In my field, it’s that time of year when best-movie lists are announced, and while sequels like Transformers 3 and Twilight 4.1 have dominated the box office this year, they’re not showing up on critics’ lists. Instead, critics are touting little-seen movies like The Artist or Beginners (both of which happen to feature scene-stealing Jack Russell terriers, as seen in the video above). That is, there’s a vast disparity between what’s popular and what’s actually good. This will cause a lot of handwringing, as usual, at the Academy, since they would love the popular and the good to be in sync so that more people watch the Oscar show. It will also cause grumbling among contrarians who would dismiss critics as out-of-touch elitists. But the idea that the most popular movie must also be the best is nonsense. If that were true, the People’s Choice Awards would be taken more seriously than the Oscars. In fact, why have awards at all? Why not just look at the box office chart and give the best movie prize to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II?
The notion that validity should be determined simply by popularity has infected our politics as well. There was a good example of this last week in the kerfuffle over Politifact rating the Democrats’ assertion that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan would end Medicare as “the Lie of the Year.” It was a curious choice, since the finalists included other, more brazen lies, such as Sen. Jon Kyl’s assertion that abortion accounts for more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s activity, a claim Kyl’s own office said “was not intended to be a factual statement”) or presidential candidate Michele Bachmann’s evidence-free assertion that the human papillomavirus vaccine can cause mental retardation. In contrast, the Medicare line comes down to, at best, a difference of interpretation. It’s a lie only if you buy the Republican argument that changing Medicare from a single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance program for seniors and future seniors into a single-payer, guaranteed, cost-saving, government-provided health insurance voucher program for seniors and future seniors doesn’t actually end Medicare. Continue reading →
As I’ve written before, movies are not telegrams, neatly-packaged envelopes containing pithy messages. They’re more like Rorschach tests. So are the Oscars, and interpreting them as sending any kind of straightforward political message is a fool’s errand.
Los Angeles Times movie columnist Patrick Goldstein tried anyway, labeling the victory this year of The King’s Speech (pictured) over The Social Network as “the triumph of Hollywood conservative values.” He’s not the only pundit this Oscar season to suggest there’s something reactionary about the Academy’s favoritism for Tom Hooper’s comforting, traditional Anglophilic, pro-monarchist period piece over David Fincher’s prickly, timely, formally and structurally unconventional drama about the young, wired, and litigious. But Goldstein takes it a step further, using the King’s Speech sweep to assert that, while Hollywood may be full of liberals, they’re not ideological robots bent on cramming liberal propaganda into movies. Continue reading →
I wouldn’t have thought that the way to raise the Oscar broadcast’s viewership was to make it more like the Tonys (the only awards ceremony even deeper in the ratings basement), but I’d have been wrong. As with the Tonys, it turns out that you can make an entertaining and watchable awards show just by adding Hugh Jackman, a traditional tuxedo-and-walking-stick dance number, a decorated arch that makes the Kodak Theatre look more like Radio City Music Hall, plenty of awards for little-seen productions without recognizable stars (yep, even the creation of Oscar-winning Best Pictures is now being outsourced to underpaid kids in India), and a fair amount of proudly gay content.
Maybe all of red state America had already tuned out by the time, late in the broadcast, that Sean Penn gave his thanks (see video above) to “you commie, homo-lovin’ sons of guns.” I wasn’t sure if he was addressing just the assembled Academy members (many of whom were showing their support for gay marriage by wearing white knot emblems on their lapels), the Hollywood community at large (which has been active in the effort to repeal California’s Proposition 8), or America. When I first saw Milk, right around the time California voters passed Prop. 8 and banned gay marriage in their state, I was depressed at how little had changed in the 30 years since Harvey Milk won his uphill battle against another anti-gay California initiative, as depicted triumphantly in the movie. But after months of belated anti-Prop. 8 backlash, coupled with lavish (and deserved) critical praise for Milk (and Penn’s performance in particular) and a relative lack of complaint from the usual suspects about the film’s gay-rights politics, I’m thinking that maybe this really is a different America from 1978. Hell, it’s even a different America from 1996, when the openly homophobic Braveheart won Best Picture, and Academy voters still thought Tom Hanks was unimaginably brave for playing a gay man with AIDS a couple years before in Philadelphia. Back then, no one dared greenlight a mainstream Hollywood movie about Harvey Milk (though many tried to develop such a film and failed). Since then, however, Ellen DeGeneres has become a fixture in daytime TV, Will & Grace (and its syndicated reruns) became ubiquitous, and no-big-deal gay couples have popped up everywhere in both popular culture and many people’s real-life families. Continue reading →
Wanda Sykes strikes me as an inspired choice for the keynote roastmaster at this year’s White House Correspondents Association dinner. Not because it’ll be fun to see how a black lesbian ribs President Obama, but because she’s funny, full-stop. (In fact, I wish she’d get hired to host the Emmys, the Grammys, the Oscars, and every other black-tie gala that cries out for some pompousness-deflating perspective.) It helps that she’s a former DC civil servant who knows the territory. I predict she’ll also prove, as newly-minted citizen Craig Ferguson did at last year’s dinner, that it’s possible to be politically sharp and trenchant without being divisively partisan. (Not to slight Stephen Colbert’s all-time classic turn at the dais a few years back, but the dinner guests’ outrage over his satirical method kicked up a smoke screen that obscured the fact that every unflattering thing he said about both the politicians and the press was true.) Sykes speaks on May 9; set your DVRs for C-Span now. Meanwhile, here’s some Wanda wit to enjoy while you wait.
My erstwhile colleagues at Entertainment Weekly have a cover package this week on Barack Obama, who these days is the only celeb big enough to upstage the Oscar nominations (which take up the bulk of this issue’s feature well). Much marveling over what rock stars the First Couple are, at a time when celebrities-as-brands have lost much of their influence and allure (see Cruise, Tom). Of course, the flip side, unexamined here, is that stars can fall out of favor just as quickly as they rise; media outlets are just waiting behind the rodeo gate to unleash the backlash at the first sign of an Obama misstep. At that point, I imagine, EW will create a “Can this career be saved?” article, listing a media plan for the tarnished president to restore his image. (Expect them to recommend visits to Oprah, Saturday Night Live, Larry King, David Letterman, The Daily Show, and other usual stations of the cross for penitent media figures.)
There’s also a decent sidebar listing the powerful Hollywood supporters (from David Geffen to Jennifer Aniston to will.i.am) who helped Obama get elected, though it’s unclear if any of them expect or even want to have Obama’s ear now that he’s in office. Another sidebar, listing some of the president’s own pop culture faves (he likes The Godfather, Meryl Streep, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Bob Dylan, but then, who doesn’t?), which also raises the unanswered question: Just because he has good taste and is tech-savvy enough to work an iPod and a BlackBerry, does that mean good policies will follow? Anyway, check it out.
In the Academy’s eternal battle between whether to embrace commerce (and attract more viewers to the show by nominating big hit movies) or art (and maintain its somewhat compromised integrity but risk being branded as elitist and out of touch, while viewers ignore the annual telecast because they’re unfamiliar with the nominated films), the voters seem to have split the difference with this morning’s nominations. Benjamin Button is a safe, middlebrow choice, and its $100 million-plus gross means enough viewers with rooting interest in it might actually watch the awards show. Indie darlings Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Melissa Leo (Frozen River) got some much-deserved love, but not in the Best Picture categories where they might do some damage. And Dark Knight got several noms but only one (Heath Ledger’s) in a major category, which is usually how Oscar pays respect to genre movies that are enormous hits. Sorry, Chris Nolan; Ledger’s astonishing performance apparently directed itself.
My big gripe is with all the attention for The Reader. (Did Stephen Daldry steal Nolan’s director nod?) I’m mystified by all the acclaim for this movie, especially over that other, higher profile Kate Winslet movie, which was supposed to be a lock but was all but shut out. I can’t believe the Academy fell for such a piece of Holo-kitsch. I gather that the novel, which I haven’t read, is a meditation on collective guilt, and more specifically, what moral responsibility, if any, the generation of Germans who came of age after World War II bears for the previous generation’s sins of omission and commission that resulted in the Holocaust. Winslet et al may have thought they were making a movie that thoughtfully addresses that issue, but what they’ve actually made is a steamy sex pic given artificial weight and artsiness by being tied to a horrific historical event. The result trivializes the latter without really elevating the former out of the bubble bath. Continue reading →
Gary Susman is an editor, writer, reporter, and critic. He has been a journalist in print and online for more than 20 years. He blogs daily for AOL's entertainment sites, including Moviefone, TV Squad, and PopEater. His work continues to appear in Entertainment Weekly, where he spent nearly eight years as Senior Writer. Other outlets have included MSNBC, People, the Village Voice, the Guardian, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Boston Phoenix, for which he has written since 1989. More...