Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oscar Goes Walkabout

Don’t blame Seth MacFarlane. Not entirely. Someone had the idea to hire him. Everyone at AMPAS and at the network had to know what they might be getting. They had to. Given our host’s body of work (primarily animation) and the nature and temperament of work he has produced (you saw Ted, right? Family Guy, etc.?), there is no excuse for them, or us, to expect anything other than what we saw on Sunday night.

MacFarlane can be charming and has a pleasant singing voice. He is handsome and proved he is at least as light on his feet as most other hosts from days gone by. The problem lies in his ability to hold all the pieces of a disjointed live show together by sheer force of personality and wit. That’s always been one of the main problems of the show. If you have a show with no real spine, there is simply too much emphasis on the host to make the show work.

Once a year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences puts on this big awards show. “The Oscars” is a live theatrical event that is broadcast on television and it’s all about honoring excellence in film. Three different, yet perversely related mediums, that rarely can exist in the same space and time. That is a daunting task in and of itself and one that, unfortunately, is destined to be pillaged the next day in the press regardless of the ratings. Which is a shame really. In our haste to lambaste the host and criticize the acceptance speeches and complain about the musical numbers and moan about who’s wearing what, we forget what the evening is about. In fact, I would argue that even AMPAS has forgotten what the evening is supposed to be.

[Wayne putting on his “director’s hat” - and yes, I have one of those.]

Of course, everyone has weighed in on this in the past and I won’t be alone this week in arrogantly assuming I know how to fix a multi-million dollar broadcast. But here goes. Here’s how AMPAS fixes The Oscars:

  1. Make the show about the movies. That’s the theme of the night. Own that. It’s okay. Make it a proud night to be in the movie business. Make the viewers at home feel like they have invested their movie choices and popcorn money wisely. Put the glamour and class back into it and actually honor the people who are there. It is hard to make a movie these days. Really hard. The fact that ANY film ever gets made at all these days is a wonder to me. So, respect the accomplishments of those in attendance and respect the fact that thousands of Academy members went to the trouble to watch the films, think about things and vote. This should be the film industry’s biggest night. Start with that idea.
  2. Stop with the snark. (My theme of late.) Leave the snide “inside baseball” comments for the ridiculous critics and erstwhile entertainment bloggers the next day. No one needs another Mel Gibson joke during the introductory monologue. The Jodie Foster and Clint Eastwood riffs have worn out their welcome weeks ago. The “entertainment reporters” are going to bring all the warts and flubs up the next morning anyway, so don’t give them anymore ammunition. Nothing is easier for Sam Rubin or Perez Hilton to feed on than a joke that tanks.
  3. The show shouldn’t be about the host. I don’t think I’m alone when I say the host is probably the least important element of the night. Think of the Super Bowl. We are gonna watch the game no matter what big star plays at halftime. Beyonce, Prince, Springsteen just keep us from changing the channel at halftime. Same with the host. Good host keeps me on the channel between awards. Bad host makes me try to catch up on the Sharktopus plot between Best Editing and Visual Effects acceptance speeches. Sure the host should be attractive and witty and smart and funny. Guess what? This is Hollywood. You can find plenty of that if you really look. I watch the Oscars every year because I want to see how the movies I watched that year did. I watch to see beautiful movie stars in fancy dress. I watch to see actors and actresses I admire get rewarded for the work they do that has moved me to tears or to laughter. I DO NOT watch specifically to see if the host is going to sing a song about boobs or do a overly long skit with Captain Kirk. If those were the reasons for my tuning in to the Oscars, I’d just DVR Saturday Night Live (and then poke my eyes out with a red hot heroin needle while smashing my foot with an iron anvil).
  4. More Hollywood. Movie stars and famous people are the only reasons the world watches The Oscar. Pay some attention to the acceptance speeches. No really. What’s the big deal about letting people who have just won a fricking Academy Award thank a bunch of people and get a little emotional? I’ll tell you what -- it IS a big deal! Who cares if Anne Hathaway gets sentimental? So what if Jennifer Lawrence trips on her dress? Let them talk. Enjoy that spontaneity and that emotion. That the stuff that makes us go to the movies in the first place. Be less concerned about how long the actual winners talk and more concerned about how long the host’s terrible opening bit is.
  5. More movie stuff. I actually want to see longer scenes from the movies. Remind us WHY these films nominated. Help us know why these actors nominated What’s the difference between all the editing awards? What goes into a costume design? In an age when the arts are being slashed from schools across the country, would it kill the Academy to remind people about the artistry that goes into the making of a movie? From FX to DP, why not take this opportunity to do a little film industry evangelism. Why does the Academy exist? This is a great time to extend the mission of AMPAS a little. The people watching love the movies. Let’s fill them up with information in an entertaining way. Isn’t that what we do?

In a record setting year at the box office, it seems odd that we’d hide all that success, all those movies, all those actors and directors and editors and FX artists behind the guy that makes cartoons for Fox. Oscar come home.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Remarkable Snark, Part 2

People who know me know I love awards shows. Oh, sure, they all kinda look the same these days and, yes, there is so much campaigning and politicking in hopes of influencing box office or DVD sales that the season can seem a little bloated. The results are never what you think they should be. There is always a technical gaff along the way and, inevitably, somebody screws up reading off the teleprompter or makes a fool of themselves in an acceptance speech. But, so what? It’s the entertainment business. Shit happens. That’s why we watch.

The SAG Awards are my second favorite (behind the Tonys). Short and sweet. Actors only. I’m a sucker for the opening where we go table to table and hear from several actors about how they got their starts. And they end by saying their name and “I’m an actor.” It gets me every time. I also understand what a compliment it is to be awarded something from your peers.  Actors are a strange lot. When in the middle of a shoot or a play, we are a loving family of artists creating together and then we go our separate ways hustling for the next job guerilla-style.

While watching this year’s SAG Awards, I was following along on Facebook and Twitter. I was struck by how much meanness is aimed at performers by people watching the show. Sometimes the mud is being slung by other actors. I was then simultaneously struck (thunderbolt style) by how much remarkable snark there is, just in general, in the world. Politics is drowning in it, what passes for “entertainment news” is relying on it, bloggers wield it in place of wit. Apparently, everyone is an expert on everything and are proud of the fact that they know more about whatever it is than anyone else.

Okay, now I haven’t been living under a rock and I’m not naive. In fact, I have been as guilty as anyone over the years of my share of cynicism about my industry and the people in it. I’ve complained about Adam Sandler movies, I’ve railed at Tom Cruise’s antics on Oprah, I’ve laughed at less than prepared acceptance speeches by celebrities more fortunate than talented. I’m ashamed of myself. Officially.

The acting profession is hard enough without us sniping at each other from the rocks -- or worse, from our La-Z-Boys. The life of an actor isn’t an easy one, even if you are one of the famous ones receiving an award. The number of actors who are lucky enough to make a living is miniscule in comparison to the number of our brothers and sisters in art relegated to yet another community theatre version of Annie!, The Glass Menagerie or Chapter Two.

I have heard all kinds of bloviating about Russell Crow’s terrible singing in Les Miserables. Mostly from people who can’t (or don’t) sing themselves. Hey, he got the job! It was fine. I heard countless complaints about Daniel Day-Lewis’ accent in Lincoln. So, who knows what Lincoln sounded like? Judge the performance, not your perception of a voice you’ve never heard.

Then there is the sea of support staff that feed off of celebrity and chow down on the flavor of the week. I was in a meeting a while back where several publicists and agents were talking about some fairly well known actors (known as “talent”) as if they were rancid entrees from a Chinese restaurant.

“Oh, no, she’s a bitch, I’ll never work with her again.”
“Him? Are you kidding me? That asshole tried crashing the Globes last year!”
“That chick’s over. She has too much attitude and expected someone to watch her kid while she worked the press line.”

Then after the meeting, they all went back to their own offices where they represented the very same kind of people they were just hurling insults at. Cashing their checks faster than you can say, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Snark. Snark.

From a larger perspective, it’s a miracle that ANY movie gets made when you think about it. Even a terrible SyFy Original (Sharktopus, anyone?) should be celebrated for, at the very least, putting people to work. Someone had to like Gigli, right? Someone, somewhere paid money for a DVD of Battleship, yes? It’s remarkable that there are as many theatres as there are producing, well, anything! Even the worst community theatre production of Little Shop of Horrors should be well attended, supported and encouraged. That actor playing Seymour Krelborn might just turn into a very talented actor one day.

The awards season is the one time a year where we can take a breath and revel in some of the better work in film and on TV. I mean, let’s face it, rarely is there anything really, really terrible honored even by nominations. It’s a time where we actually get to hear the occasional honest and sincere acceptance speech that we’ll talk about around the water cooler. The one time where we can actually see a surprised look, an astonished expression or a proud spouse kiss their partner squarely on the mouth.

So, instead of harping on Jodie Foster’s rambling acceptance speech, Jennifer Lawrence’s “maybe wardrobe malfunction,” or the joy and shock from the cast of Downton Abbey, maybe it’s time we stow the snark and just enjoy the award shows as much as we enjoy the work they celebrate. As young actors, we dream of the day we finally hold that SAG or Equity card with our name on it. It means, rightly or wrongly, that we are, finally, a REAL actor. The history of our profession has not been kind, placing many of those before us in station with vagabonds and prostitutes. So, In the spirit of these unions, should we not celebrate the success of our brothers and sisters in craft? Should we not be glad that our profession is celebrated at all.

Then again, you could always just change the channel. I’m sure there’s a rerun of Real Housewives or Jersey Shore somewhere. If you are REALLY lucky, maybe you can catch that episode of Ancient Aliens you missed.

See you in the dark.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Remarkable Snark.

So, it’s 1995. My wife and I are sitting in a dark cineplex somewhere watching Die Hard with a Vengence. (Don’t hate. I  like Bruce Willis.) Anyway, we are two-thirds of the way through this movie -- this DIE HARD movie -- when John McClane gets shot out of a sewer or a water tunnel or something equally awesome. At that point, the guy sitting next to me says, in a voice loud enough to be heard by the other 200 Die Hard fans in attendance, “Oh, that would NEVER happen!” Well, no shit Sherlock! It’s a frickin’ DIE HARD movie! Of course, it would never happen. That’s the whole point!

Why do you go to a movie? Why sit in the dark with total strangers? Why spend money on over-priced popcorn and over-cooked hot dogs? Well, if you don’t know, I’m gonna tell you:
To feel.

To cry, to laugh, to scream. To feel the thrill as our handsome hero rescues the pretty girl from the scary monster. To cry as the unrequited lovers watch each other sail away, their passion forever lost. To dodge the bullets and the tree branches as our intrepid explorer evades the blood-thirty cannibals. In other words, to willingly suspend our disbelief that we might enter into a fantastic place with Hobbits and villains and space ships and cowboys. Maybe all In the same movie. To watch in amazement as Bruce Willis’ character gets shot out of a sewer.

As I get older (yeah, I’ve never said THAT before), I find it increasingly hard to imagine going to a movie and not willingly enter into the world of the film. Even bad films. Why go if you aren’t going to surrender your everyday life to the two-hour fantasy in the dark? (The movie, I mean. Sheesh. Perv.)

So here's the deal all you self-professed movie critics/bloggers/reviewers out there: Shut up. Stop heaving your remarkable snark on those of us perfectly willing to become Ewoks and run barefoot into danger or fly over Pandora in elaborate contraptions or venture to Mars to team up with a hoard of Tharks or buddy up with Bruce Willis to stop the bad guys or dress like women jazz musicians to escape the mob. Why don’t you try writing reviews or critiques (whatever you call them) that celebrate the art form. Why not intelligently discuss the pros and cons of the script? Or, how about explaining WHY you were not convinced by a particular actor’s performance.  It’s hard enough to get ANY film made without you dropping  your genius wit on movies that do exactly what they were meant to do.

Not every movie is meant to be Citizen Kane. Some films are meant to be fluff. Some meant to be romantic. If you can’t accept a film on it’s own terms, please, for the love of Mike, go do something else. If you watch a movie, then constantly comment on how YOU would have made it better...well, go make your own damn film. Now don’t get me wrong, not all movies are good. I get it. There are some really terrible, terrible films made every year. But, at the very least, tell us why they are terrible, not how you could have made it great. We don’t care. Review the movie on the screen not the director’s cut you would have made had a studio entrusted you instead of Judd Apatow with that $50 million production budget.

And for you moviegoers out there who are too smart for a rom-com or too cool for a Spielberg movie -- lighten up. Allow yourself the luxury of being manipulated. You might actually enjoy an occasional catharsis. Oh, yeah, and would it kill you to go to a Jennifer Lopez flick? I love her!

See you in the dark.

P.S., I still liked John Carter.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Snubbed. Again.

Awards season is here. Again. Of course, lots of people (myself included) are completely over the moon with excitement. I love awards shows. They are so... so... so Hollywood. Many other people, however, are totally bummed and feeling ripped off. Tons of ink (or bytes, these days) on the John Hawkes snub. More ink still on the little nine year-old girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild, Quvenzhan√© Wallis, being nominated for Best Actress. Okay, here’s my two-part rant for the day. Maybe even for the weekend.

Part One: “John Hawkes got snubbed.”

John Hawkes is one of those enviable character actors whose name most people never remember.  “Hey, wasn’t he the guy in that other movie? You know the one where he played the (insert adjective here) guy?” Oh sure, he was excellent in The Sessions. Anyone familiar with his work at all would expect nothing less. But did he really get “snubbed” by Academy voters? Nah, not really.

Now, let’s get this straight right now: Yes, the Oscars are important. Yes, it’s a major honor to get nominated. Yes, if you are lucky enough to win, that is a milestone in your career. But this is a popularity contest, you get that, right? As with all art, award nominations and, ultimately, the winners are chosen in a totally subjective and random sort of way. Acting probably more so than any other art form. (Hence, the careers of Adam Sandler and Kristen Stewart.)

Understand, however, that knowing this doesn’t have to take any of the fun away. You just have to know it, like, in the front of your brain kind of way. In fact, I’m astonished that John didn’t get a nom, too. He WAS great in The Sessions role and this kind of character is almost always a shoe-in for this Kind of recognition. Any actor who plays a character with some sort of medical affliction is virtually guaranteed an award somewhere along the way. I mean, right? Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Point being, your peers and other industry folk, honestly believe that playing someone with a medical condition is hard. Which of course, is not always the case. Peter O’Toole’s character, Alan Swann, from My Favorite Year has a classic line, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” (The line has been attributed to everyone from Edmund Kean to Oscar Wilde, but O’Toole’s Swann said it on film, so he’s the one I’m going to.) It’s true. Some of the best acting you will ever see has been done in comedic roles. Timing, subtly, complete understanding of text and character are what separates the Jack Lemmons from the Adam Sandlers. For some insane reason, comedies have never been taken seriously by anyone but the people who actually pay to go to the movies.  But, I digress. As usual.

Hawkes performance was also in a film that was a little taboo. As hypocritical as that may seem in these United States, maybe acknowledging him in what is a basically a movie about sex that isn’t porn is just asking too much. So, go see The Session. Enjoy a really good, powerful film with two very exceptional performances. Six months from now John will have forgotten his snub, but you’ll still be left with the memory of a fine performance. With any luck, you’ll remember Hawkes’ name the next time you see him in another one of his fine character roles. Like Winter’s Bone or  Martha Marcy May Marlene or Contagion or American Gangster or Lincoln or....
Part Two: “Quvenzhan√© Wallis was great!”

Q, as everyone calls her, is a darling little girl. I mean that sincerely. She is nine years-old. NINE! She was SIX when Beast of The Southern Wild started shooting. She is not an actress. Not yet anyway. She may turn into the next Meryl Streep. She may evolve into the greatest living actress of her day. I hope so. Right now though, she’s a kid who got a performance coaxed out of her by a director. That’s okay, too. In fact, it speaks more about the talent of the director than the on-screen performance of Miss Wallis. And that’s okay. Everyone has to start somewhere. But, to give this young lady a “Best Actress” nomination is naive, at best.  There really should be an age limit to be considered for awards -- of any kind. 18, 20, I don’t know, something.

Any “Best Actor” award should mean something. No matter what organization gives it out it should mean something. It should mean the actor has some sort of training, be it formal or experiential. It should mean the actor brings something to the role in the way of creativity, decision making, interpretation, nuance, vocal quality, hitting marks, knowing where the camera is, the list goes on. A good performance is different than an award worthy performance. No offense to Miss Wallis, but her nomination makes a mockery of the whole process. How about this for a radical idea: A special category for new or young talent? You know, rookies?

I predict my next rant will be something about Seth McFarlane, the Oscars, and how Hollywood doesn’t know how to put on a show about shows. Stay tuned.