Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Oscars Need to Highlight Foreign, Documentary Categories

Oscars Give Short Shrift to Foreign, Documentary Categories

By Steven Rosen
from, 2-29-12

Now that Sunday night’s Oscars are over, the Internet is full of catty stories and tweets parsing every last second of televised coverage, from Angelina Jolie’s exposed leg to Adam Sandler’s participation in a taped segment in which actors discussed why they love movies. (If he really loved movies, he’d stop making them, some have said.)
It’s both understandable and sad that the Oscars — and movie-award season in general — ends like this, with far more interest in the telecast’s trivia than in the movies that win awards. Arguably, the news value of this year’s show peaked before it even officially started, when Sacha Baron Cohen, in costume as “The Dictator” for an upcoming movie, spilled an urn of faux human ashes (ostensibly Kim Jong-il’s) on interviewer Ryan Seacrest.
It’s getting worse, too, now that the Internet and 200+-channel cable television have educated us ad nauseam to the nature and inner workings of the Oscar campaign season. We carefully learn how a film builds momentum by moving through all the secondary award ceremonies from critics groups and the Hollywood professional guilds and associations.
As a result, the Academy Awards themselves have become anticlimactic, which partially explains the media devotion to dissecting the telecast. And the attempts by the Motion Picture Academy to build false enthusiasm by allowing up to ten Best Picture nominees have been a disaster, since we all now know how to “read” the   nominations to distinguish the real ones (they also have Best Director nods) from the padding. Not all that long ago, few outside Hollywood insiders even knew there was a well-orchestrated “campaign season,” much less how to follow and handicap it. 
Convention wisdom, and you hear a lot of it these days, would be to revive the Oscar telecast by de-emphasizing the importance of the awards, themselves. Reduce the number given out on TV, especially the more esoteric or niche ones, in favor of increasing the glitz, spectacle, star power and big production numbers. Do like the Grammys have done, where classical, jazz, folk, blues, opera, international and more are rarely ever presented on the show. 
But I think the Academy should go the other way and try to increase public awareness of the importance of Oscar nominations. But maybe not for the Big Four categories – Best Picture, Director, Actor and Actress, which probably do suffer from overexposure by the time the telecast comes around (although The Artist, this year’s big winner, could use the help since many people have been scared off by the fact it’s a black-and-white silent film).
Click the jump for more on ways the Academy could draw more attention to deserving films such as A Separation, In Darkness, Footnote and Bullhead. 
In particular, there should be more attention given to two categories that get a short shrift on the telecast, yet for which Oscar nominations are vital – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary. It would even be a good idea for the Academy to launch a second telecast, on cable, devoted just to introducing these nominees to the public.

(The awards could still be given on the main program, and Foreign and Documentary films could still be eligible for the major awards, too.)
Why? First of all, foreign-language films and documentaries are feature-length movies, just like The Artist (which actually was a French movie) or The Descendents. As such, they’re trying to get into theaters and be seen, just like those films. Further, as anyone who really likes movies can tell you, they are often the best feature-length movies out there because they explore subjects that Hollywood overlooks and take risks that scare Hollywood. 
Yet, because they rarely if ever have the studio marketing/distribution clout to get into wide national release, they struggle in the marketplace. They even struggle to attract the attention of those who are predisposed to like artier or so-called independent films. Occasionally, a political celebrity like Michael Moore or Al Gore can break through with a documentary, or a foreign-language film like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon can combine enough action with artfulness to become a hit. But too often, they don't get the attention they deserve. one of this year's foreign-language nominees, Belgium's tough, harrowing Bullhead, quietly opened at the Esquire last week and I wonder how many people know that much about it. Several of this year’s Best Documentary nominees — Hell and Back AgainIf a Tree FellParadise Lost 3 — tell riveting stories about the contemporary American experience but didn’t even get widespread theatrical distribution. The winner, Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated, about a struggling Memphis high-school football team, will get a push because it won the Oscar. (The other nominee, Wim Wender’s 3-D look at an avant-garde German dance troupe, Pina, is currently at the Mariemont.)
Distributors often don’t try to really market a documentary or foreign-language film until after the Oscars are over – that’s how dependent they are on an award. So it’d be nice if a second, special Academy’s Oscar telecast gave them more time to introduce and explain themselves.
It could introduce the nominees in depth, show clips from them, offer interviews with the principals and – in the case of the foreign-language nominees – offer insight into the filmmaking industry in their home countries. As for star power, I would bet Hollywood’s top stars and directors would be willing to introduce the segments – heck, Terrence Malick and Woody Allen probably would show up for such a good cause.
Among other things, a show could explain the confusing process by which documentaries and foreign-language films become eligible for Oscar nominations. Maybe the more the public learns about that, the more it will suggest changes. (Why should only foreign-language films officially nominated by their countries be eligible, for instance?)
This is also important because these categories are exciting. The foreign-language one, in particular, is like a mini-United Nations. For those who follow these movies, one of the most meaningful moments at the Oscars occurred when A Separation, written and directed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, won for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s the first Iranian film to win in this category and opens Friday at the Esquire.
Framed as a thriller, this very contemporary movie about a marriage in trouble daringly, carefully asks questions about the role of women in a male-dominated, religious-dominated society. And Farhadi’s acceptance speech, while hard to understand since English isn’t his primary language, seemed to be a call for understanding, peace and cultural tolerance, as well as to ask that we all separate politics from the social/cultural realm. It seemed to be directed at Iranian authorities as much as anyone else, and the New York Times said the Iranian news agencies had trouble reporting it in a way that would curry its government’s favor. And indeed, the Iranian government has spun the win as a victory over Israel.
That’s because one of the other finalists, Joseph Cedar’s Footnote, also a family drama, is an Israeli film. The Academy on Saturday sponsored an annual symposium for its foreign-film nominees, and it was something that Farhadi would dare appear at the event with Cedar. (He still had to be careful about seeming to be too friendly to him.) Further, one Jewish website ( reported that Farhadi backstage at the Oscars praised the director of another foreign-language nominee — Agnieszka Holland’s Polish drama In Darkness, about Jews hiding from Nazis in Lvov, Poland, during the Holocaust. If true that’s pretty gutsy for him, considering Iran’s political leadership denies the Holocaust happened.
This is exciting, relevant stuff — certainly more substantial than whatever a costumed Cohen does to Ryan Seacrest on the red carpet. But why can’t the Academy do more to let the television-watching public in on the stories behind these films. And if that helps A SeparationIn Darkness, FootnoteBullhead or the fifth nominee, Canada’s Monsieur Lazhar (about an Algerian refugee in Montreal) attract a bigger audience as they start to “go wide” theatrically, we’re all better for it.
And, who knows, if it works for the Oscars, maybe the Grammys can follow suit and have a separate telecast for some of the musical categories it’s now abandoned on its main show.
To read more work by Steven Rosen, visit 

Monday, February 27, 2012

The 84th Academy Awards -- 2012

Midnight in Hollywood

by Thomas Delapa

And now, the envelope please for the best morning-after Oscar lead: Silent Night ... Silence Was Golden ... Let’s Hear it for The Artist. ... For Hugo, it was a basic Paint It Black.

Zut alors! The Artist, a loving Franco-American tribute to silent cinema, spoke the loudest at the 84th Academy Awards, winning gold in five categories, including Best Director and Best Picture. There were few surprises in Hollywood’s genial, but generally lackluster annual tribute to itself. The biggest winner might have been the worldwide audience, which at least didn’t have to endure a return performance from last year’s tinny Gen-X teaming of James Franco and Anne Hathaway.

Meryl Streep may have pulled off a small upset for her victory as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, besting Viola Davis in The Help, and Streep might have even won over the crowd for her disarming acceptance speech. “Streep fatigue”? After a record 17 nominations and three wins, you bet. Hollywood’s reigning grande dame (at the age of 62), Streep has steeped into the Starbucks of the movies—omnipresent, rich and creamy, and not without a bitter aftertaste.

Nostalgia, not Grease, was the word the long night, starting with Billy Crystal’s ninth role as host. Crystal was drafted when Eddie Murphy bowed out in allegiance to foot-in-mouth producer Brett Ratner, whose salacious and homophobic remarks last November got him the boot. In the 3-hour-plus event, Hollywood preferred to look back, not forward, focusing on its glittery past rather than its uncertain future in the age of thinning audiences and the multi-media challenges to its dominance—not unlike its slow fade in the made-for-TV 1950s.

With box-office attendance down significantly in 2011, the studios continue to bet on overstuffed technology and novelty, not talent, especially 3-D. Even New (now Old) Hollywood film purists Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg joined the 3-D parade in 2011, though not with big hits. While the $150 million-plus Hugo did grab the lion’s share of technical Oscars, it barely meowed in the major categories, which won’t much help its so far one-dimensional ticket sales.

In Hollywood’s own backyard at the sponsor-less (nee Kodak) theater, The Artist was masterful, leaving most American nominees French-fried and tongue-tied. Best Director Michel Hazanavicius thanked the late, great Billy Wilder three times, while gushing Best Actor Jean Dujardin said he loved our country and gave a shout-out to Douglas Fairbanks, one of his models for his role as silent star George Valentin. Among the hunky also-rans, George Clooney had to be content with statuesque supermodel Stacy Kiebler on his arm, while Brad Pitt seemed satisfied to be clutching Angelina Jolie, whose slit gown (and vampy podium pose) tied her with a full-breasted Jennifer Lopez for best (un)dressed star.

While Billy Crystal did yeoman’s work in a substitute lead role, ringing in with a few zingers ("Nothing can take the sting out of world economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with gold statues"), his schtick seemed a déjà vu rewind, sort of like the Oscars as whole. The Artist became the first silent movie since 1927-28 (and Wings) to win for Best Picture. The fact that a low-budget, nearly wordless, black-and-white movie stomped its well-heeled competition speaks volumes about how much loud, mainstream Hollywood has lost its way, if not its voice.


Friday, February 17, 2012

Film Review | The Iron Lady

Rust Never Streeps

by Thomas Delapa

Don’t stop the presses: “Meryl Streep nominated for Oscar!”

You can look it up. Hollywood’s most famous female impersonator has garnered a record 17 Academy Award acting nominations, bringing home the gold once for Best Actress. The movies’ big-name answer to Rich Little, Streep is again favored to win for her flashy but tin-plated performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.

The Vassar-educated empress has no new clothes, but don’t tell that to British Film Academy voters, who—hear, hear—bowed down before Streep and crowned her with their own best actress award. The only way to keep Streep from winning another Oscar might be to cast her in the Tower of London.

With all the sterling huzzahs for Streep, you’ll only hear a few murmurs of dissent from the critical backbench. As England’s formidable Tory Prime Minister who reigned from 1979 to 1990, Streep regales us with a prime example of her clinical acting style that stays firmly on the outside of her semi-regal subject. Her Thatcher is a stew of Julia Child and Mrs. Doubtfire, less a recipe for success than a bland biopic plate of bangers and mash.

Given Streep’s queen-bee status, one could hardly expect her frothy Mamma Mia! director, Phyllida Lloyd, to limit the star’s quasi-despotic power to rule. The brittle script, by Abi Morgan, sketches out Thatcher’s life and career from the 1940s to her precipitous mental decline in the last decade, but the focus is clearly on Streep’s mannered magic act, not Maggie’s momentous life as England’s first female prime minister.

For Streep, the eyes have it, unfortunately. Her method is to cock her head, stare sternly ahead (frequently right at the camera) and impeccably deliver her feisty, high-toned lines. That may be good enough for Madam Tussauds wax museum, but on film it drips with chilly artifice. There’s nothing behind those steely eyes, certainly no heart, except for a laser-guided aim for acting trophies.

Yes, audiences will learn about Maggie’s pearl-clad race to the top of the Parliamentary heap, accessorized by her doting husband, Denis Thatcher (Jim Broadbent). While the film presents Thatcher as a strong-willed woman struggling against one of the most entrenched of British male bastions (“I cannot die washing a teacup!”), she also is portrayed as an imperious figure who alienated and humiliated even her most trusted advisors. Lloyd and Morgan make scant attempt to dig into the historical background, except to drop in chintzy newsreel footage of the era, from labor riots to the short-lived 1982 Falklands War that was to Thatcher what the picayune Grenada invasion was to her conservative White House counterpart, Ronald Reagan.

Had, say, Judi Dench or Helen Mirren been elected for this plum part (if only), I doubt the press and the public would have acted like such peons as they’ve done for Meryl the Great. In The Queen, Mirren submerged herself in the role of Elizabeth II; Streep steadfastly clings to the surface for dear life, risking nothing, fabricating her performance with a cabinet of tics and mannerisms. Attention getting, to be sure, but a near-royal bore.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Review | Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire (2003)

The Empire Strikes Back

by Thomas Delapa

When Hollywood histories are usually written, surprisingly few shine any light at all on the late Lew Wasserman. Even in Ephraim Katz’s essential Film Encyclopedia, Wasserman doesn’t merit his own entry, whereas Lassie and Rin Tin Tin fetch several paragraphs each.

Yet modern Hollywood as we know it wouldn’t exist without Louis “Lew” R. Wasserman, the secretive super-agent-turned-mogul who transformed Universal from a broke, low-budget studio into a worldwide multimedia colossus.

From the 1940s to well into the 1990s, Wasserman and his wife Edie were one of the U.S. entertainment industry’s high-voltage power couples, consorts and counsels to everyone from stars to presidents. A king and queen among Los Angeles royalty, this matched pair finally got their close-up—warts and all—in Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood: Edie and Lew Wasserman and Their Entertainment Empire (2003), by Kathleen Sharp.

Not that Wasserman (1913-2002) would have wanted the scrutiny, even after death. A famously behind-the-scenes puppet master, he shunned the spotlight, preferring to pull strings from the wings. Few know that it was Wasserman who, as James Stewart’s agent in 1950, negotiated a momentous deal with Universal that gave the star a big chunk of the profits on his film Winchester ‘73. A model for “above the line” talent contracts to this day, it was a shot heard ‘round Hollywood, and one that would be another nail in the coffin of the old studio system.

Sharp traces Wasserman’s personal and professional trajectories from his childhood in Cleveland and marriage to the zesty Edith Brickerman, and on to his near-lifelong association with the formidable—and feared—Chicago-born talent agency MCA (Music Corporation of America) founded by Jules Stein. For every Wasserman success and triumph along the way, Sharp uncovers shadowy counterpoints, from antitrust investigations to mob connections and underhanded labor tactics, once in concert with a minor 1950s actor named Ronald Reagan.

At MCA, Wasserman was Stein’s indispensable right-hand man as it grew into Hollywood’s most powerful and aggressive talent agency after World War II, signing a galaxy of such A-list clients as Stewart, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Judy Garland and Charlton Heston, as well as directors Alfred Hitchcock (a close Wasserman friend) and Billy Wilder. But as the old Hollywood studios began to eclipse in the late 1940s, buffeted by the TV revolution and antitrust busting, Wasserman and MCA saw the future before anyone else. In 1950, he engineered a deal to create Revue Productions to make TV shows, renting space at Universal’s massive, 367-acre lot in the San Fernando Valley. By 1958, MCA/Revue was so successful it bought outright the cash-poor Universal City lot for virtually a song. Wasserman’s prescient Midas touch would also include the purchase of undervalued studio film libraries (like Paramount’s), which would turn into a gold mine owing to TV showings and eventual re-releases through the post-1970s home-video bonanza.

While Sharp’s highly readable history glitters with accounts on Hollywood’s critical transition years, the book is a bit tarnished by the author’s resistance to chronological rigor. Rather than starting at the beginning of Wasserman’s life, she drops in jigsaw flashbacks to the 1930s and 1940s. Though strict biographical timelines might seem as prosaic as an old Andy Hardy picture, they’re also usually more complete. (Dennis McDougal’s 1998 The Last Mogul: Lew Wasserman, MCA and the Hidden History of Hollywood has a tighter focus.)

Most of Mr. & Mrs. Hollywood spans from the late 1950s to Wasserman’s death in 2002. (Edie died just this past year.) During that time, he reinvented himself at least once, dissolving from talent agent into studio mogul. When MCA tried to purchase the Universal studio in 1962, the government stepped in, charging that the deal violated antitrust laws; Wasserman would have to either get out of talent business or nix the deal. He and Stein chose Universal.

In the decades that followed, Wasserman and his executives—like production head Ned Tanen—transformed the former studio best known for monster movies and Deanna Durbin musicals into a conglomerate monolith. Not only did Universal become a major player on TV (with hits from Leave it To Beaver to The Rockford Files), and in the recording industry (Decca), it also morphed into a big-time movie studio, boosted into the stratosphere by such 1970s New Hollywood cash-cows as Steven Spielberg. Tearing a page from Walt Disney, Wasserman's multi-platform business genius also extended to his decision to start a small public tour of the Universal lot in 1964 (see Lana Turner’s dressing room!), which has since grown into one of Southern California's biggest tourist attractions.

As one of New Hollywood’s studio godfathers, Wasserman made his share of enemies, usually because of the lowball offers his many minions couldn’t afford to refuse. With a deadeye on profits, he has been cited as one of the originators of the notorious “Hollywood accounting” system, in which seeming financial winners are dubiously written off as money losers. James Garner, star of the lucrative, long-running Rockford Files, was rebuffed for years by Universal lawyers in his efforts to gain his rightful compensation.

Sharp plays a doggedly good flatfoot in this detailed investigation, finding her man (and woman). In The Last Tycoon, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that “not a half-dozen men have been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” Add up all the facts in this book, and it’s easy to figure that Lew Wasserman was one of them.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Film Review | The Artist

Sounds of Silence

by Thomas Delapa

While Hollywood faded at the box office in 2011, three noteworthy movies took a long look back at cinema’s past—not in anger, but with love and nostalgia. The Artist, My Week with Marilyn and Hugo are all Oscar-nominated flashbacks that returned us to simpler times, well before the simpler minds of modern, Die-Hardened Hollywood.

If Martin Scorsese’s 3-D Hugo is deep on cinephile sentiment and short on depth, the Franco-American Artist paints a loving, lustrous portrait of Tinseltown in the late silent era. Few, if any, recent films have spoken with such eloquence on just how much the movies have lost by abandoning their roots in nuanced acting and pantomime.

Iris in on an ornate picture palace in 1927 Los Angeles. Onstage, suave matinee-idol George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) hams it up at the premiere of his latest flick before a packed house of smartly dressed Jazz Agers. In this cinematic love letter written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius, Valentin’s character is sealed with a kiss blown back to such icons as Douglas Fairbanks as well as sound star Gene Kelly.

Despite Dujardin’s charming, nimble presence (he won Cannes’ Best Actor award), the real star of the show is the film itself, a jaunty black-and-white trip down the memory lane of the silver screen. Shot in the boxy 1.33 celluloid format of old, The Artist is anything but square; it looks so positively right that its negative might have been uncanned from the vaults of MGM, Paramount or Fox (pre-Murdoch) during the bygone studio years.

Whatever the vintage, Hazanavicius pays homage to a galaxy of Hollywood classics, from A Star Is Born and Sunset Boulevard to Singin’ in the Rain and Citizen Kane. The unkindest critical cut is that Hazanavicius excessively mimics his favorites, leaving us with a narrow, if crystal-clear, focus.

Starting with A Star Is Born (pick a version), Hazanavicius and his cinematographer Guilliaume Schiffman shine a spotlight on Valentin as he’s eclipsed by Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), a bob-haired flapper who ascends to stardom during the revolutionary switch from silent to sound. Stuck in a freeze-frame, Valentin does a Charlie Chaplin and refuses to talk on screen, insisting that the silents are still golden. Our hero’s downfall is what might have happened to Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood had he stayed indoors and sulked instead of singin’ (and dancin’) in the rain.

Despite the 90 or so minutes of silent pictures, they’re not at all hard to hear, thanks to a colorful and atmospheric score by Ludovic Bource that sometimes echoes too loudly with Bernard Herrmann melodies. As Gloria Swanson famously said in Sunset Boulevard, the silent stars didn’t need words, they “had faces”; Dujardin and company say what they need through a delicate dance of gesture and facial expression—as well as a sprinkling of intertitles. A Jack Russell terrier channeling Rin Tin Tin, Valentin’s faithful dog (Uggie) is one of the movie’s best friends.

Audiences may be amazed and delighted by Hazanavicius’s adoring attention to period detail, from Murphy beds and "Pickfair"-era Hollywood mansions to such quaint screen punctuations as wipes, irises and slow fades. While The Artist borrows too much to be an artistic masterpiece in its own right, it deserves a joyful exclamation—aloud—for its heart.