February 25, 2005

What's Missing from the Oscars

"Hollywood Catches Case of the Oscar Blahs" says the NYT. Basically, nobody is terribly excited about the Best Picture nominees, such as "Finding Neverland," which I snuck out of halfway through to go watch "The Aviator" again.

Message to Hollywood: If you wanted people to be interested in the Oscar broadcast this year, all you had to do was nominate for Best Picture and Best Director a certain low budget subtitled movie in Aramaic and Latin that made $370 million.

I wrote in The American Conservative:

2004 wasn't quite as weak as the Best Picture nominees would suggest. Three of last year's four most impressive directorial achievements failed to win Best Picture or Best Director nods. Zhang Yimou's visually overwhelming "Hero" was ineligible on a technicality. Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" was shunted into the Best Animated Feature category (although he received deserved Best Original Screenplay recognition).

And, of course, the most audacious and triumphant film of 2004, the picture that Quentin Tarantino called "one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I've seen since the talkies," Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" was turned away out of blatant ethno-religious animus. (Gibson is crying all the way to the bank, no doubt.)

These lapses allowed for a trio of second-raters to contend for Best Picture. "Finding Neverland," the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan, is a snooze, and the Ray Charles biopic "Ray," starring an inspired Jamie Foxx, is less than the sum of its admittedly formidable parts.

Some readers objected because I broke with the media conspiracy covering up the subject of Clint Eastwood's critically-celebrated, but shallow and manipulative "Million Dollar Baby." But I didn't want subscribers unknowingly to encourage attendance by any of their disabled, aged, or infirm loved ones, who might well think they were being advised to hurry up and die.

So, that leaves Alexander Payne's "Sideways" and Martin Scorsese's sympathetic take on Howard Hughes' happier days, "The Aviator." "Sideways" reworks that staple of teen sex comedies, the buddy road trip genre, for grown-ups. It succeeds.

While "Sideways" is an excellent small movie, well worth its $12 million budget, "The Aviator," which cost $112 million, is an excellent huge movie. In basketball, an agile 6-footer always loses to an equally agile 7-footer, and the same deserves to be true in this Best Picture race because "The Aviator" is a blast, almost three hours of quick, intelligent entertainment.

I fear "The Aviator" is a little too quick and too intelligent for most audiences, including Oscar voters. It's a very high bandwidth movie, featuring a huge number of historical characters.

Scorsese works hard to help you keep the story straight. For example, at the movie premiere where Howard Hughes is standing around alone, feeling awkward while his date Katharine Hepburn schmoozes Louie B. Mayer, a new character played by Kate Beckinsale walks past Howard and says to him, "Don't worry, baby, she's just doing her job." As she's walking away and Howard wonders who this beauty is, you can hear a radio announcer in the background excitedly saying that the starlet Ava Gardner is here tonight. And then another character off the distance greets her and repeats her name. So, Scorsese is giving us two chances to figure out who this mystery woman is. Yet, I doubt if that's enough to get through to most movie-goers, especially since 90% of the under-25 half of the potential audience has no idea who Ava Gardner is.

Every so often, Hollywood spends a fortune making a huge, spectacular, expert movie just for the top 5% or 10% of the audience, and ends up losing a bundle. Last year it was Master and Commander and this year it's The Aviator. All I can say is: "Thanks."

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