The Academy gave us Hugh Jackman, both a song and dance man and a costumed superhero, to host the 2009 Oscar ceremony and it was still the dullest on record. The big musical number was actually tackled by talented folks doing a respectable job, but the old-fashioned show-biz tribute was decidedly lacking in imagination or electricity. The “Best Song” had no credibility when Bruce Springsteen’s song didn’t even make the cut. I liked the classy touch of bringing out five previous winners for each acting category not just to introduce each nominee but to offer them praise directly – even if you didn’t win the statue, you got high praise indeed from Oscar royalty. But it was still probably better for the nominees than it was for us at home. The closest thing to an upset was Departures taking the Best Foreign Language Film (most of us had money down on Waltz With Bashir, but then again, most of us have never seen Departures), Sean Penn showing a sense of humor in his acceptance speech and Jerry Lewis, in contrast, showing great restraint in his.
But being a blogger I’m obligated to offer some opinion of the awards. So beyond the fact that 2008 was a thin year for American cinema (especially put up against the meaty line-up of nominees last year) and that Slumdog Millionaire is another overrated underdog story with glib social politics only marginally more interesting than those of Crash (Haggis, not Cronenberg), I’d like to say that the Academy did right in its performer awards. Mickey Rourke gave a hearty and beautiful performance as The Ram and his off-screen story only feeds the character onscreen. But Sean Penn’s performance was inspiring, a transformation that finds the heart and soul of a historical figure and sends blood pumping through a man who has become practically deified over the decades. His Harvey Milk is not a crucified messiah but a human being who found his calling and his passion. His Harvey Milk is not just an out-and-proud gay man, but a man who is no longer embarrassed at being himself, bad jokes and all. His greatest revelation: the way this goofy gay nerd won folks over with his sincerity, his passion and his complete lack of self-consciousness, and the way he showed them how to become a political force to stand up for their rights.
As for Kate Winslet, who Time Magazine proclaimed “Best Actress” on the cover of the issue I received the day before the Oscars, I say that she is very good in two 2008 movies that are not, and that she won for the right performance. In Revolutionary Road, she is the sensitive would-be artist/intellectual with fantasies of a life beyond suburbia, married to a blithely self-aggrandizing husband (DiCaprio) who just doesn’t understand, or even notice, her disappointment at the compromises of their lives. After all, they’re living the middle-class dream, aren’t they? Winslet plays her character as a dam holding in the building waters of frustration and discouragement and discontent until the walls burst and everything flood out in a torrent of furious rage and hostility directed at her shallow, self-absorbed husband. Those scenes are explosive. The rest of the film is a glib commentary on lives that are not lived so much as acted as illustrations of unrealistic dreams and stifling conformity and even Winslet rarely breaks out of the quotation marks that Sam Mendes puts around the performances.
In The Reader, she has no such idealism, only a crisp pragmatism and an officious exterior, a shell to protect her soft self-esteem. When she’s brought to trial for war crimes, she’s neither defensive nor apologetic. She plays Hanna as a kind of child, unable to comprehend that she did anything wrong. Her defense is, in essence, “I was just following orders,” but it’s not delivered as a refuge to military loyalty nor a guilt-ridden excuse to hide behind. She genuinely doesn’t understand why her actions were so wrong, which makes her character all the more pitiable, and terrifying. Her amorality is far more dangerous than the perpetrators who knowingly committed atrocities, and her inability to register any feeling (neither regret nor justification) is the story we should be pursuing.
Winslet doesn’t play Hanna for audience sympathies, but director Stephen Daldry most certainly does. Forget the guilty secret of her illiteracy (which has about as much psychological heft as the explanation at the end of Psycho), it’s the gargoyle gallery of her fellow guards that Daldry uses to contrast Hanna. They “know” they did wrong; their guilt is written in their scowls, and their complicity is sealed when they scheme to make Hanna the scapegoat for them all. We’re supposed to feel sorry that this woman was railroaded into a longer sentence for her part in burning dozens of Jewish women alive rather than allow them to escape? The moral relativism is appalling. Winslet understands her character better than the director does.
[I wrote about both films for Parallax View back in December. You can read the piece here.]
As for Jerry Lewis, it was, as Richard Corliss observed, almost an insult to give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award rather than a Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s as if, after all these years, the Academy is still so embarrassed about the coarse slapstick and child-man braying in his films that they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge his surreal set-pieces, his technical innovation or his ingenious inspirations. There has been much better commentary on the spastic genius than I can possibly toss off here, so let me direct you to them:
I did write about The Ladies Man, his second feature as a director, for Turner Classic Movies (it was one of my earliest pieces for TCM):
Jerry Lewis was one of Paramount’s biggest stars when he decided to step behind the camera. He’d contributed plenty of uncredited gags and script material to earlier films, had forged a creative relationship with director Frank Tashlin (whom he has cited as his mentor), and he had turned producer with The Delicate Delinquent, his first “solo” film after the break-up of his hugely successful partnership with Dean Martin. When his directorial debut The Bellboy (1960) became one of the biggest hits of the year, Lewis was emboldened to take a chance with his next production. The goofy Lewis child-man may have taken a sideways career shift from bellboy to houseboy on screen, but behind the camera The Ladies Man (1961) proved to be a huge leap forward for Lewis the filmmaker in both ambition and technique.
Read the entire feature here.