As a dedicated cinephile and practising homosexual, I am obsessed with the Academy Awards. When I was little, I wandered around the house with a photocopied list (from Time) of all the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress nominees as my security blanket. I would read it over and over again, and make Ebert-esque pronouncements to my mother: "Every year, there's the movie the kids want to win and the movie the adults want to win. Like Star Wars and Annie Hall, or E.T. and Gandhi." It was the winning, the scoring, the process that I liked. Some boys memorized box scores; I memorized nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. It was actually my Oscar obsession that made me a movie lover. I started renting the movies on the list so that I could judge for myself which ones truly deserved their awards. (That was how I ended up spending a Saturday night when I was fourteen watching the blisteringly banal A Man For All Seasons.)
I try to see every movie that could possibly be nominated for an Oscar: this is not necessarily a healthy compulsion. A few years ago, in order to be in the know for the Golden Globes, I saw Kate & Leopold and In the Bedroom in the same afternoon, which is sort of like eating 142 Twinkies and then washing them down with rubbing alcohol. Despite that awful lesson, I waited much too long to see this year's nominees, and, as a result, five of the last seven movies I have seen are vying to be this year's Best Picture (the other two were In Good Company and Bad Education). To continue the simile, my movie-going experience over the last month has been like a nightmarish Las Vegas buffet of wine, cheese and death. So much death. And as Anne Murray sang, "We sure could use a little good news today."
I try to see every movie that could possibly be nominated for an Oscar: this is not necessarily a healthy compulsion. A few years ago, in order to be in the know for the Golden Globes, I saw Kate & Leopold and In the Bedroom in the same afternoon, which is sort of like eating 142 Twinkies and then washing them down with rubbing alcohol.
It would have been good news if Howard Hughes had died at the end of The Aviator-but, no, he went on to live another twenty miserable years. It started out quite nicely; there were so many pretty people and pretty sets and pretty shots, and Cate Blanchett, my favourite actress, was amazing as Kate Hepburn. I'm also rather nerdy, so I enjoyed the history lesson: Howard Hughes, before going totally insane, built up Trans World Airlines and had some fun making movies. (Plus, my boyfriend is writing a novel about one of Hughes' movie sets, and it was nice going to work together that night.) But, despite the movie's blinding glare of shine and stars, it felt more like an old movie than a movie about old moviemakers. The scenes were too deliberate. No one acted like a human being. This is because Martin Scorcese is no longer a naturalist-he's gone DeMille on us, trying to part the Red Sea in every shot: operatic plane crashes, zillion-dollar sets, enough extras to tip the Oscar voting. John Logan, who wrote the movie, is Scorcese's best and worst partner for this sort of venture. Logan writes mythic stories well-Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Any Given Sunday-but he tends toward broad strokes of drama and ignores the complexities of human emotion. Hence The Aviator's rendition of Hollywood is cartoonish, as comic-book as Spider-Man 2. In fact, The Aviator reminded me of Mommie Dearest. Both films are about driven obsessive-compulsives, and both films fail because they are unrealistic. At least Mommie Dearest had Faye Dunaway rampaging through the movie like a marionette with Tourette's. Leonardo DiCaprio isn't as much actor as he is walking charisma, so much so that the "depressing" final moments when he goes "crazy" are about as believable as his Oscar chances.
Sideways is to The Aviator as Paul Giamatti is to DiCaprio. Giamatti is a schlub, overweight and balding, with naturally exaggerated features, eyes the size of baseballs. He acts with all of it, so while he can be effective (especially when he's angry or suave), he can also be too hammy for my taste. His eyes bug out, and that's freaky. Nevertheless, he's convincing in Sideways, a film about emotions and art and, well, the meaning of life. Giamatti's character, Miles, is a depressed failed novelist on a road trip through California wine country with his soon-to-be-married friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church of Wings "fame"). Jack is a minor actor who is better looking and better at flirting than Miles is. They hook up with a couple of fascinating women, played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh, and some minor but meaningful stuff happens. Nothing about the look of Sideways is beautiful, because Alexander Payne's skill is in drama, not visuals, but I was inspired by the movie's last moments. I'm sure that's because I'm something of a failed novelist myself and almost everyone I know is trying not to be a failed novelist, so I felt as if the movie was about me-or me in ten years. New York Times film critic A. O. Scott claims that Sideways has been overpraised because critics identify too strongly with Miles. He's probably right, but I was still moved.
Of course, the Oscars are all hooey anyway. Chris Rock, who is hosting this year, told Entertainment Weekly, "Awards for art are fucking idiotic." He's right, but humans can't avoid contests, even for such incontestable things like art-or whatever you want to call Finding Neverland.
I spent the last twenty minutes of Finding Neverland in tears. There's a good chance that I was suffering from Paxil withdrawal at the time-at around 7:30 PM, my happy pills start to wear off and I get weepy over just about anything. But I'll give Marc Forster, the director, the benefit of the doubt: he's as manipulative as Spielberg. The movie is about how J. M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) wrote Peter Pan because he was inspired by his friendship with a widow (Kate Winslet) and her four sons. About a half-hour into the movie, you know the widow's going to die: she starts coughing. When she's finally on her deathbed, Barrie has the cast of Peter Pan perform in her parlour. When Peter, one of the sons, sees that Tinkerbell is dying because no one believes in fairies anymore and he begs the family to "clap if you believe in fairies," and the widow's hard-hearted mother starts clapping like a retard, how could I not cry? (Especially when Kate Winslet's mom is played by Julie Christie, who looks like my mom.) Then, even worse, after the funeral, Barrie tells one of the kids that he can visit his mom in Neverland whenever he wants. Just believe, my ass.
Maybe I was all cried out from the previous night, but I shed no tears during Million Dollar Baby, which wins my award for most over-awarded movie of the year. It's a typical, if well-made, boxing movie, with Hilary Swank as the underdog, Clint Eastwood as the crusty trainer and Morgan Freeman as the wise black man. It's different in that something "shocking" happens at the end, but if you didn't see the movie in the first weekend and you haven't seen it yet, you know what the shock is. (But no, I won't spoil it for you like it was spoiled for me by that bitch at LA Weekly who didn't write "spoiler alert" in her essay about why Hilary Swank is going to win the Oscar.) But even if you knew the "she's a man!" shocker in The Crying Game, you could still enjoy the movie. Such is not the case with Million Dollar Baby, in which the surprise goes on for an eternity, and by the end you wish you'd been euthanized too. (Oh, sorry!)
By the time I bought the DVD for Ray, the last thing I wanted to do was see a third movie in three days. What saved me was being able to watch the movie in bed with my boyfriend and a bottle of wine. Also, Ray is a wonderful film, and it wins my vote for dark horse of the year-the movie most likely to pull an upset and win Best Picture. Jamie Foxx's performance is for-the-ages awesome; it's nigh impossible to remember that it's not Ray Charles on the screen. His walk, his voice, his odd, off-kilter mannerisms are mimicry, but Foxx also acts through a compelling story-all without eyes (something that would ruin Giamatti's career). The movie is not just a biopic (like The Aviator), but a film about blindness and sight, ignorance and knowledge. There are a few moments of treacle, but they are easy to ignore with all the music and the heroin and the screaming girlfriends. I loved it.
Of course, the Oscars are all hooey anyway. Chris Rock, who is hosting this year, told Entertainment Weekly, "Awards for art are fucking idiotic." He's right, but humans can't avoid contests, even for such incontestable things like art-or whatever you want to call Finding Neverland. While the Oscars celebrate the already rich and famous, at least they pretend to also celebrate good things, like artistic achievement and gift bags. I'd kill to be there.
Ted Gideonse has written about the arts (and other stuff) for Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Salon and the Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn and keeps a blog, the Gideonse Bible. Bring Me the Axe appears every other Friday.