Yes, it’s the annual Oscar post. And yes, I did watch, even though I had little interest in any of the nominated films. In fact, I was considering going to bed all the way through the endless red carpet interviews. In fact, the only reason I didn’t go to bed was that I wanted to see the opening number. “I’ll go to bed afterwards”, I thought. But by the time “afterwards” rolled around, my peak fatigue had passed and I held out until the end.
So how was it? Better than I thought it would be, given I don’t really like any of the nominated films. Let’s start with the host. Neil Patrick Harris was probably the best Oscar host we’ve seen in the past five years or so. He’s a fine singer and dancer and looks good both in a tuxedo and white briefs, his jokes were pointed, but didn’t go under the belt too often, he managed not to ask Clint Eastwood why he didn’t just go and die already, which Steve Martin did a couple of years ago, he didn’t sing about anybody’s boobs like Seth MacFarlane in 2013. In short, he was a pretty damn good Oscar host, though I still prefer Hugh Jackman, who hosted in 2009, if only because seeing Hugh Jackman exclaiming “I am Wolverine” on the Oscar stage is still a tad cooler than watching Neil Patrick Harris dance with a ballet of Stormtroopers (and Roman legionaires and modern day soldiers and 1930s style chorus girls).
In general, the musical numbers were less annoying than in previous years. For once, only one of the five nominated songs was terrible, the decidedly NOT awesome “Everything is awesome” song from the inexplicably popular Lego Movie. All the other nominated songs were pretty good, as was Jennifer Hudson’s song during the “In Memoriam” segment. On the other hand, I had to mute the sound during Lady Gaga’s tribute to The Sound of Music. Not because of Lady Gaga’s singing skills, because she can actually sing, once you look beyond the performance and the weird gowns, but because I absolutely cannot abide The Sound of Music.
I first read about The Sound of Music as a teen in a coffee table book on great movies, which I’d bought at a used book store in Rotterdam. At the time the book was published (1980), The Sound of Music was the third highest grossing movie of all time after Star Wars and Gone with the Wind. However, I’d not only never seen said movie, no I’d never even heard of it. Which was strange, because if a film was the third highest grossing movie of all time, you’d expect to at least have heard of it. Luckily, the book had a page or two on the film, so I read it and thought, “Wait a minute, I know that story. That’s Die Trapp Familie. Only that the actors are all wrong.”
It turned out that The Sound of Music is a remake of the German movie Die Trapp Familie (The Trapp Family) from 1956, starring Ruth Leuwerik and Hans Holt. The German original is a classic in Germany, frequently on TV, usually around the holidays, and even begot a sequel, Die Trapp Familie in Amerika (The Trapp Family in America) two years later. Meanwhile, The Sound of Music is little known and almost never seen in Germany. Eventually, I did see the Hollywood version in England and immediately understood why it’s hardly ever shown in Germany. Because not only is The Sound of Music an almost shot by shot copy of Die Trapp Familie in many parts, the music is also incredibly grating and doesn’t fit the time and place at all compared to the traditional songs in the original. So having grown up with The Trapp Family, I simply cannot abide The Sound of Music. If you ever want to watch the original, it’s on YouTube with English subtitles even. Look out for the various people of colour in the background in the “arrival in America” segment near the end.
Talking of which, I also found it heartening that the Academy apparently decided to make up for the appalling lack of diversity among the nominees by putting a lot of people of colour on stage as presenters. Hence we got Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Zoe Saldana, Dwayne Johnson, Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Lopez presenting as well as Jennifer Hudson singing in the “In Memoriam” segment. There might also be one or two actors of colour I’ve forgotten. Neil Patrick Harris also made a couple of jokes about the overwhelming whiteness of the oscars. Of course, it would be much better if the Academy could actually nominate some people of colour next year rather than having them hand Oscars to overwhelmingly white winners. There were a couple of winners of colour in the end, including Harry Belafonte winning a lifetime achievement award (which thrilled my Mom, cause she’s a massive fan) but that doesn’t make up for an overwhelmingly white field of nominees either.
In general, I often found myself liking the presenters a lot better than the people who actually won the awards. There were quite a few moments where I thought, “Hey, why isn’t he or she nominated tonight?”
It’s also interesting that 2015 saw a much higher incidence of more or less political acceptance speeches than before. Patricia Arquette, winner for best supporting actress, called for equal rights and equal wages for women to rousing approval and standing ovations. John Legend and Common, deserving winners for best original song, reminded us that there are more black men incarcerated in the US today than ever lived under slavery, a sobering statistic if there ever was one. The makers of the best documentary feature, Citizen Four a.k.a. the Edward Snowden documentary (NDR correspondent this morning: “We co-financed this, so it’s our win as well” – eyeroll) praised the courage of whistleblowers. Graham Moore, screenwriter for The Imitation game a.k.a. the Alan Turing biopic, talked about attempting to kill himself once in a touching speech and how he’d found encouragement and finally found himself on the Oscar stage and then called for the audience and the viewers to pass on the message of encouragement and hope. And Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of Birdman and winner of the awards for both best film and best director, called for acceptance of Mexican immigrants in the US. We’ve heard political acceptance speeches at the Oscars before, several times in fact (most notably Michael Moore, but there were many others), but rarely as many as during this ceremony. It was almost as if they were encouraging each other. “Hey, so and so just injected a political message into their speech and wasn’t booed for it, so maybe I can do the same!” It probably all started with J.K. Simmons, winner for best support actor (whose speech I missed due to a glitch in the German broadcast), imploring the audience to call their parents and talk to them.
So what about the winners (Full list here)? The sort of movies that are nominated for and win Oscars are still the same sort of movies that have been winning awards for a long time now. Disney/Pixar movies still win the best animated feature category about more interesting works from beyond Hollywood. More or less navelgazing dramas about troubled artists and performers still win Oscars, as the awards for Birdman and Whiplash show.
Biopics about inspirational people still still get nominated for and win Oscars. And so three of eight nominees in the “Best film category” were biopics, four if you include American Sniper. After all, it was based on a real person’s biography, even if no one outside the US has ever heard of Chris Kyle. You could even make a case for Foxcatcher, which was based on a true story. In fact, we’re very much back (or still) where we were in the 1930s, when Warner Bros used the profits made by the “trashy” gangster films, historical swashbucklers, westerns and musicals they churned out to finance prestigious biopics of “great men” (and they were inveitably men – great women got crappy historical melodramas instead). Now, eighty years later, the trashy gangster films, swashbucklers, westerns and musicals are timeless classics, while the prestigious biopics are largely forgotten curiosities that only show up in the course of retrospectives of a certain actor’s career and usually baffle contemporary viewers (“They snubbed James Cagney for Angels with Dirty Faces and gave him an Oscar for a The Yankee Doodle Man? Really?”), because a lot of those biographies of great men are nigh unwatchable these days. Bonus points if the great man is as forgotten as the movie in question these days.
In the 1930s, the “great men” who inspired biopics and won their actors Oscars were Paul Ehrlich, Louis Pasteur, Benjamin Disraeli, Benito Juarez, Emile Zola, George M. Cohan and Alvin C. York, i.e. scientists, political leaders, writers/artists/musicians and soldiers. The “great men” (and they’re still overwhelmingly men, the occasional The Queen, The Iron Lady, La Vie en Rose or Erin Brockovich notwithstanding) of today’s biopics are Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, John Nash, Mark Zuckerberg, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, William Turner and Chris Kyle, i.e. scientists, political leaders, artists/musicians and soldiers. Though in the 1930s, they preferred medical researchers, whereas today we prefer pysicists and mathematicians. 21st century Hollywood also has a tendency to make biopics of inspirational animals, usually horses, as movies such as Seabiscuit, Secretariat and War Horse show.
Playing a person with a serious illness, preferably one that’s currently in the public consciousness (dying of consumption on screen won’t win you awards in 2015, though it might have in 1935), still wins Oscars. Hence, both the best actor and actress of the year won awards for playing very ill people, while the best actor and supporting actor of last year also won for playing terminally ill people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m actually happy for Eddie Redmayne, especially since those critics who vehemently hated Jupiter Ascending also claimed that the film would torpedo Redmayne’s chances at the Oscars, while those who enjoyed Jupiter Ascending also praised Redmayne’s performance as hilarious and awards worthy. In fact, I have an upcoming post about the very different reactions to Jupiter Ascending.
Meanwhile, Still Alice, which won Julianne Moore an Oscar, is yet another entry in the growing genre of the dementia drama, i.e. movies about people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia (I talk a bit about the popularity of the dementia drama here). It wasn’t even the only dementia drama nominated for an Oscar this year, there was also another about country singer Glenn Campbell nominated in the music categories.
The cited intent of these dementia dramas is to raise awareness for these illnesses, which are a growing issue in our aging society. I can’t really disagree with that intent, though I suspect that many people are actually all too aware of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, because they have elderly relatives suffering from those diseases. However, the execution of those dementia dramas usually leaves a sour taste in my mouth. The worst are documentaries, usually about some famous person with Alzheimer’s, which are often shot without the affected person’s informed consent and are sickeningly voyeuristic. But even the fictional examples (Still Alice, Iris, Die Auslöschung, Honig im Kopf) tend to leave a bad taste in my mouth. For starters, the person who suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s is never just a regular person. We never see truck drivers, bakers or secretaries with dementia. No, it’s always a person with an intellectual profession, a linguistics professor (Still Alice), a poet (Iris), an art scholar (Die Auslöschung) or a writer (Walter Jens, subject of two creepy “my Dad and his illness” books by his son Tilman). Either, there is an anti-intellectual message behind those films and books (“Oh, you think you’re so smart? – Just wait, Alzheimer’s will get you.”) or non-intellectual dementia patients are considered not worth bothering about. Either way, it’s a really distasteful message.
Finally, propaganda films still get nominated for Oscars, though at least in 2015 they have a harder time winning than in the past (see my commentary from 2013), as the fact that American Sniper got thoroughly trounced and only won in a technical category (best sound), whereas Unbroken was only nominated in a couple of technical categories attests. Nonetheless, that a movies as distasteful as American Sniper managed to get nominated for 5 Oscars at all proves that propaganda films are alive and well. Check out this rather harsh commentary from the German program kulturjournal, which pretty much expresses how I see this movie.
I also find it interesting that snipers have been recast as heroic figures since approximately 2001. Because well into the 1990s, snipers got a pretty bad rap and were viewed very much the same way that Michael Moore got attacked for expressing now. We had plenty of military and ex-military heroes in popular culture pre-2001, but they were rarely snipers, because snipers were not considered heroic. Hence, the members of the A-Team weren’t snipers. Magnum wasn’t a sniper. Chuck Norris never played snipers. But nowadays, NCIS, which is probably the most popular TV show in the world at the moment, has a hero, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, who is an ex-marine and ex-sniper turned NCIS agent. Meanwhile, Bones, another very popular show, has a hero, Seeley Booth, who is an ex-sniper turned FBI agent. Booth and Gibbs are thoroughly likeable characters and they’re played by immensely likable actors, David Boreanaz and Mark Harmon respectively. Meanwhile, Chris Kyle, the protagonist of American Sniper, is played by Bradley Cooper, an immensely likeable actor. So yes, there’s definitely a redefinition of the sniper going on here. I suspect the starting point may have been the 2001 movie Enemy at the Gates, a WWII movie about the duel of two snipers, one Russian and one German, played by Jude Law and Ed Harris respectively. My Dad, who’s a sucker for WWII movies, actually stopped watching Enemy of the Gates after approx. half an hour, because – quote – “it’s a disgusting piece of violent trash”. Obviously, many people disagreed. And yes, WWII films often are propaganda.
Another thing that annoyed me were the frequent jabs against “too many superhero movies” and “too many sequels” and Hollywood being “too reliant on the Asian box office”. They were particularly notable in the Jack Black segment of the opening number (and given his oevre, Mr. Black really shouldn’t be one to talk). The Asian box office thing always makes me angry anyway, because it’s racist as fuck (“Oh, those bloody foreigners don’t care for the white middle class pain of our indie movies, all they want is explosions). Never mind that it’s not as if special effects spectaculars are not huge successes in the US as well.
As for the jabs against superhero movies, I simply found them tasteless, considering that half the actors in the room have appeared in superhero films at some point in their careers. On stage and among the nominees, we had three and two half Avengers (Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow as well as the Jim Rhodes who never wore the War Machine suit and Pepper Potts as a sort of honorary team member), we had two and a half Guardians of the Galaxy (Star-Lord and Gamora and Rocket Raccoon’s voice), we had a Batman (and a Birdman), a Joker and a Harley Quinn (and wasn’t Oprah rumoured for Amanda Waller in the Suicide Squad movie at some point?), we had Gwen Stacy and Gambit and Heimdall and even two Hulks nominated against each other in the “best supporting actor” category (and how much fun would it have been, if they had decided the winner via a Hulk smackdown). Hell, even the host once appeared as hapless supervillain Dr. Horrible. And yet we had plenty of jabs against superhero movies from people who made a lot of money playing superheroes. Never mind that an organisation which saw it fit to nominate something like American Sniper for several prestigious awards really isn’t in the position to make jabs at any movie genre.
I don’t get the intense hatred for the superhero genre anyway. By this point, the popularity of superhero movies is inevitably pointed out as a symptom of what is wrong with Hollywood these days, followed by some lament about the bad tastes of non-American viewers. It’s almost as if superhero movies have replaced science fiction and disaster movies as the critics’ most hated genre. Bonus points if those same critics fawn about Fifty Shades of Grey. Now I understand why superhero movies may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but some of them are actually pretty good. If anything, superhero movies have a high hit to miss rate than disaster movies IMO. Yet they get routinely snubbed as Guardians of the Galaxy losing in the special effects category to Interstellar (which is exactly the sort of SF film the critics love, serious, worthy and dull) and in the best make-up category to The Grand Budapest Hotel attests.
Besides, even if Hollywood is supposedly catering to those horrible foreign audiences, who simply refuse to watch propaganda flicks and white middle class pain, it’s not as if the sort of movies that the Academy loves are in danger of dying out. What Hollywood is losing to the popularity of pricey, special effects laden superhero and spectacle movies are the middle of the road entertainment pictures, the romantic comedies and crime thrillers and action films and family melodramas that never won Oscars, but were ubiquitous in cinemas until approx. ten years ago. But the prestige pictures, the Oscar bait movies, are still being made. We still have plenty of dramas about very ill people and indie movies about white middle class pain and dramas about tortured artists and biopics about great men and propaganda movies about heroic American soldiers.