Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscar Giveth, And Oscar Taketh Away

La La Land producer Justin Horowitz stuns the audience
Last night when ABC cut to commercial break just before awarding Best Picture I was admittedly grumbling about the ceremony stretching into four hours.

People were already exiting the small Oscar party gathering I attended because of the late hour, and after Casey Affleck won Best Actor over Denzel Washington I was tempted to take off too.

But boy was I glad I stuck it out to the end to witness what was perhaps the biggest epic fail in the awarding of the coveted Best Picture category in Oscar's history.

Now it's reasonable to expect (or at least hope for) a good plot twist or revelation at the end of a movie.

But who'd have guessed that the film industry's most prestigious awards program would deliver a once-in-a lifetime jaw-dropping ending that would result in Best Picture being bestowed on Moonlight - an independent arthouse film made on a budget of $1.5 million about a gay black boy's coming of age set in the economically bleak landscape of Miami's Liberty City?

Now THAT was a Hollywood ending.

Sure there've been surprise upsets before, like at the 49th Academy Awards in 1977 when Rocky beat out All The President's Men, Network and Taxi Driver to win Best Picture.

Or in 1999, Shakespeare In Love beat out Saving Private Ryan and Elizabeth to win Best Picture, many fans and industry types alike are still seething over that one - personally speaking Cate Blanchett losing Best Actress to Gwyneth Paltrow bordered on criminal.

Roberto Benigni at the 1999 Oscars
By its nature, as a live televised broadcast where creative types bestow and receive recognition for their work from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Academy Awards is fertile ground for the strange, the beautiful and the controversial.

Excitable Italian director/writer/actor Roberto Benigni's comically climbing over the backs of the seats in front of him to reach the stage to receive his Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film at the 1999 Academy Awards ranks up there as one of the most touching moments in Oscar history.

But last night's envelope debacle tops them all in my opinion.

For the record I thought La La Land and Moonlight were both excellent films, and it's a shame Price-Waterhouse and the stage managers messed up the award the way they did.

As a writer and former actor, both films were very well written with good cinematography that served the respective stories and characters - both scores were good, but La La Land's soundtrack was undoubtedly the best of the evening.

There's no question both casts were solid, while the supporting roles in Moonlight were much more intricate and central to the plot, as evidenced by Mahershala Ali winning Best Supporting actor for his role as the sympathetic drug dealer Juan and Naomie Harris being nominated for Best Supporting Actress as the main character's troubled mother, the leads in both films delivered really impressive performances.

Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone deserve props for their singing and dancing as well as acting in La La Land.

While Gosling's jazz piano playing was pretty impressive, check out former NBA star-turned writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's critique in Hollywood Reporter on why La La Land's only major black character being the jazz sellout while Gosling's character Sebastian is the jazz "purist" has unintended negative cultural implications for African-Americans.

Stone in particular showed a range in her work that hasn't been seen before, and she's got a natural effortless charisma that connects with the camera really well.

Natalie Portman in Jackie
While I was happy for her, I have to say that I thought Natalie Portman's work in Jackie was the stronger overall acting performance of the two that I saw.

I did not get to see Isabelle Huppert in Elle, Ruth Negga in Loving or Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins - though I do want to see all three when I get the chance.

Overall I thought it was an enjoyable Oscars, and Jimmy Kimmel did a pretty decent job as host.

Though I felt he was a bit snarky when he was talking about the various films, particularly in the beginning when he was calling out the various nominees for their work.

The issue of smaller films having to compete with blockbuster tentpole pictures and audiences who now have such a wider array of entertainment choices with on-demand cable and streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime to watch is obvious; so I didn't think it was really classy for Kimmel to keep repeatedly knocking performers in smaller films over the fact that "no one saw it."  

That line got a little old after he'd used it twice - especially considering the audience and how difficult it is to get smaller quality films made and distributed these days.

To me, quality actors like Viggo Mortensen should be applauded for choosing roles in smaller budget films like Captain Fantastic.

Denzel reacts as Casey Affleck wins Best Actor
While the whole episode with bringing the people from the Hollywood tour bus into the theatre was touching in a way, it ran way too long in a live televised ceremony that repeatedly runs past midnight on the east coast.

But my biggest beef for the 2017 Oscars was Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester By The Sea over Denzel Washington in the screen adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences - which he also directed.

I saw both of these films and there is no question that the depth, nuance, intensity and range of Washington's work far outweighed Affleck's performance.

Denzel poured his heart and soul into that film - you could see it on the screen.

Don't get me wrong, Affleck did the best work he's ever done on screen and surpassed his personal boundaries as an actor - but that performance wasn't in the same league as Washington's.

Denzel deserved the Best Actor Oscar, and you could plainly see from the look on his face that he (and some of the people in that room) felt that way too.

I don't think it was a "race-thing" necessarily, though race (both that of the actors and of the majority of the Academy's members) clearly had something to do with it.

Affleck's winning was more of an "industry-thing", particularly given the star power and influence of both his older brother Ben and Manchester By The Sea's producer Matt Damon.

But that, as they say, is Hollywood.

Barry Jenkins and the cast and producers of Moonlight
As for the much-discussed debacle with the envelope for Best Picture, I felt bad for all concerned.

Poor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were placed in the impossible position of being on live television with the wrong envelope - it was clear that it didn't make sense to Beatty when he looked at it.

But also really awkward that he gave it to Faye Dunaway to read...

It was embarrassing for the cast and producers of La La Land to be in the midst of their celebratory speeches only to have the mistake revealed in such a jaw-dropping way.

But to me, more importantly, the confusion of how it happened took away from the magic of that winning moment for the director, cast and producers of Moonlight.

That moment of energy when the audience recognizes the Best Picture winner was taken up by the total confusion on a stage filled with representatives from Price-Waterhouse, stage hands, host Kimmel, an embarrassed Beatty and Dunaway and the groups from both films.

There's plenty of blame flying around - and an SNL skit isn't far behind.

Obama tries to stay cool as Roberts flubs the oath
But what's remarkable is that after all the negative press over the past couple years over the Academy failing to recognize the achievements of actors, producers and directors of color, how in the world could they mess up making sure the correct envelope was given to the two Hollywood legends handing out the Best Picture category?

I mean the Oscar winners aren't selected that night or anything, Price-Waterhouse makes a huge deal out of guarding the winners and there are months of rehearsals.

It's kind of reminiscent of the epic cringe-worthy moment when then-new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts messed up the words of the oath of office during President Obama's historic first inauguration back in 2009.

Like last night at the Oscars, it was a singular moment in history meant to be magical in some ways, particularly given that the all-black cast of a film directed and written by black Americans won Best Picture during Black History Month.

A moment that should have thrown back the shadow of a divisive, xenophobic bigot of a president.

But some of that magical quality was taken away by a simple and inexcusable mistake, one that won't soon be forgotten.

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