Oscar Soapbox

Would it be considered a lost cause to complain about the mixing of politics and the Oscars?  Is it just too late in the game for us to do anything about it?

Probably.  But every losing issue needs somebody to argue it for the last time, and on this occasion, that person might as well be me.

From this year’s Academy Awards, broadcast a week ago Sunday, arguably the most admired moment came from Patricia Arquette, the winner of Best Supporting Actress, who devoted the final chunk of her acceptance speech to call for equal pay for women.  “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” said Arquette.  “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.”  The remarks yielded howls of approval inside the Dolby Theatre and wide support on the interwebs in the hours and days thereafter.

Indeed, I can’t say I have any quarrel with the substance of Arquette’s remarks.  While I think the specific issue of wage equity is slightly more complicated than it appears—not every case is a matter of out-and-out discrimination by an employer—it’s just about impossible to dispute the principle of equal pay for equal work.

Here’s my question:  What does this have anything to do with the Oscars?

In theory, the Academy Awards are nothing more than the recognition of the film industry’s best work in a given year, as determined by members of the industry itself.  Acceptance speeches by the winners are meant to be exactly that:  A show of gratitude for having been singled out by one’s peers.  And—as has become the practice—an opportunity to thank everyone who helped get them there in the first place (which, as we know, tends to be everyone the honoree has ever met).

As such, Oscar speeches, at their best, are exercises in humility—ironic as that sounds, considering that the speakers are effectively being crowned kings and queens of the universe, or at least of the American culture.

To that end, my own favorite moment from last Sunday was Eddie Redmayne winning Best Actor for his performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.  Although I thought Michael Keaton slightly more deserving of the honor for his work in Birdman, I sort of hoped Redmayne would win, anyway, because I figured (from his previous wins this year) that he would react exactly as he did:  By jumping up and down like a giddy schoolgirl, completely overwhelmed.

There’s a certain feigned modesty that many British actors have turned into a shtick, but with Redmayne—33 years old, with no major starring roles until now—you sense that the gratitude is real.  That he works hard and takes his job seriously, but never in a billion years expected to wind up on the Oscar stage, and knows precisely how lucky he is.  That in a Hollywood overstuffed with jerks and prima donnas, Redmayne is one of the good ones.

That’s what the Oscars are all about:  Giving a moment in the spotlight to stars whose very existence elevates show business to something pure, noble and joyous.

And joy, it must be said, was oddly hard to come by during the balance of the Oscar telecast.  We had Best Song winners Common and John Legend lamenting the continuing racial injustices in the American legal system (and elsewhere).  We had Dana Perry, producer of the documentary short Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, invoking her son’s suicide in a plea for more public discussion of the subject.  We had Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore citing his own brush with suicide and begging today’s tortured young people not to give up hope.

Sheesh, what an unholy string of letdowns.

Surely, these are all deathly important issues that deserve a thorough public airing, as they all surely have in recent times—albeit some more visibly than others.

But is the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night really the proper setting for them?

Can’t the Oscars just be the whimsical, frivolous, bloated Hollywood orgy we all think we’re tuning in to on the last Sunday of every February—curled up, as we are, on the couch with a tub of microwave popcorn and a cosmo?

We deal with the discomforting horrors of real life at all other moments of the year.  Why can’t the Oscars, of all things, be a temporary respite?  Arguably the single central function of movies, after all, is escapism.  Shouldn’t the event that celebrates movies follow suit?

Movie stars can, and do, stake out public opinions on any issue that interests them.  But must they do so at the very moment when most of us would just as well not be reminded of the fraught and complicated real world to which we must return in the morning?

I know this is a line of reasoning with holes large enough to drive a tank through.  I know movies are not only about escape.  I know the Oscars represent the largest audience that any artist will ever have.  I know that the Academy is, itself, a highly political organization and that Oscar voting is subject to the same cynical political maneuvering as any presidential election.  I know that the gripes about sexism and racism are as germane to the film industry as to any other.

And I know that, barring a totalitarian freak-out by future Oscar producers, winners are going to continue to say whatever the hell they want when they get up on that stage, even if it means talking over that infernal orchestra and harshing the buzz of everyone at home.

There is no escape from facing the hard facts of life—not even at silly award shows, which you’d think would be immune to them.  Apparently they’re not.

So instead, we are left with the second-best option:  Awarding trophies only to artists intelligent enough to climb on their political soapboxes in an articulate and entertaining fashion, as (it must be said) nearly all of them did last week.

Or we could just give everything to Eddie Redmayne.

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Act Naturally

What’s the sign of truly great acting?  It’s when you don’t realize it’s acting.

“The very best actors,” Roger Ebert once said, “are the ones who do the least.”  Given a decent script and adequate preparation, he explained, a player in a film need only perform the physical actions required of his or her character, and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Watching Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most peculiar new movie, I spent a great deal of time regarding its protagonist, Mason, as a largely passive character.  In scene after scene, everybody else is talking and carrying on and being dramatic, and Mason just sits quietly—serenely, even—offering little more than a raised eyebrow or a subtle grin.  Things happen around and to him—indeed, other people seem all-too-eager to tell him how to live his life—and he just runs with it, content not to generate any sort of drama himself.

Most movies don’t allow themselves a passive hero, perhaps from fear of boring their audience.  Screenwriting professors forever caution against it, and Kurt Vonnegut neatly instructed budding writers that a character in a story “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

As Boyhood progressed, and the full measure of Mason’s personality gradually took shape, I realized I was mistaken.  Those early moments of introversion and pensiveness were not signs of a dull or lazily-written character.  Rather, they were the opening stages of an ongoing process that we might hazard to call a life.

Ten-year-old Mason’s silent wince when his dad talks to him about birth control is explained not by a timid screenplay.  It is explained by Mason being a prepubescent kid being cornered into an awkward sex chat with his father.  (Did I mention it occurs in a bowling alley and that Mason’s sister is there, too?)  His reaction is exactly what you would expect of anyone his age, albeit rarely in a movie character of any age.

A few years later, when he joins a group of shady schoolmates on a camping trip, quietly sipping cheap beer and allowing the others to dominate the conversation, it’s not that he has no personality.  Rather, it’s that he is a naturally reserved and easygoing person, and is perfectly fine not being the center of attention.

In high school, where he shows every sign of becoming a highly gifted photographer, a teacher gives him a tongue-lashing for spending too much time in the darkroom when he could be out there doing something lucrative and practical.  His response—shrugging the teacher off and sheepishly defending his work ethic against a charge of lackadaisicalness—might be dismissed by many script coaches as insufficiently confrontational.  In fact, what the scene underlines is Mason’s continued and determined effort to avoid confrontations.  It’s just who he is.

The cumulative effect of all these vignettes—the payoff, as it were—is a character not quite like any other in mainstream movies.  As Mason, Ellar Coltrane’s is an exemplary performance, because it never for a moment seems like a performance.  From the opening frame onward, Mason is simply a person we have the unusual opportunity of seeing evolve and grow.  (The movie was shot, little by little, over the course of 12 years.)  Yes, he is a fictional character, and yes, his lines were written down on a piece of paper.  But by the end of the story, we feel like we know him as intimately as many people in our own lives.  He has, through the magic of cinema, been transformed from a puppet into a real boy.

In the film vernacular, the word for this is “naturalism.”  There were points during Boyhood when I felt like I could go on watching it forever—not because its characters are exceptional (they’re not), but because they don’t feel like characters.  As with director Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight (and its prequels, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), the movie plays like a real-time documentary, but with all the exciting drama and wit that actual documentaries rarely contain.

I don’t have children of my own, but Boyhood instilled in me the sense of paternalism that comes naturally to the job of parenthood.  Like his mom, played by Patricia Arquette, I became protective of Mason—anxious when he went off on his own; horrified when his drunk, abusive stepfather took him and his stepsiblings hostage; proud when he placed second in a high school photography competition.  I felt those things as I rarely do for a fictional person, but in this case they were earned because the person in question was made to seem real and worth rooting for.

As it turns out, the secret to garnering affection in the movies is the same as in real life:  Don’t put on an act.  Just be yourself.