The Oscars: Scandalous Omissions

The Academy Awards offers a David-and-Goliath contest for Best Picture

The Oscar nominations are in, and they are even more boring and predictable than might be expected, which I guess makes them slightly less predictable than expected. For a list of nominees, click on: Oscar’s list. The main event comes down to a David and Goliath clash between two fables: Danny Boyle’s the Little Movie that Could, and David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a big tedious Hollywood epic about the magic of make-up in which Brad Pitt is reborn as a wizened old man. Benjamin Button, which plods through the decades with the folksy fakery of Forrest Gump, strikes me as the worst movie to make waves this awards season. I found it interminable. But it topped the list of films recognized by the Academy with a total of 13 nominations. Why? Well, the Academy has always adored sweeping epics that use history as a backdrop for fables about the triumph of the human spirit. Or something. And it also likes movies that keep all the motion picture crafts well employed. BB is not just a period epic with lots of elaborate sets, costumes and make-up. It’s about sets, costumes and make-up. Especially make-up. As for Slumdog Millionaire, it came in second with 10 nominations. And its crowd-pleasing appeal is easier to fathom.

Slumdog, a Dickensian melodrama about adorable urchins in the slums of Mumbai, framed by the whimsical conceit of a grown-up street kid eking out redemption on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The movie submerges its fairy-tale plot in the vivid, kinetic realism of its location shooting. And Boyle, who does his most vital work since Trainspotting, captures all the colour and beauty and corruption with roaring style.

What’s interesting, however, is that Slumdog somehow managed to reap 10 nominations without a single nod for acting. Which makes no sense. Except when you figure that, as much as the Academy loves the movie’s exoticism, this group—which is dominated by actors—has zero interest in recognizing some unknown foreign players whose names they can’t pronounce. But Slumdog did get two out of three nominations for Best Song! Which makes you realize that it secretly wants to be a musical. Why there were no other nominations for Best Song is a mystery: strangely absent is the elegaic number Bruce Springsteen wrote for The Wrestler, which won the Golden Globe.

Which brings us to the first of many baffling omissions among the Academy’s choices. As expected, The Wrestler‘s star, Mickey Rourke, picked up a Best Actor nomination and Marisa Tomei was recognized for her supporting role as a stripper with a heart of gold, but the movie was shut out of other categories. It deserved a Best Picture nod, and should have had the slot occupied by The Reader, which was beautifully acted—but in my view, this drama of a boy ravished by a woman who turns out to have been a Nazi prison guard didn’t quite add up. Just which of Kate Winslet’s two movies would be nominated seemed arbitrary. She won the Best Actress Golden Globe for Revolutionary Road, and got a Globe supporting nomination for The Reader, even though it’s a lead role. By contrast, Oscar snubbed Revolutionary Road in the major categories, aside from a supporting nomination for Michael Shannon. Instead, it chose the sex-and-Holocaust movie. At the Oscars, content rules.

But, speaking of content, give the Academy credit for recognizing Milk with eight nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Sean Penn. (Aside from Penn, the movie was ignored by the Globes.) I believe the Best Actor race will come down to a showdown between Rourke and Penn. As a washed-up actor staging a miraculous comeback by playing a wrestler who stages a miraculous comeback, Rourke has the better story: a real-life fable. And the story about the work can be more influential than the work itself. Rourke’s performance is also more spectacular, literally stunt-like. So he may win. But I would vote for Penn, whose acting is virtually invisible in what amounts to a seamless 180-degree transformation of his macho personality into a gay politician. Frank Langella may also have a shot for his lovely turn in Frost/Nixon. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) is the nice guy who will finish last. And if Brad Pitt wins for Button, I’ll shoot myself.

There was surfeit of qualified candidates for Best Actress this year. And the Academy managed to ignore three of the best—Kristin Scott Thomas, who gave such a chilling performance as an ex-con in I’ve Loved You So Long, Sally Hawkins as the irrepressibly heroine of Happy-Go-Lucky and Michelle Williams as the drifter who loses her dog in Wendy and Lucy. It’s not hard to figure out why. Although they received unanimous acclaim from critics, none of their films had serious campaigns behind them, and Oscars, like elections, cannot be won without campaigns, no matter how worthy the talent.

But any of those three actresses would have been better choices than Angelina Jolie, who got a nomination for Clint Eastwood’s period melodrama, Changeling. Not that there’s anything wrong with Angelina’s acting chops. Last year she was unfairly snubbed for her superb work in another true story about a woman who loses a loved one, A Mighty Heart. And this year she was a total blast as a dominatrix assassin in Wanted. But in Clint’s unsubtle mitts, her Changeling character was way overdrawn. Oh well, at least Entertainment Tonight will get to see Brad and Angelina turn the Oscars into a royal-couple occasion. And it’s nice to see Melissa Leo recognized for her role as a white-trash smuggler in Frozen River. Meryl Streep may win the Oscar, again. She is getting a lot of praise for her droll performance as a nun with an accent and an attitude in Doubt. Personally I found her, and the movie, all too stagy. My vote would go to Anne Hathaway for tearing up the screen as the punk rehab refugee in Rachel Getting Married—althoulgh hers was the movie’s only nomination.

Rachel Getting Married has faded badly since it premiered to such terrific acclaim early last fall. And Hathaway has not exactly helped her chances, or the movie’s, by following up her breakout performance in a really good wedding movie with a routine paycheck role in a really bad wedding movie, Bride Wars. Shades of Eddie Murphy following up his fine character work in Dreamgirls with Norbit. With the Oscars, optics are crucial. But I still think Rachel got a raw deal. Jonathan Demme’s multi-cultural dogme movie was the best ensemble piece of the year—a platform for some terrific acting, and a big breath of fresh air. As Rachel, Rosmarie DeWitt was robbed in Oscar’s supporting category, while Amy Adams and Viola Davis got unearned nominations for Doubt. Sure Davis blew Meryl Streep off the screen, which is no small feat, but she was only onscreen for five minutes. Let’s hope Penelope Cruz wins supporting actress for her bravura turn as a tempestuous Latin lover in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Supporting Actor, meanwhile, is one category you can bet your house on: Heath Ledger will win, and deserves to, for his incendiary performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight—subverting not just the hero but the entire movie.

As for Best Foreign Language Feature, I haven’t seen all the films (some haven’t been released here), but it looks like a contest between the Palme d’Or winning masterpiece of classroom verite, The Class, and the animated documentary about Israeli military guilt, Waltz With Bashir. My vote goes to The Class. And of the two nominated documentary features that I’ve seen—Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog’s priceless Antarctic expedition, and Man on Wire, the amazing and wistful story of a Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers—either would be a worthy Oscar winner.

Best Animated Feature is no contest. It’s WALL-E all the way. So there you have it. The only performers guaranteed to win Oscar gold are a cartoon trash compactor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland and a great actor who was cut down in his prime. Today marks the anniversary of Heath Ledger’s death.