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The Pre-Show Game

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Dear Lynda,
Posted, Feb. 27th
As a serious critic, I’m a little ashamed to kowtow to the awards-season frenzy that, in the words of my colleague Armond White, has “destroy[ed] film culture” by perennially brushing aside challenging fare in favor of excessively promoted consensus middlebrow beanbags. And yet I hunger for the latest Oscar dish.

But maybe it’s not entirely hypocritical. We’re not pretending this is about artistic merit. We’re just political pundits discussing an election—one in which disproportionately white, affluent, politically liberal, and artistically conservative voters choose the work that they believe will most nobly represent their generally venal industry to the world.

Over the last five years at Slate.com, you and I have traded e-mails on the occasion of the Academy Awards, and I’m pleased to continue the tradition here at New York. It’s particularly fun to discuss Oscar politics with you, Lynda, because I have absolutely nothing to lose, whereas you, a studio-based producer of such films as The Fisher King, Sleepless in Seattle, Contact, The Siege, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, stand to be excommunicated by production heads and shunned by the big-deal actors you’re courting even as I write this. From your Hollywood perch you know and see far more than I do here in New York. But how much can I get you to spill?

If there is one thing we can expect from this year’s Oscars, it will be a record amount of self-congratulation for the Academy’s daring. The host, Jon Stewart, is TV’s most biting political commentator—sad but true—and the prospect of his getting in some good ones at the administration is already making me giddy! With the exception of Capote, the nominations for Best Picture (Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich) can be seen as, oooh, risky, and Capote makes the cut by being so relentlessly—and uncommercially—critical of its subject (a writer who sells his soul for a great book).

On the subject of daring: For his taut direction of the free-speech civics lesson Good Night, and Good Luck; for co-producing the semi-coherent muckraker Syriana; for giving lip to Bill O’Reilly without coming off like Alec Baldwin; and, most important, for gaining a lot of weight, George Clooney will win a Supporting Actor Oscar. As always, the physical transformation will be a factor in the acting awards. The sleek Clooney made himself look fat and disheveled in Syriana; the fat and disheveled Philip Seymour Hoffman made himself look tiny and sleek in Capote. We know that this year’s Best Actor contest comes down to two brands of homosexual: the loquacious queen versus the Marlboro Man of few words. Any other year, the avowedly hetero Aussie Heath Ledger’s poignant cowboy lockjaw while groping another fella might have been enough of a stunt to put him over. This year, bet the bathhouse on P. Seymour.

I’ve heard it said that the gap has closed between Brokeback Mountain and Crash. Please. There could be no more perfect Oscar vacuumer than Brokeback Mountain. It is a political film, but its characters have no larger political awareness and, hence, cannot get on the nerves of gay-lefty-manifesto-phobic Americans. The movie is about sex (a no-no), but it is hallowed sex— sex set against purple mountains’ majesty, with an aura of the sacred. Larry McMurtry co-wrote the screenplay, lending some classic Western bona fides. Bet the bathhouse here, too: Picture, Director, Screenplay (adapted), Cinematography, Score.

My Supporting Actress favorites, Maria Bello in A History of Violence and (especially) Robin Wright Penn in Nine Lives, were passed over. My other favorite, Amy Adams, wasn’t—but for a difficult (and brilliant) film like Junebug, this is the classic honor-just-to-be-nominated nomination. The Academy goes for political martyrs, no? And so The Constant Gardener’s lovely Rachel Weisz would seem to have an in for perishing so horribly at the behest of a multi-tentacled multinational.

The favorite in the Lead Actress category is Reese Witherspoon, so enchanting in Walk the Line. But I wonder if Felicity Huffman (until now, best known for Desperate Housewives and as the wife of William H. Macy) won’t stage a come-from-behind victory as more voters see Transamerica. It’s one of those performances Hollywood people must love, since Huffman plays a man playing a woman, thus dignifying both gays/transsexuals and actors.

How beloved is the Golden Girl Reese in Hollywood? Given the tone of the nominated films, might there be an anti-glamour backlash? A couple of weeks ago, the peerless Stephen Colbert lauded the gorgeous movie-star couples who give our lives meaning, especially those whose names could be handily combined, i.e., “Brangelina,” “Bennifer 2,” and “Filliam H. Muffman.” Perhaps, with Macy’s frequent co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman likely to pick up an Oscar, this could be a Filliam H. Muffman kind of year.
—David

Next: Lynda Obst takes issue with David's description of the Academy


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