It’s Academy Awards season, my friends, and amidst the dropped balls, jaw-dropping exclusions, and head-slapping turns of fate, we once again stand toe to toe with the only thing Tinseltown ever really cares about: the Jews. Sure, we could get into a pissing match about their tight-fisted control of the media, or their predominance in Hollywood, or their annoying tendency to equate (Jewish) suffering with nobility, but at bottom, this is about peddling guilt like a sack of gefilte fish; the long-held cinematic norm that if a Jew is pricked, he bleeds Oscar gold. From the short films to the documentaries, supporting roles to cinematography, we can’t escape the plight of the Israelite. Worst of all, the overall quality of the films is never the issue, and often beside the point altogether. Like the shining shekel in a street market bargain, Holocaust cinema blinds all viewers to actual depth and worth, steamrolling the gullible public into believing that where there are Stars of David affixed to striped pajamas, or growling dogs and guard towers, there is inherent, inexorable truth. Yes, the Holocaust was and is a fact. Yes, it was a period of pain, misery, and unparalleled inhumanity. We should shudder to consider its implications. Daily, if necessary. Only now, on the screen, it’s a dead issue. I’m done. Finished. I’d no sooner sit through another sermon on the Shoah than beg for a sequel to The Love Guru. Never forget? Try and stop me.
While 2009’s batch of nominees is depressing and frustrating in turn, no single listing enraged me more than the Best Picture nod to The Reader. Sure, it’s personal in that I blame this mess for sending me to the emergency room (and, subsequently, the artery-clogging bill), but more than that, it’s the assumption that as Jews die, nominations must follow. The whole thing is a dull, unnecessary slog through the usual grocery list of troubles – guilt, sorrow, regret, the fanatical need on the part of Israel to hunt down each and every person even tangentially related to the Holocaust, up to and including Hitler’s plumber – but all of that might have been forgiven had the film not insisted on bullying the audience from the first frame. The flashbacks and basset hound eyes of Ralph Fiennes slap us around with deliberate self-importance, and even the sex isn’t enough to distract the true intentions. Sure, there’s something to be said for any film that includes a character who considers illiteracy more dire than casually roasting a few hundred Jews alive, but rather than take that clueless amorality and run with it, the screenplay turns the corner and rubs our noses in that whole “collective guilt” thing. What would you do? What should you do? As little as necessary, I’ll have you know. Go back and listen to Woody Allen’s table-side rambling in the first scene of
Manhattan. Nothing clarifies like cowardice. If I don’t care, I won’t do. No risk, and I sleep nights. Leave me out of your thundering cause.
So yeah, the voters predictably followed the Matza scent, but what of the other crimes against the craft? Two inexplicable Best Song nominations from that Dickensian stench of blood-filled curry, yet nothing for Bruce Springsteen’s title tune from The Wrestler? Clucking, frenzied tongue-wagging over The Boss? And to think I had considered forgiveness after the Dylan thing. The Best Actor category was pretty solid (good to see Richard Jenkins emerge from anonymity), but Brad Pitt? I understand the need to have Pitt and Jolie walk the red carpet and bring in viewers, but Pitt’s effort, such as it was, was all effects-driven, and I’m not sure sleepwalking ciphers should ever garner the Academy’s respect (though it got Nicole Kidman an Oscar). Hell, he was far better in Burn After
Reading. Mickey Rourke should (and must) win for The Wrestler, but I expect Sean Penn’s worthy turn in Milk will carry the day. I can live with it, but it would be a shame if one of the medium’s best-ever performances were denied its due. Best Actress had the usual (and expected) subjects, except for Frozen River’s Melissa Leo, which has the distinction of being one of the most authentic portrayals of down and out I’ve ever seen. She more than deserves the honor, but Oscar likes ‘em young and fetching, so expect Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married to walk home with the little golden man. Even worse, though, would be a win for Kate Winslet’s ham-fisted turn in The Reader. Oh well, at least they ignored her truly wretched Revolutionary Road regurgitation.
Best Supporting Actress stinks up the joint, except for Penelope Cruz’ fiery turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Marisa Tomei is fine in The Wrestler, but it’s pretty rote to be award worthy, and can’t Tomei play dumb and naked in her sleep? Most inexplicable of all is Taraji P. Henson channeling Butterfly McQueen in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Surely Barack Obama’s election meant that we’d be spared enshrining yet another Mammy in the shuck-and-jive Hall of Shame. Apparently not. She’s an embarrassment, but merely one of many in one of the year’s most overrated road apples. Best Supporting Actor is Heath Ledger’s to lose (which he won’t), but no real surprises are to be found, except the joy of seeing that Patel kid fail in his longshot bid for Slumdog Millionaire. Sure, Michael Shannon’s performance as the umpteenth version of the “Nutcase Who Is Saner Than Us All” was shackled by a bad screenplay, but that’s no strike against the acting. He can stay. Robert Downey Jr.’s blackface in Tropic Thunder is a wonderful inclusion for many reasons, not the least of which is the Academy’s atypical recognition of a dumb summer comedy. Someone, somewhere, though, should have found a nomination in the wreckage of Role Models, but baby steps are the best we can expect from the aging, reliably humorless Academy.
And so we get to the documentaries. While I expected the usual grave errors of exclusion (a thousand years of groveling won’t atone for ignoring Hoop Dreams and Crumb), I was pleased by the nods for Man on Wire and Encounters at the End of the World. And kudos are in store for the Trouble the Water nomination, as well as snubbing the tired Holocaust and
Iraq genres. I can only assume that there were none of the former, and regarding the latter, Bush’s departure may indicate a putting to bed of childish things. More to the point, I don’t think a single sentient being continues to give a shit about the war. For many, I expect their reaction to, “We’re still over there?” is about the same as being told that we continue to maintain a presence in South Korea. It’s information, but it won’t replace the DVD sale at Best Buy in anyone’s memory banks. I’ll let you know about the Short Subjects when I get to them sometime in February, but rest assured, I’ve already written my negative review for Spielzeugland. If you’ve been reading along faithfully, you’ll know why. In all, a typically maddening year, but who knew that when all the ballots were counted, I’d be genuinely upset that The Dark Knight wasn’t seated at the grownup’s table. If only Moses would let the Oscars go.