Sunday, March 05, 2017

hollywood's problem child

He is a child of privilege, born and raised with a sense of entitlement.

He is Hollywood’s Golden Child.  Literally. 

He is Oscar.

There are other, lesser awards that aspire to be like him and that covet his immense celebrity, but they don’t share his elevated station in life.

And like many pampered, overindulged children, Oscar has been something of a disappointment.  Awards in his name have been given more often to the wrong films and people than to the right ones.   

And the annual black-tie party that celebrates his greatness, the Oscarcast, has been at once gauche, boring and embarrassing.

Oscar is like the popular kid in high school who fails to live up to his potential and is often overshadowed by wannabes and competitors.

The turnout for his party this year, for example, was the lowest in nine years.  Each year, as ratings drop a little more, he seems to become less relevant. Meanwhile, his helicopter parent – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  – continues to manipulate factors that would make its precious Oscar appear more important. Yes, manipulate.

Somehow, that strikes me as something particularly dubious.  Case in point: In 2009, after the franchise film “The Dark Knight” failed to get an expected Best Picture nomination, the Academy - a stage mother to end all stage mothers - stepped in to correct such slights in the future and to quell anticipated complaints from any other pesky malcontents. 

Heaven knows, for years, the five Best Picture slots had generally been monopolized by arty indie fare.  So the category was opened up to include as many as ten – ten! – nominees.  That way, action and comic-book movies had a chance to be included and honored.  You know, art.

But guess what: It didn’t work. Since that expansion, even more fringe titles have been nominated for Best Picture. Usually eight or nine. (For some reason, there have yet to be ten nominated films. I’ve no idea what the official cut-off point is.) Mainstream titles remain a distinct minority.

There was more tampering with the potential results this year.

When too few films and people of color were represented in the competition for the past two awards seasons, the Academy went into its Rolodex to get weed out those voters (read: old and white) holding back the hands of time.  The conceit worked. There was certainly more diversity among this year's nominees. But none of this impressed moviegoers.

What the Academy fails to acknowledge that there is a definite correlation between what films are nominated and how many viewers tune in to the Oscarcast.  It’s become apparent that the average moviegoer has written off the Oscarcast because he/she simply doesn’t care about any of the films involved.  There may be interest in "Moonlight," this year's Best Picture winner, among movie critics, festival groupies and film-industry people, but not among people who go to movies as a pastime.

The ratings were down this year because, frankly, among the nine titles being honored were the aforementioned “Moonlight” and “La La Land” (a musical, for heaven’s sake!) and “Fences” and “Lion”  and “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water” and other movies that did not include a single tormented Superhero from the Marvel or DC Comics archives. 

The last Oscarcast whose ratings soared was in 1998 – the year of “Titanic,” a film that people other than movie critics, festival geeks and industry people adored. It was big and popular and glamorous.

The little-known (and -seen) "Moonlight" is the polar opposite, an edgy downer about race and sexuality.  It's not the kind of film that one dreams of building an Oscar party around.  Its unexpected victory has been attributed to the changes in voting, but it actually benefited from a carefully-orchestrated, shrewdly-timed 11th hour backlash on the internet against "La La Land," which had been the front-runner all season.

In a matter of a few weeks, its fate changed. 

"Moonlight's" win made no sense until one became aware of the willfully ignorant charges made against "La La Land" on the web. Yes, unbelievably, the musical lost its Best Picture Oscar because that category was ostensibly seized and appropriated by resourceful internet writers.

As for this year’s "party," the Oscarcast itself, it was especially pathetic, what with tiny bags of candy being parachuted into the theater at intervals and “tourists” being bussed in to partake in all the forced fun and to hobnob with the rich and famous.  And the extensive padding included one particularly gratuitous bit that had current stars (like Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen) mooning over vets (Shirley MacLaine and Michael J. Fox).

It was also a show whose over-the-top political correctness even seeped into commercials that pontificated on behalf of empathy and compassion to the point that it became cringe-worthy – and I say that as a card-carrying liberal who routinely votes on behalf of empathy and compassion.  As I watched all this, I remarked to my wife that right-wing pundits would have a field day with this show, which played like a bad caricature of liberalism.

It was difficult to take and I tuned out early on when Viola Davis won her award.  OK, full disclosure: I was crazy about Viola Davis before she became a household name.  As a working critic, I took note of her early film performances in “Out of Sight,” “Antoine Fisher,” “Far from Heaven” and “Solaris.”  Her win for “Fences” was no surprise.  And it was evident that she expected it, too, because her acceptance speech was less of a speech than a monologue, a carefully prepared one-woman play, during which Davis gave a performance that rivaled her work in “Fences.”

I managed to snap back into consciousness for the controversial note on which the show ended - the wrong film being announced for the top prize.

Americans like to find blame somewhere, anywhere, and everyone in the media and on-line was quick to target poor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway for simply reading the information that was given to them. 

Beatty was clearly confused when he opened the envelope and I believe that he handed it to Dunaway to show her that a mistake had been made.  And she assumed that he was leaving it up to her to announce the winner. 

In an earlier lifetime, I interviewed Beatty and found him to be a calm, methodical, savvy, intelligent man.  So I was surprised that he didn’t stop the show, look into the camera and tell the audience that a mistake had been made – that he and Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope – and then simply wait things out until the powers corrected the error. 

The Academy still would have had a wildly dramatic finale but it would have been a good deal less embarrassing, particularly for the team that made “La La Land” - the film that deserved to be named Best Picture.

Notes in Passing: There were two moments during the Oscarcast that left me jaw-dropped (aside from the Best Picture win).  One was when host Jimmy Kimmel referred to Trump tweeting during his "5 a.m. bowel movement."  A low point in bad taste.  The second was when presenter Vince Vaughn described Kimmel as "an unshave Sal Mineo."  Huh?  Made no sense.  If my memory serves me correctly, Kimmel had a beard growth on his face (and hardly resembles Mineo). Embarrassing.


Doug said...

Great piece, Joe. Based on the revieews, I went into "Moonlight" expecting greatness. I liked the film but couldn't describe it as great. I think it will be the least-grossing Best Picture winner.

MGoetzeler said...

You are so right, as usual. Take me back to "who you are wearing." It was a lot more fun then.

Alex said...

Joe: I take it that you were underwhelmed by "Moonlight." Me, too. I find it difficult to believe that this was actually the BEST FILM OF THE YEAR!

joe baltake said...

Alex- You're correct: Underwhelmed. I read all the reviews - raves - and still don't understand why the critics were doing cartwheels over this film, other than the fact that it was the politically correct thing to do. It's a fine film, just not award-worthy.

Tracy said...

I also could not believe that "La La Land" lost to "Moonlight," but do you really believe that social media had something to do with that?

joe baltake said...

In a word, Tish, yes - I do. It may sound bizarre, but I can't think of any other explanation.

Brian Lucas said...

"Moonlight" is a good movie but I agree that it really isn't award-worthy. I admire that Barry Jenkins attempted to model it after the Hong Kong films of Wong Kar Wai and succeeded at that on a modest scale. But it's not something that the average moviegoer would "get" or appreciate.

Susan H. said...

I predict that "Moonlight" will be the lowest-grossing Best Picture in Oscar history. It's not what people who watch the Oscars want. (BTW, I liked it,)

Kevin Deany said...

Spot on, Joe, as usual. There was a time when it seemed the Academy was not embarrassed to nominate the year's biggest commercial hits for Best Picture. AIRPORT, THE TOWERING INFERNO, JAWS, THE EXORCIST, STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, etc., all got Best Picture nods.

Should AIRPORT have been named the Best Picture of 1970? Well no, but the Academy didn't have that holier than thou attitude they've had for about the last 10 years or so.

Having said that, though, I can't think of a popular blockbuster last year that would have warranted a Best Picture nomination. In recent years, I would have been fine with SKYFALL or THE AVENGERS getting a Best Picture nomination. But nothing from last year.

A 20-something co-worker who mainly watches new movies told me Hollywood has always a produced a lot of crap. I said this was true. But yesterday's crap is far superior to today's crap.

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Kevin. I've also noticed how Hollywood's snobbery has increased as its production of crap also goes up. The more junk that it produces, the more self-conscious the industry becomes. The place was always self-conscious about its reputation and status. That's why the Oscars were invented in the first place - to demonstrate to the public that it isn't crass at all but the purveyor of fine, responsible fare. True, but only for the last two or so months of every year. For the other ten months, it's devoted to making big bucks exclusively - and as quickly as possible. Then, at year-end, it sets its sight on awards which, by the way, help bring in even more money.

James L. said...

No surprise that the internet trolls took over the Oscars. They've take over.

Marvin said...

MOST people today who "write" about films are as stupid as dirt and don't know what the F*** they are talking about – and who obviously hadn't read all that was there on the subject, and/or who had totally misunderstood, etc. etc. etc. etc. These so-called "writers of the entertainment industry" need to know what a horrible job they do, and how truly "far-off" their opinions are from what is CORRECT.
In short, reading your very excellent and dense discussion of the Academy Award nominated/winning films depressed me so much. The world is going to Hell, and along with it, so is film criticism.

joe baltake said...

Thank you, Marvin. I wholeheartedly agree with your view on today's "movie critics."

Greg Thompson said...

Bravo, Joe! Well-said.

mike c. said...

The Academy fudging with the voting process in order to get the desired results? Real Nice.