Friday, March 2, 2012

The Second Annual Oscar Losers Lineup

Werth: So, Wise...

Wise: Yes, Werth?

Werth: The smoke from Sacha Baron Cohen's Oscar prank has finally cleared and the winners have stumbled home with their goodie bags from various and sundry Oscar fetes.

Wise: And it's time for us to salute those who didn't get to go home with a golden statuette.

Werth: Last year, we examined actresses in iconic roles whose dreams of Oscar glory were crushed by the Academy, and in honor of the three legendary directors who got the sharp end of the stick this year, let's take a look at directors who failed in the quest for the film industry's most prized phallic symbol.

Wise: No director springs to mind faster than Martin Scorsese whose Hugo spent most of the awards season neck and neck with Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist only to lose in the final tally.  

Werth: And who got shout-outs and thank you's all night long—not to mention becoming the cue for a drinking game for Rose Byrne and fellow Oscar-loser Melissa McCarthy.

Wise: But it's an earlier Scorsese film that seems an even more egregious loss.  The Aviator (2004) isn't very much like the films of Scorsese's maverick 70's heyday, but it does reveal a remarkably sure directorial hand, plus it was his fifth nomination in the category.  Those two facts combined made him look like a shoo-in for the prize—

Werth: Because if the Academy loves anything more than giving Best Supporting Actress to  a one hit wonder, it's presenting a Hollywood institution an award for later, and lesser, work.

Wise: Perhaps The Aviator wasn't lesser enough because Scorsese turns what could have been a run-of-the-mill bio-pic of legendary millionaire/germaphobe Howard Hughes into an epic history of Hollywood that's also a meditation on the costs of ambition.  Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hughes, and his twitchy energy brings humanity to a life that had been flattened into caricature by rumor and tall tales.  

Werth: That and Jane Russell's rack.

Wise: Of course the stand-out—and Oscar winning—performance is Cate Blanchett as Katherine Hepburn.  Taking what could have been an opportunity for cloying mimicry of a Hollywood legend, Blanchett imbues the movie Kate with passion and tenderness in a performance that feels more like a revelation than an impersonation. 

Werth: She was so good, I honestly wanted to leave Hughes when she did and watch Blanchett play the rest of Kate's life.

Wise:  Nowhere are Scorsese's talents more apparent than in the visual vocabulary of the film.  Using the evolution of photography (from garish two-strip Technicolor to the lush hues of the 40's to the lurid spectrum of 50's spectacle), Scorsese not only signals the passage of time, but also the progress and eventual deterioration of his subject's mind.  
There are nods throughout to classic Hollywood films, but nostalgia didn't work for Scorsese (losing to Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby) until he produced an imitation of his own best work, finally winning Oscar gold for The Departed two years later. 

Werth: Scorsese wasn't alone this year in having to eat The Artist's dust in the Best Director category. No less than Terrence Malick and Woody Allen (neither of whom deigned to show up) had to eat Oscar crow. And usual Oscar darling Steven Spielberg didn't even get nominated.

Wise: I guess horses and comic books don't have the same dramatic heft as American slavery and the Holocaust. 

Werth: It reminds me of the 17th Academy Awards held in March, 1945. Otto Preminger (Laura), Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity) and Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat) lost to Leo McCarey's Bing Crosby-starring love letter to the Catholic church, Going My Way. Now, McCarey was a fine comedy director, but aside from the occasional Sunday hangover TCM viewing, Going My Way holds little of the regard that the other three films do.

Wise: Nor does it have Bob Hope or Dorothy Lamour—two of my favorite hangover cures.

Werth: I'm particularly fond of Lifeboat. Hitchcock had already made quite a name for himself with several American films like Rebecca (1940) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), but Lifeboat's style holds glimpses of some of his future filmwork like Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954). The setting of Lifeboat is—a lifeboat. There are no cutaway shots to other sets, or a family waiting back home, or flashbacks to a happier time. Hitchcock forces us to join a group of castaways after their liner is sunk by a German U-boat by trapping us with his camera. There is nowhere for these survivors to run in the open sea, and by limiting all but a couple of the camera shots to the boat, the visual claustrophobia makes us as stir crazy as this motley crew. And what a crew!

Wise: Please tell me there isn't a Skipper or Gilligan among them.

Werth: More like a Mrs. Howell. Tallulah Bankhead as reporter and bon vivante Connie Porter gives the best screen performance of her storied career. Her droll line deliveries (in English and German) and cigarette gesticulation are mesmerizing. And since she's got some free time on this boat, why not seduce the handsomest sailor (John Hodiak) aboard?

Wise: Why not indeed?

Werth: The cast is full of fantastic character actors like William Bendix, Hume Cronyn and Walter Slezak, and it's really surprising how many sharp plot twists writer John Steinbeck pulled out of such a little boat. All told Lifeboat is much more fun to watch than Der Bingle buh-buh-buh-booing through a Catholic boy's school.

Wise: That'll get you in trouble these days.

Werth: But back then it got him an Oscar for Best Actor—and in this week's blog, being a winner makes him a real loser.

Wise: We'll discuss more Tinseltown winners and losers in next week's edition of Film Gab.  

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