Monday, February 26, 2007

Oscar Rewind: The Dearly Departed

Let’s not spend too much time analyzing why we watch the Academy Awards. We just do. Yes, the show is always way too long. Yes, the majority of the speeches are always way too dull. Yes, the actresses always make me feel way too fat. No, there are never enough surprises. But we watch because we love. And love to hate.

The Red Carpet:
The talking Barbies on TV Guide’s pre-show predicted lots of neutrals, metallics, minimal beading, and scaled-back flowing goddess gowns. Damned if they weren’t right. Among the night’s best: Cate Blanchett and Jada Pinkett Smith shone in silver and gold, respectively. Penelope Cruz and Rachel Weisz took care of neutral. J. Lo and Kate Winslet covered goddess. Gwyneth Paltrow broke ranks in what I can only describe as a diagonally-pleated, dusty mauve-colored thing—I know it sounds awful and bizarre but was a personal fave of mine.

Most improved goes to Naomi Watts, who showed up last year in couture origami, but turned out last night in a lovely yellow strapless gown with a black sash. Reese Witherspoon, who looked oddly truncated in vintage last year, went for sleek and modern this year, in a strapless midnight-blue/purplish number.

In the loser column: I know I’m not allowed to say anything bad about Jennifer Hudson (dubbed, prematurely IMHO, by Andre Leon Talley, Vogue editor-at-large, as the “new people’s princess.” How about we save the coronation for when she makes a decent second movie.) But the “Dreamgirls” starlet fell victim to what can now only be thought of as “Hudson Syndrome”—as in Kate Hudson, who also, on her first nomination, opted to wear a strange bolero jacket. Granted, Jennifer’s was metallic (so points there), but belonged on the Starship Enterprise. Meryl Streep was her usual mess, accenting her pajama-like kimono and skirt with a chunky Southwest-style necklace (“older” actresses can still be knock-outs—see Helen Mirren). Cameron Diaz, all dressed up in asymmetrical white, but no prom to go to. Kelly Preston in a horrid animal print. Kirsten Dunst—so close in neutral dove gray with silver metallic accents—but yet so far, with ill-fitting Peter Pan collar . Beyonce in key lime pie that matched Kate Winslet but added a thigh-high Miss America slit and rosette shoulder strap.

Surprisingly AWOL from the worst-dressed: Diane Keaton, who left the hat and gloves at home and opted instead for basic black in the form of a tailored skirt and blouse. It wasn’t a knockout but it also wasn’t kookie, and when it comes to Keaton and fashion, that’s saying a lot.

The Show:

I like Ellen Degeneres, but she was so focused on making the nominees feel comfortable, she forgot to entertain the people watching at home. Maybe John Stewart was too biting for some people’s taste, but a little topicality would have gone a long way. Instead, we got a riff on recycled jokes (as an homage to Al Gore), and an actual recycled joke. Twice, after a knock-out production number, Ellen went with “I’d hate to follow that” before introducing the next pair of presenters. Once was semi-amusing, the second time and I began to fear I was trapped in a déjà vu flashback episode of “Lost.”

But the host is actually largely irrelevant to the pacing of the show. It’s the montage-happy producer who needs to go. I counted six of these sleep-inducing clip jobs, including one celebrating 50 years of foreign films at the Oscars and then, just to be fair and balanced, a tribute to American films exclusively (no French allowed). Another saluted composer Ennio Morricone and nothing screams excitement like footage of a man conducting an orchestra. There are plenty of commercials built into the Oscar telecast—we don’t need more bathroom breaks. Stop the montage madness. Now.

Alan Arkin’s upset win in the Best Supporting Actor category provided momentary excitement. I wondered, might this signal a derailment of the inevitable Hudson-Mirren-Whitaker march to victory? Or just that enough voters caught a glimpse of “Norbit” to knock Eddie Murphy out of contention.

Alas, the rest of the evening proceeded as planned. But Whitaker finally threw down the acceptance speech we’ve all been waiting for, something about “the moment of a lifetime, to carry to the end of this lifetime and into the next lifetime.” It was all very passionate and inspirational—and written down a piece of paper, proving once again that behind every good actor is an even better script.

My own personal highlight came during the smash up of the three nominated songs from “Dreamgirls.” I haven’t seen the movie, which might explain why I’m the only person on the planet still immune to Jennifer Hudson’s charms. But while I can’t speak for her acting ability, the girl can sing. Beyonce, in a one-on-one comparison with her co-star, can not. Judging strictly on vocals, which is not how Beyonce is used to being judged, Hudson blew her off the stage, out of the Kodak Theater and all the way to Nebraska. Ms. Knowles wound up resorting to dramatic body contortions and distracting hand gestures as substitutes for depth and talent. I was not fooled.

Other random observations: Whither all the studly men? For the female audience, we had blonde Bond-shell Daniel Craig and Sexiest Man George Clooney but precious little other eye candy, unless you count Leonardo DiCaprio. And I don’t. I know the pundits are convinced Leo is the reincarnation of Cary Grant, but this only leads me to believe that none of them have ever seen a picture of Cary Grant. Give me some Christian Bale. Some Hugh Jackman. And if J. Lo can snag an invite every year despite never appearing in a film remotely worthy of Oscar attention, then so can Eric Bana.

Am I the only one who remembers the ‘80s? How else to explain that no one—not Ellen, not Joan Rivers, not Ryan “King of All Media” Seacrest”—called out Best Song nominee Siedah Garrett, who oddly enough does not try to hide (at least not on her official web site) that she once duet-ed with Michael Jackson on “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” She also penned the Gloved One’s hit “Man in the Mirror” and I can’t decide which is the bigger crime against humanity.

Jodie Foster deserves an Oscar for Best Presenter. She’s the rare actor who actually emotes at the podium and manages to deliver even the most perfunctory telepromptered script with intelligence. On the other end of the spectrum, Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt made a perfect case for banning presenters from categories in which they have a vested interest. The two were on board for Best Costume, and when their “Devil Wears Prada” colleague failed to take home the statuette, they were visibly disappointed for the winner.

Robert Altman won the “In Memorium” applause-o-meter as most beloved dead person.

Comic Relief, Intentional and Otherwise:
Degeneres got off one good bit, vacuuming the Kodak carpet under the raised feet of Gwyneth Paltrow, Penelope Cruz, et al. But most of the really big laughs came well before her opening monologue.

Robert Osborne, the Academy’s official Red Carpet greeter to the stars, to TV Guide’s Barbies: “When did the designers take over the Academy Awards?” The Barbies pretended to agree that the night was about more than “Who are you wearing?” and then threw it over to Joan Rivers.

Joan Rivers to “The Queen” actor Michael Sheen, “I know, Wales is in England.” No, Joan, it’s not.

Richard Roeper’s comment about the Oscar’s international flavor getting lost in translation on Catherine Deneuve, who responded that Australians speak English.

TV Guide’s Greg Proops on J. Lo’s gown, which featured a neckline crafted from multiple strands of diamonds: “Hidden amongst that is one of those ‘Blood Diamond’ [protest] pins.”

Rivers, again, to Melissa Etheridge’s “wife,” Tammy Somethingorother, who recently gave birth to twins: “The breasts are looking good.”

Best Picture, Or Not:
Because, as the Academy and Robert Osborne continue to insist, the Oscars are all about achievement in film, Best Picture is still the most coveted award of the night. This year, the honor went to “The Departed.”

I beg to differ.

Yes, the movie is well-acted (though for my money, the film belongs more to Matt Damon than Leonardo DiCaprio), well-directed and well-scripted. But what’s the point?

I saw the “The Departed” a few weekends ago and then completely forgot about it the moment I left the theater. Well, apart from trying to figure out how to snap my cell phone shut with the same panache as the lead characters. Otherwise, there were no themes to ponder. No life lessons to be learned. (Unless you count this one: If you’re going to blow someone’s brains out when they open the door to their upscale apartment, be sure to wear paper booties over your shoes to cover up any evidence. Because you know CSI: Boston will be all over this case.)

“The Departed” is violent, but that’s nothing new in the genre of gangster bloodbath. As these sorts of flicks go, it’s not even particularly shocking or fraught with tension. Because its characters exist so far outside the realm of what most of us experience as everyday reality, it was difficult for me to drum up sympathy—or antipathy—toward any of these goodfellas (either the cops or the robbers).

Contrast this with “United 93,” which I recently saw on DVD. When the film was initially released in theaters last year, the consensus seemed to be that Americans weren’t ready yet to relive the events of 9/11. But yet we are completely comfortable watching some wise guy get his face smashed in with a coat rack?

I knew the outcome of “United 93” before I pressed the “play” button, yet my stomach still clenched from the opening scene through the final credits. I got so involved in the unfolding drama that I found myself, at times, talking back at the screen—cursing the hijackers, urging the air traffic controllers to put together the pieces of a monumentally confusing puzzle with a little more speed.

Director Paul Greengrass also wrote the screenplay for “United 93.” There are no showy speeches, no verbal pyrotechnics. The language is striking in its normalcy. Early in the film, we see the passengers—hijackers among them—waiting to board their flight. Greengrass eavesdrops on snatches of cell phone conversations that sound like snatches of cell phone conversations.

Such everyday-ness gives this one scene more power than any of the polished brutality found in “The Departed.” It stuck with me for weeks. Any one of us could have been on that plane. (Whereas precious few of us will ever sit across from Jack Nicholson as he removes a wedding ring from a decapitated hand.) The fact that the actors playing the passengers are all relative unknowns only heightens this sense. We identify with these characters and their plight—their story takes on a greater poignancy.

Yes, Greengrass is working with material that for most of us already carries a good deal of emotional heft. But “The Queen” and “Little Miss Sunshine”—also Best Picture nominees—manage to perform similar tricks.

A filmmaker would be hard pressed to find a less relatable character than the Queen of England. Lives in palaces. Carries a sceptre. Yet by the end of the movie, we see her not as a monarch but as an older woman struggling to remain relevant in a society that prizes youth and beauty over experience and loyalty. She’s become one of us. (Heck, who doesn’t have issues with their in-laws.)

In the same way, “Little Miss Sunshine” presents us with characters and situations that are at once exaggerated yet at the same time universally recognizable. No, the average teen doesn’t completely stop talking for months, but they can be mighty moody. We don’t usually take Grandpa’s dead body on a road trip, but we do have difficulty dealing with the loss of a parent. And we frequently make illogical decisions under duress.

I’m not going to argue that either of these films should have won Best Picture. “The Queen” is performance driven, and in the hands of a lesser actress than Helen Mirren, hard to say if it would succeed as well as it does. “Sunshine” lacked the gravitas the Academy likes to recognize (though if there were an award for funniest final 15 minutes ever, this would win hands down).

But I am going to argue against “The Departed.” In a year that featured not one, but two trips to the winner’s circle for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to ask for a recount.


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