Monday, March 8, 2010
Oscars, you remind me of my own death
The older I get, the longer it takes me to come down from Oscar weekend. This day was spent lounging and napping and lounging and napping, till I fear that my always-spotty sleep cycle might be irrevocably wrecked. I usually attribute that to a day spent feasting, imbibing, and sharing pithy insights on film with old friends, but this year, something's different. This year I felt like I watched a three and a half hour telecast that was not designed for cinema lovers, but for...well, I'm not quite sure who it was for, but it was for someone younger than I am. For the first time in four decades of watching the ceremony, Oscar made me feel old.
And my thoughts keep coming back to Lauren Bacall; Hollywood legend, woman of grace and insight, and a helluva dame. Granted her Lifetime Achievement Award in November, she was made to sit in the audience last night and watch a handful of film clips from that earlier ceremony, treated as though too infirm to take the stage at the Kodak Theater. She was made to watch Kristen Stewart, moments away from coughing up a ball of phlegm on live television, and making little or no effort to conceal it. Bacall, who at Stewart's age had made To Have and Have Not with Humphrey Bogart and Walter Brennan. Bacall, who thirteen years ago endured one of the most hurtful Oscar shuns when she was bested for a Supporting Actress trophy by Juliette Binoche. Bacall, who had earned the right to walk up those stairs and look upon the ovation she received.
Not at these Oscars. Oh no. No time for you, Betty. No time for Roger Corman or Gordon Willis - who, if the IMDB is to be believed, belatedly received their awards as part of last year's Oscars. Those honors now exist somewhere in the twilight zone between this year and last, and, besides, they're just so yesterday...like Bacall, Corman and Willis are yesterday...like movies made before 1970 are just so yesterday.
And there was the Horror montage, which we bloggers were awaiting with -- let's call it dubious excitement. Bypassing the obvious slap at being introduced by the Twilight stars (whose creator has referred to contemporary Horror films as "icky" - you have such a command of the language, Stephanie Meyer), it included only the most feinting of tributes to any film before 1968 - and a lightning-fast speed-through of the great Universal Horrors. No Price or Cushing or Lee - hell, no Hammer at all. No giant creatures. Precious little Stephen King. (Three Tim Burton films, only one of which was Horror, but he had a movie opening this weekend, you know.) And knives. Lots and lots of knives. And the Blob, to remind us that, you know, that old stuff was just so cheesy. In short, what teens think of when they think of Horror. Not movie fans, and certainly not true fans of the genre. But I give them credit for trying. I wish they had asked, say, Quentin Tarantino to introduce it. Not only would he have brought genuine enthusiasm to the subject, he would also have never allowed the factual error - Oscar's last Horror nods going to The Exorcist - remain in the script (instantly revealed as a falsehood when a clip from the Oscar-winning Jaws led the montage).
Or consider Steve Martin, whose first stint at hosting nearly a decade ago was marked with his trademark dry sensibility and nonchalant delivery (this post's title is a lift of one of his best lines from that telecast). Ten years later and he's sharing the stage with Alec Baldwin, another master of understatement, but peeling off unconnected one-liners as though double-parked, and introducing the nominees in attendance with asides of "Wow!" -- delivered without irony. I can just hear the direction: "OK, Steve, keep it up, keep it lively, none of this literary New Yorker crap." This was an Oscar telecast for people who moved, right down to Tom Hanks bounding out onstage and announcing Best Picture as if they were getting complaints from the affiliates. Maybe the absence of Barbara Walters next year will mean they can start the telecast a half-hour earlier and just let the thing run four hours. But I doubt it.
Today there is much back-slapping that the Academy honored a woman director for the first time - finally - and that the film she helmed was the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in modern history. After all, how admirable it was that the voters weren't wooed by the box office of films like Avatar and The Blind Side when they made their choices. But there's a flipside to consider. What does it say about the filmgoing public that the Best Picture of 2009 was seen by so few during its theatrical release? It was seen by the folks who were perceptive enough to know about The Hurt Locker when it was in theaters, who read the reviews and paid attention to the advertising, and who are insistent that quality filmmaking should be celebrated, not via pay per view or Netflix, but on the big screen. (And may I add this old fogey aside - The Hurt Locker managed to make us feel a part of the tension, even taste the sand and grit in the air, without 3-D.) Those were the people who decided those awards last night, be they Academy members or not. The telecast, as always, is supposed to appeal to everyone else. The chasm between the two never felt as wide to me as it did this year. This year, that chasm spanned decades, and I was looking across it from the wrong side.