Oscar, Scammed

My son and I argue movies all the time. He thinks that the Academy and other film industry prizes are well deserved while I can’t recall a Golden Globe or Oscar for a movie I truly enjoyed. He says I’m “biased”. Of course, I am. Prejudiced, blind, narrow-minded, nostalgic and inconsistent like most movie lovers.

What film is “good” or “bad” – in reality, what’s up or down – has zip to do with the shows which are always a glittering and dismal PR bash. As I write this the Foreign Press Association’s scam called the Golden Globes is on, messing up local traffic in my neighborhood.

For years legitimate critics and fans laughed at the FPA as a bunch of freeloading dumdums whose cinema IQ was zero. But now look: the Golden Globes is up there with the Oscars, respectable and all. What next, Bernie Madoff as director of the International Monetary Fund? Or have you forgotten how the billionaire husband of Pia Zadora (who?) literally bought her the Golden Globe award as “new star of the year”.

Of course the mighty Oscar is above such cynical dodges. Academy nominees don’t actually buy their way in – unless they’re rich enough to afford avalanches of publicity (see, Aniston, “Cake”), their hands out for expensive swag-bags (gifts up to $16,000), and buy “word of mouth” via rent-a-quote “critics”. The Weinstein Brothers, bless them, are geniuses at maneuvering prizes for their smaller-audience movies. And why not?

I’m years behind catching up with current contenders like “Boyhood” and “Gone Girl” partly because I have a bad back and no patience to sit through 2- and 3-hour movies. Who has the time? When I was a kid great directors like Wellman, Ford and Curtiz could do the job in 87 minutes. Casablanca? About 100. “Public Enemy”? 83.

Every movie, no matter how “good” or “bad”, is a miracle. Especially for independents it’s near-to-impossible to scrounge the money, snag a cast, squabble over script rewrites and soothe clashing temperaments. So what is up there on the screen, no matter how boring and witless, deserves some kind of salute.

For a long time I was a professional movie critic, one of the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael’s “Paulettes”, although she and I often furiously disagreed. (Say, over Clint Eastwood and “Bonnie & Clyde”.) These days I’m embarrassed to realize I may now like a movie I once trashed or burn with shame about a clunker I praised to the skies. It changes, year to year, maybe even day to day, which probably means I have no real critical principles.

Due to my disabilities – aching back and diminished endurance – I’ve fallen into the habit of not watching whole movies but just wait for the “money scene”. In porno movies the money shot is when the guy ejaculates. (See “Boogie Nights”.) My idea of a money scene is so strictly personal I doubt if anyone else would want to share it. For me it’s when the story comes together emotionally.

To take older examples, in “Good Will Hunting” in a college bar unsung prodigy Matt Damon rescues his buddy Ben Affleck from humiliation by a snotty Harvard boy by intervening to loudly list all the academic citations the snob is plagiarizing from. In “Broadcast News” Holly Hunter as an emotionally raw TV producer explosively and surprisingly sobs as part of her early morning routine even though we’ve seen how competent she is at work. In a really, really long movie (almost 3 hours) like “Best Years of Our Lives” it’s when army veteran Sgt. Frederic March after a long wartime absence comes home to surprise his wife Myrna Loy and for just a few seconds the camera fixes on her astonishment; a wonderful shot that will inform the whole of this story. In “The Godfather” it’s when young Vito Corleone/De Niro jumps down from Little Italy’s rooftops to murder the local extortionist Fanucci.

In the 2-hour long “Network” it’s any closeup of the aging William Holden helpless in his doomed affair with Faye Dunaway. And, same picture, if you have the patience for Paddy Chayevsky’s long speeches, which I do – when Ned Beatty as the TV network’s boss hauls half crazed maverick correspondent Peter Finch into his office to lecture him about how capitalism works. “You have meddled with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale, and I won’t have it, is that clear?!” In David O. Russell’s amazing “The Fighter” the great scenes are not so much with Mark Wahlberg and his fictional brother Christian Bale but focused on the pushy, malevolent, prideful family harpies like Melissa Leo & her female cohort.

These often short scenes and quick flashes are what “glues” a picture together.

Contradictorily, being a passionate fan, sometimes a film comes along that you HAVE to sit through. Did you see Amy Adams and Ben McKenzie in a movie nobody saw “Junebug” (106 mins.), an unlikely story about a Chicago art gallery owner (Embeth Davidtz) who visits her husband’s Deep South family? It’s incredibly rare to see a movie that gets its down-home southerners just right without condescension.

You’ll have your own personal money scene, of course. Unless you’re a hardier specimen than me and can sit through all three hours of Russell Crowe in “Gladiator”.

Oh, one other thing. There’s a type of really, really bad movie that is so compelling you can’t keep your eyes off the screen. Or haven’t you seen “free spirited” single mother Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton as an agonized adulterous priest and Charles Bronson (as, wait for it, a fine arts painter) in the hilariously awful “The Sandpiper” (co-scripted, wouldn’t you know it, by leftwing formerly blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson)?


(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives. Sigal and Doris Lessing lived together in London for several years.)

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