People often ask me every February, “Are you excited for the Academy Awards?”
It behooves me as a “film critic” (fuck off!) to offer a very emphatic, compulsory “Yes!” in response to this question, which pulls at my shirtsleeves all year like a nagging child. But each year, my enthusiasm for the 84-year-old Oscar telecast dwindles, a dying beauty hanging by its last manicured fingernail.
The Academy Awards remains, particularly in light of the last few years, completely irrelevant. There is a monstrous schism between the Academy, the critics and the movie-going audience. We can’t all “just get along.” This year’s frontrunner for best picture is Michel Hazanavicius’s silent film love-letter, “The Artist.” If you can pronounce the director’s name (I still can’t) and have successfully managed to spell it correctly without name-checking (I still haven’t), congratulations. If you’ve seen this movie, double congratulations! Few people have. It hasn’t made much money, which means its tight-lipped, black-and-white charm isn’t working on everybody. “The Artist” has been extremely well reviewed, but any sensible critic is, by now, deriding the film and pissing on its imminent win. I am not the first critic to admit that once a movie gains awards-season traction, I start to hate it.
But I must admit, and it kills me, that I enjoyed “The Artist.” The charm of its sexy, sneering lead Jean Dujardin worked on me. The film’s awareness of film history, including its controversial inclusion of Bernard Herrmann’s famous “Love Theme” from “Vertigo,” tickled me. Its genuine ode to a cinema of old amused me. But that’s all I can say. The movie is clever, and it is fine. I laughed, I smiled, I yawned. When butted up against other best picture contenders like Terrence Malick’s colossal edifice “The Tree of Life,” the most forward-thinking film of 2011, and Alexander Payne’s earnest and likeable “The Descendants,” “The Artist” looks like just another “The King’s Speech,” last year’s big winner. It’s a film that means well, but ultimately panders to audiences and Academy members who take their coffee with cream and sugar, who prefer feel-good movies that warm the heart, banish the brain and repress the truth.
In a conversation about the nominees, a fellow writer sized me up quickly. “You like the dark, boring ones, don’t you?” she asked. If by “dark” and “boring” she meant “Melancholia,” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Shame,” films that tell the truth about where we are in the world, then yes, I like those movies. There is no place in the Oscars for films that, rather than hold you tight, slap you in the face and make you feel dirty and lost.
There is nary a “dark” and “boring” movie to be found in this year’s crop of nominees. Saint Viola Davis is poised to win in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of the black-maid-who-could in “The Help,” with Meryl Streep (“The Irony Lady”) as the only potential upset. Like she needs another award. Davis’s fellow “Help”-er Octavia Spencer will likely win Best Supporting Actress because she makes a mean shit pie. This could be the first year since 2002, which named Halle Berry and Denzel Washington its Best Actors, when two African Americans win in the major acting categories. The Academy is sensitive about these kinds of issues, which is also probably why it nominated “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” a saccharine 9/11 drama, as one of the nine Best Pictures. In the male categories, Christopher Plummer will win, and deservedly so, for his portrayal of a late-blooming gay man battling with cancer in “Beginners,” and hunk du jour Jean Dujardin will probably nab Best Actor from fellow chest-throbs George Clooney (“Descendants”) and Brad Pitt (“Moneyball”). The French Dujardin’s got an edge: He looks better in black-and-white.
Some of the year’s richest performances were ignored by the Academy: Tilda Swinton as a mother who probably never loved her own child in “We Need to Talk About Kevin;” Michael Fassbender as a hopeless sex addict in “Shame”; Michael Shannon as a schizophrenic/end-times-prophet in “Take Shelter;” Charlize Theron as the drunk louse of “Young Adult” and Anna Paquin as a plucky, irritating teen head-case in “Margaret.” Instead, the Academy once again privileged actors in roles tailor-made for the Oscars: Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Glenn Close as a Victorian-era transsexual. Nothing new or subversive to report here, folks.
This year’s Academy Awards is predicted to have the lowest ratings yet, which will validate just how trivial and out-of-touch it really is. Respectfully, the Academy honored our request to never invite James Franco or Anne Hathaway to the stage again, casting Billy Crystal as the emcee. But this choice, like the looming sweep of “The Artist,” demonstrates the Academy’s sacred nostalgia for bygone days, its refusal to get with the times in favor of a sunny reverie where that evening night at the Kodak Theatre (which isn’t even called that anymore) actually might mean something. But it never will mean anything if the Academy doesn’t start shedding its soft side. I’d like to say “until next year,” but things won’t change. Copy, paste, rinse, repeat. Good nightshirt!