Oscar 2005: Good Movie Year for the Oscars

I leave it up to the TV critics to analyze the Oscar ceremonies as an entertainment TV show. However, as far as I am concerned, Chris Rock did a good job, even if had expected him to be edgier and more provocative.

One of the things that struck me about the show was the large number of reaction shots of Oprah Winfrey, who was seated in the audience. Is Oprah, the queen of talk shows, some kind of a collective conscience of the American public A morally restraining figure A surrogate mother who needs to give a continuous approval to a son who might be too risky and dangerous.

Hours later, I saw Oprah on TV, and she was talking like a mother. “I felt like a mother watching her child in a play at school,” she said about Rock. “I know he walked up to the edge, but I didn’t want him to go over the edge.” Relax, Oprah, excepting a few nasty jokes, your “son” was well-behaved.

As was predicted in these columns months ago, the Best Picture Oscar race was over as soon as “Million Dollar Baby” opened to great critical acclaim, commanding the spotlight for months, unlike any other film in competition, including Alexander Payne’s “Sideway,” which swept more critic groups awards than any other film.

All of the artists who needed to win won. O.K., Ill concede, though I predicted that Cate Blanchett would take supporting actress for “The Aviator,” my personal favorite was Virginia Madsen in “Sideways.” I was therefore happy to see Madsen and Thomas Haden Church winning acting accolades the day before, at the Spirit Awards, where “Sideways swept all the awards, including Picture and Director.

But Blanchett’s was not really an upset win. With all due respect to her performance, which relied too much on mimicry, I think that, by voting for Blanchett, the Academy was paying tribute to the late, beloved Katharine Hepburn, still the record holder (four Best Actress trophies) in the Oscar’s annals.

As soon as the show was over, industryites and other savvy viewers began to complain that the show was too predictable, that there were no upsets, that it was boring. Yes, the show was predictable and most of us knew that “Million Dollar Baby” would receive the major awards.

However, there’s predictability and there’s predictability. It’s one thing for a show to be predictable in the sense that a good, well-deserving movie like “Million Dollar Baby” wins. It’s another for a show to be predictable, when mediocre or bad pictures get the Academy’s seal of approval, as was the case with “Titanic” and “Gladiator.”

In a survey conducted over the past ten days among critics and avid moviegoers, “Gladiator” featured as one of the worst movie to ever win Best Picture. In fact, the survey showed that the last film to get the broad approval of critics and movie lovers was no other than Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

Indeed, recent Oscar winners were truly disappointing films. “Braveheart” shocked the system, “American Beauty” was dismissed by critics as derivative, “Gladiator” received mixed reviews, and “Titanic” divided critics sharply.

But this was not the case of “Million Dollar Baby,” which was embraced by all reviewers. In an unusual consensus, the two chief New York Times critics placed the film at the top of their Ten Best List. Other critics, like Roger Ebert, declared it a masterpiece.

But what is a masterpiece The label may be attached too lightly to too many films. To me, masterpieces are films such as Fellini’s “81/2,” Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” Carne’s “Children of Paradise,” Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Bergman’s “Persona,” Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim, “Godard’s “Masculine-Feminine” and “Weekend.”

In the American scene, I would apply the tag of masterpieces to such films as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” John Ford’s “The Searchers,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Altman’s “Nashville,” Coppola’s “The Godfather” films, Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Despite lengthy careers, most American directors do not make masterpieces, which is a topic for a serious examination. It may be a reflection of the conditions under which they work and the economic-industrial marketplace.

Good Films, but No Masterpieces

Nonetheless, the Oscar race this year represented the best of the American cinema, both mainstream and independent, even if there was not a single masterpiece among the five nominees.

Perhaps a better way to analyze this year’s Oscars is to examine the place that the winning picture occupies in Eastwood’s careers and the specific reasons for its universal acceptance.

The oldest (74) directing winner in the Academy’s annals, Eastwood has not made a masterpiece yet, though “Unforgiven” comes close. “Mystic River,” which was Oscar-nominated last year, is a better, or at least less problematic, picture than “Million Dollar Baby,” which is a very good but not distinguished film.

Why did Million Dollar Baby win Best Picture?

Here are some reasons for consideration:

  1. Made by Hollywood’s favorite son, the most respected filmmaker working today, who makes personal auteurist films within the system. Clint is now experiencing another creative peak in his long and productive career as an actor, director, and producer.
  2. Small budget (by industry’s standards), which means “Million Dollars Baby” will make a lot of money, both domestically and internationally.
  3. Balances admirably commercial and artistic elements. For starters, look at the stylized lighting, which borrows from film noir and European art films.
  4. Deals intelligently with an important social issue that has not been dealt by a Hollywood picture before, just like other previous Oscar-winners: “The Best years of Our Lives” (adjustment to civilian life by WWII soldiers), “Gentleman’s Agreement” (anti-Semitism), “In the Heat of the Night” (Racism), “Philadelphia” (AIDS). Nonetheless, “Million” avoids the generic pitfalls and confining characteristics of the Hollywood Social Problem Picture.
  5. Based on an intergenerational, interracial plot, without making a fuss about either element.
  6. Represents the accomplished work of its three central actors: Eastwood (in his very best screen performance), Morgan Freeman (who’s always brilliant), and Hilary Swank, who has not been that good since “Boys Don’t Cry,” in 1999.
  7. Embodies the rags-to-riches American Dream, which defines the screen character’s as well as Hilary Swank’ real life.
  8. Suggest that professional families (here formed by Eastwood, Freeman, and
    Swank) are far more important than biological families (Eastwood’s and Swank’s),
  9. Boasts a light feminist streak: the protagonist is a boxer, which is still a male-dominated profession.
  10. Recalls the Golden age of the American cinema, the character-driven films of Lumet (this year’s Oscar honoree), Cassavetes, Altman, Warren Beatty, Coppola, Scorsese, Hal Ashby, and others
  11. Appeals to viewers’ hearts and minds. Unfolding as a love story, it’s possible to enjoy the film and to be emotionally touched by it without ever debating the controversial social issue at it center. And, conversely, the film provides thought provoking material for the more cerebral viewers. When was the last American movie to have done that so skillfully, sensitively, and artfully
  12. Ambiguous and open-ended in the way that the “Beautiful Mind,” chosen by my survey as one of worst Oscar-winning pictures) was not. Ron Howard’s film was dismissed by critics as neat and simplistic; several respondents described it “Disease TV Movie of the Week,” a label that cannot be applied to Eastwood’s movie.
  13. A tale of redemption, “Million Dollar Baby” also operates on a mythic-religious level. The film’s central local, the gym, is not just a workplace, it’s a “church,” where individuals’ psychological needs are better served than by their families or religions.

The winner of the directing Oscar usually gets carte blanche in making his next picture. Which explains such anomalies as Richard Attenborough, the least suitable filmmaker to make a musical, could direct (and thus destroy) the screen version of “A Chorus Line,” in the wake of sweeping the Oscars with “Gandhi.”

Hopefully, for his next project, Clint will not have to fight the Warner honchos, as he did with “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby.”

Go ahead, Clint, make our day!

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