A Big Bug in the Soup
So far, so good I thought as Frank Pierson and Adrien Brody read the Oscar nominations. I was already optimistic going in, as 2004 was a very strong film year. The pre-Oscars awards had honored a diverse array of talent, not only the Hollywood standbys. The Academy last year had shown that maybe, just maybe, it was moving away from ignoring films outside the mainstream.
The initial nominations did nothing to dissuade my optimism. A little known British actress grabbed a Best Supporting Actress nod. Then an even more unknown first-time Colombian actress, from a movie not distributed widely, nabbed a Best Actress nomination. Just wonderful. Then came Best Actor. Paul Giamatti, who so many, including me, considered a lock for a Best Actor nomination, was not there. It took a few seconds for the realization to sink in. Then came the shock, then came the outrage. Giamatti's outstanding performance in American Splendor was overlooked last year, but that I could understand. American Splendor played mostly in art-house theaters, and did not attract much publicity. Sideways received loads of positive media coverage and was widely exposed to Academy voters. The film got five nominations, including two for Giamatti's co-stars. Yet the end result stayed the same: Giamatti's terrific work goes unrecognized by the Academy.
Why? That's a question I'm still asking as I think about the nominations. I'm trying to hard not to let one nomination snub color my outlook as I rate the Academy's picks. But there's a big bug in the soup this year, and it's leaving an awful taste in my mouth:
Grade: B . Four out of the five nominees were among the best of the year. The Aviator , Million Dollar Baby, and Sideways were sure things. The story in Finding Neverland took a while to gather steam, but once it did it was very heartfelt and moving.
Ray does not belong. Yes, Jamie Foxx was extraordinary, as were Regina King and Sharon Warren in supporting roles. But great acting does not always make a great film. Some scenes in Ray worked brilliantly. The film as a whole, though, was uneven and episodic. It dragged at times and had a very abrupt ending. Consider this: Ray did not receive a screenplay nomination. Not a big deal until you realize that there are ten screenplay nominations (five each for original and adapted). So a film's script is not even one of the top ten, but it gets a Best Picture nod? Doesn't make much sense, especially with much more worthy films such as Maria Full of Grace, The Incredibles, Hotel Rwanda, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind out there. Each one was a much more complete film than Ray , and would have been a better choice.
Grade: B - . Seems like every year there's at least one disconnect between Best Picture and Best Director. This year it's Mike Leigh getting a nod instead of Marc Forster for Finding Neverland. This is all the more surprising given that the Director's Guild of America, with much of the same membership as the Academy's Directors Branch, included Forster, and not Leigh, with its nominees. I would rather the nominees match. To me, the best films have the best directors. But this is one where I may have to stop tilting at windmills.
Also, Taylor Hackford should not be included, for the reasons I noted above in describing Ray. (And not because he directed The Devil's Advocate, although you could make a case that those responsible for that film should not even be allowed to watch the Oscars). Compare Hackford to Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who had to pilot a film that largely took place inside the main character's mind. Gondry made a very complicated story come off without a hitch, seamlessly connecting the character's different memories. He did so using low-tech effects, giving the film an organic feel. Gondry did all of this while still emphasizing the human core of the story, and delivering fine performances from a talented cast. Gondry's work might be too innovative for some Academy voters' tastes, and that's their loss.
Grade: D. My heart wanted to give these nominations an F, but since most of the nominees did outstanding work, I'm grudgingly going higher than I'd like to. Foxx simply became Ray Charles, all the more tougher because most audiences had seen the real thing. DiCaprio helped humanize Howard Hughes, a man most people had come to consider as Michael Jackson without the child abuse. Cheadle's powerful, understated work is the main reason Hotel Rwanda rose from obscurity and garnered some well-deserved attention.
But to me it all comes back to Giamatti. I know I'm harping on this, but I can't help it. His exclusion is the Academy at it's absolute worst. As Miles Raymond in Sideways, Giamatti was the heart and soul of that fine film. Giamatti evoked both the comedy and the tragedy in Miles' frustration and depression. He got the audience to laugh at, laugh with and feel for Miles.
If Giamatti had lost out to Javier Bardem for The Sea Inside or Liam Neeson for Kinsey, I could have put it in some perspective. Both Bardem and Neeson excelled in very difficult roles, and would be deserving nominees any year. As this was a very competitive year, it was inevitable that some fine work would be left out. However, Giamatti did not lose his spot to Bardem or Neeson, he lost it to Clint Eastwood. While Eastwood delivered some of his best acting in Million Dollar Baby, it was not one of the finest performances of the year. That's not just me talking. Giamatti won three major 2004 critics awards for his acting, second only to Foxx. Eastwood won none. I don't give the Golden Globes much credit, but Eastwood was not nominated there even though there are ten Best Actor spots (five for drama, five for comedy or musicals). The Screen Actors Guild nominated Giamatti, not Eastwood. Adding insult to injury is that Eastwood was a lock for a Best Director. So the Academy's Actors Branch voters knew that Eastwood would be recognized regardless.
So why, for heaven's sake, was Eastwood included and not Giamatti? I wish I knew for sure. The Academy has long had a bias against comedies, although it looked like that began to wane in recent years. Maybe Giamatti's work was not considered serious enough, although Sideways was nominated in other categories. Or maybe it reflects the groundswell of support for Million Dollar Baby, although there were plenty of other ways to honor the film. Maybe it's because Eastwood is an old favorite and a Hollywood legend. Then again, he's only received one other Best Actor nomination in his long career (he won Best Director in 1993 for Unforgiven). Maybe it's because Giamatti does not have traditional leading man looks. However, Dustin Hoffman and Geoffrey Rush have both won Best Actor.
Regardless of the reasons, the bottom line is that this is wrong. Not only did Giamatti's work deserve the recognition on its own merits, but it's a year after his fine performance in American Splendor was passed over. A Best Actor nomination would have helped him much more than Eastwood, who would have already had a nomination anyway. Giamatti's co-star Virginia Madsen was right when she called Giamatti's exclusion a travesty. Academy voters should be ashamed.
Grade: A . If you give blame, you have to give the credit. The Academy voters nailed this one. Bening, Staunton and Swank were no-brainers. Winslet supplied much of the energy that made Eternal Sunshine work. And special kudos for including Moreno. Her quiet, restrained performance drew you into Maria Full of Grace. This was her first film role but she handled it like a seasoned veteran, conveying much through small glances and gestures. She made you care about what happened to Maria, so that you felt her fear and pulled for her to survive. Given the unsympathetic nature of what she was doing (smuggling drugs into America), Maria could have come across as heartless or a complete dupe. Moreno, in close collaboration with writer-director Joshua Marston, made Maria a compelling three-dimensional character. Maria Full of Grace played in few theaters, so it's all the more gratifying that the Academy voters included the film in their consideration.
Grade: C - . Alda and Freeman are both here for their whole careers as much as their most recent films, but that's nothing new for this category. Besides, both of their performances are worthy in their own right. Were it not for Moreno, Church would be the success story of the year. He went from inconsequential sitcom work to a hilarious turn as Jack in Sideways. He held his own with Giamatti through his comic timing and perfect delivery. Jack, is, in many ways, a selfish hedonistic jerk. But Chruch's charisma, charm, and chemistry with Giamatti made Jack more of a naughty but redeemable rascal.
As far as Foxx and Owen are concerned, their performances were both terrific. There's just one small, technical problem THEY'RE NOT SUPPORTING!!! I know this is not the first year that the Academy has moved lead performances to the supporting categories. But it is the first time I can remember where you had two in the same category. Owen had just as much screen time as the other actors in Closer, and his character was just as critical to the story. Foxx had more screen time in Collateral than Tom Cruise. If you wanted to be charitable to Cruise, you could call him and Foxx equal partners. Between the two, the story is actually more about Foxx's character. He's the one that changes and develops. There is just no way that Foxx was supporting Cruise in that film.
Why are these two actors in the wrong category? In a word: marketing. Like Foxx with Cruise, Owen was in a movie with a bigger star, Jude Law. The star automatically becomes the lead, and the other actor becomes supporting, never mind what their actual roles were. The studio marketing folks also will move actors to the supporting categories because they feel there is less competition there. I'm sure those running the Collateral Oscar campaign didn't want Foxx competing against himself (for Ray ). But it shouldn't be the marketing gurus' decision. They can list someone in a supporting category in their ads, but that does not mean the Academy's Actors Branch has to follow suit. In this case, the decision meant that some outstanding performances from real supporting actors were left out, such as David Carradine's in Kill Bill: Volume 2. His mysterious and menacing turn perfectly complemented Uma Thurman's intensity. A nomination for this longtime veteran would have been both well-deserved and a nice comeback story. Too bad the Academy missed out on this opportunity so that Foxx could have two acting nominations instead of one.
Grade: B - . Well, at least here there was only one misplaced actor. Natalie Portman, like Owen, had as much screen time, and was as critical to the story, as any other performer in Closer. But, as one of those others was Julia Roberts, Portman gets moved. Maybe the Academy should go ahead and rename these categories Outstanding Performance by An Actor/Actress Who Is Not The Biggest Star in the Film. All right, I'll stop beating that dead horse now. It is regrettable though, that the Academy included Portman instead of either of two actual supporting actresses in Ray Regina King as Ray's mistress Margie Hendricks and Sharon Warren as his mother. Some of the best scenes in the film are those with Foxx and King, as they dramatized the combustible love-hate relationship between Charles and Hendricks. Warren had some truly heartbreaking moments, as her character struggled with the death of one son and the disability of another.
No complaints about the other choices. Blanchett was dead-on as Katherine Hepburn. Laura Linney is wonderful in anything. Virginia Madsen is a wonderful comeback story in her own right. She's makes her character so much more than an obligatory love interest and hints at her own rough past. Another thank you to the Academy for including Okenedo. As the hero's wife, she could have been just that and nothing more. But Okenedo adds a real humanity with fear and vulnerability but also an incredible strength and dignity. I did not even realize that she was the same actress who played a London prostitute in Dirty Pretty Things . Those two roles showcased her enormous range and ability. Here's hoping that the nomination will mean more plum roles for her.
Grade: B . As always, the screenplay nods serve as consolation prizes for films shut out of the Best Picture and Best Director fields. The Incredibles and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are two of the most original screenplays of recent years. Bird deftly blended a superhero spoof with every day life, while Kaufman, et. al. created an innovative work that touched the heart as it asked basic human questions.
Leigh's inclusion is puzzling in that he doesn't actually write a screenplay. He develops a basic story outline, and creates the script with his actors through rehearsal and improvisation. This method works well for him, but does he really belong in the same group with people who actually wrote a complete story? Shouldn't his actors also be nominees? The Academy could have selected Bill Condon for Kinsey. He took an awfully complex man and subject matter and made them both accessible. He ingeniously framed the story by having Kinsey answer one of his own surveys. His balanced, nuanced story was unjustly overlooked.
Grade: B+. No problems here. For the many differences between Million Dollar Baby and Sideways, both of the stories had compelling three-dimensional characters from whom the story flowed. I would have loved to have seen Dylan Kidd recognized for adapting Helen Schulman's novel P.S., but that little gem was barely seen by anyone.
There you have it. It's worth noting that five acting nominations went to black actors (an all-time high), while another went to a Hispanic actress. So there will be things worth celebrating Oscar night as you see some new faces, the types you wouldn't have seen 25 years ago. But it's hard for me to get too excited knowing that one of the people who most deserved to be there won't be.