor but also Tom Wilkinson, effectively understated in a brief yet consequential role, and Williams, whose confident turn as Lang’s sardonic wife earned her Best Supporting Actress honors from the National Society of Film Critics and London’s Critics Circle award. The cast also includes Timothy Hutton and Jim Belushi. Special attention must also be paid to the design team led by Albrecht Conrad, who won the European Film Award for his efforts. The beach house in particular, with its oversized windows, bold cantilevered staircase and juxtaposition of  rough “natural” textures with stark minimalist furnishings, is practically a character itself so essential is it to establishing the mood of the piece, and even more remarkable considering the interiors, and select components of the exterior, are one massive set. Indeed, with the exception of some second unit shots, the entire production was filmed in Germany. Furthermore, as evidenced on the DVD featurette, some of the exterior shots are actually a  combination of partial sets and green-screen technology. Additionally, the score by Alexandre Desplat would doubtlessly thrill Bernard Herrmann–Hitchcock’s collaborator on Vertgo (1958), North by Northwest (1959and Psycho (1960). (I think the Ghost Writer score is even comparable to Herrman’s non-Hitchcock 1962 offering, Cape Fear, a score so memorable it was resurrected for the 1991 remake. )  Desplat’s work, by turns ominously thunderous and disconcertingly tinkly, netted the composer a bevy of prizes, including honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics and recognition as “Composer of the Year” at the World Soundtrack Awards in Belgium. Though not nominated by the Academy for Ghost Writer, Desplat can at least take some comfort in his nod for Oscar fave The King’s Speech.

The Ghost Writer: winner of 6 European Film Awards, including Best Actor (Ewan McGregor) and  Best Production Designer (Albrecht Conrad)

Besides the awards won by Williams, Conrad, and Desplat, The Ghost Writer snared numerous other year end accolades, including a nice haul at the European Film Awards (Best Film, Director, Actor for McGregor, and Desplat, among others), in addition to the Silver Bear for Polanksi at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, and a shared nomination for Polanski and Harris at the USC Scripter Awards. Additionally, Pierce Brosnan was a a multiple Best Supporting Actor nominee, and even won a prize at the Irish Film & Television awards. How this splendid, richly satisfying, and deliciously dark movie managed to not pick up a single Oscar nomination, in a year in which there were 10 slots open in the Best Picture race, is a great big mystery to me. Of course, it is entirely possible that the members of the Academy felt like they had already done their part to honor the previously nominated director of Rosemary’s Baby* (1968) Chinatown (1975), and Tess (1980) when they recognized his achievement for 2002’s fact-based drama The Pianist, a film which echoes his own experience as a Holocaust survivor. Beyond that, there is not enough room on this blog to speculate.

Academy Awards are nice, and, yes, winning or being nominated is a great way for a film to achieve some kind of permanent stature in the annals of film history. Luckily, the invention of home video technology is a way to keep films alive long after their theatrical runs and the waves of publicity generated by the Oscars. Maybe after reading this, you’ll feel inclined to give it a look. If my enthusiastic review is not inducement enough, then consider this: it’s super-duper hot in Texas right now, so hot that we might even “beat” the sweltering, record setting heat wave of 1980, but in the world of The Ghost Writer, there’s a cool, eternally rainswept village waiting, calling like a siren’s song.

Thanks for your consideraton…

* To clarify: Though Polanksi was nominated as Best Director for both Chinatown and Tess, and though he did indeed direct Rosemary’s Baby, he was not nominated as Best Director for that film though he was nominated for writing the screenplay based on Ira Levin’s novel.


2 Responses to “The Ghost Writer, or The Riddle of “How Many Best Picture Nominees Does it Take..?” Part Two”

  1. K.J. 01 August 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Hm. I’ve heard you extol the qualities of this film before, and have yet to check it out. Part of me wonders about the snub, however. Maybe I’m remembering incorrectly, but when this movie came out, wasn’t there a renewed interest in the case against Polanski, completely unrelated to the film’s release? Would the unfortunate politics behind all of this be a reason why the Academy made the decision to overlook the film? It seems cheap, but I think we’ve all learned that scandal can either make or break things. Again, I’m not entirely certain if I’m remembering correctly.

    • listen2uraunt 01 August 2011 at 10:44 pm #

      Hi, K.J. Well, the Polanski case is certainly complicated, that’s for sure. You are basically correct about the renewed attention to the case at or around the time of The Ghost Writer’s release. I actually think the trouble started resurfacing when the movie either went into production or post-production, and as I recall, he was still under house arrest when he won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin film festival (and was unable to attend). Of course, I can imagine that his woes would somehow make him less attractive to Academy members, but would that also affect their abilities to appreciate the contributions of others involved with the film? Also, it’s important to know that the Academy nominated Polanski for Tess–which was also up for Best Picture and won Best Costumes, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography–at a time when the original scandal was still fresh; likewise, by the time he won in 2002/03, his troubles were well known, and the Academy, despite a glut of publicity for Chicago’s Rob Marshall and Gangs of New York’s Martin Scorsese, awarded the Oscar to Polanski anyway (which was too bad for DGA winner Marshall, who helmed the year’s Best Picture winner without anything to show for his efforts.)

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