Sunday, March 2, 2014

And the Oscar Doesn’t Go To…: Ten Snubs by the Academy

I've long made my peace with the Academy Awards, although I do still remember being pretty infuriated in 1980 when Milo Forman’s Hair wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Instead of watching the Oscar telecast, I went off and saw the movie again that night. Since then I’ve calmed down and stopped taking the show so seriously: partly because there is a rough justice in the winners. Most good actors do win an Oscar but usually not for the right film. Despite the show’s frequent dull bits, I also enjoy many parts of the ceremony. I like seeing the movie stars, the moving ‘In Memoriam’ tribute to the industry folk who have passed away in the last year and I revel in the excitement of those winners. They're usually from outside the U.S. and they are absolutely thrilled to get one of the gold statues, a testimony to how much Hollywood accolades still mean to so many people who make movies. You’re also guaranteed to hear at least a couple of great speeches from the winners, particularly from the British contingent.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t get at least slightly worked up by key omissions in each year’s nominations, which in 2014 include the terrific documentary feature Muscle Shoals, Oscar Isaac for Best Actor for Inside Llewyn Davis, and the two lead actresses in Blue is the Warmest Color, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos. (Inexplicably, France submitted the dull Renoir instead of this gem as their entry for Best Foreign Language Film. It didn’t get the nod.) In that regretful vein, I offer here some of my Oscar snubs of recent years, either for great performances not nominated at all or for stellar work, nominated but not victorious. It’s a gentle rebuke, though as I’m always amused by those film critics who adamantly declaim that they never watch the awards show but still feel the need, year in and year out, to expend excessive verbiage on why they don’t. (Are they protesting too much?) Thus, without much further ado, the envelope, please!

Tommy Lee Jones in Cobb
Tommy Lee Jones, Best Actor, Cobb: As the iconic ballplayer, Ty Cobb, one of baseball’s greatest players but also one of the nastiest, Tommy Lee Jones’ turn in Ron Shelton’s Cobb (1994) seemed a slam dunk (if I may mix sports metaphors) for Best Actor. Alas, he didn’t even get nominated that year, likely because the role was a little too edgy for the generally conservative establishment that votes on the Oscars. (Reportedly, Warner Brothers which produced the film also wasn't interested in promoting it; I don't think Cobb ever opened wide in North America.) Yet it’s not just one of Jones’ greatest accomplishments, and he’s been great in many movies, but an acting tour de force for the ages. His Cobb – racist, misogynist, dangerous, angry, and yet, still tragic compelled even as it repelled. As Jones plays him, you can see a glint in his eyes that dares you to turn away  a self-destructive man, even with his respectful peers, yet needy, too, challenging the sportswriter (Robert Wuhl) who is determined to plumb his emotional depths, to even try to get close to him. Utterly without sentiment, not in the least bit concerned with being liked, Cobb, and Jones’ remarkable performance in it, still stands out this many years later alongside other indelible films and performers including, dare I say it, Marlon Brando’s failed boxer in On the Waterfront.

Sally Hawkins, Best Actress, Happy-Go-Lucky: As with Jones, it never even occurred to me that Sally Hawkins, playing “Poppy”, an optimistic schoolteacher who bumps up against a morose, mean-spirited driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s British film Happy-Go-Lucky (2008) would be overlooked by the Academy. I still can’t see why. It’s a joyous performance centered around a genuinely happy, upbeat woman  hardly a familiar movie archetype – who doesn’t change her core views or values even when confronted with the darker side of life. And Hawkins, up this year for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, makes the most of the part. Her Poppy is sexy, funny, kind and completely irresistible, even in the face of driving instructor Scott’s (Eddie Marsan, also very fine) disturbed persona and misanthropic attitudes. If ever a movie offered up a well-rounded , believable character one could easily fall in movie-love with, Hawkins’ was it, to no avail in the Academy’s eyes, unfortunately.
Waltz with Bashir

Waltz with Bashir, Best Foreign Language Film: I quite liked Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2008), the Japanese film which won the best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009. But though the film, about a cellist who becomes a mortician in rural Japan and gains an understanding on the true meaning of life and death, was a worthy one, it wasn’t nearly as inventive and memorable as Ari Folman’s powerful anti-war Israeli film Waltz With Bashir (2008). Detailing Folman's own post traumatic stress issues after serving in the Lebanon war, Waltz with Bashir makes its salient points, unusually, in animated form, a testimony to its unique nature. It’s also surrealistic and cutting, and finally, disturbing, laying bare the horrible realities of that conflict and Israel’s culpability in the Sabra and Shatilla massacre of Palestinian civilians by Israel’s Christian Phalangist allies. Alternately, a distinctive portrait of the Lebanese war’s surrealistic nature – Israel was initially seen as a saviour of the Lebanese when she first invaded the country and then as an enemy besieged by combatants only seen from afar – and the Israeli populace’s disconnect from what its soldiers were fighting for, Waltz with Bashir was an arresting, brillianty presented movie, that stands out from the pack, in this or any other year.

Prince of the City, Best Adapted Screenplay: It seems incredible to me that Sidney Lumet’s sprawling, ambitious Prince of the City (1981), which he co-wrote with Jay Presson Allen (based on the true story of a cop (Treat Williams) who decides to risk his life exposing corruption in the New York City police force, and laid out in Robert Daley’s 1978 book of the same name) didn’t win the award in its category in 1982. Amazingly, it lost  out to On Golden Pond, of all movies. I don’t hate that film, but let’s face it; it’s a pretty simple, sentimental father-daughter reconciliation story, which can’t hold a candle to Prince of the City’s gritty screenplay. Boasting more than 100 speaking parts (a very large canvas for Lumet) and running nearly three hours, the intricate story – aided by Lumet’s crisp, effective direction was a gripping, provocative and epic drama whose richly depicted milieu of cops, crooks and corruption, has become an influence on any number of other films and television shows, including The Sopranos and The Wire. Incidentally, the movie also brought Jerry Orbach (later to star as detective Lennie Briscoe on TV’s Law & Order) to the attention of audiences but his superb supporting role as the dapper Gus Levy, a corrupt cop betrayed by his best friend, was, criminally, ignored by the Academy.

Jule Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Midnight

Julie Delpy, Best Actress, Before Midnight: I had to look twice to confirm that Julie Delpy was omitted from the list of Best Actress nominees in 2014. Yes, that list includes such deserved actors as Judi Dench (Philomena) and Cate Blanchett (expected to win for Blue Jasmine) but the astounding thing about Delpy’s performance in Before Midnight (2013) was that it was the third time she’d played the role: it’s the final part of Richard Linklater’s remarkable trilogy that includes Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Now long married to American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and the mother of two girls, Delpy’s Céline has become an angry, dissatisfied woman who isn’t sure she wants to remain married to Jesse anymore. In this third film, she rages, cries and expresses her complicated dreams and wishes for the ‘ideal’ life. In short, she’s an everywoman who we have come, over the course of Linklater’s trilogy, to know and recognize as someone we could easily imagine coming across in our own lives. Delpy’s turn is gutsy, emotionally explicit (also in terms of sexuality and nudity) and brave – she’s not scared to display negative aspects of her persona – all the acting attributes that should but often don’t receive the Academy recognition they deserve.

John Cazale, Best Supporting Actor, Dog Day Afternoon: The late John Cazale only made five films in his lifetime but, astoundingly, all of them (The Godfather, The Godfather, Part 2, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon, The Deer Hunter) were significant ones. (There are actors who go a whole lifetime without that many major movies in their resume.) Each of those films were nominated for Best Picture and all but The Conversation and Dog Day Afternoon won that award, but sadly Cazale wasn’t even once recognized by the Academy for his stellar achievements on screen. I could have picked his role as Fredo Corleone, the weakest of the brothers in a noted crime family, in the two Godfather movies, but great as he was in those films, his was one of a passel of terrific, standout performances. In Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), he is second only to Al Pacino’s bank robber in the emotional impact he makes. As Sal, a sad sack accomplice to a man who commits the crime to raise money for his lover’s sex change operation, Cazale’s mopey demeanour and jittery presence were a riveting counterpoint to Pacino’s character’s over the top showman. You never know what Sal will do next or even whether he’ll harm the hostages the pair are holding but you can’t take your eyes off Cazale for fear of missing something. He was that good. (Oddly, Chris Sarandon, as Pacino’s lover, did get nominated but his part is a minor one, compared to Cazale’s.)
Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver, Best Picture: Of all the nominees of 1975’s Best Picture in the Academy Awards presented in 1976, Rocky, the eventual winner, was clearly the least of them all. Of the remaining nominees, including Bound for Glory, All the President’s Men, Network, Taxi Driver was easily the finest. (All the President’s Men was second best.) Directed by Martin Scorsese (up for the Best Director award this year for The Wolf of Wall Street) and written by Paul Schrader, it’s the story of one Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a disturbed Vietnam war vet, plying his trade as a taxi driver on New York’s mean streets, and Iris (Jodie Foster), the teenage prostitute he decides to save, no matter what it takes. Violent, profane, offering a scathing portrait of a city on the edge and its dangerous denizens, Taxi Driver boasts memorable dialogue and scenes (“You talkin’ to me?”), uniformly fantastic performances and brilliantly realized direction, not to mention Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score, which also didn’t win that year. Its portrait of a crime-ridden New York City may be dated but nothing else about it is. It’s still one of the finest American films period, not to mention of the 70s – America’s last Golden Age of cinema – and as lasting and meaningful as Rocky was forgettable and slight.

Robert Altman, Best Director, Nashville: Miloš Forman won the Best Director award in 1976 for One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), which captured most of the major awards that year. His work was fine –  as was fellow nominee Sidney Lumet’s for Dog Day Afternoon (his career best, I’d say),  though I can’t believe Steven Spielberg wasn’t nominated for Jaws that year – but Robert Altman’s helming of Nashville was quite beyond great. Juggling a large cast of characters in a modern epic about America, refracted through its country music heart, Nashville, written by Joan Tewkesbury (also stunningly overlooked for her screenplay), was a movie that built in impact as the stakes were raised in its fictional election campaign and in the emotionally complex lives of its inhabitants. The film’s powerful conclusion – one of the greatest sequences in the history of movies – wherein fledgling country music singer Winifred (Barbara Harris) takes over the baton of fallen Nashville star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), who’s been shot by a crazed fan, and leads the audience in a rousing chorus of “It Don’t Worry Me”, a testimony to both America’s myopia and its can-do, nothing-can-stop-us spirit, is astounding in how it ultimately emotionally overwhelms us. Altman was at the top of his powers here, but to no avail in the Academy’s eyes in 1976. (In 2005, the Academy at least honoured him with a Special Oscar.)

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential, Best Picture: I knew Curtis Hanson’s 1997 masterful  adaption of James Ellroy’s 1990 book of the same name would not beat out the waterlogged, schmaltzy but extremely popular Titanic for the Best Picture award in 1998, but it still pisses me off to this day. How could James Cameron’s bloated epic, and minor love story, best L.A. Confidential’s smartly written (with Brian Helgeland), evocative and richly acted film noir? Beats me but despite that major slight, it is L.A. Confidential which will certainly outlast Titanic in terms of critical reputation. With 1953 Los Angeles, beautifully re-created on screen, as a physically gorgeous place with a rotten, ugly core, and a complex storyline that rivalled Chinatown in its breath and scope, L.A. Confidential also proffered best ever acting from Kevin Spacey (remember when he didn’t overact?), Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe as the three cops at the centre of the action (none of them were nominated for Oscars,  though Kim Basinger did win as best Supporting Actress for her role as a glamorous prostitute as did Helgleand and Hanson for their screenplay.) I’ve see this movie several times and not only remain dazzled by its high qualities, I consider it to be one of Hollywood’s best ever film noirs. It can and does rival The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity as a honest, unforgettable look into the sleazy under core of much of human duplicity.

Dennis Hopper / Kyle MacLachlan: Best Supporting Actor / Best Actor, Blue Velvet: Okay, that’s two omissions, although David Lynch deservedly did get a Best Director nomination for 1986’s Blue Velvet, regretably, losing to Oliver Stone for Platoon. But both Hopper, as a very scary sadist named Frank, and Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey, a young man who discovers his own sexual kinks and obsessions through his romantic involvement with an abused nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini, also great), created indelible roles on screen, only to see the Academy snub them. No matter, it’s some of the best acting either has ever done in a revelatory movie that continues to disturb as an unflinching look into the American underbelly of ‘polite’ society’. (Hopper did receive a nomination for Best Supporting Actor that year for his work as a small town drunk in David Anspaugh's solid Hoosiers but good as his acting was in that film, it didn't hold a candle to his indelible performance in Lynch's masterpiece.) Blue Velvet is not an easy film, but that’s precisely why all aspects of it deserved recognition. If the Oscars are supposed to be all about quality – obviously, they only occasionally are – it’s movies and performances like those in Blue Velvet that should  –  but too often don’t –  stand uppermost in the Academy voters’ minds.

- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on acting archetypes. Starting Monday, January 20 to March 17 from 7-9pm, Shlomo examines the work and career of Steven Spielberg (Defining Greatness) at the Miles Nadal JCC at Spadina and Bloor.

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