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The Envelope, Please II
by Lucius Shepard
February 6, 2005

It’s Oscar time!

(Here insert a fanfare that sounds like the squealing of air being released from a pinched balloon. [Ed.: Okay . . .])

Time for a thousand or so of the world’s shallowest people to dye their hair, mask their imperfections beneath layers of make-up, don their tuxes and gowns, and do their best group impression of Madame Tussaud’s. Time for Wolfgang Puck to ponce about while flaming a crepe for a gibbering Katie Couric, and for Sir Elton (our devolved era’s Truman Capote) to throw a party that rivals a Borgia rite-of-passage orgy with serving girls painted to look like gilt dominoes and an amazing mechanical bird that tweets heavy metal. Time for wretched excess, for extravagance and endless simpering, all in celebration of a tepid art.

The deplorable state of the film industry in our country has been clearly established this year by the five films nominated for Best Picture. We have three biopics (Ray, Finding Neverland, and The Aviator) that Disney-fy their subjects to one degree or another, an R-rated sitcom (Sideways), and a cliché-ridden melodrama (Million Dollar Baby) of such dubious quality that it’s conceivable it may win both the Oscar and a Harvard Raspberry award. During this season of bourgeoisie intellection, you will likely overhear people speaking in outraged tones, suggesting that Hotel Rwanda or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or another of their favorites deserved a nomination. The fact is that each of these films rivals in mediocrity any number of other films that might have been short-listed, but the matter of which one merits primacy is irrelevant to the real issue at hand, i.e., the diminished range of American films in general . . .and by range, I am speaking not about subject matter or scope, but rather about the narrow spectrum of emotional coloration endemic to American films, a condition that renders equally stirring a film about genocide and one concerning a failed relationship, funded—it would appear—by the notion that in order to be palatable (not necessarily commercial, just palatable) a movie must seek to achieve its effect within these limited emotional parameters, or, more succinctly, by obeying the rule, Don’t Upset The Sheep.

Recently I was asked to put forward my choices for the five best American movies made since the beginning of the 90s. My list, in no particular order, is as follows:


Robert Duvall’s The Apostle

John Sayles’ Men with Guns

Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream

The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink

Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise

As such lists tend to do, this one changed hourly prior to being finalized. At various times I contemplated putting one or another of the following films on it: Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade; Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown; the Coen Brother’s Fargo; Paul Anderson’s Hard Eight; Sean Penn’s The Pledge; Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaum’s; Alex Cox’s Highway Patrolman (US-funded, thus it qualifies); Victor Nunez’s Ulee’s Gold; and a number of others.

In the end, I was satisfied with my list, but felt that—while it displayed more range than the typical Oscar list—it was nonetheless somewhat weak in that department. I believe I could effortlessly come up with a list of high-quality French films, Swedish films, Spanish films, Japanese films, Korean films, Iranian films, or even Finnish films that would show a broader spectrum of emotional tonality. That this is the case seems to speak volumes about the constraints placed upon American creativity not only by our overarching commercial aesthetic, but by the conservatism implicit to our culture (we are, after all, a nation founded by Puritans), and, whether disguised as political correctness or family values or some other catch-all, our culture’s basic signal is a kind of paranoid timidity and this perhaps explains why we have not produced a Celine or a Genet or a Kafka, no maniacal, high-octane, nihilistic geniuses, merely homegrown substitutes—we are a status-quo people and, absent the bursts of artistic energy such figures provide, our fictions are degenerating into cleverness and our movies suck . . .

But, hey, it’s Oscar time.

Let’s analyze who the winners should be, shall we?

Best Picture.

First we’ve got The Aviator, a big, hollow pastiche of one of those old-fashioned glorious Hollywood sagas, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio woefully miscast as Howard Hughes. It’s a role Clark Gable could have managed, but Leo . . . Well, geez, you have the idea that Ava Gardner would have fed him milk and cookies, and Cate Blanchett (Katherine Hepburn) would have finished him off after a couple of hours in the sack. Director Martin Scorsese never delves into all that messy psychological stuff about his protagonist’s obsessive hand washing, thus we’re given Citizen Kane Lite. Oh, well. At least Alan Alda is afforded the opportunity to unleash his primal lizard.

Ray.

Jamie Foxx does a passable impersonation of Ray Charles, but doubtless his Stevie Wonder would be much the same. The movie clunkity-clunks along, doing its predictable triumph-of-the-human-spirit thing. Director Taylor Hackford would be well-advised to drop the “ford” from his name.

Finding Neverland.

Biopic Number Three gives us the story of the man who wrote Peter Pan. James Barrie was maybe five feet tall, maybe impotent, maybe deeply twisted, and Johnny Depp is . . .maybe none of the above. There was something odd, even a little hinkey, about Barrie’s obsession with the widow Davies’ children, but we don’t hear much about it in the movie. Decent ensemble acting. Kate Winslet is outstanding and Johnny Depp is . . .not.

Sideways.

The writing is sometimes funny, but sometimes feels like it’s been recycled from some tired laugh-track product, perhaps from Oscar-nominated co-star Thomas Haden Church’s failed TV series, Ned and Stacy, which to this point has been responsible, if not notable, for giving us Debra Messing’s (Will and Grace) career. Church is really good, as is Sandra Oh, but Paul Giamatti’s character is whiney and tedious, and it’s just okay, a decent way to spend a couple of hours. This story about two men taking a road trip to taste wine and play golf before one of them gets married . . . Hey, to hype it like it’s the Sistine Chapel of the mid-life crisis is simply wrong. Maybe Church will win an Emmy.

Million Dollar Baby

If you want to see a good boxing movie, watch John Huston’s Fat City. If you’re in the mood to be beaten over the head with platitudes, with sufficient allegorical material to choke John Bunyan, if you are willing to allow this low blow of a movie to land on your privates, you’re getting what you deserve. Given Clint’s status as Alpha Male Emeritus, it’s astounding that he has made a boxing movie that feels from the outset so inauthentic. The shots in the gym are especially hilarious, as none of the men training there show any sign of having thrown a punch before. And the constant byplay between Frankie (Eastwood) and Scrap (Morgan Freeman) feels forced and unwieldy, like the dialogue in dinner theater. The first fifteen minutes are laughable, the next hour is tedious set-up, then the melodrama kicks in. See Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood go head-to-head in a game of Quien Es Más Crusty! See Hilary’s brave little swagger! See tears roll down a million cheeks in reaction to the surprise ending!

Surprise?

The real surprise is that the audience doesn’t wind up in a vegetative state.

I guess the Oscar goes to Sideways, since it’s at least sorta half-ass.

Best Actor, anyone?

Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda

Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator

Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby

Jamie Foxx, Ray

This is easy.

Eliminate Clint and Leo on the grounds of “they’re awful.”

Eliminate Don Cheadle on the grounds of “you shouldn’t win an Oscar for a PG-13 movie about genocide that could pass for an ABC After-School Special, especially when you play it so understatedly you seem like Mr. Rogers trying to decide which lesson to teach the kids today: ‘Vegetables are good for you’, or ‘Don’t kill a million people.’ ”

Eliminate Johnny Depp because, due to script inadequacies, it’s only half a performance.

Eliminate Jamie Fox on essentially the same grounds.

Hmmmm . . .

This next category is actually interesting in that it has some decent performances.

Annette Bening, Being Julia

Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace

Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake

Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby

Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Scratch Bening on the grounds that her performance is all twitch and giggle. The movie, which is pure fluff, would have been better titled Bening and Nothingness.

Scratch Swank on the basis of a bad script, but give her credit for trying to overcome it.

Which leaves the three foreign entries, all of them pretty good. I say, give it to Kate Winslet, because hers is the most unusual and complex role of the three.

Now for Best Supporting Actor, we have:

Alan Alda, The Aviator

Thomas Haden Church, Sideways

Jamie Foxx, Collateral

Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby

Clive Owen, Closer

We haven’t talked about Closer yet. It’s a repellent little item that attempts to be hip, cutting-edge black comedy, but dotes too much on the cruelty of its main characters to succeed and thus comes across as a less effective, male-dominated version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Part of the problem is that the female leads are incredibly weak. Julia Roberts does her usual impression of a limp celery stalk. As for Natalie Portman, one of the characters in the movie describes her as having “the moronic beauty of youth,” and that fairly well sums up her abilities as an actress. Clive Owen, however, is very good and, if it were up to me, I’d have to struggle with the decision of whether to give him or Church the accolade. But the fact of the matter is, it’ll either go to Alda or Freeman for life achievement. The Jamie Fox nomination is irrelevant—he’ll win for Ray.

And now, Best Supporting Actress:

Cate Blanchett, The Aviator

Laura Linney, Kinsey

Virginia Madsen, Sideways

Sophie Okendo, Hotel Rwanda

Natalie Portman, Closer

We can scratch Cate Blanchett’s wooden Katherine Hepburn impression, Natalie Portman for reasons already discussed, Virginia Madsen on the grounds that she’s not the best supporting actress in her movie, and scratch Sophie Okendo, because her performance has the wide-eyed innocence and virtue of a native princess in a Tarzan movie. That leaves Laura Linney, whose movie, Kinsey, I had the good fortune not to see. I suppose she wins by default.

Best Director . . .?

Please!

The Oscars, as we all know, are a joke, and this has merely been prelude to my review of Hide and Seek, the “psychological thriller” in which Robert de Niro seeks to cement his place in cinematic history as the actor who has come closest to emulating the last stages of the career of the late Joan Crawford by becoming the cinema’s reigning psycho . . .

I guess that about sums it up.

You know, I can be even more economical than that. I’ve figured out a two-word all-purpose review that can be applied to every Hollywood product movie. It’s pithy, it’s got punch, and you can read it any way you want. Positive, negative, sardonic, etc.

Two words.

Want to know what it is?

”I wept.”