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Oscar Come Lately – John Pavlus

Academy of Motion Picture

Arts and Sciences

So, Gladiator–Best Picture of 2000, et cetera et cetera? By now, even the most blinkered of armchair cineastes must be convinced: when it comes to quality, the Academy don’t know jack. Given how they handled this opportunity to ring in cinema’s second century, you’d think the Academy members just put all their heads together and gonged.

Pure philistine ignorance is the standard slur leveled against the Academy for its crimes. But closer inspection of its history reveals a subtler (though just as consistent) laxity. Though Oscar usually has the sobriety to nominate a few worthy candidates in each major category per year, it almost always passes them over. But occasionally, inexplicably, it realizes the error-and in a strange, cyclical rite of botched magnanimity, laurels the previously-snubbed artist when the honor is no longer as deserved. Of course, each time it doles out such retroactive praise, the Academy only robs another should-be winner–and thus resets the Oscar egg timer for its next well-meaning offense.

The last ten years’ worth are documented below, with a few special cases thrown in. In a perverse way, it can be comforting: Ed Harris, Joan Allen, your day will come. If only we could know you’d deserve it when it does…

Crowe’s transformation from chiseled thug in L.A. Confidential to lumpen whistleblower in The Insider astounded, if only for its anti-commercial daring. When one also considers how masterfully nuanced his performance as Jeffrey Wigand really was–eyes askant, lower lip quivering at every crisis, as if he were chewing it off from the inside–it’s a crime he walked off empty-handed last year. Now, of course, he’s morphed back into chiseled mode, and with a dubious Oscar for his efforts, he’ll probably stay there.

Before he ever became a cuddly director, Crowe was a whip-smart writer. Beginning with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, his streak of classic scripts reached its apotheosis with Jerry Maguire, which is to romantic comedies what The Godfather is to mob pics. Its plot starts where others end; its dialogue never sacrifices character for zingers (in fact, it usually combines them); its ambitious structure justifies every scene and never bores. Almost Famous–bloated, hagiographic, strained, and saccharine–might well be the sophomore slump Crowe never had.

It’s not that Hall, the reigning doyen of American cinematographers, didn’t do a great job with last year’s Oscar sweeper; rather, he’s done much better in the past, and as luminous as Beauty often was, Dante Spinotti’s exquisite work on The Insider outshone all else. But with Beauty mopping up in other categories, the Academy no doubt deemed this an opportune time to acknowledge the master’s career. Incidentally, they pulled the same trick in 1969: Hall won his other late-Oscar for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, whose day-for-night-marred imagery (sorry, not even Conrad Hall can make that effect look good) stood in for his crystalline black-and-white work on 1967′s true-crime thriller In Cold Blood.

If Hollywood wanted to atone for its perennial dismissal of screenwriting litterateurs (Graham Greene, Hanif Kureishi, Vladimir Nabokov, Terry Southern, John Steinbeck, et. al.), they couldn’t have picked a worse representative. Irving’s soppy ethico-political turkey shoot joins Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance and Martin Amis’s Saturn 3 to complete the trinity of Loathsome Scripts By Canonized Novelists. At least Amis used the experience to write Money, his greatest novel; Irving just jerked off a memoir, My Movie Business.

Yes, she was entertaining in Miramax’s vaunted Spielberg-snubber (remember his face when Saving Private Ryan didn’t win Best Picture?). However, Dench’s win for a paltry 8 minutes of screen time is testament more to the militant efficacy of Weinstein’s publicists than anything else. For an actual performance, her portrayal of a grieving Queen Victoria vivified by a blustery Scot in the otherwise-crappy Mrs. Brown displays an excellence typical of her classical background.

Somehow the Academy mistook portentous repetition ("It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.") for great acting, and nudged Williams down a slippery, sappy slope which led to such depths as What Dreams May Come, Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. In contrast, The Fisher King was the last time Williams’ manic bombast would be harnessed by material daring enough to exploit it. Inhabiting a tragically unhinged, fantasy-obsessed hobo with desperate energy, Williams gives Terry Gilliam’s whacked quest flick an accidental soul.

The bottom line: Forrest Gump isn’t as bad as it has since become oh-so-hip to say. Zemeckis may be a hack, but if so, he’s one of the most talented we’ve got. Still, against what would become the most influential film of the decade, Pulp Fiction, Gump looks ridiculous. Oscar missed its chance to honor Zemeckis by nine years: Back to the Future, though certainly not as epochal as Pulp Fiction, is a comic screenplay of almost geometric perfection. Every line, deft; every scene, vital; every loose end, tied. In a perfect world, Zemeckis would also have at least been nominated for, if not awarded, the Director statue for this hilarious classic.

Again, this is not so much undeserved as it is scathingly indicative of the Academy’s myopia. Awarding Spielberg his long-overdue Oscar for this guilt-juggernaut not only maligned his previous work, it also inaugurated his flaccid wanderings into History Hinterland (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan). Twenty years ago, Spielberg’s films had a vitality they now somehow lack: Raiders is diamond-flawless pop, lean and adrenalised for every frame; Close Encounters, archaic effects and all, has more inspired, effusive wonder than any CG’ed dinosaur flick. Both are milestones in cinema history, and it’s sad that Oscar couldn’t notice Spielberg until he twisted its arm.

Al Pacino had one of the most electric acting streaks of the last 50 years between ’72 and ’75: The Godfather, Serpico, Godfather II, and Dog Day Afternoon. All resulted in Best Actor nominations (except The Godfather, for which he was inexplicably demoted to Supporting). Pacino submerged completely into his roles, channelling a reluctant Mafia dauphin and a bipolar homosexual bankrobber with equally unflinching intensity. Two decades later, for chewing scenery as a pitiable blind patriarch, Pacino finally scores. "Too little too late" must have been coined for this disgrace.

Sure, we wouldn’t have enjoyed that classic one-armed pushup scene if Palance hadn’t won for this cutesy-snarly throwaway. But then, almost all of his scenes in Shane (as a hellbent hired gun versus hero Alan Ladd) are even more classic, and more classy too.

Pesci’s scenes in this Scorsese comeback film have been forced through the pop-cult meatgrinder so many times they’ve become iconic, shorthand for psycho–much like De Niro’s "you talkin’ to me?" bit. Unlike De Niro, though, Pesci doesn’t lose much when reduced to parody, because here he’s playing a stereotype to begin with (although a very charismatic one). His work in Scorsese’s earlier comeback film is much more rounded, less baroque: he plays the titular boxer’s beleaguered brother with a quiet honesty that was on the wane in Goodfellas and gone completely by Casino.

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