Sunday, February 28, 2010

Five Reasons I Like Oscar: An Unfashionable View

Of all the many awards shows currently airing on TV, I only regularly watch one, the Oscars, which are trumpeting their 82nd edition on Sunday March 7. I don’t for a second consider The Academy Awards to be a benchmark for excellence, and all those film critics who regularly cite Oscar worthy performances ought not to be reviewing films. However, after suffering through the recent Grammy awards, which are supposed to honour excellence in music but are as mainstream as can be, I appreciate the virtues of the Oscars more than ever. Here are five reasons why.

Justice: Yes, there have been awful choices made by the Academy in the past-Titanic over L.A.  Confidential for Best Picture!, Anjelica Huston (The Grifters) losing out as Best Actress to Kathy Bates (Misery), overlooking Jaoquin Phoneix this year for his superb performance in Two Lovers – but in the acting categories, specifically, most of the finest actors and actresses working in the English speaking film world today, including Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Kate Winslet, Michael Caine, Cate Blanchett,  Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Daniel Day- Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Denzel Washington, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, to name a few, have won Academy awards. The trick is to recognize that they don’t always win for their best performances or even for good ones; Alan Arkin has been much better than he was in his award winning role in Little Miss Sunshine nor did Syriana highlight George Clooney’s best work but they’re great actors nonetheless. And did anyone doubt that director Martin Scorsese deserved an award for Best Director, even if The Departed was hardly his finest hour? And while Johnny Depp and Amy Adams, among others, have yet to win awards, I’m sure they eventually will but likely not for the films they should have won for. (Jeff Bridges’s expected Best Actor award for Crazy Heart will be one time that the right role for the right actor will be honoured.) Concentrate more on the actors and actresses who win and less on the films they win for, and these awards don’t seem so out of touch after all.

Democracy: Despite a few comments about dumping some of the less flashy Academy awards, in order to help shorten the Oscars’ traditionally long running time, so far at least, the Academy continues to treat all its awards, from film editing and scoring to Best Actress and Best Picture, equally. The Oscar telecast is the one time, in our myopically celebrity mad culture, that all the people involved in making movies get their due and their moment to shine, with the Academy even helpfully explaining what goes into editing and costuming, for those moviegoers who don’t otherwise pay attention to those aspects of the filmmaking process. It’s a timely reminder that a great film comes from a great team effort, with everyone, not just the performers in front of the camera, pulling together to make the movie shine.

Internationalism: Yes, the Academy still, for the most part, ghettoizes non – English speaking films and actors, but as film becomes more of an international phenomenon, with co – productions increasing in numbers, the talent that has won the Oscars of late, is often non – American and I don’t just mean the Brits, who regularly dominate and / or place in the acting awards. In recent years, winners have hailed from Japan, India, Australia, France and Italy and not just in the foreign film categories but across the non – acting board. This, too, is a welcome reminder, that cinema comes in many colours and with many accents and slowly but steadily the Oscars are beginning to reflect that multicultural reality.

In Memoriam: My favourite segment of the Oscars is the In Memoriam one, which movingly highlights about 30 or so film people, actors, writers, directors, technicians, critics and publicists, who have passed away in the previous year. It’s a selective list, to be sure, as many more of them have died in that time period, but it’s also a touching tribute to the past glories of the industry through a brief mention of the talents who made it what is today, in various countries around the world. So, obviously the Academy will memorialize actors Jean Simmons, Patrick Swayze and Natasha Richardson but it will also remember screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg (What Makes Sammy Run?, On the Waterfront) and French filmmaker Eric Rohmer. Rohmer may only have ever received Oscar nominations for his 1969 film Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud’s) but this year, he’ll be briefly if belatedly acknowledged as one of the more important contributors to the cinematic world.

Class: I know that there are always shots taken at the Academy’s occasional lapses of bad taste, such as the terribly tacky Rob Lowe – Snow White musical number of a few years back or the few overdone speeches of some of the acting winners, such as Sally Field’s mushy yet genuine ‘You like me, you really like me’ speech but, mostly, the Oscars are a class act. The men look great in their tuxes, most of the women choose dresses that flatter them and by and large the presenters take their on camera duties very seriously. And some of the winners have given great or memorable speeches when they’ve come up to the podium – I still remember Daniel Day – Lewis’s exuberant comment about how ‘they’ll be celebrating in Dublin tonight’ when he unexpectedly (and deservedly) beat out Tom Cruise (Born on the Fourth of July) to win Best Actor for his turn as a writer with cerebral palsy in My Left Foot. Or Jon Stewart graciously bringing singer Markéta Irglová back on stage to accept her half (with Glen Hansard) of the Best Song award for the lovely Irish film Once, after she’d been shunted off stage before she could say anything before the Oscars went to a commercial. (It’s also why I hope that the Academy will not musically drown out anyone who goes past 45 seconds in their acceptance speech; sometimes you need longer to say what you have to.) After watching the Grammys, which gave out several key Lifetime Achievement awards to historic musical figures, such as legendary blues guitarist David 'Honeyboy' Edwards and iconic singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, but didn’t let them say any words on stage, I’ve got to give the Oscars credit. When the brilliant likes of American filmmaker Robert Altman or Indian director Satyajit Ray win such awards, they get to say a few words in thanks, which is just another reason to tune into the show. It really does its recipients proud.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto

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