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Academy Awards preview: Out of the past, a future that has changed little

Jeff Simon

Here are some people you might be grateful for when the Oscars are over Sunday night:

Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. Yes, I know you've never heard of him. There's good reason for that. He was born in 1808 and died in 1890. He was the author of some novels and a critic. He was also the editor of France's legendary periodical Le Figaro. Most importantly, he's the fellow who's credited with first saying, "The more things change, the more things stay the same." That is going to describe this year's Oscars perfectly. Change is upon the Oscars from every direction – the internet and Netflix, which is no one's idea of either a traditional movie studio or TV network. "The Irishman" and "Marriage Story," though, wouldn't have existed without it.

No one knows how to handle Netflix yet at award time. Do they just pretend the extraordinary content provider is the same as a classic movie studio like MGM was when it was the place where they plied Judy Garland with pills to keep her busy and profitable?

That's where a Korean blockbuster comes in. Truly huge change is possible – a best picture award for "Parasite," a foreign language film by Bong Joon-ho. Even if it does become the first foreign language film to win best picture at the Oscars, it will still reaffirm Hollywood's insistence on spelunking for future box office when all else fails. (See "Rocky," in 1976, when it defeated "Network" and "Taxi Driver" and "Bound for Glory" for best picture. It successfully predicted nothing but massive box office to come.)

The male winners in the acting awards, which will most likely be Joaquin Phoenix for "Joker" and Brad Pitt for Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." Accepting awards is an art in and of itself. Most Hollywoodians are dreadful at it. Pitt has been getting best supporting actor statues throughout award season and he's terrific everywhere, even by proxy when his messages are read to the audience. He's been funny, cheeky, soulful, charming, self-deprecating, just about everything you want Hollywood stars to be when they're never going to see 50 again.

The whole point of the Oscars is to make Hollywood, as community and industry, look good. Pitt has been making Hollywood look good everywhere lately.

Phoenix has been synonymous with alienation for most of his career. Not lately, though. Since they started giving him statues for playing the Joker, he has seemed chastened, respectful, well-behaved and apologetic for past experiments in rudeness and celebrity performance art.

The beauty of Phoenix at this year's Oscars is he's a likely winner for best actor and absolutely no one has the foggiest idea what he might say. For real movie people, you can bet the farm: Whatever he says will be interesting.

Sam Mendes. If he wins the best director award for "1917" the way he did at the Golden Globes, he's likely to say again what he did then, which was, in effect, that in 2020 no director has any right stealing attention from Martin Scorsese and "The Irishman."

Change will be everywhere at these Oscars. As with last year, there will be no host. That turned out to be no problem at all.

The more things change, the more it will all be the same consecration of money and all the business particulates of show business.

Yes, it's true a lot of us liked it better when the Oscars were shameless bloated garbage of dubious taste and insurmountable vulgarity from which reality sometimes escaped in the form of Sally Field blurting out, "You like me, you like me," and Paddy Chayefsky scowling at Vanessa Redgrave for taking the state of Israel to task for incorrectly defining Judaism.

Now that actual efforts are being made at the Oscars to be on the side of social progress if not art (see last year's best picture, "The Green Book"), it will still give us more narcissistic horse puckey than anything else we're likely to see all year not coming from Washington.

This was actually a pretty good movie year, Netflix be praised. Which means it's harder to predict than usual, even for those, like me, who usually have a .750 batting average. This annual tip sheet began in 1973 when "The Sting" was, I thought, an easy to call compromise film that was professionally nothing if not efficient and incapable of offending anyone.

Best Picture

Nominees: "Ford v Ferrari," "The Irishman," "Jojo Rabbit," "Joker," "Little Women," "Marriage Story," "1917" and "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

The toughest category of the night because of last-minute swirls around "Parasite."

It's a toss-up among "1917," "Parasite," "The Irishman" and "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." In the best of all possible worlds, "The Irishman" would recognize a masterful stylistic valedictory by Scorsese or "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" would recognize Tarantino in a plateau people have been hoping Tarantino would find for the past 20 years. "Joker" continues that bizarre alliance of art film and box office smashing comic book.

"Parasite" will be a mistake the way I see it. It's a terrific film, but a big prize for it just means Hollywood's looking for Bong Joon-ho with dollar signs in its eyes for the future box office and monetary return his fertile imagination might well entail. A good guess will be "1917" for ancient Anglophilia and moral superiority. The more things change, etc.

Best Actor

Nominees: Antonio Banderas for "Pain and Glory," Leonardo DiCaprio for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Adam Driver for "Marriage Story," Joaquin Phoenix for "Joker" and Jonathan Pryce for "The Two Popes."

In a perfect world, Phoenix and Driver would split the prize. I can't imagine, though, that all of Hollywood isn't as interested in what Phoenix will say as I am. We're talking real suspense here.

Best Actress

Nominees: Cynthia Erivo for "Harriett," Scarlett Johansson for "Marriage Story," Saoirse Ronan for "Little Women," Charlize Theron for "Bombshell" and Renee Zellweger for "Judy."

Zellweger was good as Judy Garland in "Judy," but not nearly as good as Judy Davis was in her Emmy-winning TV miniseries. Zellweger's decision to simulate Garland's unique singing was a mistake. Ronan would make me much happier. Happiest of all would have been a nomination and then a win for Lupita Nyong'o for "Us."

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Kathy Bates for "Richard Jewell," Laura Dern for "Marriage Story," Scarlett Johansson for "Jojo Rabbit," Florence Pugh for "Little Women" and Margot Robbie for "Bombshell."

My preference would have been Robbie, but Hollywood loves nothing as much as second generation Hollywoodians. Ergo, Dern – the daughter of Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, is the consolation prize for "Marriage Story" missing out on other big prizes.

Cinematography

Nominees: Roger Deakins for "1917," Rodrigo Prieto for "The Irishman," Lawrence Sher for "Joker," Jarin Blaschke for "The Lighthouse" and Robert Richardson for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

The whole point of "1917" is the illusion of the film as one film-length continuous shot. So, of course, the great current master Deakins would make everyone happy as a winner. It does, though, seem to me that no editing nomination for the film's Lee Smith can't make anyone happy.

Original Score

Wouldn't it be nice if Randy Newman won it for "Marriage Story?" He won't, though. We need to remember women nominated in this category are by no means common, certainly not when they're as good as Hildur Gudnadottir was for "Joker."

Best International Feature

This is the prize "Parasite" ought to have in a lock.

Production Design

Another "Parasite" prize that would be deserved many times over.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Steven Zaillian for "The Irishman," Taika Waititi for "Jojo Rabbit," Todd Phillips and Scott Silver for "Joker," Greta Gerwig for "Little Women" and Anthony McCarter for "The Two Popes."

A tough category. At least three deserving winners. Give it to Gerwig I say for being passed up for a best director nomination. Let's by all means drive everyone crazy.

Original Screenplay

Nominees: Rian Johnson for "Knives Out," Noah Baumbach for "Marriage Story," Sam Mendes for "1917," Quentin Tarantino for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and Bong Joon-Ho and Jin Won Han for "Parasite."

As long as we're driving people crazy, wouldn't it be fun to give this to Gerwig's life partner, Baumbach, for "Marriage Story?" Much more likely, but not nearly as enjoyable will be Mendes or Bong Joon-ho. Then again, some surprises have to come from somewhere and writing and supporting performers are always the best places for them.

Best Director

Nominees: Sam Mendes for "1917," Quentin Tarantino for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Bong Joon-ho for "Parasite," Martin Scorsese for "The Irishman" and Todd Phillips for "Joker."

If it can't be Scorsese, I suppose I could live with Tarantino or even Philips. The stunt of "1917" is taken care of with an Oscar for the cinematographer. Frankly, I think, practicality dictated the Bong Joon-ho nomination should have given away to Gerwig. Realistically, the best guess for winner is Mendes.

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