Oscar Wiles: A Roundup of Delights, Disappointments

The 78th Annual Academy Award ceremonies started off as a standoff between “niche” host Jon Stewart and the old, tired Academy audience with its nervously glazed smiles—a far cry from the perpetually hysterical banshees at Comedy Central to which Mr. Stewart is normally accustomed. But then the Comedy Central banshees never have to worry about roving cameras picking up their individual reactions. Mr. Stewart held on, however, to deliver some casual zingers later on as the proceedings became more relaxed. Many previous hosts were on hand in the opening segment, which culminated in Mr. Stewart’s dream that he was in bed with George Clooney.

Mr. Clooney wore a suspicious expression all night that seemed fully justified: Mr. Stewart and his writers were on his case from the start. When Mr. Clooney received the first major Oscar of the evening, the Best Supporting Actor award for Syriana, he quipped that the Academy seemed to be telling him that he wouldn’t be picking up the Best Director and Best Picture awards for Good Night, and Good Luck. I’ve always been suspicious of the Academy’s attempts to build up suspense for its choices by pretending that only two people at Price Waterhouse know who won the awards before the envelopes are unsealed.

The biggest suspense this year involved Best Picture, with Brokeback Mountain and Crash touted as the top contenders, and Best Actress, with Reese Witherspoon favored for Walk the Line, but with Felicity Huffman coming on strong for her transsexual role in Transamerica in a year for shattering taboos—and a year in which Harvey Weinstein actively intervened on her behalf with an elaborate publicity campaign. All the while, I couldn’t help wondering how many Academy voters had actually seen Transamerica, much less people in the rest of the country. But then all the nominees for Best Picture combined made less money than the Best Feature-Length Documentary winner, March of the Penguins, pulled in on its own. But far from apologizing for its low-grossing nominees, Mr. Stewart and his crew repeatedly made fun of Middle America and its prejudices.

Curiously, the satiric needle was inserted much less often into the Bush administration, as had been hoped and feared by the left and the right, than into the film industry, particularly with its ill-advised, time-consuming pleas for people to return to movie houses with big screens so that they could better enjoy the marvelous special effects so little in evidence in the industry’s own Academy-nominated films. Mr. Stewart got one of his biggest laughs when he faux-promised a forthcoming tribute to Hollywood montages.

Dustin Hoffman provided one of the brightest ad lib moments when he commiserated with all the losers in the front row, praising their “good work.” Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep came on to honor Robert Altman by demonstrating with uncommon cheerfulness and generosity his penchant for improvisation. When Mr. Altman came on to accept his honorary award, he startled everyone in our apartment with the revelation that he had received a heart transplant from a 30-year-old woman several years ago, and therefore he was receiving this award under false pretenses, since he still has almost 40 years to go.

Someone told me long ago that the tip-off to Best Picture is the editing award, and sure enough, Crash won both prizes—as had been expected by those who felt that Hollywood wouldn’t burn all its bridges to potential customers in the red states. Similarly, Paradise Now was passed over in the Best Foreign-Language Film competition for Tsotsi, a black South African film. My own favorite foreign-language film among those nominated, by the way, was Sophie Scholl.

I much preferred Woody Allen’s Match Point and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale for Best Screenplay over the eventual winner, Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco’s Crash. My favorite actor this year was Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, but he wasn’t even nominated, and I can live with the choice of Philip Seymour Hoffman in (and as) Capote.

But I was deeply disappointed by the choice of Rachel Weisz as Best Supporting Actress in The Constant Gardener over Amy Adams in Junebug. Similarly, in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, I preferred Josh Olson for A History of Violence over Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain.

On a personally positive note, all was right with the world in the choices of Reese Witherspoon as Best Actress, and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit as Best Animated Feature Film. Finally, I would have preferred William Hurt as Best Supporting Actor in my own personal choice for Best Picture, A History of Violence.

The biggest in-your-face moment was the selection of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” performed by Three 6 Mafia, as the Best Movie Song—prompting Mr. Stewart at his most sagacious to announce the following Oscar score: Three 6 Mafia, 1; Martin Scorsese, 0. Bravo, Jon. People may tell you that you bombed, but it was the audience that actually did.

Party People

Matt Zoller Seitz’s Home, from his own screenplay, underscores the perils of shooting one’s feature-film directorial debut in one’s own freestanding Brooklyn brownstone home. Home takes place on a sweltering midsummer night, when a score of fictional twentysomethings swarms into the building for an all-night house party. One of the male characters seems obsessed with having reached the pivotal age of 29, and he keeps asking various females how old they really think he looks. More than a few of the partygoers of both sexes spend at least part of the evening gazing at their reflections in a bathroom mirror, as if hoping to discover who they really are—or, perhaps, how closely they adhered to the laws of natural selection.

I have always found parties hellish experiences. When I was younger, I assumed that they were great fun until I arrived and after I left—but while I was there, even people I didn’t know were conspiring to make me miserable. Mr. Seitz picks up these overtones of social unease with a group of performers unfamiliar to the general audience, though not without some discernible talent. The problem is that it takes too long for us to figure out the identities of the decisive characters when the dramatic payoffs materialize.

On the whole, the females are less differentiated than the males in terms of hair coloring and physical type, and their names flash by too hurriedly for recognition in a maze of medium group shots. Still, Mr. Seitz is hardly niggardly with the close-ups, though he is clearly torn in distributing his dialogue between what is plausible as party small talk, and what he can sneak in as covert character development for people we don’t know from Adam and Eve.

If one tries to recall successfully chaotic on-screen parties, one has to go back to Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939), Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) and—admittedly an extreme case—Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962). One must remember, however, that the hosts of these parties were considerably wealthier than Mr. Seitz—which, I suppose, proves that money is everything where pleasure is concerned.

Of course, for crass commercial purposes, Mr. Seitz had the option of turning his party into an all-out orgy—but he could hardly do that while filming in the presence of his wife and co-producer, Jennifer Dawson, and their 5-year-old daughter, Hannah. There is a briefly licentious flurry when a few of the partygoers indulge in the juvenile game of spin-the-bottle, and a few intense kisses are exchanged. But for the most part, the proceedings are reasonably polite; with guests in every nook and cranny, more aggressive behavior would have seemed unduly exhibitionist and hardly seductive. By the final fade-out, there have been only two or three resolutions, positive or negative, to the erotic and emotional alliances made during the party itself; the rest is mere flirting and self-promotion.

Curiously, the program notes tell us that the genesis of the project was a proposed short film in which the characters of Bobby (Jason Liebrecht) and Susan (Nicol Zanzarella) meet and connect at a party. Mr. Liebrecht and Ms. Zanzarella do manage to project the necessary on-again/off-again/on-again charismatic electricity once the party is over and they are more or less alone. This leads me to wonder if parties are such a good idea for movies, particularly since the point is usually to humiliate someone.

Ballet’s Best

The enchanting, edifying and exhilarating Ballets Russes, directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller, and written by Mr. Geller, Ms. Goldfine, Gary Weimberg and Celeste Schaefer Snyder (with a narration by Marian Seldes), is still playing hereabouts. You should definitely see it, if only as an object lesson in how to live a satisfyingly productive life in one’s later years—even in a field in which one gets too old at a ridiculously young age. This too-often-self-pitying oldster was veritably inspired by the spectacle of once beautiful and virile artists spending their twilight years teaching beautiful and virile young dancers the precious craft they all share.

Appearing in the film in both their younger and older days are Irina Baronova, Yvonne Chouteau, Yvonne Craig, Frederic Franklin, Alan Howard, Nathalie Krassovska, Alicia Markova, Nina Novak, Marc Platt, Wakefield Poole, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Mia Slavenska (in archive footage), Tatiana Stepanova, Maria Tallchief, Tamara Tchinarova Finch, Miguel Terekhov, Nini Theilade, Raven Wilkinson, Rochelle Zide and George Zoritch. As one may gather from even a cursory glance at this list, the phenomenon of Ballets Russes began as a largely Russian enterprise sparked by impoverished exiles of the Russian Revolution, led by the legendary Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), whose death at the end of the Roaring 20’s led to schismatic battles involving such contentious impresarios as Massine, Balanchine, Hurok, de Basil and others. New York, London, Paris and Monte Carlo served as magnets for the troupes that brought serious dance to the civilized world.

The various recollections are anything but idyllic, as a familiar litany of neurotic disorders accompanies the discordant histories of the various competing companies. On rare occasions, racism rears its ugly head, in the stories of how pioneering African-American dancers were shunted aside to ghettoized venues. I can’t say that I know as much as I should about ballet. This film has filled in many of the gaps for me, in addition to supplying both still and motion-picture footage of such illustrious collaborators in the Diaghilev era as Henri Matisse (1869-1954) and Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971). Oscar Wiles:  A Roundup of Delights, Disappointments