It falls upon any columnist, with an association to show business, to write the obligatory Academy Award piece. Most give their selections as to who will pick up the statues… some go so far as to not only write who they think will win, but who should win. I am late to this game. Not only will the Oscars be presented this coming Sunday, but there is the fact that I almost never get into the Academy’s mind set and therefore am rarely correct as to who will take home this most coveted of prizes.
I have been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since the early 1960s; my wife got inducted a little over three years ago. You would think I would have some insight into just what my fellow members might be thinking; you would be wrong…they fool me almost every year.
I have seen all the films nominated for Best Picture this year and have written at least a little something about each of them, save for The Sound of Metal, and Judas and the Black Messiah which I only got around to viewing this past week. The temptation to write something glib about these two, such as “never mind, they are not going to win,” is tempting but that could be a big mistake. The Academy just might fool me again. Besides, in a better world, Judas and the Black Messiah just maybe should win.
Here, after that long preamble, is my take on the whole affair: Hollywood has lost its mind. Everybody knows that in a time of national crisis (Hello? A world-wide pandemic, the US Capitol under siege, a rash of mass shootings/killings, police violence against blacks, and the attendant Black Lives Matter protests) escapist entertainment is what is required.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers became international icons during the world’s great depression of the 1930s. They didn’t do that as two dancers who developed crippling diseases or debilitating neuropathy. The screw ball comedies featuring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Rosalind Russell were, for the most part, take offs on the super rich and were not only funny, but gave a world down on its luck, something to aspire to, something to hope for, and to maybe gain some sense of style that might just come to be in their future.
Escapist entertainment. Empires were built on that concept. The world’s cinema came to realize that America had developed a new art form. A grateful nation… for at least a few hours in a darkened theatre… put aside its troubles, to smile, to dream. Do you think Hollywood knew what it was doing? You better believe it.
The pandemic that has now lasted over a year, has killed something close to 600,000 Americans and millions more throughout the world, may (or may not) last as long as the great depression, but it has certainly put a cloud on our collective horizons—the fragility of our Democracy itself, exposed in a way it has not been since the days of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. A country polarized over race and economic disparities. And how did Hollywood react to all that in 2020?
A film of filial duty and dementia (The Father), the true story of the racist war of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI against black activists (Judas and the Black Messiah), the almost overwhelming struggle of Viet Nam immigrants trying to make it as farmers in America (Minari), a widow relegated to living in a van…. homeless, but not helpless (Nomadland), a female sociopath who, vigilante like, is on a rampage of revenge because of her best friend’s suicide (Promising Young Woman), a musician who, almost without warning, goes completely deaf (The Sound of Metal). There is a look at the underbelly of the very Hollywood of the ‘30s that produced so much of what we all know as “the movies” (Mank). The film features corruption, suicide, double dealing, and alcoholism. Finally, there is The Trial of the Chicago 7… a true story of political upheaval and police brutality that, I predict, will never be turned into a musical.
What can I say? They are all well made films and most have something to say that should be said. One has to admire the skill in Nomadland, but who can see this film and say they actually enjoyed it? That goes double for The Sound of Metal. Minari is a trudge… good acting, a promise of some hope at the end, but a slog, nevertheless. Mank is dark. I don’t want to write about it again, but suffice to say it is really well done, but too important a piece to have been made with this very ordinary screenplay. Anthony Hopkins will probably get the Academy Award for best actor in The Father, but is this subject something America longs to see during a time of national crisis? We all have aging relatives who are suffering from some form of dementia; some of us are those aging relatives. I, myself, am having trouble remembering proper nouns. This film is not going to cheer up any of us.
Readers of my stuff know I am a sucker for Aaron Sorkin, and he has done some very good work in The Trials of the Chicago 7. It should probably win the Oscar, but that doesn’t make it a great antidote to pandemic blues.
Promising Young Woman comes the closest to being actually entertaining. It works on many levels, including a bit of a nod to Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis from Hollywood’s golden age as sisters on the prowl. I find it interesting that out of eight nominees, a film about rape, revenge, and murder is the lightest fare of all those vying for an Oscar.
Individual film makers have always been on this quest to “say something important” to make the perfect message film. (The old rejoinder to that, “You wanna send a message? Call Western Union” is attributed to more Hollywood studio heads than I have time to feature. Besides, I have trouble with proper nouns, remember?) Hollywood even turned that joke on itself in Sullivan’s Travels (this Preston Sturges film should be on your must-see list). Casablanca was, at the time one of Hollywood’s better message movies about the war effort (encouraged by FDR and the US Government). Still, it manages to also be one hellofa entertaining picture.
Being a “wet blanket” is not a role I relish. And, honest, I really do encourage film makers to be relevant and to portray life as it is… but what we have here… in this list of unrelenting slogs… is a pandemic all its own. It would appear the “inmates are running the asylum” after all. Maybe, it’s time for some studio leadership that can once again… at least every now and then… produce a movie worthy of an Academy Award that is also entertaining. I’ll vote for that.
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I agree with Barney. Having had the opportunity to view these films ((Stewart is a member and voted for the SAG Awards – a preliminary award show that leads up to the Academy Awards) the choices were not easy for me. I, too, go back to what I once loved about movies. And this year, my personal choice for obvious reasons (I’m a baby boomer and had the opportunity to meet several members of the Chicago 7 – and love everything done by Aaron Sorkin) The Trial of the Chicago 7 gets my vote! Dena Stewart