Thursday, March 31, 2011

Best Supporting Actress Grades (Pt I)

A list of every Oscar-winning performance I've seen for Best Supporting Actress with my grades and assessments.

1939 Hattie McDaniel, Gone with the Wind C+
Character: Mammie, the house servant

Analysis: Imagine that you know nothing about the Oscars but are armed with a relatively good knowledge of the Civil Rights movement and have seen your share of old-timey films. Now someone asks you when do you think an African-American first won an Oscar. Your guess would probably be way later than 1939.

It’s a pretty remarkable, forward-thinking achievement that the Academy honored someone like McDaniel this early in history. At the same time, McDaniel’s character is controversial because it was very much a stock stereotype (known in cultural studies textbooks as “the Mammy“ which I believe was named after her) that contributed to the negative perceptions of blacks as joyfully subservient to white overlords. The debate when discussing McDaniel has always been centered on whether she transcended the mammy stereotype. I’d say only marginally.

1947 Celeste Holm, Gentleman’s Agreement A

Character: Magazine fashion editor Anne Dettrey who befriends and takes up the cause of the crusading journalist protagonist (Gregory Peck)

Analysis: It’s a testament to Holm’s staying power that most comments I’ve read about this film come from people who are baffled as to why Peck’s crusading journalist character ended up with Dorothy McGuire’s weak-willed heiress rather the outgoing fashion editor. Holme’s Anne Dettrey is spunky and outgoing and I might have considered her a little over the top until I came to the conclusion that her profession basically required her to be a socialite. I could have easily seen Holm's character cut out of this film and pasted into a screwball comedy in place of Barbara Stanwyck or Rosalind Russell. At the same time, it never feels like Holm is in the wrong movie here.

1948 Claire Trevor, Key Largo B+
Character: Gaye Dawn, a washed-up floozy hanging out with a  band of mobsters as they seek refuge a hotel in Key Largo, Florida amid a storm

Analysis: I like to see a film like Key Largo rewarded here because while it's not quite a classic, it's a solid film that’s overshadowed by other entries of a legendary director's filmography. The film might very well contain John Huston's best set piece and could be arguably counted as his most suspenseful and tightly scripted piece of drama.

What's interesting to note here is that Dawn was mostly  superfluous to the plot. For most of the film, she's neither vital towards Rocco's plans nor the protagonist's development. When she does finally impact the plot, it's not a particularly well-thought-out plot point (she took one gangster's gun but what about the other 3 on the boat?). 

I only mention that as a curious side note because it really has no bearing to how I viewed the character. Trevor's portrayal of Dawn was a little deeper and a little sadder than your average floozy helped out by a couple of stand-out scenes. Dawn's sad tolerance of her gangster cronies insulting her and her begging her  boyfriend not to leave her are both stand-out scenes. What likely clinched her the Oscar, however, was her a capella rendition of "Moanin' Low" sung as a last-ditch effort to get one more drop of alcohol. Trevor has the hard job of singing well but not too well as she's supposed to be playing a has-been.

The backstage story here is interesting:  When Trevor learned that she had to sing, she asked Huston if she could take singing lessons. Although Huston granted her request, the director wanted her to sound unrehearsed so he surprised her by shooting that scene before her first singing lesson and the rest is history.

1950: Josephine Hull, Harvey B-
Character: A middle-aged woman, Veta Louise Simmons, mistakenly incarcerated in a mental institution when she tries to seek mental help for her brother (Elwood, played by James Stewart)

Analysis: Josephine Hull reminds me a lot of Aunt Bee from “The Andy Griffith Show” or Margaret Dumont from the Marx Brothers movies. The stuffy quasi-motherly old lady upon who (in the case of the latter) makes a perfect foil to the chaos and comedy that engulfs the scene.

I'm going to make it a rule to avoid comparing the Oscar winners to their competition in that given year, but that doesn't mean I can or should avoid comparing these actresses to past versions of themselves. If Hull, for example, is being rewarded for adding a dark twist to the prissy aunt character (trying to lock up her brother so that she’ll once again fit in with her society friends and attract a proper suitor for her daughter isn’t really the most honorable of intentions), then this role pails in comparison to her performance in "Arsenic and Old Lace." As Aunt Abby, Josephine Hull seems like the sweetest old lady until we learn 20 minutes in, that she and her sister lured old men to her basement to poison them. Her past self is the ultimate in dark humor and it's hard to ignore the comparison here.

The clincher in Hull's performance is the film's resolution which centers around her understanding and empathizing with her brother. It's an emotional moment pulled off by Hull that justifies the film's status as something more than a simple popcorn comedy.

1953: Donna Reed, From Here to Eternity A
Character: Alma Burke, a sophisticated call girl (aka prostitute) in Hawaii as the bombing of Pearl Harbor nears, who gets romantically entangled with a rebellious young private (Montgomery Clift).

Analysis: “Analysis” might not be a fitting term here because I just loved this character and there’s not much more to it that. Montgomery Clift’s antihero character is so enigmatic and Alma’s slow crawl to his heart is just about the only thing that makes us empathize with him.

1961: Rita Moreno, West Side Story A
Character: The fiery Puerto Rican Anita is the proprietor of a dress shop and confidante to Natalie Wood’s Maria

Analysis: There's a personal authenticity to this role as Rita Moreno herself was one of the few Latin American actors in Hollywood at the time who didn't whitewash her name (although it should be pointed out that Moreno isn't her real last name but you get the point) or ethnicity (see Rita Hayworth, Martin Sheen, etc). It's also a well-known fact that Moreno was also raped as a child and channeled those repressed emotions during the scene where she's roughed up by the Jets in Doc's general store.

My praise isn't just reserved for Moreno, however. The demanding nature of the song and dance numbers leaves me impressed with the entire ensemble. Each of the three secondary leads (Moreno, Russ Tamblyn as Riff and George Chikaris as Bernardo) brought their own talents to the mix and it's just as sweet that Chikaris also won an Oscar for that film.

1966: Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf B
Character: Honey, an invitee to a small dinner party that descends into a night of hostility and chaos

Analysis: For any fans of the Office out there, the fourth season episode "Dinner Party" was modelled after this film.

This performance topped the list by of the 10 most histrionic Oscar-winning performances for a supporting actress ("She sells a performance that should be shown at Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings"). It also topped an internet poll for best in show.

It is certainly a performance that's out there. The play as a whole is just a bizarre piece of drama in which four people (two couples) are constantly changing from being offensive to being offended to being giddy and carefree, to being devastated, to everything in between. The screenplay alone requires all four actors to clear massive hurdles before the storyline begins to make sense to the audience. I think Sandy and the others completed it. My only issue is that I felt like the other three actors were leading the race (to continue the hurdling analogy) while Sandy Dennis was struggling to stay in the field.

1970: Helen Hayes, Airport D+
Character: Ada Quonsett, a scheming senior citizen who cheerily scams her way aboard several flights and racks up frequent flier miles at the expenses of the airlines.

Analysis: Jacqueline Bisset as a flight attendant who is coping with her newfound pregnancy at the hands of her lead pilot; Jean Seberg as the whipsmart right-hand man of the workohaulic airport manager; and Maureen Stapleton (an eventual Oscar winner 11 years later) as the preoccupied wife of a potential suicide bomber are all better choices than Helen Hayes here. Hayes' character provides some welcome comic relief and there's a certain delight in discovering that Ada Quonsett is not all that she seems, but there's a difference between how a character might bring a lot to the story verses an actor bringing a lot to the character.

The only silver lining here is that the film that served as the inspiration for the now-more-famous Jerry Zucker comedy "Airplane!" is an unexpectedly rich and entertaining film with characters that go very deep. With great performances by Bisset, Seberg, Stapleton, as well as Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, George Kennedy and Van Heflin, Airport has a very underrated ensemble for a disaster film and I'm glad that at least someone won an acting Oscar for this film.

1974: Ingird Bergman, Murder on the Orient Express C-
Character: Greta, a Swedish missionary on board a train car the night someone is murdered

Analysis: There are few standards by which I can universally measure all of these performances but a cold and hard rule should be that you shouldn't expect an Academy Award if you can't even outact the other supporting actresses within your own ensemble. Granted, the film boasts one of the best ensembles of the decade and the equal share of screen time between Bergman and three or four other ladies might lead to a splintering of opinions on who stands out the most. Still, I have trouble even seeing the argument that Bergman is the ensemble's stand-out character. In my opinion, Bergman has nothing on the flamboyant performances of Lauren Bacall or Jacqueline Bisset in terms of dramatic impact. Although there's something to be said for the power of a quiet performance, Bergman is  practically invisible in this large ensemble piece. Besides, it's not that much of a stretch playing Swedish when you consider that's Bergman's home country.

1975: Lee Grant, Shampoo C-
Character: Felicia Karpf, the wife of a Los Angeles businessman who introduces her on-the-side lover and hairdresser to her husband so that he may invest in his hair salon

Analysis: If I fail to touch on any prevalent attitudes about what Shampoo is really about in this analysis, bear in mind I'm writing about this performance and film in somewhat of a vacuum, as I know nothing about the film except what's on the back of the DVD cover. With that being said, Grant also commits the cardinal sin "Thou Shall Not be Overshadowed by your Costars and Expect to Win an Academy Award."

To be fair, the story demands that she be a forgettable character: The thematic thrust of the film is that the protagonist has lost his moral compass in his sex life and, as a result, the three women he's screwing are all interchangeable to him. Goldie Hawn plays the woman he begins the film with, Julie Christie plays the woman he hopes to end with, and Lee Grant's character is just a conduit in the middle. So to be fair to Grant, her character's not supposed to be remarkable because the story's told from the point of view of a person to whom Grant's character is insignificant. Of the Oscar races I'd like to see unfold in real time, Lee Grant's would be an interesting one because I have no idea what Oscar voters saw in her.

1976 Beatrice Straight, Network B
Character: Louise, the estranged wife of a television executive engaged in an extramarital affair

Analysis: Straight was on-screen for five minutes and forty seconds, making her performance the shortest of any Oscar winner to date. It seems a little unfair that for just six minutes of on-screen work, someone should be granted what now amounts to the greatest honor an actor can have. At the same time, if you took the highlight reel of some of these other performances, you'd probably get about six really good minutes.

That being said, this is a film that will make drama teachers' mouths water. There are several scenes that should be watched a minimum of fifty times by aspiring drama students. Beatrice Straight's one big scene (she's in another scene that lasts about 10 seconds) where she confronts her cheating husband fits that bill. She descends into all kinds of different emotional levels and it's a very convincing transition through each of them. When she goes from yelling at her husband to facing the fact that neither of them knows what to do, her delivery of the line "I'm not gonna give you up that easily Max" is just so perfect in the moment.

1980 Mary Steenburgen, Melvin and Howard B
Character: Lynda Dummar, a go-go dancer married to a perennially unlucky drifter of a husband

Analysis: Well, the feminist movement can be relieved that this award didn't start a "Show your boobs and get an Oscar" trend. For those who are curious, Steenburgen shows significantly more skin here than as Auntie Clara in Back to the Future III. I was not expecting that.

Moving on...., Steenburgen's character has a little bit of ditziness to her which adds color to the character. Underneath that, however, she's not only a forward-thinking woman, but she is more mature than her down-on-his-luck husband and can see that he has no place in her future. It's a performance to which there's quite a bit underneath the surface.

1982 Jessica Lange, Tootsie B
Character: Julie Nichols, Soap opera actress and single mom who's the object of the cross-dressing protagonist's (Dustin Hoffman's) affections

Analysis: The question I'd like to pose here is: Does it take more acting effort to fall in love with someone than to be the person that someone is falling for? In the case of the latter, you have to sell the audience that you're the kind of girl who's worth all the trouble. Lange also has to make the character innocent (or at least naive enough to be fooled by Dorsey/Dorothy's ruse) but not entirely stupid. With her trademark Southern charm, Lange sells those qualities-innocent, virginal, charming- in every film she's in. Nothing new here, but it's a role that highlights her pretty well.

1983 Linda Hunt, Year of Living Dangerously A
Character: Billy, a half-Chinese photographer who gives professional and personal guidance to an Australian foreign correspondent (Mel Gibson) covering the Indonesian civil war.

Analysis: When I wrote "Billy" in the synopsis, I was not misspelling "Billie." The character in the source novel is male and director Peter Weir opted to cast a female. Supposedly, it's not some commentary on gender roles but rather Weir just felt Hunt was best for the part. This would make sense in a high school play where your star drama student is a female and maybe there aren't enough guys trying out. But this is Hollywood where there should be more than enough capable males showing up to audition for any speaking part in any movie you are casting for.

In the end, I have absolutely zero complaints because even if I'm not reading the film as any commentary on gender and don't award Hunt any "degree of difficulty" points for switching sexes, it is a terrific performance. Billy's eager smile when he meets Guy fills the mood with a childlike enthusiasm. It later resonates in a haunting way as he/she bears that grin with his/her last words. It's also a testament of just how seamlessly Hunt fit into the role that the interplay between Billy and his unrequited love (played by Sigourney Weaver) comes even halfway close to working. The sight of Sigourney Weaver dancing with a woman nearly two feet shorter than her who has romantic longings for her is highly jarring (and must have been even more so in 1984 when lesbian pairings were less common on screen) but it halfway works here (to be fair, it probably wouldn't work with anyone), but it would be a complete disaster if Hunt hadn't played it so well.

1984: Peggy Ashcroft, Passage to India B-
Character: Mrs. Moore, a liberal-minded woman in England traveling to visit her son in India. She does not share his racist views and wishes to see the "real India"

Analysis: Ashcroft had been acting as early as 1935 (she was in the Hitchcock movie "39 Steps") so it's been a long time coming for the lady. I'm a softie for awards that are given to someone at the end of their career if it doesn't come off as a lifetime achievement award. In this case, it didn't. Mrs. Moore displays a certain amount of youthful exuberance and she's enigmatic enough to make the deep levels of symbolism work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Archer: How to do a parody/live cast

Archer has had such a strong sophomore season that it's gaining notice as one of the strongest comedies of the 2nd half of the 2010-2011 TV season.

The show isn't just another spy parody but a first-rate spy parody. The key to the show is that the characters are uniquely idiosyncratic creations. They don't really fall consistently toward the stereotypes that they're targeting.

For example, let's compare Archer to James Bond which is what most spy parodies are aiming at:

James Bond is a ladies man. Archer sleeps around a lot as well but he doesn't have any standards, he's completely willing to pay for sex and often confuses his girlfriends and paid escorts for one another. He also pays consequences for sleeping around (paying child support, risk of STD's, etc.) which is an avenue tbat everyone from SNLto Austin Powers has used.

However, Archer (H Jon Benjamin) wasn't created solely to parody James Bond. He has other idiosynchratic (and positively entertaining) habits that have absolutely nothing to do with James Bond: He's a spoiled child with severe issues to work out in his relationship with his mother.

His mother (Arrested Development's Jessica Walters) is the equivalent of M but there's added value: The repercussions of her past sexual exploits figure a lot into plots, she cuts corners to save costs, she has a rivalry with the neighbor.

Lana would be the equivalent of one of the more competent Bond girls. Because she's black (or mixed-race) and sassy, it's easy to compare her to Halle Berry's Jinx, but we could easily go with Moonraker's Holly Goodhead or Spy Who Loved Me's Triple X. Nonetheless, Lana is somewhat of a high-maintnence girlfriend and she's a bit catty with the other ladies of the office. Speaking of which....

Moneypenny's equivalent is a character (played by Judy Greer) who's changed her name from Carol to Cheryl to Karina over the course of the show because of a need to get noticed more. Reading this as a Bond parody again, the Moneypenny-Bond sexual tension is subverted by the fact that Moneypenny's equivalent is a very loose woman who's already slept with Archer multiple times before and it's not even that big of a deal to either of them. Reading this as more than a parody, Cheryl/Carol is also wierd in a way that's difficult to categorize: She's particularly vicious to HR rep Pam, she's borderline abusive to accountant Cyrill and sometimes gets overly excited. It all comes to full circle in the second season when we realize that Carol/Cheryl has spent time in an insane assylum.

The Q equivalent, who has been given considerably more screentime this season, is mad scientist Kreiger (Lucky Yates). It's exactly where you'd expect a parody to take Q. In one recent episode it was revealed that he was making clones of himself.

The other characters are equally complex and cooky: HR rep Pam is slightly condescending, has a big mouth, and is sexually undesirable. Accountant Cyrill, on the other hand, is very much a stud but is in sexohaulics anonymous (sexual insecurity figures into a lot of characters' backstories for some reason).

Because the characters are so rich, I was thinking that the show might be undervalued because it's in cartoon form which is less geared for deep characterization. Still, it might be just a little easier if these characters were attached to live actors.

Which is why, I thought I might theorize on who would play Archer if it were live:
Archer: Josh Hartnett, Mark Wahlberg, Ashton Kutcher, Adam Scott, Luke Wilson
Lana: Jennifer Garner, Jessica Alba, Mila Kunis
Cyrill: Rob Lowe, Topher Grace, Dean Cain, Will Ferrell, John Michael Higgins
Mallory: Jennifer Coolidge, Frances McDormand, Catherine O'Hara, Jane Curtin
Cheryl/Carroll: Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri, Judy Greer (honestly, if I had to pick one person from the cast to play their voice part, I can't think of anyone else who could pull it off but Greer)
Pam: Alex Borstein, Drea de Matteo, Jennifer Coolidge
Krieger: Will Ferrell, Matt Bessar

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Best Actor Oscar Winners (1927/28-2009)

I get slightly teary-eyed watching this. Best Actor Winners I've seen:

1934-Clark Gable, It Happened One Night-A-
Gable was the first quintessential leading man. He was malleable enough to be put into a romantic comedy, a stirring class-tinged drama, an adventure, or an epic and still maintain his charm. I suspect if marketing to the four quadrants existed in the
1930's, Gable would hit them all. What I like best about this part is its duality: Even while he's involuntarily falling in love, Gable exhibits a certain stubbornness to even believing in the concept of love.

1936-Paul Muni, Life of Emile Zola-B-
Muni is somewhat stiff in the role but stiff acting appears to be the norm in many films of the time. Like a lot of films I've seen in the 1930's, there was a certain stuffiness to the acting that affected all but the exceptionally great screwball comedies and gangster pics. I haven't seen the original Scarface, but if Scorsese's affection for the film is to be believed, Muni really breaks out into new territory there.

1939-Robert Donat, Goodbye Mr. Chips-B-
A fairly good performance. It includes that requisite aging over the course of the picture that always seems to help. I would probably list Robin Williams from "Dead Poets Society" as my preference for filmdom's archetypical teacher/mentor figure, but that's neither here nor there. His performance is also interesting because it highlights the sexual naivete of characters in this era (a significant part of the film's plot centers around his courtship of Mrs. Chips).

1941-Gary Cooper, Sergeant York-C+
Cooper's screen persona is that of a folksy everyman. Sort of like Jimmy Stewart except he's a little more broody. In this film, he dials up that folksiness to the point where the character isn't too far removed from the Clampetts on "Beverly Hillbillies." The performance is also somewhat static throughout the film. Cooper's version of York doesn't seem that much different in temperament from the start of the film to the end of it. At the same time, that might be a good thing.

1942-Jimmy Cagney, Yankee Doodle Dandee-A
Another one of those aging performances. Cagney was a very energetic presence on screen and it's cathartic to watch him let loose all that kinetic energy.

1944-Bing Crosby, Going my Way-B-
Crosby had a very affable persona and was someone you liked seeing on screen. Whether it took Bing Crosby effort to be "Bing Crosby" I have no idea. In other words, Crosby wasusually Crosby on screen, but this was a fairly good use for him.

1947-Ronald Colman, A Double Life-F
Pretty hammy. It reminds me of that episode of Frasier where that great actor the Crane brothers admired as kids delivers his lines so over-the-top, that no one would ever believe them. That's the big question: Is that era's style of dramatic acting over-the-top by today's standards?

1951-Humphrey Bogart, African Queen-A
Bogart deserves an Oscar somewhere. The chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn in African Queen was pretty make-or-break for that film and Bogart certainly bended enough to meet Katherine halfway. Bogart was a very effective hard-boiled detective and I don't know if I would have preferred seeing him nominated for a gritter part like "Big Sleep" or "Maltese Falcon." From what I've seen, "African Queen" and "Sabrina" are the two films that stretched him the most.

1952-Cary Cooper, High Noon-A
Cooper's Sheriff Will Kane is as iconic a Western sheriff and heroic a role as there ever was. More importantly, it's unique to what Cooper brings to the screen. It's one of the few times I've seen Cooper in a film and not thought Jimmy Stewart could have easily replicated it.

1956-Yul Brenner, The King and I-A-
Making your mark on a role is an indication that you've owned it and can you imagine anyone else portraying that role? If sexual chemistry is also a mark of a great role, Brenner and Kerr are remembered as a great screen couple and you can also read the entire relationship is unromantic.

1957-Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai-A
Guinness' character is a morally complex (and ultimately morally misguided) and its his handling of those moral complexities that make the film so great. His chemistry with Colonel Saito is also something that can't be undervalued. Guinness was one of the great chameleon-like actors but he could have built a career playing characters of strong resolve like this one and it would have still been just as distinguished.

1962-Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird-A
Atticus Finch in the book is so endearing that he's almost impossible to live up to but Peck did it. He beat Peter O'Toole for Lawrence of Arabia, but his role is just as iconic. Peck's character here is the definitive father figure of filmdom (feel free to disagree with me) and beacon of justice.

1964-Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady-C
In middle school science classes, we're taught to look at the scientific method through controls, independent variables, and constants. Maybe that's a good way to describe how I see various movies in terms of what the actors bring. In My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison is the control/constant while Audrey Hepburn is the independent variable. The Rex Harrison screen persona is such a caricature of prim British stuffiness that it's even being caricatured on "Family Guy."

1965-Lee Marvin, Cat Ballou-C-
No matter how you look at it, Marvin's win is pretty extreme category fraud. Other than that, it's not a particularly bad performance. The other problem is that Marvin doesn't particularly stand out within the ensemble either. Jane Fonda is brilliant as the antihero Cat Ballou and so is Michael Callan as sex-crazed Clay Boone.

1969-John Wayne, True Grit-C+ (Didn't see the film whole film)
Watching John Wayne's performance next to Jeff Bridges' performance is like having an Olympic champion from Beijing play against the Olympic 1968 champion where you see how far movie-making (and even acting) has come. It might have helped if it was Wayne's best film. Wayne is older and not particularly good-looking at this age, but that shouldn't necessarily have been held against him. In some of his better performances (Searchers, Quiet Man), I could have seen him earning an A-.

1971-Gene Hackman, French Connection-B-
I love Gene Hackman but I've always thought of this film as more of a technical achievement than a human story. Of all the directors who've won Oscars for best picture, I've had the opportunity to directly question, um, one of them and that was Friedkin. I asked him what he wanted his picture to be remembered for and he replied that he wanted his film to be remembered for the way it portrayed cops as not what you always associated them with. Hackman certainly ups it on the toughness scale for this role, but I can't help but feeling his performance plays second fiddle to the car chase scene.

1975-Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-B+
Nicholson is a great actor of both great intensity and the ability to bring that intensity with variation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest didn't fully resonate with me the way it captivated and continues to captivate audiences and that's where the gap between A and B+ comes out of.

1976-Peter Finch, Network-A
For the ratio of Finch's screen-time to your average best picture Oscar winner or nominee's screen time (minus Marvin), Finch is almost like a one-scene wonder. Network is almost like an ensemble piece with Holden, Dunaway, the Holden-Straight marriage and Finch's arcs commanding equal presence. Finch commands the screen with what he has and his inspired diatribes are what you remember more than anything else. It doesn't hurt that Paddy Chayefsky's script is widely regarded as among the greatest ever put to screen or that Finch's dialogue would become so eerily prophetic, but Finch's possession by some maniacal suicide-inducing force commands enough attention on its own to earn the top mark from me.

1981-Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond-B
Fonda in his prime is so much better than Fonda as an old man. It's a sad, inescapable fact. Samuel L. Jackson was quoted in Charles Barkley's book (I know, it's an unlikely source, but go with it) as saying that Oscars are won for moments and not for whole films. I can't help but thinking that the Oscar was voting on the basis of the scene where Fonda, whose prime years of his career existed during the Hayes and Breen codes, startles his son-in-law by pressuring him to discuss his sex habits. Nevertheless, it's a great drama with great moments all around. I do think that using the independent variable/control analogy, Jane Fonda bent a little more than her dad did. (For those keeping score, this is the second time, I downgraded an Oscar winner for being outacted by Jane Fonda)

1986-Paul Newman, Color of Money-F
I like Paul Newman just fine but there's really nothing to celebrate about this perfomrnance at all (the picture fares slightly better at a D). It's very clearly just dues. I do enjoy it when an actor I've known for a while finally gets his Oscar but not when it's so blatant that it's distorting the Oscar race.

1987-Michael Douglas, Wall Street-A-
I enjoyed seeing a popular film get a win and I think Michael Douglas is one of the best actors of his generation. I'm not sure why he doesn't get Oscar nominations as often as some of his contemporaries (this was his only nom). Gordon Gecko has also become iconic which has been great for the legacy of the younger Douglas.

1988-Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man-A
Playing someone with a mental disability can often be cheapening in the wrong hands, but Dustin Hoffman's performance is multi-layered which is what I imagine a person with his condition would be. Raymond Babbit is a very complex person and just as his rare moments of lucidity and warmth are infinitely rewarding for his brother to experience, they are for the audience because they're so genuine in Hoffman's hands.

1991-Anthony Hopkins, Silence of the Lambs-A-
Somewhat of a tangent, but why is he still Dr. Lechter. Wouldn't the state of New York strip Hannibal Lechter of his medical license once he started eating people? Anyway, it's a performance of frightening intensity. If I had to explain away the minus (which normally wouldn't be worth explaining since that's really just an intuitive gap in judgement), I always felt that the refined classical-music listening angle to the character was a little bit of a crutch.

1992-Al Pacino, Scent of a Woman-A
Pacino gets so much flak for this performance of the type that I just gave to Paul Newman (too blatant an attempt for dues). I wish that the historical consensus on Pacino in SoaW wasn't "bad performance, awarded because of dues" but rather ""Your Mileage May Vary"". In Kirk Douglas' autobiography, he mentions that when Pacino does the tango blind, it's practically his favorite performance in all of acting. I think it's a mesmerizing performance and there's not a false moment in here. The reasoning behind Pacino's dramatic monologue at the end is a little bizarre (saying that Chris O'Donnell's shouldn't have to tattle because he's poor) but that's the fault of the screenplay and not him.

1994-Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump-A-
Is this a standard person-with-disability role or is it a life story about a guy who's been through a lot? At times, you almost forget that it's the former. The film would have been hokey if not for Hanks. The fact that it's a life story with different stages doesn't prompt me to cry "Oscar bait" on this performance. With little to no make-up (although there's a lot of excess facial hair in the cross-country running scenes), Hanks authentically infuses the character with the maturity and growth of each experience.

1996-Geoffrey Rush, Shine-B
Rush is a great actor and I think this is a perfectly good performance. If I had to nitpick about why this isn't an A, I don't think I entirely understood him inside and out from a perspective of his disease. I understood the emotional scarring from the character's father, but what exactly did the disease do to him? I felt like the diseased man that Dustin Hoffman portrayed gave just a little bit of a more engaging and complex picture with Babbit than Rush did with the character he was portraying.

1997-Jack Nicholson, As Good as It Gets-C
It's not in Nicholson's top ten performances, that's for sure. I don't even particularly like the film and the May-December romance doesn't entirely work. If you're going to award a third Oscar, even to the great Jack Nicholson, it should be for going into new territory. It's not an overtly bad performance, though.

1998-Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful-B
This is certainly a controversial win. For one, Benigni was already honored with a best director nom and a foreign film win and he didn't really need the best actor award for validation. In addition, the film's trivialization of the holocaust for joke fodder won over audiences at the time, but in retrospect, the film has come off as a little tacky. Lastly, Benigni's campaigning (with the encouragement of the Weinsteins) was a little excessive at the time.
I definitely agree with the first count and the field was crowded enough to have a pretty good winner. Then again, how often has someone with genuine comic gifts been rewarded by the academy for using them. I'd have to look this up but I believe many comic geniuses have only been nominated or awarded by the Academy for going serious.

1999-Kevin Spacey, American Beauty-C+
Spacey basically won for playing a character on "Weeds." But in all seriousness, Spacey has some great moments in here but I found "American Beauty" to be awkward and unsettling (although maybe unsettling was part of the point). Because the film rests on Spacey's shoulders, I can't help but blame that on how Spacey interpreted the part. Two brilliant things about the performance stick out years after watching the film: How Spacey continued to remain a sort of there-but-not-really-there presence at dinner tables as he was beginning his slow descent into suburban madness and his scene with Chris Cooper where he responds to the twist of what his homophobia is all about. At the same time, Spacey's conversion from caring so much about work to saying F-you to his boss or talking back to his wife felt a little rushed and didn't pack as much dramatic punch as I would have wanted.

2000-Russell Crowe, Gladiator-A
Crowe is, in my opinion, the best actor of today. His choices as an actor are very subtle and intricate. The role here is undeniably a showy one. He makes grand pronouncements about saving the Roman Empire by usurping it's corrupt (yet unimpeachable) emperor which doesn't lend itself to being played half-assed. Yet, his intricacies and subtleties make the downs and ups of his arc richer. The parts of the storyline where Maximus is weak in prison or feeling destitute, it's all there.

2003-Sean Penn, Mystic River-B+
I remember being impressed with Penn when I finished watching the movie. Upon retrospect, it was just a lot of yelling, but I have to go with my first impression or at least split the difference.

2004-Jamie Foxx, Ray-A
Possibly, the performance of the decade. He completely inhabited Ray Charles and bonus points for the singing and playing. His moments of vulnerability, of charisma, of empathy (at times) for causes (fighting segregation) or people around him (his late mother and brother) are all moving.

2005-Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote-C
Hoffman is a great actor but I never saw Capote's charisma when I saw Hoffman on screen. It was reported that Truman Capote, despite being flamboyantly gay in an era where being out of the closet was difficult, was such a charismatic figure that everyone flocked to him. Even macho men like John Huston and Humphrey Bogart enjoyed his company. I never saw that with Hoffman's version of Capote. His chemistry with Clifton Collins Jr., however, and the aspects of the story that revolve around Capote's friendship and guilt over Perry Smith worked well and is the reason this isn't being downgraded to a D. The other reason for the low grade is that it was a very competitive year filled with great performances.

2006-Forest Whitaker, Last King of Scotland-A
The mannerisms of Idi Amin and the gravity of his presence are both captured very well by Whitaker. Amin turns out to be a very scary presence and it's to Whitaker's credit that the full terror of his ways is, at first, overshadowed by his charisma and self-assessment that he's a visionary trying to do good. It is very hard to believe that despite being in so many high-profile films (Crying Game, Good Morning Vietnam, Color of Money, etc.), Whitaker was never a well-known actor until this Oscar came along.

2007-Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood N/A
I don't think I can properly discuss this one. I saw about an hour of the middle of the film in a movie theater while waiting for another film to start. I then saw it on netflix, but I was distracted with having pieced together with what I watched before with what I was watching at the time. I believe I have seen something like 80% of his performnace, but it wasn't enough

2008-Sean Penn, Milk A-
A very good performance by Penn. Harvey Milk was a charismatic force of nature, but with Penn's performance, it's all the little things that add up to making us mourn the character's inevitable death and being moved by his presence. In the film, Milk always comes off as a guy who always feels a little bit out of place whether he's gay in a straight world, someone without political background entering politics, or a guy ill-suited for monogamy. Penn also plays that uneasiness very well.

Also, check out this article: Is the star era over?

Monday, March 14, 2011

How to watch Glee: Two Parts Camp, One Part Reality

This past year as I've made connections with the TV critical community and have read a lot of TV criticism (as a byproduct of being considered for the AV Club's TV Club), I've found it very amusing to watch critics try to make sense of something like Glee. Co-produced by Ryan Murphy, known for his past successes with Nip/Tuck and the cult hit Popular, Glee is a show that's impossible to ignore. The show has high ratings, accolades, and drives water cooler talk among both the young and the not-so-young.

The show is, at times, undeniably original, bold, entertaining, and capable of being brilliant. At the same time, it's a melodramatic mess. There are great problems with continuity with characters blatantly changing to fit whatever the episode's theme of the week is.

To an extent, I watch Glee the same way I watched the 1960's Batman TV series. The show was universally defined by anyone writing about it as "Camp." "Camp" has always been one of those words that is difficult to define and it's equally puzzling to understand why I like watching it.

Let me take a shot at it:
I might have been laughing at the over-the-top nature of the content but that doesn't mean I'd classify the show as a comedy. Laughing at an awful movie like the robots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn't make me want to applaud the filmmakers. The humor was unintentional because neither I nor the filmmakers intended for the film turn out so badly.

Batman fails completely as a crime drama, but it's creators also know that the show fails towards that end. But the key is that Batman isn't aimed at us. It's aimed at kids and as my 8-year-old self can attest, it succeeds at convincing kids that it is a convincing drama. Because the show's standards of good/bad aren't specifically aligned towards me, there's no point in judging the work and I am free to watch with detached amusement.

Likewise, Glee invites the more educated viewers to detach themselves from the inconsistencies of the show as well. This isn't uncommon. It's just like how we're supposed to ignore how entirely unlikely it is for so many murders to occur in a small seaside town of 8,000 in "Murder She Wrote" (let alone how the town could avoid not becoming hollowed out by plummeting property values) or how Adrian and friends are always finding themselves bumping into murderers outside of their line of work (i.e. Randy's dentist is a murder, Julie's class speaker is a murderer, Adrian goes to his college reunion and finds his good friend married a murderer, etc.) on "Monk."

Glee's lack of consistency falls somewhere between camp and parody. It's creators are certainly aware that these characters have flaws, so we should detach ourselves from the exercise of complaining every week of how inconsistent the characters are. That would be like complaining about "Friends" upon discovering that Joey Tribbiani is really an actor named Matt LeBlanc.

Glee also has one other element that we're supposed to realize is not to be taken at face value: The reasons that characters on Glee break out into song are thinly plausible at best. But when you think about it, since the musical genre evolved past the backstage dramas of the 1930's (i.e. 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933), characters have never had any valid reason to spontaneously break out into song. Audiences have just been conditioned to accept that as a convention of MGM musicals (I previously wrote a very good blog post about this). Glee is just not shy about exposing these same conventions. Much like Austin Powers overpiles the dry witticisms after he kills someone and makes the audience more aware of the convention's ridiculousness, Glee has fun with the conventions of musicals. It's half-parody. It's also a good excuse for some musical numbers.

So, to watch Glee take the continuity and the song transitions with a grain of salt. The rest is legitimately good, wholesome narrative. It might be confusing to sort out at first but try it.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Defending the Academy on Diversity

Recent controversy that the Academy Awards are not inclusive of diversity on the basis that they had no African-American nominees are baseless. Statistically, it had to happen sooner or later and I object to the notion that the Academy needs to reserve a spot for a black actor just so it can sidestep the racial debate.The Academy has even had three years where there have been as many as five nominees.

2009: 3-Freeman, Sidibe, Monique
2008: 2-Taraji P Henson, Davis
2007: 1-Ruby Dee
2006: 5-Hotsou, Whitaker, Smith, Hudson, E Murphy
2005: 1-T Howard
2004: 5-J Foxx, S Okendo, D Cheadle, J Foxx, M Freeman
2003: 1-D Hounsou
2002: 1-Queen Latifah
2001: 3-H Berry, D Washington, W Smith

23 nominations over 10 years= 2.3 a year. And that means an average of 2.3/20=11.5% of the nominations have gone to African-Americans. If African-Americans make up significantly more than 11.5% of the SAG, you have little basis for complaint.

Not to mention an additional percentage of non-whites:
2010: Javier Bardem (Hispanic) 2009: Penelope Cruz (Hispanic) 2008: P Cruz (Hispanic) 2007: Javier Bardem (Hispanic) 2006: Penelope Cruz (Hispanic), Rinko Kikuchi (Asian), Adriana Barazza (Hispanic) 2005: Charlize Theron (White African) 2004: Caitlin Sandia Moreno (Hispanic) 2003: Ken Watanabe (Japanese), Benicio del Toro (Hispanic), Keisha Castle-Hughes (New Zealand/Maori), Ben Kingsley (Half-Indian), Shoreh Aghdoshloo (Iranian) 2002: Selma Hayek (Hispanic) 2001: Ben Kingsley (Half-Indian).

This is an additional 15 nominations over 10 years. Theron, Castle-Hughes and Kingsley are only half non-white but still that's an additional 7.5%. So that's 19%.

Let's also establish of there's an American favoritism or a UK/USA favoritism:
2000: Julie Walters (UK), Judi Dench (UK) Albert Finney (UK), Russell Crowe (New Zealand), Javier Bardem (Spain), Benicio del Toro (Mexico), Geoffery Rush (Austalia), Juliette Binoche (France)
2001: Kate Winslet (UK), Tom Wilkinson (UK), Maggie Smith (UK), Helen Mirren (UK), Judi Dench (UK), Nicole Kidman (Australia)
2002: Daniel Day-Lewis (UK), Michael Caine (UK), Catherine Zeta-Jones (UK-Wales), Selma Hayek (Mexico), Nicole Kidman (Australia), Russell Crowe (New Zealand)
2003: Ben Kinglsey (UK), Jude Law (UK), Naiomi Watts (UK), Samantha Morton (UK), Djimon Hounsou (Benin/Nigeria), Benicio Del Toro (Mexico), Ken Wattanabe (Japan), Keisha Castle-Hughes (Australia),Charlize Theron (South Africa), Shoreh Aghdoshloo (Iran)
2004: Sophie Okendo (UK), Imelda Staunton (UK), Kate Winslet (UK), Natalie Portman (Israel), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Colombia)
2005: Judi Dench (UK), Kiera Knightly (UK), Rachel Weisz (UK), Charlize Theron (South Africa),
2006: Helen Mirren (UK), Judi Dench (UK), Kate Winslet (UK), Peter O'Toole (Ireland), Djimon Hounsou (Benin/Nigeria), Adriana Barraza (Mexico), Rinko Kikuchi (Japan), Cate Blanchett (Australia), Penelope Cruz (Spain)
2007: Daniel Day-Lewis (UK), Tom Wilkinson (UK), Javier Bardem (Spain), Marion Cortillard (France) Ellen Page (Canada), Julie Christie (India), Cate Blanchett (Australia) (X2)
2008: Kate Winslet (UK), Penelope Cruz (Spain), Heath Ledger (Australia)
2009: Helen Mirren (UK), Colin Firth (UK), Carey Mulligan (UK), Christophe Waltz (Austria), Penelope Cruz (Spain), Christopher Plummer (Canada)
2010: Colin Firth (UK), Helena Bohman Carter (UK), Christian Bale (UK-Wales), Geoffery Rush (Australia), Nicole Kidman (Australia), Natalie Portman (Israel), Jackie Weaver (Australia), Javier Bardem (Spain),

73/220 nominees are non-American: 33.1%
66.9% of nominees are American
65.9% of nominees are American or Canadian
30/220 or 13.6% of the nominees are from Great Britain
39/220 or 17.7% are European
11/220 or 5% are Australian

Considering almost a 1/3 of the nominees are not from the US and the Academy/Hollywood is centered in the US, charges of xenophobia are not really valid