Films

Oscar's Beauty and banality

This year, while the best-picture race offers no contest, the real excitement lies in the competition for the acting prizes

Brian D. Johnson March 27 2000
Films

Oscar's Beauty and banality

This year, while the best-picture race offers no contest, the real excitement lies in the competition for the acting prizes

Brian D. Johnson March 27 2000

Oscar's Beauty and banality

Films

This year, while the best-picture race offers no contest, the real excitement lies in the competition for the acting prizes

Brian D. Johnson

Every year he appears naked and buff, setting the gold standard in fashion, while the women dress up in his honour. What would Oscar like this year? Should the gown be halffull or half-empty? Sexy or demure? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to go bare in some sling worth an outrageous fortune or to bear Armani against a sea of cleavage. Lets face it. At the 72nd Academy Awards on March 26, that’s what we’ll be looking for: to see how much of a spectacle the stars can make of themselves just by getting dressed. And in this jinxed year of lost ballots and stolen statuettes—a goldmine of material for Billy Crystal—hopefully we’ll see at least one wildly embarrassing fashion mistake. Then there are the movies. The Oscar race is supposed to be terribly dignified and momentous. But it, too, has become a fashion show, one in which justice is rarely in vogue. Although the past year has been the richest year for movies in ages, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the best picture nominees.

Only two of them are Oscar-calibre films—American Beauty and The Insider—and either would be a worthy winner. The Cider House Rules looks the part. It’s a sweet, stately

saga of orphans and abortion. But something about it seems stillborn—you can almost see the forceps marks of John Irving’s marathon labour to deliver his novel to the screen with four successive directors. That leaves The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense, two cheesy supernatural thrillers that did good business but have no business being nominated.

A number of the movies honoured in the acting categories suggest more worthy candidates for best picture—Being John Malkovich, Boys Don’t Cry, Magnolia, End oftheAJfair, The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Hurricane. In fact, there’s a striking discrepancy among this year’s Oscar nominations. Of the five contenders for best actor—Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Richard Farnsworth, Sean Penn and Denzel Washington—only two, Spacey and Crowe, are in films that are up for best picture. Among the best actress nominees—Annette Bening, Janet McTeer, Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank—only one, Beauty’s Bening, is from a nominated film.

If nothing else, the Oscars offer a radar picture of the Zeitgeist. Just look at the protagonists in the movies Hollywood has deemed the year’s five best. They are all male, they are all haunted and their stories all involve pathology and healing. Narrating from the grave in American Beauty, Spacey’s character looks back on a mid-life crisis in which he ridicules his wife, hits on his daughter’s teenage girlfriend and gets stoned with the boy next door. In The Insider, a paranoid scientist with a failing marriage exposes tobacco companies as drug dealers. In The Cider House Rules, an ingenuous orphan improvises an abortion to save a black farm labourer who has been impregnated by her father. In The Green Mile, a black inmate has magical healing powers that make bugs fly out of his mouth. And in The Sixth Sense, a small boy communes with ghosts.

The overwhelming favourite for best picture is American Beauty, which tops the list with eight nominations. It has dominated the pre-Oscar contests, including the Golden Globes and the various awards given out by the Hollywood unions representing directors, actors, producers and writers. Though produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks studio, American Beauty marks a coming-of-age for independent film. It was made by a first-time director, Britain’s Sam Mendes, on a relatively modest budget of $22 million. And it ushers dark, edgy themes into the mainstream. Like an inversion of The Graduate three decades down the road, American Beauty speaks to two generations at once—to parents who don’t want to act their age and to children mature beyond their years. It’s a movie about growing up that seems to grow up as we watch it, morphing from suburban satire to Zen drama.

Spacey leads the race for best actor, and he gives a win-

ning performance. But Washington’s portrayal of boxer Rubin Carter in The Hurricane cuts deeper. And Penn shows more virtuosity as a low-life jazz guitarist in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown. Even the dark horse contenders are strong. Playing straight man to Al Pacino’s flamboyant TV journalist, The Insiders Crowe is a marvel of controlled intensity. And former stuntman Richard Farnsworth, driving a lawn mower down the highway in The Straight Story, rekindles the true-grit charm he first showed in Canada’s The Grey Fox (1982).

But if there is any justice, Washington should win for best actor. He deserved to win for Malcolm X in 1992—when Pacino prevailed with Scent of a Woman—and he deserves to win for The Hurricane. That, however, seems more and more unlikely. Although Norman Jewison’s movie has fared well at the box office, grossing more than $70 million, it has been damaged by controversy. (Last December, Macleans published the first major story to expose the bitter rift between Carter and the commune of Canadians who had helped free him after he’d served 19 years in prison, falsely convicted of a triple murder. Since then, various sources, including Carter’s authorized biography, have contradicted the film’s sunny view of the Canadians who came to his rescue.)

Among the best actress nominees, meanwhile, Bening is favoured for her role as Spacey’s comic foil. But again, if there is any justice, the award should go to Swank, who delivers the year’s most heartbreaking performance—male or female—in Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of transgendered martyr Teena Brandon. In the supporting categories, because Oscar loves a bit of flash, expect Tom Cruise to win for Magnolia and Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted.

Canadians can root for The Red Violins sound track and the NFB animated short When the Day Breaks. But the virtual shutout of Jewisons film—not to mention the snubbing of actor Jim Carrey (Man in the Moorî) and director Patricia Rozema (Mansfield Park)— have prompted suspicions of an antiCanadian conspiracy. To be fair,

www. macleans. ca for reviews of the nominated films-and ones that should have been

Americans do not think of Carrey as a Canadian. And although he is an incandescent performer, he has yet to show much depth as an actor. As for Rozema, she is being punished for violating a hallowed genre with her cheeky modernizing of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park.

Yet it’s conceivable that The Hurricane was felled by an anti-Canadian backlash. In Hollywood, where the unions have been stung by the migration of jobs north, the movie’s Canadian content—from the Toronto setting to the whole idea of Canucks correcting American injustice—must be galling. But Canadians shouldn’t take offence at Blame Canada, the nominated song from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. The real target of South Park’s ingenious satire is the philistinism of Middle America. And if you want to blame anyone for the triumph of mediocrity over talent, blame Oscar.