Riveting Tales for Dark Days

January 30, 2009

IN journalistic circles it’s called “playing off the ball.” While the rest of the country was riveted by a one-of-a-kind inauguration and the first days of the new presidency, I was at the Sundance Film Festival, the Academy Awards nominations and the Screen Actors Guild awards. My peers were teasing out the semiotics of President Obama’s Inaugural Address while I hit the red carpets, asking people, “Who are you wearing?” (“My skin,” Kristin Scott Thomas said.) Hollywood is often accused of having little in common with the national narrative, and I had pulled duty as its wingman.

But now that the inauguration is history and the grind of daily governance is under way, the Oscar campaign feels somehow less frivolous than it has in recent years. Still silly, but perhaps more purposeful.

Yes, amid the relentless reports of layoffs and bailouts, recession and war, I’m going deep on whether there is a serious race for best actor between Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke. Is that actor race an issue of public, or even cultural moment? Maybe not, but in these dark days it is a handy and sometimes riveting diversion.

There is a spring in the step of those who are involved in the Oscars this year. After a strike-addled awards season last year, the frocks, the parties and attendant fuss are back. The Golden Globes, after last year’s glorified news conference had viewers tuning out in droves, managed to pull many of them back with this year’s star-studded show. The public seems ready not only to watch an awards show, but also to leave the house as well. Movie attendance so far this year is up as much as 10 percent and the box office receipts for the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend were up nearly 25 percent from last year.

After the grim films of 2007 — a homicidal sociopath (“No Country for Old Men”) squared off against a sociopath who turns to homicide (“There Will Be Blood”) — this awards season has taken on a renewed lilt. Hey, there’s Kate Winslet, looking adorable, picking up all sorts of loot at the Globes. And look, it’s Meryl Streep managing to be both hilarious and dignified at the Screen Actors Guild as she accepts her best actress award. Even Mr. Penn, a person who clearly abhors pomp, was offering a serious, heartfelt speech at the same event. And Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie whooshing by Ryan Seacrest at the Globes. Who didn’t enjoy the spectacle of all that celebrity?

And the best-film nominees this year — give or take “The Reader,” which has the Holocaust as a central concern — reflect an appetite on the part of the Academy, and by proxy, the public, for a nice, big chunk of uplift.

Take “Slumdog Millionaire,” the Cinderella by way of Bollywood. True, the film goes off against a backdrop of unrelenting poverty in India and a brutal scene of child torture, but it is fundamentally optimistic, with an anything-can-happen-and-often-does credulousness about a love that triumphs against all odds. Speaking of which, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” suggests, at its core, that love can conquer time and all its attendant punishments.

“Frost/Nixon” casts journalism in a heroic role, as the means of bringing accountability and a measure of remorse from a president who chose self-interest over the national interest. And “Milk” is about a politician who chose precisely the opposite path, a man who by dint of self-sacrifice and unrelenting optimism all but created a civil rights movement that reverberates to this day.

Consumers who are motivated by the laurels heaped on these films to plunk down increasingly scarce disposable income will leave the movie house with the message that circumstance is just that, and no match for the indomitability of human will. The films are built on individual successes — kids from the slums who better themselves, a television celebrity who finds his inner newsman, a newborn who overcomes old age and the midlife closeted man who steps into the light — that accrue to the greater good. That message, that darkness can be overcome by individuals working for the common good, is not so distant from the current collective impulse.

As President Obama said in his Inaugural Address, “The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Using the Oscars as a prism on national consciousness is a hoary, time-worn activity perpetrated by those of us who must find meaning in sometimes marginal work. But it does seem worth at least a mention this time around that both the Academy and audiences are showering love on such upbeat movies at a rough time in history.

People looking for a window into the American psyche often point to the Super Bowl, which will be held this weekend. But a win by Pittsburgh or Arizona won’t say much about where we sit, nor will the luster of Bruce Springsteen’s halftime performance.

For my money the Oscars’ focus on the filmed stories that have captured the public’s attention say more than the bounce of an odd-shaped projectile. Whether they reflect escapism, wish fulfillment or genuine confidence, the decorated films of this season seem to indicate that a country launched and kept afloat by a kind of collective fantasy is not ready to be overwhelmed by tall waves. And the truism born of the last national economic cataclysm in the ’30s still obtains: When people fear for their futures, they like to gather in a dark room and stare at a screen, holding hands against the gloom.

New York Times


Studios Push Box Office Winners as Oscar Contenders

October 28, 2008



LOS ANGELES — Walt Disney is in. This week the studio will break new ground by starting a campaign that boldly offers its “Wall-E” as a contender for the best picture Oscar, an honor never yet won by an animated film.

Warner Brothers is in, too. That studio recently telegraphed plans for a multifront Oscar campaign for its Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight” by sending awards voters a query about their preferred format for promotional DVDs.

Not to be outdone, Paramount may join the party. Along with Marvel Enterprises, it is weighing an Oscar push for “Iron Man” and its lead actor, Robert Downey Jr., even while promoting Mr. Downey as best supporting actor for his role in the DreamWorks comedy hit “Tropic Thunder.”

Welcome to the pop Oscars.

After years of giving plenty of running room to independent film companies or studio art house divisions that set the pace with critic-friendly but limited-audience films like last year’s “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood,” this year the major studios are pushing some of their biggest crowd-pleasers into the thick of the awards race.

Their approaching multimillion-dollar campaigns come at a time when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose 6,000-plus members award the Oscars, is planning to give its annual show a more commercially popular flavor. In part the academy’s producers will do that by including glimpses of the year’s box office favorites, whether or not they are nominated for prizes.

The shift is coming about partly because companies in the last year have either folded specialty divisions like Warner Independent Films, which in 2006 had a best picture nominee in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” or downsized them, as Paramount did with Paramount Vantage, which in 2007 had a nominee in “Babel.”

Shrinkage in the small-film business has left more room for big studios to play the Oscar game. Awaiting awards pushes are films like Universal’s “Frost/Nixon,” directed by Ron Howard; Paramount’s “Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a David Fincher film starring Brad Pitt; and 20th Century Fox’s “Australia,” a Baz Luhrmann epic starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman.

(“Australia,” still unseen by critics, does not arrive until December but was screened in unfinished form for Oprah Winfrey, who is expected to feature it with star interviews on her show next week, kicking off the studio’s campaign.)

At the same time Hollywood’s blockbusters, rich in effects and increasingly complex in their themes, appear to have become more award-worthy of late.

“Wall-E,” from Disney’s Pixar unit, emerged as a darling of the critics for its adult sensibility, in addition to its heavily detailed computer animation. The film, the story of a lovesick robot, tackles a serious topic (environmentalism) while taking huge risks (for instance, a 45-minute stretch with nearly no dialogue).

As early as midsummer Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal’s film critic, was arguing that “Wall-E” should be considered for best picture. “The time to start the drumbeat is now,” he wrote in a July 12 essay, noting the extreme difficulty animated films, while hugely popular, have faced in vying for the most prestigious Oscar. Only one, Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” released in 1991, has ever been nominated for best picture.

From the New York Times