By the Way, the Nominees Are...
Last Tuesday morning the showbiz talk was whether the Oscars would go on as scheduled. The early signs weren’t promising. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike continues, and the WGA leaders have repeatedly said they will not permit writers to work on the Oscars. Even more damaging, the WGA plans to picket the show. Most of the acting Oscars nominees are members of the Screen Actors Guild, which supports the WGA. They, and other movie stars, have claimed that they will not cross a picket line to attend the show. So how do you throw a party without the honored guests? How do you get millions to tune in without anyone to see?
Recently we’ve seen some signs of hope. The WGA finally dropped its ill-conceived demand for jurisdiction over reality and animation writers. Instead, it will focus on the core issue of residuals for online use of TV shows and movies. The Directors Guild of America agreed to a deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) over this issue, which could lay the groundwork for a similar WGA deal. Most promising, the WGA and the AMPTP are finally talking again.
Wait a minute, am I forgetting something? Oh yeah, the Academy announced the nominees. Yes, amid all the strike talk we have actual Oscar contenders. No one film dominated, as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood tied for the lead with eight nominations apiece.
Let’s take a break from the labor talk, look at this year’s crop, and hand out some grades:
Grade: B. One possible reason for the lack of excitement over this group is that only Juno has had any real box office success. While deserving on its own merits, Juno may have won its slot because it’s a fun and uplifting counterpoint to the other four entries (similar to Little Miss Sunshine last year).
My only real problem here is with the highly overrated Michael Clayton. The film has a good message and some solid acting, but the story has barely more depth than the standard issue John Grisham potboiler. Michael Clayton has little artistic flair to make up for its deficiencies. Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters also has a positive message and strong performances, coupled with an average script. A more worthy nominee than either of those is Breach, a compelling and taut thriller that also succeeds as a character study. Unfortunately, Breach hit theaters last February and most Academy voters have the memory of two year-olds. The Savages and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which debuted more recently, also would be more deserving nominees.
One final note: Some people were surprised that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street did not snag a Best Picture nod. To those people I’d say “Really?” The older, more traditional Academy voters did not embrace a musical about a serial killer. Imagine that.
Grade: B+. Not thrilled about Gilroy’s inclusion, but that’s for many of the same reasons I described earlier. I was pleasantly surprised by Jason Reitman. There’s usually a disconnect between the Best Picture and the Best Director nominees. The signs indicated that Reitman would miss out. Directors are easily underestimated with comedies. Much of the attention for Juno centered on the writer, Diablo Cody, and not Reitman. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, directors of Little Miss Sunshine, were snubbed a year ago even though their film got a Best Picture nod. I’m glad the Academy did not make the same mistake twice. Reitman coaxed top notch performances from his cast, kept the film moving briskly while not shortchanging the characters. He kept the film from being too silly or too maudlin.
Julian Schnabel also kept The Diving Bell and the Butterfly from becoming too tearful, even though it was about a man suffering a debilitating stroke in the prime of his life. He made you identify with the victim while also not making him out to be a saint. So he’s a worthy pick even though The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was not a Best Picture nominee.
Grade: A-. Memo for future Best Actor wannabes: Take a role with a different nationality as your own. The Brit Day-Lewis gets nominated for playing an American while the American Depp does the same for playing a Brit. Not to be outdone, the American Mortensen snags a nod for his role as a Russian mobster. Mortensen may also have benefitted from a classic “We’re sorry” nomination after his snub for A History of Violence two years ago.
That the Academy nominated Tommy Lee Jones was not a surprise, but that it was for In the Valley of Elah certainly was. Jones appeared set for a Best Supporting Actor nod for No Country for Old Men. Instead, it’s for his lead role in a film that was out of theaters in a week and a half. Go figure. Still, while In the Valley of Elah had many problems, Jones’s performance was not one of them.
I’m a little disappointed that Ryan Gosling, coming off a nomination last year for Half Nelson, missed out this time for Lars and the Real Girl. Gosling gave one of the most compelling and insightful portrayals of shyness that I have ever seen.
Grade: B+. The group loses points for Blanchett’s nomination, which must have been based on sheer reputation. Her second turn as Queen Elizabeth, while competent, was nowhere near as inspired as her other work Given that Blanchett already had a Best Supporting Actress nod sewed up it’s disappointing to see her included here while Amy Adams for Enchanted and Angelina Jolie for A Mighty Heart lost out. Adams’s work as an animated princess come to life may have been considered too lightweight, but she brought style, enthusiasm, and an uncommon depth to her role, not to mention a great singing voice. Jolie’s understated performance was likely lost amid the controversy about how she treated the press.
The group gains points for including Laura Linney, even though she was left out of the critics and guilds nominations. The chronically underrated Linney shines even when her material is subpar. But when you give her a complex, nuanced role she takes off. Linney was a joy as the neurotic, conflicted aspiring playwright struggling to deal with her elderly father. She conveys more with a look or an inflection than most actors do with an entire monologue.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Grade: B. It’s time for everyone’s favorite game: “Which nominee is actually a lead and doesn’t belong here?” This year’s winner is Casey Affleck, who is in much more of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford then its ostensible lead Brad Pitt. The story is about Ford as much as it is about James, and the only reason Affleck is supporting is that Pitt is the bigger star. His spot would be better granted to Jones for No Country for Old Men. Or how about Irfan Khan in The Namesake? His quiet authority as the protagonist’s father provided the moral weight to the film.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Grade: A. I can’t complain about any of these (although it would have been gratifying to see Jurnee Smollett recognized for her work on The Great Debaters). Instead, I will ask the following question: Did anyone else notice that Saoirse Ronan in Atonement and Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men have the exact same haircut?
It’s gratifying to see Ruby Dee’s name. Both she and Best Supporting Actor nominee Hal Holbrook received their first nominations after careers spanning over 40 years. With Dee, it’s almost 50. She co-starred with Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun and 28 years later had a key role in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Dee and her husband, the late Ossie Davis, received the Kennedy Center Honors award in 2004 for their distinguished work in film and theater. Her nomination is long overdue.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Grade: B+. Once again, the screenplay categories serve as consolation prizes for deserving films left out of other major categories. Jenkins and Oliver created some of 2007's most interesting characters. Their stories deftly balanced laughs and pathos with just the right amount of hope. As I mentioned, the script for Michael Clayton was by far its weakest link, and it has no place here. Kelly Masterson wrote an ingenious script for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He carefully moves back and forth around a tragic botched robbery while slowly tightening the noose around his characters. The tension and dread build while also offering a window into the souls of desperate men and women. Adam Mazer, William Rotko and Billy Ray also should be acknowledged for their work on Breach. They took a complex real-life story and made it understandable without dumbing it down. Their script evoked the drama as much from the characters as from the situations. As with Best Picture, either Breach or Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead would have been much more deserving than Michael Clayton.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Grade: A. These are all worthy nominees, even though I still don’t see the point of the last scene in There Will Be Blood. Polley’s work is noteworthy not only because she is a first-time nominee. Here is a 28 year-old woman working on a story about senior citizens. Her story is filled with such empathy, depth, and understanding that you would marvel if an old pro had written it, let alone a newcomer.
In last year’s Oscar nominations article, I noted that five out of the 20 acting nominees were black. This year it’s only one, Ruby Dee. The easy response would be to blame the Academy. Sure there were some possible nominees not selected, such as Denzel Washington for American Gangster or members of The Great Debaters cast. But I think the problem runs deeper. For years we have heard the term “color-blind casting,” which to me means that unless the role by its very nature (e.g. a historical figure) is white or black, then pick the best available actor regardless of race. While there are some examples of that, such as Will Smith in I Am Legend, those instances appear few and far between. Now I don’t claim to have any insider knowledge of the Hollywood casting process, but it seems that unless the role specifically calls for an African-American or Hispanic, that it goes to a white person. Look at the 18 Caucasian acting nominees (excluding Dee and Javier Bardem) and think about how many of their roles specifically called for a white actor. I’m not advocating quotas here or saying that any of the nominated actors did not deserve their roles. It’s simply that, last year aside, there is still a long way to go and the road has to be traveled by more than just the Academy.
The year is not devoid of progress. For the first time in Oscar history four of the screenwriting nominees are women. Besides, this time around just having a ceremony might be all the progress we can hope for.
February 1, 2008