I always feel depressed after watching the Oscars. Why is that? They made a big deal last night that the Oscars went “green” this year and if I’m really honest I’d have to admit that whenever I watch the show, I go green too—with envy. Not envy for an Oscar exactly (although whenever I’ve had the opportunity to hold one of those statues, it practically had to be pried out of my cold, dead hands), but more an envy for the creative, collaborative process. I watch all those people dressed up in their Armani and Vera Wang and I think about how they are all working together to create art that enriches the soul and will live on long after they are gone. Of course, in many cases this is pure fantasy on my part, but watching these folks congratulate themselves always makes me speculate about how I can find more of that kind of passion in my own life and career. It’s not that I have a desire to work in the motion picture industry, I really don’t (with the possible exception of the folks who make those fantastic Oscar-nominated documentaries). But even if I had the dream and the talent, I’m sure I’d crack during my first meeting with a studio executive. “Danny, we love your screenplay about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the studio feels that it’s too Jewish. We’d like you to de-emphasize the Jewish angle so that we can appeal to a broader demographic.” Ah, the dichotomy of my life—I long for artistic collaboration and a feeling that I am part of a creative community and at the same time I JUST WANT TO BE LEFT ALONE.
I also hate what the Oscars turn me into. I spend a lot of time railing against the very concept of award shows and I avoid them like the plague, but come the Oscars and I am glued to the screen. But I don't have the temperament for it. Last year, before the Oscars, I went on and on about how great I thought Reese Witherspoon was in “Walk the Line” and how much she deserved the award even though I was convinced Felicity Huffman was going to get it for her performance in “Transamerica.” Then Witherspoon wins and I immediately turn on her, accusing her of “stealing” the award from the more deserving Huffman. The same thing happened this year. I commented how great I thought Alan Arkin was in “Little Miss Sunshine” but was sure that Eddie Murphy would win for his work in “Dreamgirls.” Arkin pulls off a surprise win, and I can’t enjoy it because I’m screaming for Eddie Murphy and feeling like some horrible injustice has occurred. Sigh. After Eddie Murphy lost, I become terrified that shoo-in Helen Mirren might not win and it was only after they called her name that I realized I’d been holding my breath in fear. At least Martin Scorsese finally won the damn thing, even though most people think it was more of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Let’s face it, he should have had about five or six of those babies by now. And how great that this year he got it right from the hands of his colleagues Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola.
Then there are the obnoxious comments that come sailing out of my mouth throughout the show despite my abhorrence of such attitudes in “real life.” I despise Hollywood’s obsession with age and I frequently condemn its superficial view of beauty and sexuality, and yet there I am offering a running commentary that makes me sound like a cross between Howard Stern and Joan Rivers. I hear my constant babble about which presenters are knock-outs as well as my barbs about how some have let themselves go. Worse, I find myself fixated on the female presenters’ breasts, unable to restrain my opinions about whether they are too big, too small, or just right; pushed up too much, not pushed up enough, or tragically hidden. (“Come on, Penelope Cruz, what’s with the high-necked dress?” I say, despite my bitter condemnation of Chris Rock two years ago for his comments about the star’s physical attributes. Then I see a photo of Cruz today and realize her dress wasn't high-necked at all. Oy, I'm worse than I thought.) I make hideous comments about people’s ages (“How did James Taylor get that old?” “Whoa, what’s going on with Peter O’Toole’s teeth?”), their plastic surgery (“Nicole Kidman, what have you done to your face, girl, you’re only 40!”), or their talent (“Celine Dion, you clearly have an amazing voice—so how come I’d rather fight with the Japanese forces at Iwo Jima than listen to you sing?”). By the end of the broadcast, I want to commit myself to a residential facility for sensitivity training.
Despite my own Oscar-induced breakdown, I’d say it was an enjoyable but somewhat lackluster show. I’ve come to the conclusion that by their very nature, acceptance speeches are a bore, so let’s stop pretending otherwise, shall we? That’s why any actual emotion that leaks out is so thrilling, as well as the rare cases of witty lines perfectly delivered such as Maureen Stapleton’s “I want to thank everyone I’ve ever met in my life” or Dustin Hoffman thanking his parents for not practicing birth control. Actors are typically better at this than other winners, but before I propose legislation that outlaws acceptance speeches by anyone other than performers, I have to remember Holocaust survivor Gerda Weismann Klein who made everyone cry at the 1996 Oscars with her beautiful speech about valuing the everyday moments of life and the gifts of a “boring evening at home.”
Since I’m always so down on these awards shows, I’ll restrict my comments to the ten best things about last night’s telecast.
1. Ellen DeGeneres is real people.
I thought Ellen did a great job as host. Her gift for appearing comfortable and relaxed worked wonders on the nominees, the crowd, and the audience at home. True, sometimes her folksy approach made it seem like we were sitting around in her living room, not participating in a Big Hollywood Event, but I found that refreshing—there was still plenty of self-aggrandizing to go around. Ellen has that rare quality of being eminently likable without appearing desperate for our affections. We can all imagine her as our best friend and it seemed just as natural to see her chatting with a stagehand during her very funny Judi Dench bit (“she’s having ‘knee surgery’.…on her eyes!”) as it was watching her pass a script to Martin Scorsese or asking Steven Spielberg to take a picture of her with Clint Eastwood. The vacuuming bit was funny, but I wish they’d given her more to do during that last third of the show. It’s hard, I know, at that point you just want to get the damn show over with. I give Ellen top honors for her performance but I’m not sure she’ll be asked back. They might want someone with more of an “edge.”
2. Helen Mirren is a Queen, Meryl Streep a God.
Who is classier than Helen Mirren? She’s one of those people (like Judi Dench) who shines in every role she takes on, even when she’s appearing in total crap like the horrific “Caligula.” How great was it to see her finally get the accolades she deserves for her amazing performance in “The Queen?” Perfect, classy acceptance speech—just the right amount of humility. We get that she knows how talented she is, but she’s grateful for it, she doesn’t take it for granted. Mirren won me over even more during last night’s treacly Barbara Walters Special. Babs was asking one dumb question after another, but Mirren’s honesty and self-awareness was the perfect antidote. “Do you think the best is yet ahead, Helen?” Walters asked, a grave urgency to her voice. “No,” Mirren replied calmly, “I think this is it,” and then explained how she’s fine with that and looks forward to the next phases in her life, when she’s not receiving so much attention or praise. What is it with the American obsession of always having to one-up ourselves? We have to be better next time, get MORE fame, success, money, etc. How refreshing to hear someone acknowledge and accept the ebbs and flows of life and career with such dignity and grace.
Meryl Streep is our home-grown version of this. Streep must be well aware that she’s one of this country’s most gifted actresses but she has never lost her own humility or appreciation for others in her craft. I loved seeing her sitting in the audience gazing with unbridled affection at many of her colleagues. When Streep’s co-stars from “The Devil Wears Prada,” Anne Hathaway and Emily Blunt, went up to present an award, you could see Meryl mouthing how gorgeous she thought both of them looked, as if she were their proud, excited mama. She then made their Prada-related comedy bit work beautifully with her icy reaction to the women forgetting to get her a cappuccino. Pardon my fawning, but Streep can do no wrong in my book. I hope she continues making movies well into her 90s and wins a shelf of Academy Awards to add to her collection. Was there ever a more deserving win than her Oscar for “Sophie’s Choice?”
3. They’re here, they’re queer, we got over it.
Remember in the late 1980s when the red-ribboned crowd at the Oscars first started acknowledging that same-sex couples exist in the entertainment community? Remember the shock the first time a winner thanked his “partner?” You could hear the gasps, even among the ultra-liberal Hollywood crowd. How refreshing is it that in 2007 it barely registers when winner Melissa Etheridge thanks her wife or that the sexual orientation of the host does not warrant a news story? I’m not saying there weren’t gay-hating viewers somewhere in America doing spit takes when Etheridge planted one on her gal pal's lips or when Ellen came out in her Willy Wonka velvet pantsuit, but as a society we’ve really come a long way, baby.
4. Halle Berry was right—who knew?
In a similar vein, as I said when I offered my Oscar predictions, while I was one of the judgmental viewers who criticized the self-important ravings of Halle Berry in her 2002 acceptance speech, it turned out she was right. I now believe her win did open the door for other actors to win the big awards without such a Big Hoopla made over their color. Not that such things should be ignored in the guise of some notion that “we are all the same,” because we’re NOT, we each bring our own experience and background to the table, but it was great to see so many of the awards go to people of color without the need for all the yammering about ground-breaking history being made. Have we finally reached the point where it’s about the work? Thank God! Or should I say ¡Gracias a Dios! The many wins by Latinos may signal a welcomed new appreciation for the films and filmmakers of the Spanish-speaking world.
5. The funny guys can sing!
The number about well known comedians not getting Oscar recognition was funny and perfectly executed by Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and John C. Reilly. Who knew those guys could sing so well? The only problem with their thesis is that this group is so gifted that I won’t be in the least bit surprised if all of them eventually do cross over to Oscar territory and start picking up awards. Eddie Murphy did it (almost) and crazy man Bill Murray is now taken quite seriously as an actor.
6. The Academy orchestra develops a heart.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. My prayers were finally answered regarding the inhuman practice of blasting winners off the stage the minute they start their speeches for fear that they’ll run on too long. Oh, they still got a musical cue that told them in no uncertain terms to wrap it up, but it was a gentle piano tinkling rather than last year’s brass band cacophony that cut everyone off in mid-sentence. There were still some icky moments when someone in a multiple win went for the microphone only to find the previous speaker had used up all the time, but this was the first Oscar broadcast in recent memory that treated the winners with a modicum of respect.
7. Ennio Morricone is alive and well.
Watching the scary expression on Ennio Morricone’s face during his tribute, I first worried that the brilliant composer was having a stroke in his box, possibly caused by the pattern in the smoking jacket Quincy Jones was wearing. But Morricone’s stony expression softened when he came down to the stage and offered his heartfelt thanks in his native Italian. His music truly changed the movies and the award was well deserved. But are we to believe that Clint Eastwood speaks fluent Italian and was translating Morricone’s comments off the top of his head? Was he being fed the English lines through an earpiece? Either way, the speech brought home the point that it’s never about the words so much as the emotion behind them—I was crying listening to Morricone’s speech even before I knew what he was saying. I was less impressed listening to Sherry Lansing but I guess she can’t help it that she’s a lousy public speaker. I’m sure the work she’s doing is incredibly helpful to the world and I should be shot for saying this, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the award was being given a bit too soon in her life (even she implied as much) and that it was partly an attempt by some of the sycophantic Academy members to kiss her powerful ass.
8. “We’re your Dreamgirls, boys, we’ll make you happy.”
I still feel “Dreamgirls” was gypped out of Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director by the humorless Academy voters, but this number by Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, and Anika Noni Rose was hot, hot, hot. I still can’t believe Beyoncé’s killer rendition of “Listen” didn’t get the Oscar but I did think Melissa Etheridge’s song was quite good (unlike the painfully boring “Cars” tune written by Randy Newman and sung by James Taylor). I can’t imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to perform live in front of a billion people but the Dreamgirls team blew the roof off the place even though I resented that they had to turn their three song nominees into a medley rather than sing the full versions. I apologize again for every snide remark I made about Beyoncé following the 2005 Academy Awards and I remain in awe of Jennifer Hudson’s exquisite pipes. I’d rather hear Hudson sing a funeral dirge at my own execution than hear Celine Dion celebrate me in song at my coronation as King of the World. And I hope Beyoncé gets to sink her teeth into a meaty role that will land her on the stage of the Kodak to collect her own award some day. I’m sorry that Eddie Murphy didn’t join the women on stage, it would have been a great opportunity to show people how great he was in that role.
9. Debbie Allen is a no-show.
I’m sure Debbie Allen is an extremely talented choreographer and performer but one of the best decisions the Motion Picture Academy made in the new millennium was to toss out those ghastly Oscar production numbers of yore. Kudos to the folks who put together this year’s understated presentations. The montages of movie clips were excellent, the sound effects choir was fascinating, and the weird Pilobolus body formations were awe-inspiring, even though it took me until the show was half over to get that they were performing body sculptures representing each of the Best Picture nominees (I’m a little slow). The nominated songs were also staged in a delightfully simple way, with none of the crazy set pieces from last year such as the infamous burning car.
10. George W. Bush did not win an Oscar.
It’s almost too painful to see Al Gore on stage and speculate about what our world would be like had he been allowed to assume the Presidency that was rightfully his. Ironic that someone who was constantly criticized for being too “wooden” during the 2000 race has become so skilled and at-ease in public that he seemed far more comfortable than Leo DiCaprio during their bit. Gore’s message is a critically important one, of course, and he deserved the accolades he received last night every bit as much as he deserved the key to the front door of the White House. But maybe it’s all part of some Divine Plan and he’ll take up the mantle of the would-be President who has the most important and wide-reaching post-political impact (especially now that so many people have turned on Jimmy Carter). It’s easy to make fun of the so-called Hollywood green crowd, especially those that then pull their gas-guzzling Hummers out of the Hollywood & Highland parking lot, but the awareness that Al Gore has brought to environmental issues can’t be underestimated even if watching “An Inconvenient Truth” did make me want to hurl myself into an active volcano.
And so ends my 2007 Oscar recap. Still reading? Then can I say how great I think Diane Keaton is (as great as her pal Jack Nicholson is weird) and how much she deserves way better roles than the awful ones she’s been getting now that she’s reached an age Hollywood considers about one decade past death? Actually, Diane Keaton and Helen Mirren are exactly the same age so I have renewed hopes for Keaton’s job prospects. I also want to give kudos to Jodie Foster for the best intro to the ever-popular “who died this year” sequence even though Kendall and I can never get through that montage without thinking about the unforgivable omission of Dorothy McGuire from the 2002 list. Loved the pairing of young Abigail Breslin with Jaden Smith (especially when we got to see the beaming faces of his parents Will and Jada). Okay, STOP, the 24-hour window of being allowed to talk about the Oscars is quickly closing. But wait—I didn’t comment yet on the shock of “The Departed” winning Best Picture or the cool presentation of the costume nominees (even though seeing four Queen Elizabeths was a little scary) or Forest Whitaker’s moving speech or the ugly set that looked like a high school basketball court or how happy I was that the German movie I recently raved about won or…OK, OK, I’ll stop! Can someone please hire Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker to edit my unwieldy blog posts?