Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Random Oscar Predictions

In 1970, critic John Simon wrote, “If the Oscars, the annual awards of the Motion Picture Academy, were taken simply as an excuse for Bob Hope to crack his occasionally funny jokes, and for the denizens of Hollywood to show off their expensively tacky gowns and toupees, there might be nothing seriously objectionable about the event. The unfortunate thing is that in some, admittedly shrinking, circles, these awards are still believed to have something to do with artistic merit. Despite the disappointment and disgust many of them have been eliciting — when not resulting in mere raucous laughter — the notion persists that there is a connection between the Oscars and achievement, though perhaps invisible to the naked eye.”

And this was in 1970, when movies of quality were still being made, and the Academy Award nominees were pretty solid things like Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H (though to be fair, junk like Airport and Love Story was also nominated). Regarding awards shows, comedian George Carlin wrote in his posthumously published memoir, “Most awards shows are just an excuse for a television show. Showbiz congratulating you but also congratulating itself for being so relevant and important and having the good judgment to pick the best.”

The distinction between artistic merit and commercial spectacle was long ago dissolved, and so everyone must get in on the fun of rooting for their favorite movies (only in Oscar-speak are they called “motion pictures”), directors, actors and actresses to win Oscar statuettes. In today’s media world, you must also concern yourself, evidently, with what every actress is wearing on the “red carpet,” because, god knows, there are few more pressing and important matters in today’s world. Oh no she didn’t wear that dress! What’s with that hair? There are times when a fixation on trivia seems almost criminal.

If you don’t care about the Oscars’ effrontery to art, or just relish, as I do, a good betting opportunity, then picking the Oscar winners can be enjoyable. With those querulous caveats, here are some desultory thoughts and predictions on some of the categories this year.

Best Picture

Wow, ten nominees! Who knew there were that many “great” pictures in 2010? I did not see Inception (sci-fi, ugh) or Toy Story 3 (animation, don’t care) and Danny Boyle's 127 Hours (also known as “A Farewell To Arm” because of the onscreen amputation). About my reluctance to see the latter, I quote Stuart Klawans in The Nation: "127 Hours is a stunt movie, just like Jackass 3D. Both take stunts as their subject matter and were made as stunts in themselves. An evocative word, that. Nobody is sure of its etymology, but people speculate that it comes from the German Stunde, meaning an hour or a lesson. If I had to choose between stunts, I'd say I learned more from my time with the jackasses."

The fight really is between the favorite (or shall we say favourite), The King’s Speech, which has Oscar winner written all over it (British, middlebrow, royalist, congratulates its audience on its good taste, Colin Firth, whom everyone likes), and The Social Network, a slick television-style movie that got many people very excited for reasons that elude me entirely. There are many things one could say about Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg – look at how social media is changing the world! Perhaps the least interesting thing about Facebook is the story of how Zuckerberg may or may not have stolen the idea from a pair of patrician, crew-rowing twins at Harvard (both of which – twins and Harvard – were faked by David Fincher’s annoyingly “clever” special effects). The risible Golden Globes gave the award to The Social Network, because its target audience is younger than the comparatively senescent Academy Awards.

My money, if I had any, would be on the staid, respectable, “classy” The King’s Speech for the gold. And that would at least be a triumph for low-budget films, having cost a modest $15 million to make and earning over $201 million.

Actor in a Leading Role

Not much suspense here; this will go to Colin Firth for his portrayal of the reluctant, stammering King George VI. It was a fine performance, though the drama going on in the background – the constitutional crisis that led to Edward VIII’s abdication – seemed a lot more interesting than the king’s speech lessons.

All of the nominees seem to have done creditable work, though does anyone think Jeff Bridges would win a second year in a row, or that Jesse Eisenberg was all that outstanding in the aforementioned Mark Zuckerbeg’s School Days”? Javier Bardem was affecting in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s extremely long Biutiful, and as I said, sorry, folks, I could not force myself, without compensation, to watch James Franco cut off his arm in 127 Hours. Sue me.

Actress in a Leading Role

To paraphrase another John Simon observation, whenever a pretty actress shows emotion onscreen, she is said to be engaging in “great acting.”

That is the case with Natalie Portman, a serviceable young actress who whispers and trembles her way through Darren Aronofsky’s horror show Black Swan, which is set in screenwriter Mark Heyman’s puerile idea of the world of professional ballet. (It is no more about the ballet than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is about the meat industry.) Adding to the hype is the fact that Portman participates with another “hot” actress, Mila Kunis, in some fairly vivid lesbian-vampire-horror sex in this movie. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of Michelle Williams in the overpraised, overwrought low-budgeter Blue Valentine, which features a lot of over-the-top emoting and some fairly frank sex scenes.

Of the nominated performances, I liked Nicole Kidman’s quietly sensitive bereaved mother in the well made but largely ignored Rabbit Hole. She has virtually no chance of winning. Jennifer Lawrence, the young woman in backwoods meth country in Winter’s Bone is an interesting nominee, as is the appealing Annette Bening in the likeable lesbian-themed comedy The Kids Are All Right – who may be due for Oscar recognition -- but the energy, or what has annoyingly come to be called “buzz,” is all around Portman (unfortunately).

Actor in a Supporting Role

Looking at this list, it appears to me that the contest is between Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech Impediment and Christian Bale in The Fighter. Rush did win as Best Actor for Shine in 1997, and since Firth is winning as Best Actor for the same film, the likely winner is Bale (who really was good in The Fighter).

Actress in a Supporting Role

Experienced betters are putting their money on Melissa Leo in The Fighter for her crazed, over-the-top mom-boxing manager. The performance was a little excessive – I liked Leo better in Frozen River a few years ago – but certainly the most vivid of the bunch. How about young Hailee Steinfeld for her fine, stoic Mattie Ross in True Grit – a leading role nominated in this category to make her more competitive? The two performances are polar opposites in style, so it will be interesting to see who wins. Leo is the favorite, but I think Steinfeld has a good chance.

Best Direction

The Coen Brothers, nominated for True Grit, are beloved by the Academy, but aren't due to win again; perhaps Hailee Sternfeld will win the only major award for that movie. The battle, it seems, is between Tom Hooper for The King's Speech and David Fincher for The Social Network. Since Speech is all but a lock for Best Picture, it's likely that Best Director will go to Fincher, though I personally could never forgive him for his bloated adaptation of one of my favorite short stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. As for The Social Network, its alleged brilliance eludes me. I'm an avid user of social networking (friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter!), but in my view -- which has been roundly criticized -- the trivial subject matter and slick Aaron Sorkin screenplay had a distinct "made for television" flavor. It is likely, however, to win the Adapted Screenplay award.

A word about Mike Leigh's Another Year, a beautiful film that I hope will win for Original Screenplay, though David Seidler's The King's Speech is hard to beat. It's also possible that Lisa Cholodenko and Stuart Blumberg will win for The Kids Are All Right. Original screenplay seems to be a category where comedies can safely be recognized.

In other words, and this applies to all of the awards — I really have no idea.