Oscar 2004: Critics Vs. Clint Eastwood

I don't think Clint Eastwood has bloomed. I think the press has been hornswoggled. “Unforgiven” was another Western in which you were pacifist until it's necessary for you to start shooting. I always see Eastwood following the script slavishly; I never see him taking off as a director. I would have loved to be around to blast his last couple of pictures that the press has been so excited about. It think people love the idea that a cowboy star actually can speak a sentence.

Pauline Kael, Premiere magazine

I wonder how Pauline Kael, the late New Yorker critic, would have reacted to the unanimous critical acclaim of Clint Eastwood's latest picture, “Million Dollar Baby.” Last month, “Million Dollar Baby” was named Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics (NSFCS), of which Keal was a founding member back in 1966.

By the way, it's a myth that Kael controlled the group, as some of her avid followers have claimed. Just look at the NSFC's choices. In its first year of operation, NSFC honored Antononi's “Blow-Up,” a film that Kael dismissed in one of her least insightful reviews, an essay even more embarrassing than her rebuke of Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary, “Shoah.”

For about two decades, the NSCF was allegedly divided into two camps: the Paulettes and the Sarrisytes (the Andrew Sarris' group), with nearly insurmountable tension between the two during the annual voting meeting in January.

I became a member a decade ago, so I can't testify to that animosity. The divisions within the NSFC may still exist but they are looser, more amorphous that they were in the 1970s or 1980s. For one thing, Kael retired in 1991, and Sarris, while still a voting member, is less vocal about his auteurist approach. Furthermore, as became clear while working on my tribute volume, “Citizen Sarris, American Film Critic,” the battle over auteurism has long been won. Most critics today, whether consciously or not, are auteurists, and auteurism is now integrated not only into film scholarship but also into mainstream criticism and filmmaking.

I began this essay with Kael, who never got Clint as a screen actor or director. At one point, she the ridiculous charge that Clint was not really an actor, whatever that means. You wonder what was he doing up there on screen for five decades. The fact that Kael's Baby, the NSFC, has singled out “Million Dollar Baby” is a major achievement for Clint the actor and director.

Going beyond “Kael Vs. Clint,” an interesting question persists as to how significant and influential American film critics have been in this year's Oscar race, specifically vis-a-vis their assessments of the five nominated pictures: “The Aviator,” “Finding Neverland,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Ray,” and “Sideways.” I have wanted to explore this issue ever since an earlier MCN column, “2004 in Review,” raised the question of “Who Needs Critics” Which I answered briefly: Eastwood, Scorsese, and Payne all need critics. Let me elaborate by pointing out some general trends of American film criticism of the past decade:
Democratization
What's new about contemporary American movie criticism is that it's more democratic and pluralistic than ever before. No single critic today dominates the scene, or commands the respect and attention, that Sarris or Kael had at their prime, in the 1960s and 1970s, the golden age of American cinemaand film criticism.

That said, the overall quality of criticism has never been better due to the fact that most writers are graduates of film or journalism schools and thus bring sharper sensibility and deeper sense of film history to the their reviews.

Twenty five years ago, when I first met Vincent Canby, the late N.Y Times critic (at the New York Film Festival, he told me that, for his generation, the best and fastest way to become a movie critic was to be a “good reliable writer.” “If you wrote well about food or even politics,” to paraphrase Canby, “your editor might say, How would you like to try your hand at reviewing “Jaws” or even “Star Wars” for us” This career pattern has declined substantially, when film schools began to proliferate across the country, in the 1970s. But it has not disappeared completelythe L.A. Times has just promoted a TV reviewer with no cinema knowledge or experience as a film critic.

Consensus–Critics Possess More Power When Theyre United
An individual critic may single out in a widely read magazine “Chuck and Buck” or “Memento” as the year's best movie. However, if other strategic critics don't rally behind, as was the case of those titles, a single voice, even when it represents a mass-oriented publication such as E.W., has no clout or bearing; it's just a lone, eccentric voice in the wilderness.

This is the reason why critics' awards at year's end are crucial in determining the very chances of a particular movie to be Oscar-nominated. What critics groups and other associations, such as the National Board of Review, do in December is narrow down a broad field of 20 potential Oscar hopefuls to seven or eight pictures. (See MCN and Levy's Oscar Predictions charts over the past four months).

This year provides the best proof for the “United We Stand” trend. There is not doubt that Alexander Payne, the critics darling and two-time winner of LAFCA's Best Picture (“About Schmidt” in 2002 and this year's “Sideways”) benefited from the critical consensus of his wine-road comedy, which has swept more critics awards than any film in recent memory. If Payne's “About Schmidt” had received the unanimous accolades that “Sideways” did, it would have been nominated for Best Picture or Screenplay. However, since it didn't gather such momentum, “About Schmidt” was nominated for acting Oscars (Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates).

In Payne's case, what the critics did, singly and more so collectively, was to ensure that Payne would be nominated for the DGA, and that “Sideways” would be taken seriously by the Academy. Not a minor feat, considering that very few independent films, usually the Miramax kind (“The English Patient,” “Chocolat,” “Cider House Rules”). The Academy may disregard the taste of one group, LAFCA's choice of “About Schmidt,” but it can't ignore completely a film that was chosen by at least ten groups, including BFCA, NYFC, LAFCA, HFPA, and others. Similarly, LAFCA's 2001 Picture Award for Todd Field's Sundance-premiered “In the Bedroom” promoted the visibility of this film and helped place it among the year's top contenders of the year.

With the Exception of Few Movies (Spider-Man 2) No Movie is Entirely Critics-Proof
There's no doubt that DreamWorks's “Shark Tale,” or Paramount's remake of The Manchurian Candidate would have scored better with Oscar voters and at the box-office, had they received more glowing notices. Spielberg's “The Terminal” and “A.I.,” and the Tom Cruise star vehicle “Minority Report” would have been more successful at the box-office, had they been embraced by all critics, as was Spielberg's “Saving Private Ryan.”
Dito for the other Tom, Hanks, who would have been nominated for “Road to Perdition,” had the Sam Mendes picture received similar acclaim to Mendes' impressive feature debut, “American Beauty,” which swept the 1999 Oscars.

It s not enough to deviate from your screen image and play hit men, as both Toms did recently (Cruise in “Collateral,” Hanks in “Road to Perdition” and “The Ladykillers”), you also do need the critics' seal of approval. Critics remain indifferent to Cruise's star turn and deviant image in “Collateral,” but they paid attention to Jamie Foxx in that film, helping him land a second, supporting nomination this year, along with a lead nod for “Ray.”

Critics possess invaluable power on Oscar voters when it comes to the acting categories in small independent films. Thus was evident in the case of two unknowns who came out of nowhere: Colombian-born Catalina Sandino Moreno (“Maria Full of Grace”), and Brit Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”). Moreover, though a known quantity, and two-time Oscar nominee, it's doubtful that Hollywood insider Annette Bening would have been nominated for “Being Julia,” if the critics didn't hail her performance. The movie, a schmaltzy old- fashioned meller from the 1930s (based on Somerset Maugham's novella, “Theatre”) was dismissed, but perceptive critics separated the actress from the source material of her star vehicle.

Critics Are Influential on Hollywood's Bastard Children
Critics are particularly influential on four types of Films: Independents, Art films, foreign-language, and documentaries. The very existence of these genres, all endangered species in today's increasingly competitive market, depends on critics' judgments in film festivals, where such fare often receives its world premiere. There is not doubt that the new American Independent Cinema has flourished over the past decade as a direct result of being championed by major critics.

Next to Cannes Festival, the Sundance festival is now the most influential film forum for the discovery of “hot” talent and “hot” movies. Since only the trades (“Variety, “Hollywood Reporter”) devote full-length reviews out of festivals, their critics exercise strong impact on determining the chances of a film to get theatrical distribution–or even play the global arthouse circuit. A number of art films, such as Godard's “In Praise of Love” and “Notre Musique,” were picked by American distributors after getting ecstatic notices in the trades.

Film Critics as Gatekeepers
One of the dangers of seeing mostly bad movies, which is the essence of what critics do routinely, is that when a truly interesting one comes along, it might be disregarded unless discerning critics write passionately about it. Indeed, without the active support of critics, “small” and original movies, such as “Boys Don't Cry,” “Being John Malkovich,” “You Can Count on Me,” “Rushmore,” “Election,” would have fallen through the cracks, and their filmmakers and performers would have never received any recognition. “Boys” Hilary Swank would have not received the Actress Oscar (in late March) had she not swept so many critics awards in December.

Critics as Reputation Makers and Career Builders
The career of a whole groups of filmmakers, arguably the most gifted working today, depends on the critical reception of their movies. Take Paul Thomas Anderson, whose features (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love”) have all been commercial disappointments, each making less money than the previous one, but they still represent creative highlights of the new American cinema.

It's critics who brought Soderbergh back in from the cold, after making tiny movies (“The Underneath,” “Schizopolis,” “Gray's Anatomy”) that no one saw. The turning point in Soderbergh's career, which is now at its height, was the enthusiastic critical response to “Out of Sight,” which was cited as Best Picture by the NSFC in 1998.

One of the most brilliant directors working in American cinema today is Scorsese, whose last couple of pictures (“Kundun,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Gangs of New York”) had artistic merits but leave a lot to be desired commercially. Scorsese is still on the A-list of directors, and highly regarded by the entire industry, due to his talent, but also consistent stature among critics. Imagine if “The Aviator” were one of Scorsese's masterpieces, on the level of “The Godfather” or “Unforgiven,” both of which hailed by critics long before winning the Oscars and the public support.

This is by no means a new function. For decades, despite Pauline Kael's spiteful verdicts, auteurist critics have claimed that Clint Eastwood should be taken seriously as actor and director, that one day he will be making masterpieces, which indeed he has made, three over the past decade: the 1992 Unforgiven, the 2004 “Mystic River” and this year's “Million Dollar Baby,” which is going to sweep the Oscars comes February 27. It's doubtful that “Unforgiven would have won Best Picture Oscar, or gross $100 million, without the critics' strong backing. It's also doubtful that “Million Dollar Baby” would have scored so big, critically and commercially, without the critics' enthusiastic support.

For the sake of symmetry (I am a structuralist at heart) this essay began and ends with a query to the late Pauline Kael. I am burning with curiosity to know her reaction to the fact that the man she had once described as “a block of marble” (borrowing the expression from Sergio Leone, who didn't mean it negatively) has blossomed into a terrific screen actor and Hollywood's dream actor-director. How would Kael rationalize Gene Hackman's Supporting Oscar for “Unforgiven,” Sean Penn's and Tim Robbins' Oscars for “Mystic River,” and, if my prediction skills are still with me, Hilary Swank's and Morgan Freeman's Actress and Supporting Oscars, respectively, for “Million Dollar Baby,” the hottest Hollywood film of the year.