THE REAL AMERICAN IDOL

January 29 2007

THE REAL AMERICAN IDOL

January 29 2007

THE REAL AMERICAN IDOL

'Tis the awards season, when stars adopt humble poses and claim that only the Work matters. But we know better. BRIAN D. JOHNSON calls the winners and losers.

• It’s dawn morning Hollywood’s ritual. Next in Los Angeles, annual Tuesday bedpreside alarms will go off at just before 5:30 a.m., nervous fingers will fumble for the remote, and the movie industry will tune in to the Oscar nominations. Awards season was officially launched earlier this week at the Golden Globes, which have become a kind of pre-Oscar primary. Chosen by the Hollywood Foreign Association—a small club of buffet-grazing junketeers who are easily lobbied—the Globes are a lavish fraud. But Hollywood loves Lithem. The ceremony is more fun than the Oscars, with less at stake. Norn inees can drink their way through the evening with their pals. And everyone’s there: the TV commoners are thrilled to mingle with Hollywood royalty.

But no one is under any delusions. The Globes are an Oscar warm-up party and a publicity mill aglitter with fool’s gold. In accepting the Globe for best movie musical or comedy, Dreamgirls producer Laurence Mark spelled it out with unsentimental candour: “We appreciate this honour and I’m sure we’ll be advertising it in about 10 seconds.” Later, when Babel’s Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu accepted the best movie drama award from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—after a jibe saying “I swear I have my papers in order!”—he unleashed a virtual Oscar campaign speech, praising the 1,200 people who worked on Babel in five languages Abigail Breslin: and four countries. 10-year-old

10-year-old ray of ‘Sunshine’

and four countries.

The Golden Globes, and the slew of prizes dished out by associations of actors, producers, directors, screenwriters and critics, are all a dress rehearsal for the only award that really counts: the naked guy with the sword between his legs. He’s the little god who has the stars wrestling with the toughest acting challenge of their careers: promoting themselves while affecting a humble pose and claiming that nothing matters but the Work. To be fair, many actors actually believe this. Especially when they lose. And this past year, the Work has in fact been unusually good. For once, there’s a real race, with more films worth nominating than there’s room for. And although awards won’t be handed out until Feb. 25, never too early for predictions.

Dreamgirls is the clear front-runner for Best Picture. Helen Mirren, who won Golden Globes for playing both Elizabeth I on TV and Elizabeth II on the big screen, is on course to win Best Actress for portraying Britain’s current monarch in The Queen. As a living incarnation of the American dream, Jennifer Hudson seems guaranteed to repeat her Globe victory for Best Supporting Actress. And the race for Best Actor will come down to a rivalry between a bloodthirsty African despot (Forest Whitaker’s Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland) and a charming geriatric flirt (Peter O’Toole in Venus).

This year marks the revenge of the elders. The Best Actress category will be dominated by three veterans—Mirren, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. And there’s a potential showdown between America’s two most eminent directors, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood. Scorsese’s The Departed, a remake of a Hong Kong crime thriller, and Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, a war movie almost entirely in Japanese, could be competing for Best Picture and Director. Scorsese’s nomination in both categories is more secure than Eastwood’s. And he’s so overdue for an Oscar it has become a running gag, like Lucy setting up the football for Charlie Brown and snatching it away at the last minute.

Eastwood needs another Oscar like Rocky needs another sequel—he’s won four as producer or director. But Commander Clint is approaching Hollywood sainthood. And at 76, he’s pulled off a Herculean feat, making two ambitious anti-war epics back-toback, Flags of our Fathers, then Iwo Jima. Unleashed with military precision—at a time when America’s quagmire in Iraq became the bad dream that could only get worse—these opposite views of the same nightmarish massacre landed like twin salvos of déjà vu.

However, more people go to movies to forget hell than be reminded of it. As much as the Oscars serve as an altar for high-minded films, Hollywood prefers good dreams over bad, loving nothing better than an escapist spectacle with a shimmer of social justice. And that would be Dreamgirls. It is American Idol writ large, or rather a Hollywood antidote to Idol’s tacky rite of Darwinian democracy. Hudson, who was prematurely turfed as an Idol contestant, draws standing ovations halfway through the movie with her show-stopping performance as a singer who’s shunted out of the spotlight. Showbiz retribution has never seemed so sweet.

A triumphant exercise in nostalgia, Dreamgirls is as old-fashioned as the 1981 Broadway musical on which it’s based. But it’s also without precedent: a major studio spectacle with an all-black cast, a bevy of female leads, and an inspirational lift that puts a feminist backspin on the civil rights movement. It’s an Oscar wet dream.

Aside from Dreamgirls, the most likely Best Picture candidates are Babel, The Departed and The Queen. That leaves Little Miss Sunshine, Iwo Jima and United 93 to fight it out for the fifth spot. Babel, the anti-American dream movie, is this year’s Crash, a realist melodrama of interlocking narratives that converge along jagged fault lines of intolerance. In Crash, races collided in a balkanized Los Angeles; in Babel, children are cut off from their parents in a puzzle of borders and barriers on three continents.

Babel shows worlds on a collision course at at a time when Hollywood seems fixated on global inequity. In 2006, we saw three pow-

• African Blood erful political hot Diamond spots: thrillers Catch and a The set Fire, Last in King ofScotla?id. And in a year when the notion of celebrities adopting African children struck a sensational nerve, Babel’s theme of displaced or threatened children surfaced as another strong motif in Oscar-pedigree films—including Pan’s Labyrinth, Little Children and dren of Men.

A child also stands at the centre of Little Miss Sunshine. This comic crowd-pleaser about a contender in a talent contest (played by 10-year-old Wunderkind Abigail Breslin) is the year’s designated Little Movie That Could. It’s a subcompact Dreamgirls, another ugly-duckling fable of a powerhouse talent who proves she’s a star although she doesn’t fit the mould. Sunshine promotes that cherished Hollywood myth: no matter what you look like, if you have a dream and never let go, it will come true. That’s nonsense, but Breslin and Hudson are the real-life exceptions who prove the rule. And Sunshine subverts the usual formula with a fabulously unpredictable twist.

Remember that most Academy members watch the movies on free DVDs. Films like Sunshine and The Queen are character pieces with an intimacy and pace that work superbly on video. Iwo Jima, a critics’ favourite, becomes slow and ponderous on the small screen. Besides, it features Japanese actors most Academy voters have never heard of. Yet... Clint is Clint.

It’s not rocket science to figure out who will be named in the acting categories, tors nominate their peers, and the Screen Actors Guild has already chosen its candidates for the SAG awards. If actors vote the same way twice, Whitaker and O’Toole should be competing with Leonar do DiCaprio (Blood Diamond), Canadian Ryan Gosling (Half Nelson) and Will Smith (Pursuit ofHappyness). Racking up a record seven Oscar nominations without a win, O’Toole, 74, is the sentimental favourite—especially after accepting an honorary Oscar last year with a begrudging reminder that his career wasn’t over. And Whitaker may have dimmed his chances with his weird, rambling acceptance speech at the Globes. For my money, Borat’s Sacha Baron Cohen and Casino Royale’s Daniel Craig deserve nominations, but since neither appears to have a campaign, that’s unlikely.

As for Best Actress, it seems a foregone conclusion that Mirren will win. Monarchs are forever having their portraits painted and stamped on coins, but there is something transcendent about Mirren’s nervy, nuanced portrayal of Elizabeth II—an uncanny likeness that manages to be both harsh and empathetic. Also, the Academy loves actors playing real-life legends (Ray, Walk the Line). When people vote for actors, often they’re actually voting for the characters. And never underestimate the Ryan Gosling: power of royalty. As Mir'Half-Nelson,' ren herself said in receivall Canadian ing the Golden Globe, “In 1952, a woman called Elizabeth Windsor at the age of 25 walked into literally the role of a lifetime. I honestly feel this award belongs to her, because I think you fell in love with her, not with me.”

Mirren’s rivals for Best Actress are Dench (Notes on a Scandal), Streep (The Devil Wears Prado), Pené lope Cruz (Volver) and Kate Winslet (Little Children). That’s the finest field we’ve seen in years. Aside from the age bracket, it’s worth noting that it includes just one American, La Streep. It’s also devoid of victims and martyrs in the tradition of Boys Don’t Dry and Monster’s Ball. Each contender plays a smart, dominant dame.

For supporting actress, expect Hudson to be be facing off against Breslin and Cate Blanchett (Notes on a Scandal), along with Mexico’s Adriana Barraza and Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi (both from Babel). As for supporting actor,

Eddie Murphy is a top contender for his electrifying role as an R&B singer in Dreamgirls. Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed),

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond) are assured nominations. And two villains will have to fight over the fifth spot: Jack Nicholson’s gangland psycho in The Departed and Jackie Earle Haley’s creepy pedophile in Little Children.

But the most interesting race could be among directors. Recently I’ve been waging a blog war

Scorsese is so overdue for an Oscar it has become a running gag, like Lucy setting up the football for Charlie Brown

for an with Maclean’s colleague Jaime running J. Weinman over his piece last week, which called for the Osthe cars to kill the Best Director award on the grounds that it’s synonymous with Best Picture. I feel a director’s talent deserves to be singled out, and this year could see some striking discrepancies between the two categories. Because the entire Academy nominates Best Picture, the popular Little Miss Sunshine might find a place in the sun. But its novice husbandwife directing duo, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, could be shut out. Conversely, while Iwo Jima might not make the cut, Eastwood could get a directing nod, even though he was snubbed by the Director’s Guild (perhaps because his votes were split between two movies). Similarly, directors may honour Paul Greengrass for his feat of marshalling non-actors in the harrowing United 93 (my vote for best film of 2006), while the Academy may find for

While United 93 recreated the 9/11 mor ment in which the world changed, The Inconvenient Truth tried to change the world. Starring an oddly charismatic Al Gore as a prophet of global warming, it seems a natural for best Cate Blanchett: Cradle-robbing documentary. Foreignin 'Scandal' language film, meanwhile, should come down to a race between Volver, Pedro Almodovar’s voluptuous paean to motherhood, and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s rich scenario of fantasy and fascism. (Unlike at the Globes, neither Iwo Jima nor Apocalypto are eligible because they’re American movies.) But Germany’s The Lives of Others, a brilliant intrigue set in East Berlin, is deserving. And Canada’s Hindi-language entry, Water, could be in the running. Other Canadian hopes include two National Film Board co-productions, The Danish Poet and Tragic Story with Happy Ending, which may be up for best animated short.

Of course, the absurdity of the Oscars is that people like me parse the odds as if they mattered. But art is just the excuse for a popularity contest that serves as the gold standard for the American dream: Academy Idol. On the night of Feb. 25, most people will tune in to the awards not to see who’s winning, but what they are wearing. M