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

25 Feb

Okay, here we go…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

For Your Consideration: Best Supporting Actor

18 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your consideration…

 

For Your Consideration: Best Supporting Actress

1 Feb

Well, here we are: Oscar season is in full-swing, and to the surprise of no one, La La Land grabbed the lion’s share of nominations, tying for the most nominations with the likes of All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997), both of which went on to win Best Picture honors. Even knowing past history, I’m still not convinced that La La Land can sail to an easy victory, and my guess is that Moonlight, with 8 nominations (including an all important bid for director Barry Jenkins) and Hidden Figures will attract voters who aren’t as easily swayed by La La Land’s razzle-dazzle. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even though Theodore Melfi, the director and co-writer of Hidden Figures, was snubbed for his directorial efforts, the fact that Hidden Figures just claimed “Best Ensemble” honors from the Screen Actors Guild shows strong support for the film, overall–and, please note, La La Land wasn’t even nominated for Best Ensemble by SAG voters. Fancy that.

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Best Actor nominee Denzel Washington (r) and Best Supporting Actress nominee Viola Davis (l) won Tony awards, as Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, for their portrayals in the 2010 revival of playwright August Wilson’s 1987 Tony and Pulitzer winner. Davis is clearly the actress to beat in this category. She and Washington just won SAG awards for their stellar performances.

Elsewhere, setting a new Academy record is Viola Davis, a Best Supporting Actress nominee for Fences (up for 4 awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor, Denzel Washington). Davis has made history by being the first African-American actress to earn a total of three Oscar nods. She was first in the running for her supporting role as a hurt, confused, and protective mother trying to push through an unforgivable tresspass  in 2008’s Doubt, starring Meryl Streep. Three years later, she competed against Streep for Best Actress honors: Davis for The Help and Streep, the victor, for The Iron Lady.  Curiously, Davis is now competing in a race that includes Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), who actually won an Oscar for her supporting turn in The Help. That means that Spencer is now tied with Whoopi Goldberg as the second most nominated African American actress in Academy history, having been nominated for Best Actress (The Color Purple) in 1985/86. and winning Best Supporting Actress (Ghost) in 1990/91. To compare, Davis’s Fences co-star Denzel Washington (already a two-time winner) is in his 7th and 8th Oscar races as he is credited, besides his acting nomination, as one of the Best Picture candidate’s producers..

Based on her recent wins at the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and  SAG awards, Davis looks to be an Oscar shoon-in. Certainly, hers is a towering talent and she masterfully–masterfully–portrays the put-upon wife of Washington’s character. Oh, he’s a slippery SOB, a surly drunk who abuses the trust of his loved ones, especially Davis’  character. Most of the time, she works at being good-natured. Then, she reaches the point at which the betrayal simply hurts too much, consumes her, and she lashes back. But good. In a performance that spans the full emotional gamut, Davis is fierce, ferocious, formidable, and unforgettable, but the Academy has gotten it wrong. The fault is not Davis but the category in which she has been nominated.

Simply, this is Best Actress material as evidenced by the Best Actress Tony award Davis won for the 2010 revival of the play upon which the film is based–also opposite Denzel Washington. To be fair, the great Mary Alice, who originated the role in the 1987 Pulitzer winner, won her award in the Featured (or supporting) rather than Leading category. The Tony committee has concrete guidelines for these distinctions. Typically, performers billed above the title are “leading” while cast members billed below the title are “featured.” Simple enough…unless an appeal by a producer warrants renewed consideration. Obviously, backing up to Mary Alice, it would seem that she had been billed below the title in deference to star-billed James Earl Jones, the marquee draw. At this point, Viola Davis has earned over the title status, so the point should be moot; after all, no less than legendary Bette Davis once famously harrumphed that she would NEVER agree to Best Supporting Actress consideration for any award, regardless of role size, because she was a star and always earned over the title billing. Also, the late Peter Finch railed at the suggestion that his character in Network, famously deranged news anchor Howard Beale, could EVER be considered supporting. The whole story hinged on Beale’s nervous breakdown; however, as the story goes, another take was that if Finch were to be nominated for Best Actor, he would likely split votes with Best Actor hopeful William Holden from the same film. Ultimately, Finch won both the argument and the Oscar, posthumously, of course, but the nomination was already in the bag. Likewise, Anthony Hopkins also bristled at the notion of being listed as supporting player for Silence of the Lambs even though, to this moviegoer’s mind, that would have been the better fit due to the character’s limited screen time, but Hopkins emerged victorious anyway. I still think Nick Nolte should have won that year for The Prince of Tides, but it’s hard to ignore the cultural impact of Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

These controversies and inconsistencies go way, way back by the way. Luise Rainer won her first Best Actress Oscar for 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld in what was essentially a supporting role powered by one well played tearjerking scene; Barry Fitzgerald was actually nominated for Best Actor AND Best Supporting Actor for 1944’s Going My Way, winning the latter and watching top-billed Bing Crosby from the same film carry the former…and then, of course, the dreaded Louise Fletcher being promoted to “Best Actress” status for her role in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to take advantage of what producers saw as an especially weak field of Best Actress possibilities. A strategy that worked, btw. That’s a short list.

Let’s back up just a bit. In contrast to the Tony awards, movie producers and studio marketing personnel may position a performer as either leading or supporting when they launch their awards seasons campaigns, for whatever reasons, but the final call is left to the discretion of voters. This option is how Susan Sarandon garnered her first Best Actress nod, for 1981’s Atlantic City, after Paramount promoted her as a supporting player. Interestingly, Atlantic City and Fences are both Paramount releases, thirty+ years and several studio turnovers apart. I’m surprised Academy members took the “Best Supporting” bait this year, but I shouldn’t be; after all, last year’s winner in the same category (Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl) benefitted from a similar strategy. I guess an Oscar is an Oscar is an Oscar. Winning is winning. Reportedly, the thought is that this year’s Best Actress race is so incredibly competitive, led by Emma Stone in La La Land and Natalie Portman in Jackie, that the powers that be determined Davis would be fare better in the secondary category, and, by all accounts, Davis is fully on board with the idea.If she’s balked, we might be witnessing a different scenario…though I can’t imagine what it’s like being told that one’s work, when one is already a Tony and an Emmy winner, might not be competitive enough for Best Actress, so Best Supporting Actress will have to do. Really?

Again, I was sure that Academy members would reject Paramount’s ploy and nominate Davis in the other category. My thought is that IF Davis had been nominated for Best Actress, she would have won in that category–and handily–and I certainly would have cheered her victory. Davis seizes the roles, seizes the screen, and seizes the audience in the process. She won’t just win this category because she is unquestionably great, she will win because no one else stands a chance because no one else in this lineup has as a role that compares; after all, besides the huge range of emotions involved, Davis has notably more screen time than her competitors, meaning more opportunities to connect with viewers, that is, voters.

Of course, this year’s lineup is interesting in that it features a quartet of Oscar vets, including two previous winners, the aforementioned Spencer and Nicole Kidman, who won Best Actress for 2002’s The Hours and is back in the race for Lion. This is Kidman’s fourth Oscar race, with additional Best Actress nominations for Moulin Rouge (2001) and Rabbit Hole (2010). Another four time nominee is Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea). Her first nod was in this category for 1995’s Brokeback Mountain, but she has also been up for Best Actress twice: Blue Valentine (2010) and My Week with Marilyn (2011).  I can’t imagine that Kidman has much of a chance here though, clearly, her nomination signals healthy support. On the other hand, Williams stands as tough competition. Full confession: I have yet to see her nominated flick, but it’s a major contender, and by all accounts Williams delivers the goods in only a few scenes, and that might be what it takes to steal some of Davis’s thunder.

Here’s something else. Besides Davis’ historic third nod, this is also the first time in Academy history that one performance category celebrates three black nominees. Besides Davis and Spencer, the ballot also includes Naomie Harris as the abusive mother in Moonlight. I think English born Harris, whose character ages more than a decade over the course of the film, has a chance here because her performance so sharply differs from her previous portrayals of Miss Moneypenny in the two most recent 007 entries, in which the character has a lot more oomph than in previous incarnations. This is also a world apart from her role as Winnie Mandela in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013). Harris might invite compassion for the woman she plays in Moonlight, but awarding an Oscar to a woman, a black woman, for playing a crack addict might not seem, well, progressive. This brings us back to Spencer. Hers is true supporting role in major crowd pleaser. I don’t think a second Oscar is in the cards, but I’m still considering that SAG award for the entire Hidden Figures cast, and I wonder if voters might jump at the chance to honor Spencer as a way of honoring the film as a whole. Of course, jumping at that chance involves  a huge leap past Viola Davis in Fences.

 

For Your Consideration: Hidden No Longer

22 Jan
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The stars of Hidden Figures and their real-life NASA counterparts; top (l to r): actresses Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer; bottom (l to r): Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan.  (IMAGE: 20th Century Fox/Madamenoire.com)

What am I doing? I should be writing about the unfortunate passings of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. I started the piece. I need to finish it, and I will; however, I feel compelled to detour, a detour that hopefully leads to a gold plated statuette. You see, for the first time in two years, I am actually looking forward to, or am at least hopeful about, the Oscars, awarded as they are, annually, by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

This is not to say that the motion picture industry has been devoid of quality films over the past few years, far from it, but a certain sameness in the Academy’s choices (and maybe even a smug satisfaction) has rendered the proceedings a little, well, tiresome.

That could all change this coming week when Oscar nominations are announced.

Of course, right now, the movie that has many Oscar prognosticators buzzing is La La Land, an original musical romance set in Los Angeles, and more specifically, Hollywood.  Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who caused quite a stir with 2014’s Whiplash, a Best Picture nominee for which Chazelle earned nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, La La Land just won more Golden Globes than any film in the history of the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Globes’ parent organization. Michael and I saw La La Land on Christmas Day, and we enjoyed it tremendously though more as an exercise in cinematic style than anything else. Oh sure, a live action musical, as opposed to an animated musical or an adaptation of a stage triumph, is a gamble. So there’s that. Plus, the opening LA freeway number is a stunner, and the performances of leads Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (both Globe winners) are enjoyable. I especially liked the number in which they dance while wearing matching shoes, Oxfords. The problem for this viewer is that while, again, I was dazzled by the onscreen action, I never kidded myself that I was watching a breakthrough. Indeed, I felt like I was reliving a lifetime of moviegoing pleasures, among them (in no particular order): 500 Days of Summer, Shopgirl, Annie Hall, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Francis Coppola’s indifferently received quasi-musical, One from the Heart–Michael, btw, also observed multiple similarities to the Coppola film. Additionally, as visually sumptuous as La La Land is, I’m not certain that it has anything on either Hail, Caesar! or Woody Allen’s underrated  Cafe Society in that regard–and they are also both set in Hollywood.

I’m still a bit behind in my moviegoing, so, no, I have not yet seen Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea, but they’re on my list. I especially want to see the former. On the other hand, I have seen Fences, Jackie, and a few others. Also, until recently my favorite movie of 2016 was actually Zootopia. Don’t laugh. There’s a reason why it nabbed Golden Globe and Critics Choice honors, among others, over the more heavily hyped Moana–and even snagged a nod over the hugely popular Finding Dory.

The movie most on my mind right now is Hidden Figures, which aims its lens on the contributions of women of color to the U.S. space program in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the U.S. was in a tight race with the U.S.S.R. for space exploration bragging rights. While these women, originally known somewhat derisively as “West Area Computers” due to the space agency’s segregated campus, numbered  into the hundreds, the movie, and to a lesser degree the book by Margot Lee Shetterly upon which it is based, narrows its focus to three particularly compelling individuals: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe).

This shot of Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan (center) leading her work force to their new office at the Langley compound suitably riffs on a similar image of the Mercury astronauts in 1983's Best Picture contender, The Right Stuff.

This shot of Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan (center) leading her work force to their new office at the Langley compound suitably riffs on a similar image of the Mercury astronauts in 1983’s Best Picture contender, The Right Stuff. (IMAGE: 20th Century Fox/89.3 KPCC)

I’m pulling for Hidden Figures to conquer the Oscars for two reasons. First, it’s movie I don’t feel like I’ve already seen a dozen or more times. Sure, we’ve seen  The Right Stuff (1983) and Apollo 13 (1995), fine wonderful pictures and major Oscar contenders, but those stories focused on men, white men, and traded in nostalgia for a truly exciting chapter in American history without much scrutiny regarding the concurrent struggle for civil rights–and right there in the heart of NASA and its predecessor, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). These women, highly skilled math and science professionals, worked just as hard (maybe even harder) behind the scenes as the men on the front lines who elicited fawning admiration, headlines, and parades. Oh sure, it could be argued that Johnson, Vaughan, Jackson and all the rest were simply doing their jobs, but they were doing them under extraordinary circumstances, fighting in their own way for dignity and equality in the workplace–and often under amplified scrutiny. In that regard, Hidden Figures is a potent reminder that we need not ever be too complacent about progress because it doesn’t come easily and can be quite deceptive, that is, from the outside looking in, as opposed to the reverse.

The second reason I’m rooting for Hidden Figures is because it does something that used to be taken quite for granted at Oscar time. Specifically, it bridges the gap between more big budget, action oriented hits that studios crank out and the s0-called smaller films that have become Academy faves as of late, no doubt contributing to the declining ratings of the annual Academy telecast, and, I think, its credibility. In its first two weekends’ worth of wide release (that’s two weekends not two weeks), Hidden Figures has sold more tickets, drawn more moviegoers, than either of the last two Best Picture winners, Spotlight (2015) and Birdman (2014) in their entire domestic runs. That would be $54 million (and counting) for Hidden Figures compared to 45 mil and 42 mil, respectively. At this rate, I think Hidden Figures can easily reach the 100 million mark. [As of this writing, now three weekends into wide release, it has earned $84 million at the box office, not too far behind La La Land at 89 mill.] While I would never argue that a movie’s popularity serves as an infallible indicator of its lasting merits, as plenty of cheesy flicks have also performed very well at the box-office, I also know that once upon a time the Academy responded readily to movies that scored as both commercial and artistic triumphs. Please don’t make me go all the way back to 1939 to list such victors, but I can point to such fairly recent Academy honorees as Argo (2012) and The King’s Speech (2010) as examples that seemed to capture the public’s imagination, earning big bucks (100+ million) while also currying favor among Academy members.  Wedged in between those two on Oscar’s honor roll is the French produced curio The Artist, a pastiche about the passing of  Hollywood’s silent film era. It grossed approximately 45 million in the States.

Oh, and that’s another point worth making. What do The Artist, Argo, and Birdman all have in common?  They are all movies essentially about movies, moviemaking, and movie makers.  Even  fact-based Argo. Though it concerns itself with the Iranian hostage crisis–and those stranded in Iran as a result–Ben Affleck’s Best Picture winner still does so within the framework of Hollywood trappings–as a front for a rescue operation. Enough, already. La La Land essentially features more of the same, that is, movie love at its most infatuated. Is it a wonder why, say, sometimes, Hollywood’s biggest and brightest celebrities are often accused of being, oh, I don’t know, smug and out of step with less glitzy, less privileged, Americans?  Hard to argue against that when three of the past five Best Picture winners are movies about movies. Hidden Figures succeeds as a powerful antidote to that notion. Btw, once upon a time, movies about movies  were not as embraced by the Academy as they are now, witness the likes of Sunset Boulevard (1950), nominated for 11 Oscars while winning 3, none in the 6 major categories, and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), nominated for only two of the fabled statuettes, taking home neither. Even Robert Altman’s vaunted The Player went 0 for 3.

Hidden Figures features strong performances by two acclaimed actresses, Taraji P. Henson, a previous Oscar nominee for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as a Globe winner and Emmy nominee for her singular portrayal of “Cookie Lyon” in Empire; and Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner for 2011’s hugely popular The Help. The film also features singer Janelle Monáe in one of her two heralded 2016 film appearances, the other being Moonlight. Spencer, well on her way to being a national treasure due to her formidable talent, likable persona, and eye for picking material, appears poised for her second Oscar race in the Best Supporting Actress category. She’s done pretty well this far into the awards season, garnering nominations for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors’ Guild award, among others. Monáe, the relative novice, has also earned awards consideration for her work in this film and the aforementioned Moonlight,  including a Critics’ Choice nod.

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Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures: The eyes have it. The eyes tell the story. (IMAGE: 20th Century Fox/TheMovieMy Life)

My focus today is directed toward Henson. Her character emerges as the true lead in the film, a highly skilled mathematician, a former child prodigy, with an emphasis in analytic geometry, whose calculations exceed even the newfangled computer from IBM. We know for a fact, as depicted in the film, that no less than John Glenn asserted that he didn’t want to board his Mercury space vehicle without Johnson (“the girl”) verifying his coordinates first. That’s the truth. How often do we get to see a woman of this caliber in movies, and under these circumstances? Oh, sure, Henson has a great moment when she has had her fill of office politics in the Jim Crow era, and lashes out accordingly. Impressive enough, but what about everything else? Her character is simply in awe of math in general, numbers, and theory. And she expresses this frequently, silently, when she steps up to a chalk board to work her way through a complicated equation. Look at her face, her eyes. Additionally, notice how she moves, with a purpose, yes, but also as a woman who has learned her status in an environment so artlessly dominated by white men. In other words, she’s always aware of her every move, walking a very fine line in the name of self-preservation at almost all times. Pay attention.

So far, Henson has not attracted as much awards brouhaha as Spencer, or not as much from the high profile groups that function as strong Oscar indicators,  and that genuinely surprises me. Here’s what we know. Women of color, specifically black women, are among the most underserved, underrepresented demographic in mainstream Hollywood films. Black actresses simply do not get the same number of opportunities as white actresses. That, for better or worse (mostly worse), is a given; therefore, black actresses are not nominated for Oscars as frequently as are their white counterparts. Of course, we know that this problem extends to women of color in general, but I’m trying to make a specific point about black actresses…for now (TV, as we’re seeing with Henson, Kerry Washington [two Emm noms for Scandal], Viola Davis [an Emmy and SAG winner for How to Get Away with Murder], and the amazing Regina King [now a two time Emmy winner for the American Crime anthology series] along with Uzo Aduba [two Emmy awards–in two categories–for Orange is the New Black and Tracee Ellis Ross [a Golden Globe for Black-ish] outpaces film by obvious leaps and bounds.) After all, how many black Best Actress nominees have there been since Halle Berry’s historic win fifteen years ago? Exactly three: Gabourey Sidibe (Precious, 2009), Viola Davis (The Help, 2011), and Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild, 2012), for a whopping total of 10 in the Academy’s approximately 90 years of existence. Not that Tyler Perry doesn’t do his part to develop challenging roles for actresses, per Henson in I Can Do Bad All By Myself. Meanwhile, progress is more evident among supporting players as 4 of the past 10 winners have been black actresses: Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls, 2006), Mo’Nique (Precious, 2009), the aforementioned Spencer, and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave, 2013); moreover, when Henson was in the race for Benjamin Button, she competed in her category against a knockout Davis in Doubt. Of course, without disparaging the achievements of these most excellent actresses, it’s still a little discouraging to know that when award worthy roles for black actresses come along, they are frequently less than progressive: welfare moms, maids, and slaves, for example. 

Do I think that Henson should be nominated–or, better, win–just for playing a successful black woman who isn’t a domestic? Gosh, no. But as a moviegoer, I appreciate it when a film or a performance shows me something I’ve never seen or takes me somewhere I’ve never been, so right now Henson’s performance feels fresh and exciting–more exciting than, say, watching Natalie Portman portray Jackie Kennedy, even portraying Jackie Kennedy in a way that many of the seemingly endless TV movies about her can hardly compare…but so what? Plus, I think it’s high time that both the Academy’s and mainstream Hollywood’s choices begin looking like the rest of America.

Who knows? Maybe Henson will find herself in a race that includes, besides obvious contenders Stone (she of the wispy singing voice) and Portman, Ruth Negga in Loving, based on the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that effectively put an end to laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and Viola Davis, currently being touted as a potential Best Supporting Actress nominee for reprising her Tony winning role as Denzel Washington’s put upon wife in Fences. For my money, Davis is clearly a leading rather than supporting contender, but Paramount–with the actress’ apparent consent–thinks otherwise; however, it’s the voters, not studio marketing gurus, who will make that final determination. This could lead to an interesting turn. But I digress.

Nominations are literally around the corner, and Hidden Figures, by virtue of its Producers Guild and SAG Best Ensemble nominations seems well poised to snag a Best Picture nomination. Director Theodore Melfi might not be as fortunate EXCEPT that he has snagged nominations in various races for co-adapting the screenplay, a good sign. Plus, as noted, Spencer looks good right about now as well. If nominations materialize in these three categories, I’ll be pleased. If Henson lands a nomination as well, I’ll be over the moon with gratitude.

Thanks for your consideration…

All grosses reported via Box Office Mojo – http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

Madamenoire.com – http://madamenoire.com/712204/hidden-figures/

89.3 KPCC, Southern California Public Radio – http://www.scpr.org/news/2017/01/13/68124/hidden-figures-star-octavia-spencer-hosts-free-scr/

TheMovieMyLife – https://themoviemylife.com/2016/08/15/hidden-figures-2017-new-trailer-starring-taraji-p-henson-octavia-spencer-janelle-monae/

“Magic.”

13 Dec

Sleepless in Seattle isn’t a Christmas movie, but it’s not NOT a Christmas movie, either…

So, there I was, glued to the TV set that February morning in 1990, eagerly waiting for the announcement of Oscar nominees for the 1989 film year.  I chose to tune-in to Good Morning America with then host, good ole Charles–Charlie–Gibson, an unabashed Oscar enthusiast. Among Gibson’s projected faves was Meg Ryan, enjoying a commercial and critical breakthrough with director Rob Reiner’s smash When Harry Met Sally… And why not? Ryan had already snagged a Golden Globe nomination and had plenty of name recognition. Furthermore, at that point, with only Jessica Tandy (Driving Miss Daisy) and Michelle Pfeiffer (The Fabulous Baker Boys) the only sure things, the Best Actress race seemed wide open. Ryan, Andie MacDowell (sex, lies, and videotape), and Kathleen Turner (War of the Roses) were heavily favored in some quarters.  I was rooting for some or all of the above, but mostly Jessica Lange (Music Box) who seemed to only have an outside chance against actresses in better received films.

And then it happened. Ryan was not among the five finalists, and Gibson seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed, if not incredulous, and he was not alone by any stretch. For example, my mother loved When Harry Met Sally…, but my relationship with it is a little more complicated because I don’t love it though I like it as a friend. I saw it when it first came out, and I enjoyed it very much while I watched it, but even then it seemed like a bit of a Woody Allen retread, a not uncommon observation. Yeah, I guess Meg Ryan is adorable in it, and, yes, she has that much lampooned scene in the deli in which she explains to Harry (Billy Crystal) how easy it is for a woman to fake an orgasm, and I think it’s cute that the two of them enjoy calling each other and talking during Casablanca, but I just don’t love the movie as a whole.

By the time Meg Ran appeared as Sally at a mere 28, she had already been acting in movies and TV since about the tender age of 18, but she wasn’t a star, that is, she wasn’t a star…yet. Of course, When Harry Met Sally… changed all that, and Ryan emerged as one of the most popular actresses of the early-to-mid 1990s. During the years between, say, 1990 and 1994, she starred in a number of high profile releases, not all of them necessarily huge hits, but those films revealed Ryan to be a particularly game,  risk-taking actress with a range that might not have been given its full-due. Consider that fresh from the success of When Harry Met Sally…, she segued to Joe Vs. the Volcano, an interesting failure from Oscar winning writer–turned director–John Patrick Shanley starring Ryan’s most famous acting partner, Tom Hanks. What’s interesting about this odd little flick is that while Hanks plays only the singular title character, Ryan portrays three women, each completely unique from the others. She scarcely looks like good ole Meg in one particular incarnation. The effect is a bit of stunt that’s not 100% successful, but Ryan rolls with the challenge. In 1992’s Prelude to a Kiss, opposite Alec Baldwin, and based on the Tony nominated play, Ryan portrays a new bride whose body is hijacked by a elderly, dying, man who crashes her wedding. In the first half (or third) of the film, Ryan bounces along as a slightly hesitant bartender falling in love with a man who adores her in a way she is not used to being adored. In the last half, she plays her character as if suddenly reinvigorated. Ryan portrays a man playing out his idea of how a young woman, a bride, no less, should walk, talk, and generally enjoy herself on a sun-soaked island honeymoon, but it’s not all cheap laughs. In one particularly powerful scene, Baldwin tearfully confronts the stranger masquerading as his wife and pleads for her return, but Ryan remains coldly defiant, revealing one of her greatest assets as an actress: listening. Really, really, listening.

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Coincidentally, Holly Hunter, 1993’s Best Actress Oscar victor for The Piano won damn-near universal acclaim for portraying a mail-order bride who, for reasons never entirely explained, remains mute. Like Ryan’s Annie, Hunter’s Ada makes listening look like art. She just does it on a seemingly deeper, more profound, level, and good for her. Writing this piece is in no way sour grapes against Hunter as her performance in The Piano is a truly singular achievement, one my all-time favorites, but a nomination for Ryan would have been a nice touch; after all, so strong was Hunter’s grasp on the statuette from the moment The Piano premiered at Cannes, it almost didn’t matter who else was nominated that year. No one stood much of a chance though Angela Bassett (pulling out all the stops as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It?) was well situated as a possible spoiler. The rest of the bunch included Stockard Channing (reprising her acclaimed stage role in Six Degrees of Separation), Emma Thompson (The Remains of the Day), and Debra Winger (Shadowlands, opposite Anthony Hopkins–who also co-starred in Thompson’s film as well). Winger was enjoying something of a comeback, thanks to strong notices in both Shadowlands and A Dangerous Woman. Of the nominees, only Thompson looms (or loomed) as a weak link, but not because she wasn’t splendid. Of course, she was, but she had just won the previous year (for Howard’s End, also opposite Hopkins); moreover, Thompson’s role in Remains of the Day doesn’t dominate her film as thoroughly as her competitors do theirs. Of course, even if Thompson had not been nominated, Ryan would have been far from a sure thing, thanks to the likes of Jodie Foster (Sommersby), Ashley Judd (Ruby in Paradise) and Michelle Pfeiffer (The Age of Innocence), to name a few other high profile contenders.

Between June of 1993 and December 1994, Ryan pushed herself to new heights in a quartet of wildly different films. First, she reunited with Hanks in Sleepless in Seattle, a romantic comedy inspired by the vintage Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr weepie from the 1950s (itself a remake). The catch is that Ryan and Hanks share almost no screentime. Instead, their characters fumble across the map until finding each other atop the Empire State Building in the last reel. The Nora Ephron sleeper netted Ryan her second Golden Globe nomination. Next, was Flesh and Bone, a slice of Texas-noir in which Ryan co-starred (for the third time) with Dennis Quaid, her then husband. He’s a drifter, and she’s a down on her luck party girl. Unbeknownst to her, they harbor an almost unimaginable secret that leads to a confrontation with Quaid’s menacing dad, played by James Caan. Also on board in one of her earliest film roles? None other than future Oscar winner, Gwyneth Paltrow–riveting–as Caan’s wisecracking heartless sidekick. In the spring of ’94, Ryan landed her most demanding role up to that time, playing an alcoholic wife and mother in When a Man Loves a Woman. Ryan earned her first and so far only Screen Actors Guild award nomination, but neither a Globe nor an Oscar nod, in yet another year marked by much hand wringing that members of the Academy would not be able to find five suitable Best Actress candidates. Of course, history shows that movies about addiction often attract the Academy’s interest. Not so in this instance, but When a Man Loves a Woman still rates a second look, not only for Ryan’s powerful performance but also because it shifts focus from the usual Hollywood take and explores the role of the enabler in such situations, in this case played by Andy Garcia as the husband who tries to help Ryan in all the wrong ways. Ouch. Finally, December of 2004 found Ryan in a Doris Day-Rock Hudson style piece of fluff known as I.Q. Ryan’s character is, improbably, presented as the niece of no less than Albert Einstein, wittily played by Walter Matthau. Tim Robbins makes the most of his role as a mechanic with a crush on Ryan, but he over-estimates his appeal by passing himself off, with Einstein’s full-support, as a scientist–a plot, less the Einstein part, that at least partially recalls Day’s own Lover Come Back. Alas, I.Q., with all its whimsy proved to be a difficult sell for Paramount Pictures, but it’s a fine piece of entertainment, anchored not only by wonderful performances but also the exquisite touch of director Fred Schepisi.

No, Meg Ryan never reaped an Academy nod in spite of her considerable audience appeal–not that one necessarily translates to the other. Of course, Ryan famously gave up the role of Shelby in Steel Magnolias when presented the opportunity to star in When Harry Met Sally…. We all know what happened next: up and coming Julia Roberts, not nearly as well known as Ryan at the time, came on board and earned her first Oscar nomination for playing Steel Magnolia‘s pivotal role. Who knows if Ryan would have reaped the same accolades, but it is what it is.  Certainly, being the female lead in a project helmed by hitmaker Rob Reiner seemed more strategically sound than being in a female-led ensemble featuring three Oscar winners: Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, and Olympis Dukakis.  Of all Ryan’s most acclaimed performances, the one that arguably had the best chance of meeting the Academy’s approval is When a Man Loves a Woman. I certainly would not have balked at that. Her performance was as compelling as just about anything that actually found favor with the Academy during the 94/95 awards season.

That noted, the one Meg Ryan performance that strikes me as the one that Oscar truly got away from is in the aforementioned Sleepless in Seattle, a movie most appropriate to the current holiday season. No, technically, it does not begin with Christmas festivities, thanks to a brief prologue, but the story begins in earnest on Christmas Eve when Ryan, as a Baltimore Sun reporter, introduces her mild mannered fiancee (Bill Pullman) to her stuffy family over dinner. Later the same evening as Ryan’s Annie drives to Washington D.C. to meet her future in-laws, she flips her radio from one station to the next and soon becomes intrigued with the plight of Sam, aka “Sleepless in Seattle,” a widower whose son phones the “Dr. Marcia” show in hopes of helping his dad find love again. Against her better judgment, Annie cannot help but be drawn into a stranger’s story of meeting and falling in love–like magic–with this deceased wife, and his sense of profound loss. Of course, Annie loves her fiancee Walter, but she does not necessarily believe in magic, so why can’t she stop thinking about lonely Sam and his sad story?

Referring back to the powerful scene in Prelude to a Kiss in which Ryan’s newly “possessed” character listens defiantly to Alec Baldwin pleading for the return of his less aggressive wife, Sleepless in Seattle allows this actress plenty of opportunities to focus on the challenges of listening in a way that registers cinematically. Essentially, co-writer and director Nora Ephron charges Ryan with silently registering the emotional journey of a woman, who generally appears to be easily placated, as she finds herself slowly falling in love with a man she knows only by voice. The first and most powerful stage of this journey begins when Annie first hears about Sam (Hanks) while driving alone late at night. Her growing infatuation is subtle until she realizes something deep within her has been touched in a way she could not have imagined. Of course, Meg Ryan while not movie star gorgeous, a la Michelle Pfeiffer, is nonetheless, photogenic. That’s a bonus, but just look at how she exquisitely modulates a host of changes. Now, consider that when the scene was filmed, Hanks was likely nowhere in sight, and Ryan probably didn’t even have the benefit of playing off a recording of him reading his character’s lines. My educated guess would be Ephron filmed Ryan’s closeup as she responded to a burly crew member or an eager production feeding her the lines just off-camera, making her performance all the more remarkable. I first saw this movie when I was in my early 30s, only a year older than Ryan herself, and I didn’t even know how to drive at that time; however, since that first viewing, my life has changed significantly, and I have had many opportunities to make those solo treks late at night, and I now well know what it’s like to be puttering along, alone, and how the (relative) stillness and the radio can unlock suppressed memories, feelings, leading to slight or not so slight crying jags. Know what I mean? That’s what Ryan does in this film.

She actually performs an encore or two of the same scene, both late at night, of course, but in the cozy confines of the teeny kitchen of something resembling a famed Baltimore row house, close to the water. In the first variation, she tosses and turns in bed, literally inches from her snoring fiancee, and slowly creeps downstairs, and perhaps not so reluctantly turns on the portable radio while she sits at the table and, exquisitely, peels an apple. This being a movie, and a movie about how audiences love movie romance, the Dr. Marcia show is on at that very moment, airing a highlights show that revisits the whole “Sleepless in Seattle” bit. Ryan is so damned good at this that even with her face partially obscured, the audience registers what she’s feeling, what she’s thinking because, to clarify, we’ve already seen her experience it once, so we know without her necessarily repeating herself to the nth degree. Smart stuff. In another scene, having been tipped off by her friend and colleague (played by ever-reliable Rosie O’Donnell) to a new wrinkle in Sam’s saga, Ryan once again finds herself in the kitchen late at night, only this time she hides in the broom closet, lest she be busted by her beau. This scene is played strictly for laughs, and it’s fun watching Ryan engage in a little bit of slapstick as she tries to squeeze into the tiny closet.

Over the past decade or two, we have seen the likes of Hanks (Cast Away), Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Robert Redford (All is Lost), and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), star in movies in which they share limited time with other performers, their characters adrift in unthinkable, uninhabited surroundings. Such enterprises can be construed as either the pinnacle of acting challenges or misguided strokes of vanity. What Meg Ryan does in Sleepless in Seattle is a bit different in that the effect is used sparingly and because, even when she’s not physically sharing space with another actor, she’s always listening and responding as if another actor is present. Also, even though Ryan and Hanks are kept apart throughout most of the movie, she still plays off two formidable performers, meaning Rosie O’Donnell and Bill Pullman.  Ryan and O’Donnell really do seem like old pals, whether in the workplace, grabbing a bit of lunch, gabbing on the phone, or, best of all, parked in front of the TV while watching An Affair to Remember and scarfing snacks. Pullman, meanwhile, turns out to be a real find, bringing substance to a role that doesn’t offer many prospects; however, he reveals in his last scene with Ryan that he certainly isn’t a pushover. And good for him. Oh, and a special shout-out to David Hyde Pierce, barely known by mainstream moviegoers at the time, for being so perfectly in-sync as Annie’s brother. Physically, Pierce and Ryan match up nicely as siblings, but they also share a sense of deft comic timing, quite effectively.

Even though Sleepless in Seattle gets its title from Hanks’ character and his  son’s matchmaking propensity, Ryan is the draw for me even though the script seems rigged in Hanks’ favor. Certainly, his character seems more sympathetic than Ryan’s does, a near inevitability remarked upon by both writer-director Epron, and her producing and screenwriting partner, sister Delia Ephron. Maybe that’s why I admire Ryan’s performance to the degree that I do–because she has to work harder since her character is not as sympathetically drawn as is her co-star’s Furthermore, Ryan’s Annie comes across as a bit of, well, a stalker. She even misappropriate company resources in her effort to track down, and, yes, stalk Hanks. She even does so with the covert blessing of her supervisor, that would be O’Donnell. Ethical considerations seem not to bother these two, but, maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing; after all, it’s just a movie, right? Indeed, Sleepless in Seattle is especially synthetic in that regard as the romantic longing that marks the movie’s first several sequences gives way to an increasingly obvious riff on Ryan’s favored old movie, An Affair to Remember. Maybe not plot point for plot point, but close enough Ultimately, as, again, affirmed by Ephron, Ephron, and Ryan on the Sleepless in Seattle DVD, this whole enterprise celebrates the power of movie romance, pure and simple. Yep, it’s a movie about movie romance because, and the point is indeed valid, by this point we are all groomed to expect real love, real romance, the way we see it depicted in the movies. Think about it. The effect is overwhelming.

Indeed Ephron, both Ephrons, have a point in that we do take our cues, and build our expectations for love and romance, from the movies. We want to feel like we’re in love in a movie, complete with backlighting, filters, and a really cool musical score. Similarly, many of us react just as fervently to the Christmas holidays, meaning we have absorbed the way Christmas is portrayed in movies, everything from It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to A Christmas Story and Home Alone. And this is where I came in. No, Sleepless in Seattle is not a Christmas movie, but it’s not NOT a Christmas movie either. Certainly, like An Affair to Remember, it’s worth curling up in front of the TV with a full complement of snacks, taking a breather from  the holiday crunch, or watching with a loved one.  Enjoy, and may the magic of the holiday season be yours.

Thanks for your consideration…

 

 

Windows ’84

13 Nov
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This is a version of the poster and/or ad art that MGM used to try to sell Garbo Talks to moviegoers in 1984. I actually like this the simplicity or whimsy of this poster quite a bit and even though its style is consistent with the film’s animated title sequence, it’s a failure as a movie marketing tool. It looks more like a children’s picture book cover than a poster for a seriocomic tale of a dying woman’s last wish.  (Michael says it reminds him of A Charlie Brown Christmas.) Almost nothing significant of the plot is revealed, right? Of course, studio execs are loathe to let on that any movie features someone suffering a terminal illness. Too much  of a downer. Then, of course, there’s the little matter of the illustration and how the female looks rather generic.  She certainly does not look like the mother of the male figure. Here again, the studio opted out of promoting the star power of Anne Bancroft, a proven Oscar winner in her early 50s at the time, but playing a character  likely a decade older. Again, a dodge designed to “fool” younger audiences, lest they be turned off by a movie about a mature woman. When the movie’s early box office returns proved anemic, the studio regrouped and issued a new ad featuring an image, lifted from the film, of Anne Bancroft in a funny pose, surrounded by quotes from reviewers lauding her performance, alas, not to be found on the Internet. The male figure, btw, scarcely resembles Silver, an actor I first noticed on the old Rhoda sitcom, but I digress. “Sometimes,” the poster’s tag reads, “you can catch a star.” Sometimes, as well, people whose job is is to sell movies are timid or have no idea how sell a movie that does not present instant appeal to 14 year old boys. (IMAGE: IMDB)

Have you heard? Director and sometime writer Sidney Lumet, a five time Oscar nominee who passed away in 2011, is the subject of a new documentary, By Sidney Lumet (directed by Nancy Buirski). I hope to see it because I am a huge Lumet fan. He had one of the most distinguished careers of any filmmaker of his era even though his only Oscar was of the honorary distinction. I missed the fairly recent documentary about Brian De Palma, so maybe I’ll be more diligent about this new offering.

So, here is what has happened. A couple of years ago, David Itzkoff wrote a book entitled The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies–that “Angriest Man” might appear to be a reference to the stark raving anchor man played to Oscar’s hilt by the late Peter Finch, or even Lumet himself, but it’s actually directed toward screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, also an Oscar winner, Network‘s true guiding force. I don’t necessarily love the 1976 feature that inspired Itzkoff’s tome–but then, I’m not sure that “love” is what anybody had in mind when the greenlight was given to make a movie that takes (took) aim at the corrupt world of television and its crippling effect on society as a whole. That noted, the things I like about the film, I like a whole heck of a lot; after all, Academy nominations for 5 performances, among a host of nods, with three winners is pretty impressive. Anyway, Michael gave me a copy for my birthday, and between that and my Network DVD and all its extras, I was in Lumet heaven for about a week or so.

I got so caught up in my Network mania, that I pulled out my copy of Lumet’s own book, Making Movies. Of all the many, many books I have on the business of making movies and “behind the scenes” accounts of many classic films, Lumet’s book ranks incredibly high on my list. He takes the reader through the step by step process of how he makes movies, including a run-down of an average day on one of his sets, but Lumet also devotes each chapter to a particular facet of moviemaking: developing a script, scouting locations, casting actors, rehearsing, shooting, editing, etc. Into this account, he weaves recollections of specific situations over the course of his illustrious career, devoting a lot of ink to 12 Angry Men, Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Pawnbroker, Network, Prince of the City, and The Book of Daniel. I don’t think he completely skips over Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, or The Verdict–I know he doesn’t–but he doesn’t write about them as vigorously, it does not seem, as the others. Interesting that he invests as much as he does in Prince of the City and, especially, The Book of Daniel since they are not necessarily among his more esteemed entries. The latter, based on E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalized account of the aftermath of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions (starring Timothy Hutton) was pretty much a dud–on the heels of the highly successful The Verdict, no less. Lumet even details some of the obstacles he faced while trying to film his ill-fated big screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show The Wiz on location in New York City.

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Sidney Lumet is one of my faves among faves. In his storied career, he earned 5 Oscar nominations: 4 as Best Director (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict) and another as co-adapter, with Jay Presson Allen, of the screenplay for 1981’s Prince of the City. Alas, he never won a competitive Oscar in spite of being one of the most prestigious, and most consistent, directors of the 1970s and 1980s. The Academy finally saw fit to bestow an honorary award to him in 2005. Better than nothing, but consider the following: the quartet of movies for which he earned directing nods were also Best Picture nominees; moreover, his films garnered a total of 18 performance nominations with a total of four wins: Ingrid Bergman (Best Supporting Actress, Murder on the Orient Express, 1975), Faye Dunaway (Best Actress, Network, 1976), Peter Finch (Best Actor, Network, 1976), and Beatrice Straight (Best Supporting Actress, Network, 1976). Network, by the way, is one of only 15 films to boast acting nominations in all four performance categories (with William Holden, also Best Actor, and Ned Beatty, Best Supporting Actor, rounding out the bill). Furthermore, only Network and A Streetcar Named Desire can boast acting wins in 3 of the 4 acting categories, with no film claiming 4 for 4 so far. Per AMC Filmsite, Lumet is tied for 6th place among directors with the most acting nominations and also 6th place among directors with the most acting winners. (IMAGE: IMDb)

One movie that Lumet scarcely mentions in his book is 1984’s Garbo Talks. There are probably at least two understandable reasons why this film in particular is not among Lumet’s priorities. First, Garbo Talks is not a typical Lumet film, meaning his speciality, the massive undertaking known as The Wiz or glamorous Murder on the Orient Express notwithstanding, is gritty drama: the dirt and grime of the big city, betrayal, corruption, the seamy underside of what should be our bedrock institutions. In other words, Lumet’s approach is hard hitting in a way that does not signal comedy, and Garbo Talks is quite a peculiar comedy since one character’s impending demise is announced fairly early. In spite of that, the movie proceeds on an oddball, mostly light-hearted, course. To clarify, Lumet often brings out the humour in bizarre situations, as evidenced in both Dog Day Afternoon and Network, but the emphasis is never on jokes, punch lines. The humour in those movies stems from discomfort, human foibles, and the absurdities of life’s hard-knocks. Garbo‘s laughs are more obvious though, again, juxtaposed with the scenario of a dying woman.  The second reason that Lumet might not want to go on and on about Garbo Talks is the simple fact, owing no doubt to the first reason, is that it sank at the box office. Most moviegoers probably couldn’t get their heads around the idea of Sidney Lumet making a comedy, about a dying woman, no less. It didn’t help, of course, that despite some encouraging reviews, especially for star Anne Bancroft, MGM didn’t really know how to market the thing.

Moving on, here is what interests me about Garbo Talks. In his book, Lumet makes a point of differentiating what a movie is about as opposed to its plot. For example, the  plot of Garbo Talks, scripted by Larry Grusin, concerns a devoted, if exasperated, thirtysomethingish son, Gilbert Rolfe (Ron Silver) trying to fulfill his dying mother’s lifelong wish of meeting Greta Garbo by tracking down the reclusive cinema icon in [then] modern day New York City, encountering a cast of colorful characters along the way.  That’s the plot. But what is the function of the plot, what purpose does it serve? What, again, is this movie about? I’ll tell you what I think it’s about. And I hate ending sentences with prepositions, by the way. I think what Garbo Talks is really about is a man and his relationship with windows.

Let me back-up just a bit. I saw Garbo Talks TWICE in theatres back in its minuscule run back in the fall of 1984, and one of the things that made a lasting impression on me was how Lumet framed two characters, two actors, against windows with almost magical views of New York City. Even though Lumet famously shot many movies on location, as opposed to Hollywood sound stages, I feel pretty certain that many of this film’s interior scenes were filmed on sets of some kind, okay, sure, in NYC, and not Hollywood. The point is the views from the handsome town home of Gilbert’s dad, played by Steven Hill, and the strikingly spacious yet “homey” loft of a chirpy young actress (Catherine Hicks) are likely fakes, backdrops that are too good to be true. Stunning, yes, but not the real deal. No matter. Of course, earlier in the movie, before Gilbert’s mother discovers how seriously ill she is, Gilbert’s boss reassigns the young man, an accountant, from the office in which he has comfortably settled into less accommodating quarters. Gilbert is horrified, and he explains that the new office doesn’t have a window like his old office. Gilbert says that. I heard him, but I didn’t pay much attention to it the first time, not even the second time; however, I began to see the bigger picture, so to speak, eventually.

So, this is a movie that I once owned on VHS, and now I own it on DVD, per MGM’s print-on-demand boutique. Anyway, I have seen it several, several, times since 1984, and at some point I began noticing how many times actors are framed against windows, not just the two I noticed during those early viewings, and I made the connection between Gilbert’s dreary windowless office, seen more than once but only specifically commented on twice or so, and all those shots emphasizing oh so many windows. Lumet’s uncharacteristically flat framing, practically proscenium style (like a play) accentuates window placement in almost every set, most often splayed across back walls. Visually, it’s barely more than a filmed play, with only a small handful of scenes requiring more than two actors–almost always a giveaway that the material was originally conceived for the stage though that is not necessarily the case.

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This publicity still features Ron Silver (l) and Anne Bancroft (r), neither of them quite in character (but not NOT in character), with Garbo herself depicted in the background. Estelle Rolfe is one of Bancroft’s most vivid, yet tricky, characterizations. She’s first seen misty-eyed watching an old Garbo movie in bed late at night, and the audience is primed to think of her as a harmless old lady. The next time we see her she’s in jail, more or less for an act of not-so-civil disobedience, followed by another sequence in which she lashes out at a construction crew yelling lewd remarks at females passing their site. Rolfe isn’t having any of it. Harmless old lady, indeed. Bancroft earned a well-deserved Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, but the movie was not a significant enough achievement, in spite of many favorable notices, to warrant Academy recognition though as I recall, no less than Today Show movie critic Gene Shalt harrumped that that year’s batch of Best Actress hopefuls, including stars of three movies depicting women trying to save their farms (Sally Field, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek) would have benefitted from the comedic spark provided by Bancroft, Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone), Mia Farrow (Broadway Danny Rose), and, possibly even Shelley Long (Irreconcilable Differences); meanwhile, one of my good friends, while no less enthusiastic about Bancroft’s performances than I was, figured a Best Actress nomination might have been a stretch since Bancroft’s screen time is noticeably limited compared to Silver’s in spite of the incredible monologue. My friend opined that Bancroft’s monologue wasn’t enough to elevate what is essentially a supporting performance to leading status. I’m not sure I agree,  but it’s an interesting take. (IMAGE: MGM via MovPins)

I thought I understood. Those windows remind Gilbert of what he’s missing–at least per his office. No windows. Then, I made a point of paying closer attention to Gilbert’s apartment. Any windows there? Hmmmm….Lumet has one more trick up his sleeve.

Gilbert and his dutiful, if whiny, wife (played by Carrie Fisher) keep quite a tidy little   apartment, not at all lavish. Slightly cramped as, in an effect seen multiple times throughout the film, the living area doubles as the sleeping area. For most of the movie, consistent with the aforementioned static staginess, Gilbert seems in need of a window both at the office and at home.  Maybe occasionally Lumet hints at the possibility of an apartment window just outside the camera lens, and, okay, the pass-through between the kitchen and the dining area is window-like, but the director withholds the moment of truth for as long as possible before revealing that, yes, indeed, Gilbert’s apartment does have a window…but wait…Lumet, you rascal, you. What unfolds in Gilbert’s life, what shifts, just before Lumet literally turns the camera to show the view from Gilbert’s window?

If you have the access and inclination, I think there are two ways to watch Garbo Talks. First, watch it for the sweet, strangely satisfying tale that it is, the story of a nice Jewish boy trying against almost impossible odds to take care of and please his highly opinionated whirlwind of a mother, a woman who lives to speak out against social injustice, big or small, and to take respite, to revel in, the singular beauty of old-time Hollywood’s most elusive movie star. Notice, how, for instance, Gilbert’s wife and his stepmom seem so strikingly in-sync as though Gilbert had followed his dad’s lead when finding a [new] mate, someone as different from Estelle as possible in the service of self-preservation. Luxuriate in Anne Bancroft’s especially skilled performance, most notably a rapturously single-take monologue in which Estelle recalls her first ever Garbo experience and the many times since when she’s found comfort, refuge, and excitement in the films of her cinematic idol. Notice how Silver, as Gilbert, looks at his mother with such a sweet mix of love, admiration, and exasperation. Relish Silver’s expert timing, his control, as Gilbert navigates a final, pointed confrontation with his prig of a boss (played by ever reliable Richard B. Shull). Take delight in well-etched supporting performances by the likes of Hicks, Hill, Howard Da Silva as a worn-out paparazzo, Dorothy Loudon as a true show-biz eccentric, and Hermione Gingold as a doddering actress who has seen better days–but not by much.

After watching Garbo Talks for the plot and the performances, take it in again–this time focusing on the windows: when and where they appear, how many in a given locale, their various sizes, and their relationship to the actors in a given shot. Maybe turn the sound down, if not off entirely. It’s like a different movie, one seemingly oblivious to Bancroft’s Estelle and her plight, and oblivious even to Garbo. It’s all about windows. The mystery then remains as to why Lumet uses windows the way he does in the film. What point does he want to make? Gilbert makes compromises, as we all do, even if that means denying something that holds value for him: his tiny office window. His mother, of course, is not so mundane as all that. She won’t be swayed until she has given her all to righting a wrong, again, no matter how big or small. Even when she loses, she’ll stick around long enough to spit out the last word. That’s who she is. “We are who we are,” she says. Does she make others around her uncomfortable? Yes, very much so, and that is why Gilbert lets go of petty office politics as often as he does, as easily as he does. Thus, Gilbert does not fight for what he believes. Instead, he gets pigeon-holed into a windowless box.  Estelle Rolfe says repeatedly that she has always accepted the given fact, meaning that in her mind she picks her battles carefully and only commences to blitz when the evidence favors her position. Yet, as a wise man once told me, facts are the enemy of truth. Yes, Estelle Rolfe says what she says, but what she does is quite different. When it suits her, she skews the facts to suit her purpose.

This is the lesson that Gilbert must learn as he embarks upon his quest to find Garbo. He looks through other people’s windows and forgets the fact that if he’s feeling boxed-in, he can rewrite the given fact…because, after all, he has a window, a different window, away from his office, that offers a different set of facts if only he takes the time to consider all possibilities.

Well played, Mr. Lumet, well played.

Thanks for your consideration…

AMC Filmsite: http://www.filmsite.org/bestdirs1.html

Garbo Talks at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0087313/

Sidney Lumet at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001486/

Silver and Bancroft: http://www.movpins.com/dHQwMDg3MzEz/garbo-talks-(1984)/still-1059554560

Love at Large: Noir is All Around

12 Nov

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen passed away earlier this week at the age of 82. Besides being influential among his peers, many of whom covered his material with great reverence, Cohen’s songs cast their spells on many filmmakers who used his music to startling effect. Some examples include Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, and Alan Rudolph’s Love at Large. I wrote about the latter a few years ago, and I repost today in honor of the late Mr. Cohen. Thanks for your consideration…

Confessions of a Movie Queen

Loveatlarge The three Love at Large leads (l-r): Elizabeth Perkins, Tom Berenger, and Anne Archer. At the time of Love at Large’s release, Berenger was still basking in the goodwill generated by his Best Supporting Actor nod for 1986’s Platoon. Interestingly, a year after Platoon, Berenger appeared with beautiful Mimi Rogers and Lorraine Bracco in Ridley Scott’s exquisitely packaged romantic thriller Someone to Watch Over Me. Berenger played a married detective who becomes intimate with an eyewitness (Rogers) in a murder investigation. Unfortunately, the movie was released too close on the heels of  the only slightly similar Fatal Attraction (featuring Oscar nominee Anne Archer) and could not match that film’s powerful hold on audiences. I think Someone to Watch Over Me and Love at Large would make an excellent double feature.

I’ve recently become reacquainted with two of my favorite Alan Rudolph movies. The other night, I turned on my TV…

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