Monday, February 05, 2018

a fan's notes

Today, a few notes. Or rants. (Take your pick.) Here goes...

the academy awards

One of the most marvelous moments in Paul McGuigan's curiously overlooked "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool," a singular mini-biopic of one of Hollywood's most singular personalities, Gloria Grahame, is an archival postscript of Grahame winning her supporting Oscar for her role in Vincente Minnelli's wonderful 1952 film, "The Bad and the Beautiful."

While McGuigan's film stars Annette Bening in an uncanny, nuanced approximation of Grahame, the filmmaker does something almost unheard-of in biopics - he uses images of the real Grahame whenever his movie calls for still shots, posters or film clips of the actress, including the aforementioned clip from the 1953 Academy Awards broadcast.

Anyway, at that ceremony, Edmund Gwenn reads off the list of nominees (the others being Jean Hagen, Colette Marchand, Terry Moore and Thelma Ritter) and then announces the winner - Grahame, who sashays by Gwenn, collecting her Oscar, says a terse "thank you" and exits stage left. This is when winning an Academy Award actually meant something.

Of course, in case you didn't receive the memo, the annual Hollywood sweepstakes/giveaway is no longer referred to as The Academy Awards. For years, the award was nicknamed Oscar, much to the chagrin of the Hollywood establishment, old-timers who remembered when it was originally called The Academy Award of Merit. Some mouthful, right?

There have been various theories about the source of the word "Oscar," the most popular attributed to Bette Davis who claimed that the buttocks of the award's nude male statue resembled her then-husband's - Harmon Oscar Nelson, Jr. I'm not sure that I completely buy it. That story seems to have a publicist's fingerprints all over it. Anyway, in 2013, Neil Meron, one of the producers of that year's broadcast with his partner, Craig Zadan, announced during an interview with Steve Pond of The Wrap: "We're rebranding it. We're not calling it 'the 85th annual Academy Awards,' which keeps it mired somewhat in a musty way. It's called 'The Oscars.'"

Gee, thanks. Meron and Zadan are long gone but we're still stuck with the word "Oscar." So much for tradition. Personally, I prefer history.


Uh-oh. There was another memo I didn't receive because, apparently, it is now de rigueur among movie critics to harumph and complain about the snubs among the Oscar nominees - as if their commenting (and navel-gazing) on (1) who will be nominated versus who should be nominated and (2) who will win versus who should win, isn't quite nearly enough.

Now, there are heated essays devoted to the unfairly overlooked, with the petulant writers conveniently overlooking the fact that there are only five nominees in most categories. (The Best Picture group can go as high as nine these days, while some of the technical awards can include as few as three nominees.) Anyway, someone has to left out. Of course, the consternation always revolves around the acting nominees. No surprise.

The two names invoked the most this year have been Tom Hanks, overlooked for his performance in "The Post," and the recently disgraced James Franco for his role in "The Disaster Artist." Hanks is, at best, fine in "The Post," not necessarily outstanding. And exactly how many more Oscars does he need anyway? As for Franco, even on a good day, it is doubtful that the status-conscious Academy would recognize or reward his work. He's been a bit too marginal to fit what Oscar sees as its "brand."

That said, it's my turn to carp. I'm disappointed that the following were overlooked: Florence Pugh (who?) as best actress in "Lady MacBeth" and Sebastian Stan as best actor for "I, Tonya"; Michelle Pfeiffer and Catherine Keener, both as supporting actress for their roles in "mother!" and "Get Out," respectively, and Steve Coogan, supporting actor for "The Dinner."

And, getting back to "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" - Bening and Jamie Bell for their lead roles in a film that Sony Pictures Classics was quick to snap up for distribution and then, curiously, neglected during the awards-season campaigning. Someone was overpaid to make a bad decision. 


Speaking of Sebastian Stan and "I, Tonya," the actor is every bit as effective and memorable as his two leading ladies, Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, both of whom received well-deserved nominations. Janney is the favorite to win in her supporting category - but why exactly? She's a fantastic actress. However, while Janney is hugely entertaining to watch in this overly showy role, she's also strictly one-note and repetitive. Much more impressive (and subtle) are the performances of Laurie Metcalf in "Lady Bird" and, my favorite, Lesley Manville in "Phantom Thread."

But that's just me.

more is more than enough

For more than six decades, the Best Picture nominees were restricted to just five. But it was expanded a few years ago, largely because popular mainstream studio extravaganzas were being shut out by arty independent titles. There were complaints by the studios and the Academy greased the squeaky wheels. Anyway, despite the revision, nothing's changed.

The Best Picture nominees for 2017 are largely fringe titles, specifically items that don't lend themselves to an IMAX presentation - "Lady Bird," "Phantom Thread," "Call Me by Your Name," "The Shape of Water," "Get Out," "Darkest Hour" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Steven Spielberg's "The Post" is the lone throwback to the kind of old-fashioned film that routinely snagged the top Oscar - and Christopher Nolan's "Dunkirk" is the only title that's broad-shouldered and Big.

the award for ubiquity

Speaking of awards, I am eagerly anticipating one for those actors who have the stamina and passion to appear in multiple films every year. This year, the awards would go to:

Woody Harrelson, who acted in no fewer than seven titles - "Wilson," LBJ," "War for the Planet of the Apes," "Lost in London," "The Glass Castle," "Shock and Awe" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."

And he acted in five titles in 2016.

Also, the ever-surprising Nicole Kidman, whose 2017 appearances included "Queen of the Desert," "The Beguiled," "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" and two ambitious, continuing TV dramas - "Top of the Lake" and HBO's "Big Little Lies."

laughing all the way to hell

When will Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers and especially Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels wake up and recognize that current politics are no laughing matter? Or am I being a mirthless grump?


It seems that, all of a sudden, a new favored expression is being invoked by television critics - "the cold open," applied exclusively to the sketch that opens "Saturday Night Live" every week. Huh? It's the opening sketch, that's all. Right? Wrong. Reliable Mike Schlesinger has advised me that "'a cold open' is a long-established film term referring to something that occurs before the opening titles. An 'opening sketch' usually occurs afterwards (e.g., 'The Carol Burnett Show,' 'Hollywood Palace')." Got it.

Thanks, Mike. Frankly, I never heard of "a cold open" until recently and had no idea that it was originally a filmic expression. So why are TV critics using it and only in reference to SNL? Whatever. But for some irrational reason, I find its current use annoying and, well, a tad pretentious.

Since I'm on a roll here, speaking of TV critics, I never got the point. I mean, there are close to a ga-zillion stations these days, each with endless original programming - and at least a dozen episodes for each program. So how does one keep up with each show and its progress?

Or, more likely, lack thereof?

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* * * * *
(from top)

~Gloria Grahame receiving the best support actress Oscar from Edmund Gwenn in 1953 - for her role in Vincente Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful"
 ~photography: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences 1953©

~ Sebastian Stan and Paul Walter Hauser in "I, Tonya"
~photography: 30West-Neon / 2017©

~Woody Harrelson and Francis McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
~photography: Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century-Fox 2017©

~Nicole Kidman in "The Beguiled"
~photography: Ben Rothstein / Focus Features 2017©


I.D. Lacey said...

Terrific piece on all counts. You nailed it ( them?), Joe!

Nicholas said...

I had no idea that Meron and Zadan made the decision to change the name officially from The Academy Awards to The Oscars. I assume the Academy approved it. Bad move. Of course, the Oscar shows that they produced were also fairly awful.

Mike Schlesinger said...

Two things: It's McGuigan, not McQuigan. And "cold open" is a long-established film term referring to something that occurs before the opening titles. An "opening sketch" usually occurs afterwards (e.g., "The Carol Burnett Show," "Hollywood Palace").

joe baltake said...

Got it, Mike. Done. Thanks for the heads-up. -J

Marvin Halpern said...

Joe, 4 comments on your excellent "Oscars" article. (a) I agree that Florence Pugh should have been nominated for the dazzling LADY MACBETH. She has a small, but showy, supporting role in Liam Neeson's potboiler THE COMMUTER and is excellent, even in this type of drivel. (b) It appears to me that it would be very difficult to nominate Steve Coogan for THE DINNER, as probably not more than 10 persons saw that film in its entire release! I agree that Coogan gave a great performance. (c) Sebastian Stan for Best Actor? I don't know. I would nominate him for Best Supporting Actor, rather than Best Actor. Interesting that his performance has escaped notice of critics, but the (albeit excellent) performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney are incessantly discussed. (d) Are you a betting man, Joe? I will bet you that Laurie Metcalf WILL win Best Supporting Actress, rather than Janney. At least, "odds" of today are that Metcalf is ahead (but not by much). Marvin

Alex said...

Good column. Hollywood was regularly calling the award "Oscar" long before Zadan and Meron decided to make it official.

Bill from Philly said...

Alex is correct. For years, the presenters have been announcing, "And The Oscar goes to..."

joe baltake said...

Bill- Both you and Alex have accurately describes the decades-long use of the word "Oscar." And the announcement, "And The Oscar goes to..." is certainly an improvement on what predated it - "And the winner is..."

Tish said...

Still, I don't like it that those producers elected to retire "Academy Awards," making an announcement that it was official!

Charlotte said...

The word for the amazing output of both Kidman and Harrelson: Prolific!