It’s not easy to take the Academy Awards seriously. Once in a while, they hit the bulls eye, as in 1934 when It Happened One Night won all five major awards: best picture, best director, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay. This feat has only happened twice since, once with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and again with Silence of the Lambs (1991), a fact that may well signify a decline in popular taste as well as in Academy judgment.
But too often the awards miss the mark. Everyone has his favourite atrocities. For instance, Citizen Kane (1941) received but one Oscar (for screenplay). Groundhog Day (1993), thought by many to be the most meaningful Hollywood film of the last fifty years, was not even nominated. Comedies, of course, never fare very well. One remembers that Gandhi (1982), a film bio that omitted the fact that its hero was primarily motivated by religious beliefs, lost out to Tootsie. Alfred Hitchcock never won an award for best director. And John Ford, who won many, was passed over for his two best films, My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Searchers (1956). Frank Capra’s masterpiece, the enduring and beloved It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was also snubbed. And so it goes, John Wayne won for True Grit (1969), in which he played a caricature of his better roles, and Paul Newman finally won for The Verdict (1982), one of his least impressive films. These last two were in effect Life Achievement Awards.
Now as for this year’s winners. As usual all the acting nominees seemed deserving, except one, Alan Arkin, who actually won best supporting actor for Little Miss Sunshine. In the film he plays a dope-addicted profane and dirty old man, a not too difficult part and to me a most unsympathetic one. Fortunately, he dies half-way through the film and his death provides some black humour about what to do with his corpse. I would have voted for Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls. Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whittaker, and Helen Mirren all deserved their Oscars, but then so would have the other nominees, except Arkin.
The most disappointing, and yet most predictable award, went to Martin Scorcese as best director for The Departed. This was a remake of a Hong Kong movie called Infernal Affairs, and it featured an all-star cast consisting of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin. It was no place for a woman, but rather a very violent macho castration fantasy. In effect this was another disguised Life Achievement Award, for Scorcese, undeniably a great director, had been nominated five times before, all for better films, including Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), and The Aviator (2004). I would have given the award to Stephen Frears for The Queen, which also should have won best picture. 2006, however, was not a vintage year for great films. To make matters worse, Dreamgirls, as visually dazzling as Chicago (2002) and culturally and morally much more significant, was not even nominated in this category.
My favourite award went to the German film, Lives of Other People. This is really a good movie, the kind at the conclusion of which the audience applauds. It’s a story bout the effect of the Stasi, the Communist East German descendent of the Gestapo, on the lives of a group of artists. It involves numerous three-dimensional characters and develops important themes about politics, art, loyalty, and the capacity of human beings to change for the better. Don’t miss it.
As to the Awards show itself, it varies. This year’s was pretty good. Ellen DeGeneres brought a new off-beat style to the Bob Hope/Billy Crystal stand up comedian genre, which reappeared briefly in Jerry Seinfeld’s introduction to the documentary award, calling them "five depressing films." The shadow images by the Pilobolus dance company proved both imaginative and a welcome relief to the embarrassingly bad un-cinematic musical numbers of the past. For some time now the songs written for the films have been imitation songs, none of them memorable. Today, many films have excellent songs, but they come by way of previous recordings, not original compositions. Our best popular composers no longer work for Broadway or Hollywood.
More interesting than the songs were the musical cues for the winners to shut up, which on the whole they did. Their compliance allowed the show to move along briskly, except of course for all the commercials, though they allowed time for changing costumes and sets. In recent years the show has also featured fast cut montages meant to illustrate something or other – this year it was foreign films and a panorama of US history – but all they illustrate is the compiler’s film library and a trivial pursuit challenge of identification. Much better was the annual remembrance of those in the film industry who have passed on.
As usual the 79th Academy Award show presented "the world" in all its glamour, celebrity, wealth and power. I’m not sure this is the world that Christians are urged to love make holy. Yet despite all the ego and vanity, despite Hollywood’s celebration and advertisement for itself and its products, despite its self-approving joy over its generosity, high-mindedness, and diversity, and despite its failure to come up to the standards of 1939, I would never miss the show. For out of this morass of pride, sometimes a terrible beauty is born. As I put it in my verse history of American film:
Fit subject for satire and moral scorn,
Yet source of wit, our age’s greatest form,
Where cheap and vulgar profit motives strive
With grace and art, whose glories still survive;
Where petty men, giant egoists hold sway,
Who sometimes block, who sometime pave art’s way;
Mankind in small, writ large for all unfurled,
The glory, jest, and muddle of the world!…
As God from evil ever brings forth good,
So from a quaking land, he raised up Hollywood.
William Park is a veteran film reviewer and the author of "Hollywood: An Epic Production", a highly praised verse history of American cinema. He lives in California.