Oscar Loves Real People (When They're Interpreted By Famous Actors)

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The king and queen at the Orange British Film Academy Awards earlier this month. Photo: Getty Images


As Oscar night approaches, New York film critic David Edelstein and Hollywood producer Lynda Obst rekindle their discussion of the race. There'll be more tomorrow and through the weekend.

From: Lynda Obst

Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2007 4:07 PM

To: David Edelstein

Subject: Overcoming Obamamania

Dear David:

It’s a cold rainy day in Tinseltown, and the first Oscar party is struggling to drown out the Obamamania buzz. Tonight, once Entertainment Weekly and Tara and Peter Guber fête Fox Searchlight’s Last King of Scotland, Little Miss Sunshine, Notes on a Scandal, and Thank You for Smoking (will we be allowed?), we’ll get back to the crucial business of debating the winners of statuettes, not primaries.

So we all know that the front-runners — the Hillary and Barack — are Forest and Helen. I love that you called them the King and Queen. I had a conversation yesterday with my pal Gail Levin, head of Paramount casting, about these “locks,” as you called them. We talked about the phenomenon of actors who play real people consistently beating out other great performers. How much do these roles rely on physical resemblances? When are they the embodiment of the person, and when are they mimicry? When are they impersonation, and when are they living, breathing performances? As for this year’s King and Queen, which is which? And why, for that matter, did Reese win and not Joaquin?


Look at the frequency of these types of nominations over the last 25 years or so: Gandhi (Ben Kinsgsley, ’82) and Capote (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, ’06) on the men’s side, Coal Miner’s Daughter (Sissy Spacek, ’80) and Walk the Line (Reese Witherspoon, ’05) on the women’s. Almost a third were won by actors playing real people. Is it easier? Harder? Why do we eat it up?

I think it has to do with the fact that the lives being played have so much magnitude before the actors step in. The roles have scale that ordinary lives (the wife in Little Children, the maid in Babel) never could. They teach us something. Then there are those parts — Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, Geoffrey Rush in Shine — where we discover the extraordinary lives of real people who aren’t famous. We are moved by the power of that unearthed life. Adrien Brody’s beautiful turn in The Pianist, Hilary Swank’s pained courage as Brandon Tina, Julia Roberts as the crusading everywoman in Erin Brockovich, Charlize Theron bringing humanity to a murderer. The fact that these characters were real made all the difference. Agents and managers: On your mark, get set, go. Dreams of My Father has not yet been optioned.

On another note, David, after some diligent reporting, I have an answer to your question about whether — with Blood Diamond, the Geffen party, and the general political atmosphere — there’s now an increased sensitivity to the wearing of diamonds. The answer is no. I have never seen more diamond suites advertised in my life. At the Diamond Information Center, you can indulge in an African-inspired retreat featuring a traditional African healer and mineral massages; diamonds take the place of the usual hot stones and Dead Sea salts. Swiss jeweler de Grisogono, meanwhile, is flying in its “boisterous” cocktail rings and drop earrings dripping in diamonds. But all is not lost: At Melanie Segal’s Platinum Luxury Suite, a security detail will usher in a million-dollar, stone-encrusted Chi flatiron (what this is, we don’t know) and auction it off to benefit victims of blood diamonds. The industry has a conscience; you just have to search for it.

But all of this is only to gaze at. The coveted Oscar goody bag full of wildly expensive swag has been banned by the Academy. So has heavy campaigning — excluding ads in papers, since the publishers would throw a fit, and then promptly go out of business. Apart from discreet, small luncheons, there’s no more elaborate pre-voting parties at the motion-picture old-age home. (However, New York, far from the scolding eyes in L.A., is chockablock with bashes.) The glory days of Weinstein-inspired, over-the-top competitive indulgence are gone. I, for one, bemoan the loss of the madness, both on behalf of the first-time nominees and the Academy members who always reacted against the pressure but loved the attention nonetheless.

So I turn it over to you, David, and tomorrow morning’s post. How do you account for our attraction to actors playing real people? Is this an Academy thing or an American thing? And, please, why Reese and not Joaquin?

Love and diamonds,
Lynda