Outrage-Free Oscars?

Some things you just have to complain about: traffic, commercials, those “Your call is very important to us” messages, Redskins quarterbacks, etc. The Oscars are usually one of the more enjoyable complaint-worthy subjects. Every year smart asses like me have fun pointing out the Academy’s mistakes and those unfairly snubbed. For me the Oscar errors occasionally move beyond fun into genuine outrage. My friends have no doubt tired of me ranting about Martin Scorsese going home empty. And you may recall that when the Academy ignored Paul Giamatti last year I was probably more upset than his agent.

This year, when the Oscar nominations were announced I got upset about ... well, nothing. Every category had good, solid choices. Sure, here and there I’d like a change or two. But there were no blatant “Say What?” nominations like Chocolat or Gladiator for Best Picture and no serious injustices like Giamatti’s snub last year. The Academy did such an excellent job it’s almost boring.

Ironically, some entertainment media have complained about the lack of star power with this year’s nominees. Only George Clooney and possibly Reese Witherspoon could be considered “movie stars” in the fullest sense of the term. Yes, that might lower the ratings for the Oscar telecast, but I don’t care. To me it’s a show of strength, not weakness. The Academy has chosen to honor many talented but unsung actors. There’s not a single repeat actor from last year. Fourteen out of the 20 actors are first-time nominees. This is what the Academy should be doing: honoring talent and craft, not star power. Who knows? Maybe the nominations will help create new stars.

Let’s look at this year’s crop and hand out some grades:

Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

Grade: B+. Four of these five were on my top ten list for the year. The exception, Munich, was flawed but was nonetheless an ambitious and courageous film that succeeded on many levels. Ideally, I would have preferred that its spot went to The Constant Gardener, which was just as powerful and relevant. The Constant Gardener had better performances. It also featured a stirring ending, rather than Munich, which ended arbitrarily.

Funny how in the ‘80s the Academy was considered Spielberg-phobic. Munich disappointed at the box office, had a mediocre publicity campaign, and was attacked by both the left wing and the right wing. It was overlooked by the Producers Guild of America (normally a string indicator for Oscar Best Picture) in its nominations, but here it is. Never underestimate the power of Spielberg.

Kudos to the Academy for including Crash, even though it debuted in May and was long out of theaters by voting time. Many people responded to this challenging film about prejudice that had no easy answers, and so did Oscar voters.

George Clooney - Good Night, And Good Luck
Paul Haggis - Crash
Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller - Capote
Steven Spielberg - Munich

Grade: A-. Clooney, Haggis, and Miller are all first-time nominees, bringing in some much needed new blood. Fernando Merielles, who directed The Constant Gardener, would have been a fitting inclusion for the same reasons I mentioned for Best Picture. But these are all worthy nominees.

For the first time since 1981, the five Best Picture and Best Director nominations completely matched. Usually you have one or two discrepancies, which never made much sense. While admittedly many people contribute to a movie, the director is the most involved from start to finish. The director is also the one person with a hand in every aspect of the film. It’s only logical that the five best movies had the best direction. I suppose it only took 25 years for logic to set in at the Academy. Not too bad.

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix - Walk the Line
David Strathairn - Good Night, And Good Luck

Grade: A. By far the toughest category. I could argue for Pierce Brosnan in The Matador, Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man, or Ralph Fiennes in The Constant Gardener. But in place of which nominee? All five gave terrific performances.

Three of the nods are particularly gratifying. Terrence Howard always brings more to his part than is written on the page. Whether playing it cool or showing inner turmoil, he has always been completely believable even when his material hasn’t. Hustle & Flow was his first starring role, and he ran away with the film. The part, a pimp turned rapper, let Howard display his tremendous range. Philip Seymour Hoffman also recently crossed over to leading roles after many memorable supporting turns (Boogie Nights, Happiness, Almost Famous). He has a knack for finding the soul in unusual, often difficult characters. Hoffman could have played Truman Capote as a caricature, but instead he found all the different aspects of Capote’s humanity, good and bad. He made Capote mysterious, three-dimensional, and completely compelling. David Strathairn has acted in films for more than 25 years, flying under the radar of most moviegoers. He’s done his best work for director John Sayles in films such as Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Limbo. Strathairn’s quiet, understated manner has helped many a movie, but has often kept him in the shadows. Luckily, Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, And Good Luck was the perfect vehicle for his talents. Strathairn’s screen presence and authority made him convincing as Murrow from the first frame to the last. Let’s hope their nominations lead to more plum roles for these three actors.

Judi Dench - Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman - Transamerica
Keira Knightley - Pride and Prejudice
Charlize Theron - North Country
Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line

Grade: A. Give the Academy even more credit for including Huffman. Transamerica has not played widely, and has to date made under $1 million. Also, Huffman’s role as a wannabe transsexual strays far from the older-skewing Academy voters’ tastes. But, thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s campaigning, enough voters saw Transamerica and were won over by Huffman’s dedication and talent. A woman playing a man trying to be a woman has to be tough enough. To do that, while making the character believable and sympathetic would be even more difficult. To then take audiences along on a physical and emotional journey would be near impossible. But Huffman did all of that, and earned her appreciation.

George Clooney - Syriana
Matt Dillon - Crash
Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt - A History of Violence

Grade: B. Well, he finally got one. After ignoring Paul Giamatti’s stellar work in American Splendor and Sideways, the Academy offers one of it’s patented “We’re sorry” nominations for his turn in Cinderella Man. That role was not as interesting as his other ones, but he did bring some depth to what could have been a cliché. Better late than ... well, you know.

Gyllenhaal’s nod is the same-old same-old. Anyone who has seen Brokeback Mountain knows that Gyllenhaal is a co-lead with Heath Ledger. Clearly, Focus Features wanted to position Ledger for Best Actor, so they bumped Gyllenhaal to Supporting in their Oscar campaign. They are welcome to do that, but the voters should know better. They could have picked the always excellent Don Cheadle, who in some ways was the moral center of Crash. His inclusion would have helped lessen one of the few problems with this year’s nominees. After five nominations for minority actors last year, there was only one this time. Not advocating a quota here, but some diversity never hurts.

Amy Adams - Junebug
Catherine Keener - Capote
Frances McDormand - North Country
Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain

Grade: A-. While Lisa Kudrow, for Happy Endings, would have been a fine selection, these five are all worthy. And, unlike the last group, theirs are all actually supporting performances, not leads. As it did with Felicity Huffman, the Academy reached out by rewarding Amy Adams, even though Junebug was also not widely distributed. Adams was largely unknown, best recognized for playing the fiancee of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Catch Me if You Can. In Junebug, playing a sheltered but vivacious pregnant woman, Adams seems to radiate energy. The sheer force of her personality permeates the entire film. Yet she also finds the sadness in her character and stops just short of going over the top. Leaving Junebug, I heard several people say “She’s got to get an Oscar nomination” and, thankfully, they were right.

Woody Allen - Match Point
Noah Baumbach - The Squid and the Whale
George Clooney and Grant Heslov - Good Night, And Good Luck
Stephen Gaghan - Syriana
Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco - Crash

Grade: B. Leaving aside the merits and flaws of Syriana, is it really an original screenplay? Stephen Gaghan credits his script as based on the book See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism, by Robert Baer. The Writers Guild of America nominated Syriana for Adapted Screenplay. Yes, the Academy has the prerogative to rule that the script strays too far from the book, but that seems like too subjective a judgement. If you were to go through other Adapted Screenplay nods from past years, I’ll bet that many of them took great liberties with their source material. You would think that 50 screenwriters would claim that an adapted screenplay was theirs alone before one would go the other way. Certainly if one wants to share credit, shouldn’t the Academy let him? Besides, then it could honor Don Roos for writing Happy Endings, which, through many characters, told funny, involving, and poignant stories.

It’s good to see Woody Allen back in this category. With Match Point, not only did Allen forgo many of his usual idiosyncracies, but he created a riveting character study set against the British class system. Most of all, he crafted a gripping thriller that, just when you think you know where its going, changes course completely. Hate to say this, but maybe Allen just had to get out of New York for a while.

Jeffrey Caine - The Constant Gardener
Dan Futterman - Capote
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth - Munich
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana - Brokeback Mountain
Josh Olson - A History of Violence

Grade: B+. Both screenplay categories, as is Oscar custom, serve as consolation prizes for contenders that don’t make Best Picture or Director, such as The Constant Gardener, A History of Violence and The Squid and the Whale. Even though I liked Munich, I’ll harp on it one more time. The script felt uneven, and could have used some tightening. A better choice would have been Jarhead, which William Broyles adapted from Anthony Swofford’s book. Broyles’s script helped draw viewers into the mindset of soldiers primed for war but with none to fight. It held together much better than Munich. Other than that, these were good choices.

You’ve likely noticed that George Clooney scored three nominations, two for Good Night, And Good Luck and one for Syriana. It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago many doubted that he would be able to make the leap from TV to film after duds like Batman and Robin. He revived his career by working with quality filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers. While he’s no slouch at pure entertainment (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the Ocean’s franchise) he also put his star power to good use. Good Night, And Good Luck and Syriana are two films that, at first glance, would seem to have little box office luster. Clooney got them made because he cares about the stories and what they had to say. As a director, Clooney showed little ego. Twice he’s relegated himself to supporting roles while giving talented but lesser known actors a chance to shine: Sam Rockwell in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and, as noted, David Strathairn in Good Night, And Good Luck. Clooney clearly earned his rewards, as have most of the other nominees. It’s been a few years since I could say that, for the most part, the Oscar nods were well-deserved. It sure feels good.

Adam Spector
February 4,2006

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