What with the childish political speeches at various award shows earlier in the year, my wife and I canceled our annual Oscar party in favor of seeing, with friends, our two favorite movies of the year – La La Land and Arrival – the weekend before the Oscars.
But this past Sunday night, though my wife had set the Oscars to record on our TiVo, we decided to start watching it. Just to see if it was as bad as we expected.
Naturally, we were there till the end.
It wasn’t that the show didn’t have any annoying or cloying political content – there was some, though none of it was hateful. What kept us watching was (a) it was the Oscars, for heaven’s sake, and (b) Jimmy Kimmel’s cheerful, dry humor pervaded the proceedings.
Kimmel, in his normal self-effacing way, wasn’t even in the opening number. Instead, the show began with Justin Timberlake singing and dancing through the audience. This was only the beginning of the evening’s excellent musical presentations of the Oscar-nominated songs.
The only music that wasn’t an Oscar tune was Sara Bareilles’s haunting performance of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” during the tasteful and balanced “In Memoriam” – worth watching and hearing: www.thewrap.com/watch-sara-bareilles-sing-both-sides-now-for-oscars-in-memoriam-video/.
Between Kimmel’s mock feud with Matt Damon, his ironic disrespecting of Meryl Streep, the candy and cookies that were dropped from the ceiling in little parachutes to land on the audience of luminaries, and the tour bus of civilians who were told they were going to see a display of “Oscar gowns” (a promise which was certainly fulfilled by bringing them right down to meet the front row of the Oscar audience), there was no lack of genuine good-natured humor.
There were also nice touches, like having a few prominent actors in video interviews in which they talked about the person in the industry who influenced them most – and then bringing that actor and his or her role model onto the stage together to present an award.
It was obvious that, after the hate and bile that have marred every Hollywood event since Trump’s election, somebody decreed that the Oscars should be about “bringing people together.” The result was a surprisingly uncontentious show, so that several times during the evening my wife and I ruefully commented on the fact that we shouldn’t have canceled our Oscar party – it would have been fine.
There were the normal number of embarrassing speeches, like Viola Davis’ weirdly overwrought and angry speech that more or less echoed the most famous lines in Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” except without wit, clarity or eloquence.
Gray’s “Elegy” was once learned by heart and recited by schoolchildren throughout the English-speaking world, with its observation that in the graveyard were many who, having lived in obscurity, never had a chance to accomplish the great things they might have been capable of.
“Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.”
And the tag line that encapsulates it all:
“Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.”
The tone of the poem is wistful, regretful and full of respect for people who live in obscurity because they were caught up in the simple life.
Gray’s tone, in his own words, “Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.” Viola Davis, by contrast, was going for a standing ovation and a huge emotional outpouring; but despite her talent she isn’t actress enough to have learned that if you want your audience to feel emotional, the performer should not wear out all the emotion on the stage.
Of course, the highlight of the evening was the astonishing error by the people who stuffed the envelopes back at the accounting firm, or the people who handed them to the presenters: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, in announcing the last award of the night, opened the envelope to find, not the Best Picture winner, but the already-announced Best Actress winner, Emma Stone, with the name of her film, La La Land.
It looked as if Warren Beatty was simply goofing around when he looked at the card and didn’t read it out. Instead, he showed it to Dunaway, who then called out the only film title on the card: La La Land.
The whole troupe of producers and creative people from La La Land clustered on the stage and were just starting to gush their happiness and thanks. But there were a bunch of guys in suits running back and forth behind them, which was distracting and weird.
Then one of the La La Land producers interrupted and took control of the mike. He announced that the real best-picture winner was not La La Land, but the emotionally-charged coming-of-age movie Moonlight. “This is not a joke,” he said. The La La Land team was politely ushered off the stage while the Moonlight team arrived.
Moonlight and La La Land were both credible Oscar winners – they had won Golden Globe awards this year in their separate categories. And Moonlight, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, was an independent movie – the kind that Oscar voters like to award whenever they can, as a tiny gesture of defiance against the big-budget studio movies.
But I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room: This is the first “asterisk year” after the triumph of the ugly racist #OscarsSoWhite campaign from last year.
You’ll recall that for two years, running, the nominees for the four acting awards had all been white. There was no reason to think any racism was involved in this at all, because most roles are white, and it’s not at all unlikely that in any year, the top five nominated performances would happen to be by white actors.
Never mind that there were probably hundreds of nominating ballots that had the names of black actors on them. For all we know, the sixth through ninth names in the nominating tally were black. It just happened that the five that got the most votes those years weren’t black.
Any year in which one black performer is nominated in any category is, demographically speaking, less than likely: African-Americans are only about 12 percent of the population, and each nomination represents 20 percent of the total in a category. Blacks have been nominated fairly proportionately, on average, during the years since the film industry began giving black actors leading roles.
The film industry, for all the racism inherent in early movies, was always way ahead of the general culture in terms of racial egalitarianism.
In other words, #OscarsSoWhite was not going to remedy an actual problem, it was merely going to punish the Academy Awards for not filling a racial quota every year.
Naturally, the Academy did what terrified Americans do in this era of the Inquisition. When charges of racism are leveled, nobody dares to say that they’re ridiculous, unfair, untrue and contrary to all evidence.
Instead, the Academy did something that really was unfair: It selected, using some criteria – most likely age and race – a bunch of older Academy members, declared them “emeritus,” and took away their right to nominate and vote for the Oscars.
Since the balloting has been secret in recent decades, they had no way of knowing if any of these individuals had a pattern of nominating and voting only for white actors. Instead, they were punished because their age group was assumed to be old-fashioned and racist. Because you know those things about people as soon as you know their age and race.
Never mind that these old people were possibly the very ones whose voting had originally broken the color barriers decades ago. Never mind that the Academy is supposed to consist of people with proven accomplishments in the film industry – not just people who vote correctly or are young enough to still be “cool.” Now all the good work they did in the film business has been tossed out for reasons of pure prejudice.
Of course, the real transformation in Oscar results would not come from removing these people from the nomination and voting process. In all likelihood, their removal would make zero difference in outcomes because Hollywood’s lingering racism is entirely among studio executives who imagine that the general public – you know, us – are racist and therefore won’t accept this or that black actor in this or that role, or won’t greenlight a picture that seems to appeal only to black audiences so it won’t make back the money spent to make it.
The real change in Oscar voting is that all the people who still nominate and vote found out that if you don’t have black actors nominated every year, heads will roll.
All the Oscar voters this year had a gun to their heads: Black nominees and winners or you’ll lose your status as an Oscar voter!
How did it work out? Of 20 acting nominations, six ╨ 30 percent ╨ went to black actors. Now that’s affirmative action, folks. Of course, Hispanics make up almost exactly the same proportion of the population as African-Americans, and I don’t think they were represented at all.
But Asian-Americans did fine – at nearly 5 percent of the population, they were entitled to one nomination, and they got it, with Dev Patel nominated for supporting actor in Lion.
All of this is absurd, though, because the Oscars are supposed to be awarded for excellence, not according to a quota system. The real problem is that studio executives have been slow to greenlight films with nonwhites and non-Anglos in leading roles.
In other words, honest voting will distribute awards perfectly fairly, over the long term – as soon as there’s a fair distribution of leading roles for actors of different races. Hollywood works very hard to achieve this result, as long as they can do it without making executives tremble at the prospect of financial risk.
So you get lots and lots of African-American best friends and Asian computer whizzes and Hispanic doctors … or whatever. Whenever a role can be “safely” cast with a “minority,” it is. Not only that, but to avoid tokenism, those parts are beefed up, given clever things to say or brave things to do.
But those are not best-actor or best-actress roles – that only loads up the supporting categories. As soon as you have a movie where the leading performers are black, executives panic. This despite the fact that black actors routinely make huge box office, in the US and abroad. Nobody doubts that black actors can open a big-budget film, because, you know, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Denzel and …
Yeah, that’s the list. Plus a lot of excellent black actors who play powerful roles that are just a half-inch off the lead. And there aren’t all that many white actors who can open a big-budget movie. And as actors age, they stop being able to pull in the box-office take that allows studio executives to sleep at night.
But this situation has been getting better every decade. Twenty years ago, Will Smith was believed to need a white co-star; now we know he doesn’t. And the Fast and Furious franchise has always been multi-racial, with no complaints from the audience as the box office take started high and, except for Tokyo Drift, has steadily increased – from the $200 million level to a billion and a half on Furious 7.
The multiracial cast is getting the kind of money that most actors dream of. But there ain’t gonna be no Oscars for performances in Fast and Furious movies, not because they don’t require good acting – they do, and the acting is very good – but because Oscar nominations are biased toward weepy or shouty dramatic roles. Or characters with flamboyant handicaps. Or characters with lives of unending woe.
So every Oscar voter this year knew they had to get “diverse” results, period.
Now, everybody’s response to this situation was going to be different. Some would be defiant and vote their true opinion of the performances. They would be careful to see all the “serious” black movies (i.e., not by Tyler Perry) so they could consider them, but they would absolutely refuse to vote according to some kind of quota system.
But there was not one Oscar voter who did not think long and hard about the race of each actor they nominated and voted for. And not one of them could be sure that race did not influence their voting decisions.
Oscar voting isn’t rocket science. You can’t calculate anything; there are no firm standards you can apply in comparing different acting performances. So feelings – including, most especially, the unconscious effects of knowing that a “bad” outcome might cost you your vote – play a huge role in the nominating and voting decisions.
As far as I know, every nominee this year deserved to be nominated, and every nominee would have made a credible Oscar winner. But that was also true last year, and the year before – the years of #OscarSoWhite.
And many of the agitators admitted this – yes, those performances by white actors in 2014 and 2015 were certainly Oscar-worthy. But then, they would say, so were performances by list-of-black-actors-and-actresses.
In the world of sanity, there are always at least as many Oscar-worthy actors who are not nominated as there are on the list of nominees.
The system was basically fair before the Inquisition got its hand on the process and permanently corrupted it. Until this year, people nominated and voted according to whatever private standard they used to decide which performances were “best.” It was completely subjective, but performers of different races were usually nominated in recent years.
It looked to everybody who wasn’t eager to be offended like a fair and honest process. It wasn’t the Oscars that needed reforming, it was Hollywood’s funding and casting systems that needed to be fixed. And that was already changing because of changes in the values of the people making the decisions.
The Oscars weren’t broken. What was broken was any kind of rational thought about what a fair system would look like. The law of averages suggested that there’d be some years with more black nominees and some with fewer, so you couldn’t learn anything by looking at one year – you had to look across several years or decades to get any useful information about whether there was racism in the Oscar process.
But broken or not, they sure fixed it, didn’t they? Because nobody will ever know if that list of very good black actors who were nominated this year won those nominations over their competition because the voters honestly thought they were best, or because they now thought it their duty to avoid controversy over race, or because they were afraid they’d lose their voting rights, or because the controversies in the past had made them hypersensitive to race.
The Oscars, instead of aspiring to be colorblind, have now eliminated any possibility of color-blindness. Inevitably, almost all Oscar voters, no matter what they say or what they believe, will be bending over backward to decide that at least a few black actors every year deserve nomination.
And the resulting nominees will be first-rate actors giving first-rate performances.
But the system is now corrupt all the same. From now on, no matter how good a black nominee’s performance is, there’ll be a little footnote – not a visible one, but it’ll be there all the same:
“Black performer nominated after Oscar voters began to be punished when they didn’t nominate enough blacks.”
Is that really helping? More blacks will be nominated – but the nomination will mean a lot less.
One of the joys of cable and satellite television is that programming executives at the various channels push films at you that you might never have discovered on your own.
Often it’s a movie that I wanted to see in the theaters but happened to miss. Then I never thought about buying the DVD or streaming it because the promotional campaign was over and that movie simply slipped out of my consciousness.
Insomniac channel-flipping, on the other hand, lets me browse through an array of whatever the channel programmers decided they’d show at 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. on HBO or USA or Comedy Central or BBC-US or Hallmark or TBS.
So the other night I flipped my way into last year’s The Legend of Tarzan. I didn’t see it when it was in the theaters because I was busy and besides, the very good Greystoke existed, so why should I watch another Tarzan movie?
But I had a friend who spent several months recommending The Legend of Tarzan to everybody he knew as the best Tarzan movie ever. Maybe the best movie ever. So I stopped flipping and gave it a try.
Naturally, I started in the middle of the movie (the punishment for channel-flipping) but I couldn’t tear myself away. In a way, the movie was a sequel – Tarzan had already been “civilized” and restored to his family’s wealthy position in England, and Jane was with him as his wife.
But the writers – Adam Cozad and Craig Brewer – did a splendid job of combining the Tarzan story with the horrifying era of Belgian King Leopold’s personal rule of the Congo. His agents there were the worst colonialists in the history of colonization – and that’s a tough title to earn.
King Leopold’s agent in the Congo is Leon Rom, played powerfully by Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Horrible Bosses 2, Water for Elephants). Rom’s job is to get a certain African tribe to give him a large chest full of big uncut diamonds, and their price is simple enough: Deliver Tarzan to the chief, Mbonga, so he can get vengeance for Tarzan’s having killed the chief’s son many years before.
So Tarzan and Jane are lured back to Africa, and Rom captures them and, after Tarzan gets away, uses Jane as a hostage to draw him to where Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) can kill him.
Meanwhile, though, the entire original story of Tarzan has been shown to us in flashbacks – powerful scenes of Tarzan as a child and a youth, earning his place in the troop of aggressive, violent, gorilla-looking apes who raised him, called the Mangani. He thinks of the female who adopted him as his mother, so when a young tribesman kills her with an arrow, Tarzan kills him. That was Mbonga’s son.
The director was David Yates, who did such a fine job with the Harry Potter franchise (Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows 1 and 2, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.) Despite the jumping around in time, it’s always clear what’s happening – and when.
He does a superb job of the climactic confrontation between Tarzan and Mbonga – and between Mbonga’s tribe and the Mangani apes. And when Mbonga, defeated, cries out, “He was only a boy. Where was your honor?” we understand Tarzan’s honest answer, for the killing took place when Tarzan was still living as an ape. “I had none,” he says.
Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson plays Dr. George Washington Williams, an American who is looking for hard evidence of King Leopold’s misrule of Africa. Jackson’s part is delightfully written and Jackson’s performance is as spot-on as we have come to expect.
Jane (Margot Robbie), for her part, is not a passive damsel-in-distress – she organizes her own escape and brings humor and genuine affection to the role. The flashbacks showing Tarzan’s courtship of Jane are smart and sweet.
Alexander Skarsgard plays Tarzan as well as I’ve seen the character played. His body is lean and muscular, not overly beefed up like many of the actors he fights. We can believe him doing all the things he’s shown doing – especially because they do not engage in the absurd fantasy of an unarmed human, no matter how muscular, defeating an adult male ape in one-on-one combat.
After seeing the last two-thirds of the movie, I set the TiVo to record a full showing on HBO. Once that was on our list, my wife and I watched the whole thing together, and she liked it as much as I did. We both regretted missing it on the big screen – but it works just fine on a television screen, so if you also missed The Legend of Tarzan in the theaters – and most people did – it’s well worth watching it now.
Another channel-flipping discovery was In the Heart of the Sea (2015), a movie touted as the original story on which Moby-Dick was based.
I do love well-filmed nautical movies – I was a huge fan of the Horatio Hornblower series – but Moby-Dick is a tragedy and so was In the Heart of the Sea. The idea of watching a downer shifted the film lower on my list of priorities.
I should have trusted Ron Howard as director, because even though screenwriter Charles Leavitt used a device I usually hate – the story is narrated by a grizzled old man who lived through the combat with the man-killing whale as a ship’s boy – most of the film consists of action at sea, and it’s compelling.
The old man narrates the story to Herman Melville, who knows it’s a great story but agrees to keep out of his novel some of the most terrible things that his informant lived through – and did – as a boy.
(The movie seems to think that Moby-Dick, once Melville wrote it, would be a hit. It wasn’t. Melville had had some success with his early novels, but Moby-Dick, for the very reasons that make it a literary classic now, made it a commercial flop at the time.
(We only know about it now because some 20th-century writers like D.H. Lawrence and William Faulkner raved about it six or seven decades later.)
In the end, after the survivors of the encounter with the whale return to their home port, it becomes a story about the effort by the ship owners to suppress the terrible true story, and the brave decision by some survivors to tell the truth even at the cost of not going to sea again.
The trouble is that this part of the story isn’t particularly interesting. How does a whale-nearly-kills-the-whalers story devolve into just another story about “we must tell the truth.”
Even though the frame story doesn’t really work – despite good performances and good writing – the story at sea is so powerful that In the Heart of the Sea is well worth recording or streaming.
My favorite among my recent channel-flipping discoveries, however, was last year’s Eddie the Eagle (2016). With Hugh Jackman as the headliner it’s surprising that on a $23 million budget, this sports-underdog movie only grossed $16 million in the United States.
Jackman does a wonderful job as the one-time champion ski-jumper who unwillingly coaches the relentless and untalented Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton), an English athlete who charmed everybody with his courageous but non-medal-winning performance as a ski-jumper at the 1988 winter Olympics.
Christopher Walken appears in a small but vital role, and it turns out to be a triple father-figure movie. The writing is good and the sports action sequences are exciting, but what makes this movie so – oh, I’ll just say it – so lovable is Taron Egerton’s performance as Eddie.
He gets just the right combination of stubbornness and naivete, courage and clowning.
He shares wonderful moments with his mother (Jo Hartley) and with champion ski-jumper, the “Flying Finn” Matti Nykanen, played by the winsomely beautiful Edvin Endre.
No, it doesn’t make grown men sob like Rudy, but it’s in that same genre of underdog sports movies and I think it’s well worth watching even if you never cared about ski-jumping. Which exactly describes the attitude of an acrophobe like me. It has to have been, except for cliff-diving, the earliest death-wish sport. But I loved Taron Egerton as Eddie the Eagle, and Hugh Jackman gives one of his most nuanced performances as Eddie’s reluctant coach.
The Switch (2010) is just one more bit of evidence that Jason Bateman is one of the most believable comic actors – or funniest serious actors – working today. After his apprenticeship as a child actor on Little House on the Prairie and Silver Spoons back in the 1980s, he made the transition to adult roles and still classes up every movie he’s in.
Even the Horrible Bosses movies are better when he’s in the scene.
And Jennifer Aniston, his co-star in The Switch, still has the chops and the charm to make us care about whatever character she’s playing.
I mention these things because the premise of The Switch is so repulsive that I would never have paid money to see it in the theater. The idea is that Bateman, as neurotic hypochondriac Wally Mars, is in love with Kassie Larson (Aniston), but when she decides to have a baby, she pays some macho Nordic dude (Patrick Wilson, as Roland) for a sperm donation.
Drunk and despondent at Kassie’s party, Wally finds Roland’s donation cup in a bathroom and, drunkenly fiddling with it, spills its contents on the floor. Though we don’t have to watch the process, he replaces Roland’s seed with his own. Yeah, that’s right. How could this possibly be worth watching?
So sure, you should skip all that. Fast forward. Get past it. Because then the movie gets good.
Kassie moves out of New York to raise her child in flyover country, but the movie picks up again when she returns. Her boy, Sebastian, is almost 10 years old – and when Kassie reconnects with Wally and starts asking him to tend Sebastian, we quickly learn that Sebastian is as demanding, stubborn, eccentric, hypochondriacal and neurotic as … well, as his father. As Wally.
What makes the movie wonderful is all the screen time between Jason Bateman and Thomas Robinson. The kid is smart and he can act, and Bateman is superb with children, as we saw again more recently in his work with Rohan Chand in Bad Words (2013).
The result is that we end up loving Wally with Sebastian – they thrive in each other’s company. Meanwhile, though, Kassie has persuaded herself that she can make a relationship work with Roland – even though he is horribly wrong as a “father” for Sebastian.
There must come a time when Wally has to tell Kassie the horrible thing that he did, hijacking her bought-and-paid-for Nordic sperm donation. You’d think the scene would be impossible to bring off – but Bateman and Aniston do it with far more power and believability than a comedy with such a gross-out premise usually deserves.
Should you pay for this movie? I make you no promises. For some people, the whole switcheroo premise will be too much to handle – though for people like me, I must say that the wonderful writing and performances make the good far outweigh the bad.
Best ad on the Oscar Show Sunday night: The Rolex commercial. There is zero chance I’ll ever own or wear a watch that costs more than our house payment, but to see their montage of movie scenes that show characters wearing Rolex watches was an exercise in nostalgia – and in noticing things that I didn’t notice when I first watched those films.