They're Back!!!

Remember the late 1990s, when the Weinsteins ruled at Oscar time? Bob and Harvey Weinstein just knew how to work Academy voters. They ran Miramax, which always seemed to snag at least one Best Picture nomination. Even mediocre efforts like The Cider House Rules and Chocolat made it. People joked about a ďMiramax slotĒ among the nominees. A few years ago the Weinsteins left Miramax and started their own company. They had some success but nothing near what they had with Miramax. Then came the 2009 nominees. Just about every Oscar prediction had The Dark Knight getting a Best Picture slot. But when the Academy announced the nominees, it was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was The Reader, which few had seen as a Best Picture contender. The Producers Guild of America Best Picture nominees, a reliable bellwether for the Oscars, had The Dark Knight but not The Reader. Same with most of the criticsí awards. And what company produced and distributed The Reader? Thatís right, The Weinstein Company.

Granted, there are other possible reasons why The Reader snuck in. It has a strong literary pedigree, while The Dark Knight is based on comic books and graphic novels. The Reader also addresses the Holocaust, catnip for the Academy ever since Schindlerís List. Still, word is that the Weinsteins heavily marketed The Reader to Academy voters, so it seems like old times.

With that out of the way, most of the Academy nominees were worthy selections with one very pleasant surprise. Letís look at this yearís crop, and hand out some grades:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Grade: B. Aside from The Reader, there are no surprises here. To be fair, I canít complain about The Reader on its merits. Itís a very well-made and well-acted film and no less deserving than Frost/Nixon or Milk. The Visitor and The Wrestler, two of the most original and moving films in years, would have been better selections. But these filmsí acting nominations will have to suffice.

Danny Boyle -- Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry -- The Reader
David Fincher -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard -- Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant -- Milk

Grade: A-. One of my Oscar pet peeves is when the Best Picture nominees differ from Best Director picks. The best films have the best directors, period. So I give the Academy extra credit this year for not making that mistake, which is why my grade in this category is higher than for Best Picture. Iím especially pleased to see Fincher here. He has always shown visual flair and technical proficiency, and did so again with Benjamin Button. But his earlier films also felt very nihilistic, and spotlighted humanityís dark side. There is nothing wrong with that, but itís gratifying to know that he can touch the emotions, and that he can depict love and kindness as well as hate and anger.

Richard Jenkins -- The Visitor
Frank Langella -- Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn -- Milk
Brad Pitt -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke -- The Wrestler

Grade A. All five of these actors did stellar work and are terrific choices. I had assumed Clint Eastwood, a perennial Academy favorite, would garner a nomination for Gran Torino, but his awards shelf is pretty full. Itís so much more gratifying to see Richard Jenkins here. Jenkins has worked steadily for many years, and is probably best known for playing the deceased patriarch on ďSix Feet Under.Ē He was a ďthat guyĒ actor, someone in supporting roles you recognize, but canít place the name. With The Visitor, Jenkins finally had a chance to show what he could do. He played a withdrawn college professor who slowly opened up to life and the people around him. Jenkins performance was a triumph of understatement, conveying so much with small mannerisms. A recent New York Times article described how the Academy was starting to open up its membership to those who work on independent films. That change is starting to pay off.

Anne Hathaway -- Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie -- Changeling
Melissa Leo -- Frozen River
Meryl Streep -- Doubt
Kate Winslet -- The Reader

Grade: B (incomplete). Iím ashamed to admit that I have not seen Frozen River, a mistake that I will rectify soon. Everyone who I have talked to about that film has raved about Leoís work. Even though Frozen River, like The Visitor, failed to garner much of an audience, this may be another instance of the Academyís changing membership impacting the nominations.

That Winslet was nominated is not a shock, but that she was nominated for The Reader is. She was riveting in Revolutionary Road, which was much more of a lead role than The Reader. In fact, the Screen Actors Guild and most critics groups put her work in The Reader in the supporting category. And it really is a supporting role, as the story is about Michael Berg (played by David Kross and Ralph Fiennes) more than her character.

Itís also disappointing that Kristin Scott Thomas was not recognized for Iíve Loved You So Long. Thomas played a very difficult role and was simply heartbreaking. She made you feel for a person who is not easy to like. Thomas is as deserving as any of the nominees.

Josh Brolin -- Milk
Robert Downey Jr. -- Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman -- Doubt
Heath Ledger -- The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon -- Revolutionary Road

Grade: B+. How is the Kate Winslet role in The Reader a lead, while Philip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt is supporting? The story in Doubt concerns his character as much as Meryl Streepís, and he is on screen just as much as she is. Yet Streep is nominated for Best Actress and Hoffman somehow ends up here. Yes, I know that the marketers for Doubt positioned Hoffman in this category because there was less competition than for Best Actor. But the Academy has ignored studio marketers before, and there was no reason they could not do it this time. Hoffman being here means not honoring great work by Bill Irwin in Rachel Getting Married or Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire. Still, itís wonderful that Shannon was included for his scene stealing turn in Revolutionary Road. He made the most of limited screen time in World Trade Center and Before the Devil Knows Youíre Dead. I hope this nomination will continue his climb to larger roles.

Amy Adams -- Doubt
Penelope Cruz -- Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis -- Doubt
Taraji P. Henson -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei -- The Wrestler

Grade: A-. While I canít argue against any one of these five, I wish there was a way to include Hiam Abbas for The Visitor. Abbas has mostly worked in the Middle East, and has just started to break through in English-language films such as Munich and The Nativity Story. In The Visitor she shone as the mother of a detained illegal immigrant. She showed, without saying much, all of her characterís struggles.

Isnít it interesting how some rumormongers claimed that Maria Tomeiís Best Supporting Actress win for My Cousin Vinny was an accident. Now that Tomei has two post-Vinny nominations, I think we can finally put that tall tale to bed. Viola Davis has only one scene in Doubt, but she made it a memorable one. She was able to convey her characterís fear, determination and inner conflict simultaneously.

Simon Beaufoy -- Slumdog Millionaire
David Hare -- The Reader
Peter Morgan -- Frost/Nixon
Eric Roth, Robin Swicord -- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley -- Doubt

Grade: B+. Four of the five Best Picture nominees are here, and there is no quarrel with those. The problem is the other nomination, for Doubt. Shanleyís story claims to be about doubt but then all but eliminated the doubt about the filmís central question. A better choice would have been Justin Haythe for Revolutionary Road, based on the Richard Yates novel many believed to be unfilmmable. Haytheís script was one of the more compelling and devastating stories of a disintegrating marriage.

Dustin Lance Black -- Milk
Courtney Hunt -- Frozen River
Mike Leigh -- Happy-Go-Lucky
Martin McDonagh -- In Bruges
Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter -- WALL-E

Grade: B- (incomplete). Kudos to the Academy for including WALL-E. Itís so easy to focus on the artistry and technical wizardry of the Pixar films that itís easy to overlook the scripts, but itís the stories and the characters that really make those films work. As with Best Picture, I would have loved to have seen The Wrestler and The Visitor here. Both screenplays offered complex, gripping characters trying to navigate life. Both show how these menís relationship with the outside world changes. While Mickey Rourke and Richard Jenkins were terrific, they could not have done this type of work had the scripts not given them so much to work with.

Still, I canít complain about three of those selected. Unfortunately, in addition to Frozen River, I have also not seen In Bruges so Iím not equipped so pass judgement. Perhaps the B- is really for myself.

In the wake of Barack Obamaís inauguration, itís worth noting that only two of this yearís acting nominees are black, Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson (no, Iím not counting Robert Downey, Jr.). Whatís even more distressing is that I canít think of that many performances in 2008 by black actors that should have been nominated. The problem may not be with the Academy, but with filmmakers and casting directors.

Both Davisís and Hensonís roles were expressly black characters. In my last Oscar nominations article I decried the lack of color-blind casting, meaning that unless the role by its very nature (e.g. a historical figure) is white or black, then picking the best available actor regardless of race. Sure, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Denzel Washington have no problems finding work. But think of how many stellar black actors have not appeared in films, particularly Oscar-worthy films, lately. Where are Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Courtney B. Vance, Andre Braugher, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, Lynn Whitfield, and Jurnee Smollett, just to give a few examples? Some of them are on weekly television but the good film roles for black actors seem few and far between. Even Henson, fresh off her Oscar nomination said in a recent interview that she is having a hard time finding work. And at the SAG awards Meryl Streep only half-jokingly pleaded for someone to give Viola Davis a good role.

A few years ago, the NFL instituted ďthe Rooney ruleĒ where at least one African-American had to be interviewed for every head coaching vacancy. By any estimation the rule has been a success. It would be impossible to implement such a rule for film parts, but it would be refreshing if black actors could at least get though the door and be considered for any role that does not expressly have to be played by a white actor. Any director, producer, or casting director could have their own ďRooney ruleĒ for their movies. If Martin Luther Kingís dream could come true in Washington, then why not Hollywood?

Adam Spector
February 1, 2009

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