Now that we’ve settled into post-Bush life and have successfully nursed our Hope hangovers, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences charges in to remind us that some things never change, particularly the grandstanding irrelevance of Hollywood Awards shows.
First, the Golden Globes handed out six acting statuettes last month, of which two went to Kate Winslet and one to a dead man. The remaining three (Sally Hawkins for Happy-Go-Lucky, Colin Farrell for In Bruges, and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler) I can’t quibble with, although it bears mentioning that Rourke’s win stinks of Hollywood politics, the result of a well-publicized “comeback” that somehow made people forget his appearance in a very well-reviewed and popular movie only a few years ago: Sin City.
Now the 81st Oscar nominations were announced this morning, so brace yourself for the inevitable conversations about whether the Academy’s tastes are too highfalutin’ or too populist. The answer this year is “Neither!” In the Best Picture category, the Academy managed to nominate two lukewarmly reviewed movies that also didn’t make much money: The Reader and Benjamin Button. The remaining three all also follow standard Academy conventions of nominating historical impersonations, one dark-horse indie hit, and Ron Howard.
Farrell and Hawkins are also inexplicably absent from the Oscar nominations (the dead guy’s there, though), omissions that are only partially forgiven thanks to the Academy’s recognition of Michael Shannon in Revolutionary Road. But before that bruise is healed, we notice that both Taraji P. Henson (Benjamin Button) and Viola Davis (Doubt) were nominated for playing ancient black-stereotype roles, while Cadillac Records goes completely unnoticed.
Let’s also take note of how two Best Picture nominees (Slumdog and Frost/Nixon) rely on television show structures and drama for their dramatic heft, which is as clear a throwing-in of the metaphorical towel as I could imagine from the Academy. This is the group of people that (theoretically) should be most intent on preserving and advertising the best cinema in the country, and two of their picks for the best movie of the year essentially tell audiences that film is most edifying when it resembles primetime.
Then there’s Milk, the Academy acclaim for which is unbelievably self-serving and cynical. Gus Van Sant’s film is little more than a clunky dramatization of The Times of Harvey Milk, a documentary that won an Oscar 25 years ago. And now the Academy nominates the exact same story, freshly gussied up with name Hollywood talents and played for maximum pathos, for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor awards. Sean Penn’s ongoing real-life parody of a Hollywood liberal stooge (rightfully decried by many gay rights activists) should be enough to show how unserious Milk’s social “commentary” really is. The Academy’s self-righteous stamp of approval only shows how out of touch and eager for easy political acceptance they are.
Just as Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes provides a worthy retort to Benjamin Button, people who still think Milk is profound should revisit the 1996 Milos Forman film The People vs. Larry Flynt, which is a less hagiographic, better made, more joyfully performed and more societally relevant biography of a perceived social deviant cum civil rights advocate. And while the culture-wide lovefest for Slumdog Millionaire still astounds me, I can’t help but think it could be tempered if more people watched Pather Pachali, the first film in Satyajit Ray’s famed Apu Trilogy. Pather Pachali is a heartbreaking, beautiful film by any measure, but its intimate depiction of an indigent Indian family makes Slumdog’s M.I.A.-scored soap opera seem like a pay-per-view WWE special in comparison. Then again, Ray’s talents—gorgeous tracking shots, visual storytelling, immersive pacing—are those of a true filmmaker, whereas our country’s main cinematic organization seems most intent on publicizing celebrity impersonations, outdated politically correct message movies, and, above all else, television.