Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Oscars wrap-up (What, too late?)

First off, Ben Stiller's take on Joaquin Phoenix's odd behavior outstayed its welcome when he presented the Best Cinematography award with Natalie Portman, partly because it was too much of an inside joke. I knew the reference, but I didn't see Phoenix's February appearance on Late Show With David Letterman until a few days ago, and a friend of mine had no idea what Stiller was doing and why people in the audience were laughing.

I hope Phoenix doesn't give up acting, because the YouTube clips of him on Late Show elicit many emotions: sympathy, embarrassment, annoyance with the audience, annoyance with Phoenix, sympathy for Letterman, sympathy for the audience. Back in 2000 when he was promoting Gladiator on The Tonight Show, Jay Leno supposedly ended the interview with "Thanks for coming, Joaquin. Next time bring your brain." I never saw that interview and can't find it on YouTube, but Letterman says something similar here. Joaquin marches to the beat of his own drum machine.

On to the main event—I've waited until now to talk about the Oscar ceremony that took place two weeks ago because I wanted to let it completely sink in before I did a full analysis. And if you believe that, I'd like to offer you an
authentic Oscar statue for only $10,000 cash. I found it in the trash outside Jack Nicholson's place in Malibu. I guess he felt he didn't really deserve that third one for 1997's As Good as It Gets.

Two of the comments under the post I wrote (and actually finished!) the day of the Oscars took the words right out of my mouth. First, this one from Halfhearted Dude:

The TV direction in the In Memoriam segment was criminal — I almost wish that the director will feature in it next year for messing up the best part of the show. Long angle shots of screens on which the writing was too small, and sometimes the image of the late subject. Unlike certain child actors, I couldn't see dead people. And then the camera zoomed in and out and left and right; I nearly got seasick. What pretentious rubbish.

I agree wholeheartedly, Halfhearted! I was especially invested in this year's "In Memoriam" segment because of the 2008 passing of Sydney Pollack, one of my heroes, but as soon as the segment started with Queen Latifah singing whatever she was singing, I had a bad feeling. Since Laurence Mark and Bill Condon had said they wanted this year's ceremony to feel more like a party, I got the impression that they decided the big downer moment would be Heath Ledger's family's acceptance speech if he won (yep, I shed a tear, as I expected), and that the "In Memoriam" segment would be the equivalent of when you're at a party and you get stuck talking to your friend who becomes morose whenever he's drunk and wants to discuss "what it all means." You make a beeline for the cooler, which is what the cameramen seemed to do during the "In Memoriam" segment. I'm sure the producers didn't mean to be disrespectful in their presentation of the segment, but it was executed about as poorly as it possibly could. Next year the names and images need to be visible to the viewers at home the entire time, not just to the audience inside the Kodak Theatre.

Next up is this comment from Jane:

I couldn't stick with the whole Oscar ceremony. I think for me what was missing were the film clips. I've always enjoyed the film clips playing while the nominees are called. The "tribute" from previous winners was a nice idea, but didn't hold the same impact for me.

Again, I agree. The Oscar ceremony is already the most self-congratulatory night of the year in Hollywood, so amplying that aspect with the tributes to the actor nominees made me squirm. "You're great!" "No, you're great!" Enough. I have no doubt it's difficult to pick out solid Oscar clips for the actor nominees each year—a good performance can't be encapsulated in 20 seconds—but for people like me who hadn't seen most of the performances that were nominated, I had no reason to think any of the nominees were better than any other. At least with the Oscar clips you can be "hooked" in those 20 seconds and see a glimpse of lightning in a bottle, even if the clip just shows the actor screaming or crying, which are the "old standby" displays of emotion in Oscar clips. (My roommate during my freshman year of college thought that good acting boiled down to how loud you can yell, or at least that's the impression he gave. Who needs subtlety? Just crank up the volume, and flip over a table while you're at it.)

I think a conspiracy was afoot—yes, afoot!—with the Oscar clips because Robert Downey Jr. was nominated for Tropic Thunder. After he was nominated I wrote my friend Jeremy and said, "Do you think his 'full retard' speech in that movie will be the clip?" If you haven't seen Tropic Thunder, I'll just say that the speech involves the Downey character's take on why certain actors win Oscars for playing mentally handicapped people and others don't. For instance, Dustin Hoffman played a character who was merely autistic in Rain Man, so he won Best Actor in 1989, but Sean Penn "went full retard" in I Am Sam, so he didn't win Best Actor in 2002.

The host of a party who can make fun of himself or take a joke at his own expense is a good host, but maybe the Academy isn't that kind of host. Or maybe Sean Penn is still sore about losing that Oscar for I Am Sam. Or maybe the fact that Downey was the only "black" actor nominated this year in both the lead and supporting categories made the Academy not want to show what he looks like in Tropic Thunder, in case Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson were nearby with a stack of fresh picket signs waiting to be hoisted. But the "full retard" speech, though it may be offensive to some moviegoers, does a good job of showing the mindset of Downey's five-time-Oscar-winning Method-actor character, who goes to extremes to capture the "truth" in his performances yet is still career-savvy enough to know what Academy members will vote for.

(I also think Downey's Oscar nomination was more of an acknowledgement that he's "back" than anything else. His performance in Tropic Thunder is funny at first, but it wears thin, and the movie is a disappointment overall. Meanwhile, the trailer for The Soloist, also starring Downey—though Jamie Foxx plays the black guy in this one—is on the Tropic Thunder DVD, and when I saw it I thought, "Oh yeah, wasn't this piece of Oscar bait supposed to come out in the fall?" Sure enough, it ends with the date "November 2008"; DreamWorks's decision to push the film's release back to April doesn't bode well for its quality.)

Did you notice what when Jennifer Aniston was presenting the animation awards with Jack Black, the camera cut to Angelina Jolie in the front row looking at Aniston? Reeeal classy, Mr. Director. It wouldn't be a party without icy tension between two gorgeous women who've both been with the same guy!

What else? I think Beyoncé was lip-synching during the big Baz Luhrmann-choreographed musical number. And I liked that Sean Penn acknowledged Mickey Rourke in his acceptance speech for Best Actor, because it reminded me that Rourke had a great cameo in The Pledge, which was directed by Penn and starred Jack Nicholson. I recommend it if you haven't seen it. I had low expectations when I first saw it because it came out in January of '01 but was originally supposed to be released in the fall of 2000 to qualify for awards season. Releasing a film in January is never a good sign, but The Pledge isn't an embarrassment by any means. It stuck with me long after I saw it, and though Rourke only has one scene, it was enough to remind me that he was still a good actor who had something left to prove.


  1. Exactly. Ben Stiller usually gets me to laugh, but his take on Phoenix just drove me to the remote. And your comment that "a good performance can't be encapsulated in 20 seconds" was very well put. I agree. For me, the clips always helped serve as a reminder of either a performance I admired or a performance I was looking forward to someday catching.

    Nowadays, my favorite part of the Oscar hype is Turner Classic Movie's 31 Days of Oscars. And TCM's trailers for this special programming are stunning. I don't know who puts them together, but they remind a person that film making is an art.

  2. I wish I got TCM on my cable system. It's a great channel, and it surpassed AMC so quickly.

    I've always liked the historical film-clip montages that Chuck Workman has put together for the Oscars over the years. I don't know if he's still the one who makes them, though.