Missing the Gripes

For so many years I've complained about Oscar injustices: the worthy going unrecognized, while the undeserving get the nods. A year ago I was thrilled that the Academy, for the most part, got it right. This year once again, in category after category, I found myself thinking "these are all good choices." Sure, the lists were not without surprises: No Best Picture nod for Dreamgirls, Mark Wahlberg garnering a nomination while his more esteemed castmates didn't. But even those couldn't be called travesties. At first I was upset that John Williams didn't receive his usual Original Score nomination. Then I learned that he didn't do a film this past year. Such technicalities.

Eventually I realized that I missed complaining about the Oscars. Intellectually, it's gratifying to see the deserving earn the laurels. But on an emotional level, it's more fun to debate what went wrong than what went right. Come to think of it, I haven't seen the Oscar nominated shorts yet. Maybe that will give me something. In the meantime, let's look at this year's crop and hand out some grades:

The Departed
Letters from Iwo Jima
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Grade: A-. Babel, The Departed, Little Miss Sunshine, and The Queen were all favored to land on this list. Letters from Iwo Jima likely took the Dreamgirls slot. On the surface, this choice seems rather strange. Dreamgirls seemed poised to follow the Chicago route to Oscar glory. Instead, it became the first film to lead in total nominations without a Best Picture nod. Letters from Iwo Jima was initially considered an afterthought to the much higher profile Flags of Our Fathers, which followed American soldiers during and after the Iwo Jima battle. Letters featured predominantly Japanese dialogue, largely unknown actors (at least in America), and followed soldiers fighting on the other side of WWII. Not exactly a crowd pleaser. But this was the right call.

Dreamgirls, for all the hype, had a very weak story, especially in the second half. Once the "Dreamgirls" became stars, the film lurched from set piece to set piece in unconvincing melodrama. Beyonce Knowles, for all her looks and singing talent, didn't have the acting chops to carry her role. As such, the film suffers despite some dynamite performances and spectacular musical numbers. Letters from Iwo Jima was a better written and better acted film. It gave a window into the Japanese mentality in WWII, but also into the threads common to all soldiers, no matter what side. It eschewed cheap tricks and war film cliches and instead focused on the soldiers psyches as they faced an impossible situation. Dreamgirls had the style, but Letters from Iwo Jima had the substance.

Clint Eastwood -- Letters from Iwo Jima
Stephen Frears -- The Queen
Paul Greengrass -- United 93
Alejandro González Iñárritu -- Babel
Martin Scorsese -- The Departed

Grade: A. After a respite last year, the Best Picture-Best Director disconnect returns. I have railed against this in the past and have always believed that the best films have the best directors. Still, I have mixed feelings this time. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris did a tremendous job with Little Miss Sunshine, drawing believable, heartfelt performances and maintaining the right balance between comedy and pathos. They deserved Oscar recognition, but so did Paul Greengrass. How do you tell the story of United Flight 93 without sentimentalizing, without exploiting, and without adding any unnecessary theatrics? Greengrass found a way. He stripped away all artifice and gave us the emotional and physical truth (as best as can be determined) of what happened. His documentary style and natural camera work put you right in the thick of the ordeal. The dread, horror, and, in the end, inspiration, of Flight 93 came through without Greengrass pushing it. So, while the nominations may not fit together, I don't think I or anyone else can argue with Greengrass's nomination.

Leonardo DiCaprio -- Blood Diamond
Ryan Gosling -- Half Nelson
Peter O'Toole -- Venus
Will Smith -- The Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker -- The Last King of Scotland

Grade: A. It's worth noting that none of these performances were in a Best Picture nominee. What does that signify? I'm not sure, but maybe it illustrates the depth of the field this year. Matt Damon for The Good Shepherd and Ken Watanabe for Letters from Iwo Jima would have also been worthy nominees, but there's nothing wrong with these five. Kudos to the Academy for honoring Gosling even though Half Nelson was little seen beyond the arthouse circuit. Gosling's haunting portrayal of a high school teacher with a crack habit cemented his reputation as one of the finest young actors working today.

Last year this category featured Terrence Howard, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and David Strathairn, three unsung actors who had consistently turned in fine work. This year it's Forest Whitaker. He's largely filled small roles in big films (Good Morning Vietnam, Panic Room) or bigger roles in smaller films (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai). Whitaker generally played quiet, understated characters, which may be way he never garnered much mainstream acclaim. Maybe that's also why he did an 180 degree turn with his larger-than-life performance as Idi Amin. Whitaker filled the screen, conveying Amin's charm and his menace, his ego, and his paranoia. You simply couldn't take your eyes off him. While the overnight successes are fun, it's the long overdue plaudits that are truly satisfying.

Penélope Cruz -- Volver
Judi Dench -- Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren -- The Queen
Meryl Streep -- The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet -- Little Children

Grade: A. To say this group was no surprise would be the understatement of the year. Seemingly every newspaper, magazine, and Internet prognosticator picked all five. While this may show that the Oscars have grown very predictable, it's hard to quarrel with any of the picks. After seeing Cruz deliver such wooden acting in Hollywood films, seeing her sparkle in Volver was practically a revelation. Perhaps she had such difficulty speaking English fluently that it took most of her energy. Freed from this constraint, she was able to invest her effort in the character, and it shows.

Alan Arkin -- Little Miss Sunshine
Jackie Earle Haley -- Little Children
Djimon Hounsou -- Blood Diamond
Eddie Murphy -- Dreamgirls
Mark Wahlberg -- The Departed

Grade: A-. Hopefully someday the Academy will honor Sergi López. He shined earlier playing shady rogues in With a Friend Like Harry and Dirty Pretty Things. As the brutal, sadistic Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth, López is chilling but never becomes a monster. López lets you see Vidal's internal conflicts, vulnerability, and humanity without making him any less evil. This year has brought nods for actors for a few non-English speaking roles. If the trend continues maybe we will see López walk down the red carpet in the not-too-distant future.

In a way the backstories of the nominees are as interesting as their films. Hounsou (who was actually a lead in Blood Diamond) was homeless before he became a male model, which then led to his acting career. Arkin is the old pro here, but he has gone 38 years between Oscar nominations. It's hard to remember that Wahlberg was once the "rapper" Marky Mark. Murphy has had more ups and downs then most manic-depressives. Believe it or not he's now the fourth former "Saturday Night Live" performer with an Oscar nomination, joining Dan Aykroyd, Robert Downey Jr., and Bill Murray. That's nothing compared to Jackie Earle Haley. After gaining fame as a teenager for roles in The Bad News Bears and Breaking Away, Haley virtually disappeared. His resume included a guest spot on "Murder, She Wrote" and a role in Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence. Haley's nuanced, heartbreaking portrayal of a sex offender came out of nowhere. Most major pro sports leagues have a "Comeback of the Year" award. If the Oscars had one, Haley would be a shoo-in.

Adriana Barraza -- Babel
Cate Blanchett -- Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin -- Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson -- Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi -- Babel

Grade: A. Last year I praised the Academy for including so many new faces. Thankfully, that trend has continued, especially in this category. Besides Blanchett, had you even heard of the other four actresses a year ago? I didn't think so. The best part is that they are all deserving. While Maribel Verdú for Pan's Labyrinth and Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration would have also been worthy nominees, I can't kick out any of the five. Barraza and Kikuchi in particular stood out as women desperately trying to hold themselves together.

Guillermo Arriaga -- Babel
Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis -- Letters from Iwo Jima
Michael Arndt -- Little Miss Sunshine
Guillermo del Toro -- Pan's Labyrinth
Peter Morgan -- The Queen

Grade: B+. As always, both of the screenplay categories serve as consolation prizes for deserving films left out of the Best Picture race, such as Little Children and Pan's Labyrinth. The only concern here is with Letters from Iwo Jima, and that is in no way a slight of its screenplay. The problem, as local film critic Bill Henry has noted, is that Letters is in the wrong category. Yamashita and Haggis adapted the screenplay from the book Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, which was based on letters by the Japanese commanding officer in Iwo Jima, Tadamichi Kuribayashi (played by Ken Watanabe in the film). It's listed that way in the film's credits and even on its poster. If Letters moves to the Adapted category than there is room here for the brilliant United 93 screenplay by Paul Greengrass.

Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer and Todd Phillips -- Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan
Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby -- Children of Men
Todd Field and Tom Perrotta -- Little Children
Patrick Marber -- Notes on a Scandal
William Monahan -- The Departed

Grade: B-. OK, I understand that technically Borat is adapted because Sacha Baron Cohen originated the character on television. But, while it's inventive and wickedly funny, is it really a screenplay? Is there a Borat script anywhere? While Cohen showed an unparalleled commitment to his character, he improvised the scenes. He had to because he was playing off real people who were not in on the gag. Letters from Iwo Jima, unlike Borat, truly is an adapted screenplay and should be here instead.

Of course before the Oscars we have that other seminal event, the Super Bowl. Much has been made of how, for the first time, two black head coaches will face each other in the big game. The NFL, which has historically resisted change, has shown tremendous progress lately. While a few years ago there were only two black NFL coaches, there are now six.

The Academy too has generally been slow to change. Not too ago you could count on one hand the number of black actors who had won Oscars. In the past few years we have had two black Best Actor winners, the first ever black Best Actress winner, and a black Best Supporting Actor winner. This year, five out of the 20 acting nominees are black (including three: Whitaker, Murphy and Hudson that are solid favorites to win). Another three nominees are non-Caucasians. We're past the point where this inclusiveness could be dismissed as temporary. The Academy voters are finally realizing that stellar work is not limited by race, culture, or nationality.

There's still a long road to go: more opportunities and recognition for minorities behind the camera, greater diversity among studio heads, agents, producers, and others who decide what films get made in the first place. But, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This year the Academy has made more steps then it ever has before, and for that we can all be grateful.

Adam Spector
February 1, 2007

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