Times May Have Changed, But Oscars Still Suspenseful

By all accounts—most notably the amusingly disenchanted commentaries by Caryn James, David Carr and Paula Schwartz in The New York Times—this year’s Oscars will be considerably less uncertainty-laden than usual, particularly in the four acting categories. This is to say that Helen Mirren (in The Queen), Forest Whitaker (in The Last King of Scotland), and Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy (in Dreamgirls) have all won so many awards leading up to the Oscars that the only suspense remaining in their categories will be how much they choose to depart from their too-frequently-televised acceptance speeches. Indeed, the biggest shock for the Oscar gurus this year has already occurred with the surprising disinclination of the Academy even to nominate Dreamgirls for Best Picture, after so many journalistic handicappers had predicted that it would be a shoo-in for the top prize. To add auteurist insult to genre injury, the Oscar voters also passed up writer-director Bill Condon in the nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, even though Dreamgirls led the pack with a total of eight nominations. One disgruntled scribe played the race card by suggesting that a mostly white male Academy voting membership had rejected an all-black musical, even though no fewer than five African-American performers, as well as two Latinas and one Asian, make up a sizeable chunk of the nominees for best acting this year. And far from being token choices, three of the five black candidates are heavy favorites to take home the Oscar.

All of which, I suppose, provides only a momentary distraction from the parlous state of the film industry, as well as of the world in general. But if there is one lesson I’ve learned over the years from my experiences as a would-be Oscar guru, it is that one should never bet the rent money on a so-called sure thing on Oscar night. So I am not making any predictions this year, even though I will be glued to my set for the annual display of vanity and folly that gives so many of us the excuse to feel morally superior.

This year, I warmed up for the Oscars by watching most of what transpired at the Golden Globes, a much more convivial ceremony than the Academy’s evening of strained non-expressions and clenched smiles. Not that there wasn’t a full quota of clenched smiles at the Globes—but there, the smiles are well lubricated with free liquor and gift baskets galore. My favorite loser’s smile was Renée Zellweger’s, who must have known that she didn’t have a chance against Helen Mirren, who had to make two different acceptance speeches for the two different Elizabeths she’d played this year (in The Queen and in the TV miniseries Elizabeth I). As usual, the wittiest acceptance remarks were delivered by two British actors, Hugh Laurie and Bill Nighy, for their performances on television. I must confess that the loathsome and overrated Sacha Baron Cohen made me laugh with his off-the-wall (and disgusting) remarks about looking up the anus of his fat nude-wrestling partner, who was shown sitting in the audience with a comically unconcerned expression. I wonder if Mr. Cohen will deliver the same acceptance remarks at the Oscars should he win for Best Adapted Screenplay (for which he was nominated, somewhat mysteriously, since I can’t imagine the literary or theatrical work that Borat was adapted from).

Of course, there will be the usual opportunities for the Academy to bestow supposedly “sentimental” awards on nominees who have been passed over many times in the past. I stopped believing in Oscar’s big heart around the time that Judy Garland was lying in a hospital bed waiting to be honored for her emotional performance in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), only to have Grace Kelly walk off with the prize for George Seaton’s and Clifford Odets’ The Country Girl, before abandoning Hollywood to hop off to Monaco and assume the role of postcard princess.

The candidates for this year’s heartwarming largesse are Martin Scorsese, who directed the Best Picture nominee The Departed; Peter O’Toole, a Best Actor nominee for Venus, who has been a seven-time loser in his category; and Alan Arkin, the Best Supporting Actor nominee for Little Miss Sunshine, 38 years after he was nominated for Best Actor in Robert Ellis Miller’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), with no other nominations in between. So good luck, Marty, Peter and Alan, but remember another seven-time loser, Richard Burton, as well as six-time loser Deborah Kerr, not to mention all-time icons Greta Garbo and Charles Chaplin, who had nary a competitive Oscar between them.

This year’s Best Picture nominees reflect a crisis in what Hollywood regards as mainstream entertainment. Almost all of the movies that had huge opening weeks are nowhere to be seen. And two of the nominees are spoken almost entirely in languages other than English and require extensive subtitles. Both Babel and Letters from Iwo Jima—the two films in question—have yet to register as strongly with the U.S. paying public as with the critics. The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine are genre entertainments, looked at askance by Oscar gurus for their lack of social significance. And The Queen is thoroughly British, with (so far) disappointing U.S. box-office returns.

This is where the conundrum involving the absence of Dreamgirls from the Best Picture competition becomes especially troublesome. Yet, come to think of it, the only other all-black Hollywood musicals with the slightest mainstream provenance I can recall are Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943), Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954) and Preminger’s Porgy and Bess (1959), and no one ever talked about Oscars for any of these. Of course, times have changed, but one is never sure how much.

It’s no secret to my readers that I didn’t like Babel, so I couldn’t get over its winning Best Picture in the dramatic category of the Globes, with Dreamgirls winning in the comedy and musical division. My fear of Babel winning Best Picture at the Oscars greatly outweighs my hopes for either The Departed or Little Miss Sunshine as an acceptable alternative. For the record, I would also note that despite the widespread lamentations over the lack of good parts for women, the Best Actress category at this year’s Oscars is as strong as any I can remember in the past. Penélope Cruz in Volver, Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal, Helen Mirren in The Queen, Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and Kate Winslet in Little Children have all performed so far above the call of duty that it seems a shame that four of them will end up losers.

My other fears are that Paul Greengrass will win as Best Director for United 93 as a “patriotic” gesture and allow the Academy to deny Martin Scorsese one more time, and that Happy Feet will win for best animation—though my negative feelings about Happy Feet are even more notorious than my negative feelings about Borat. But I learned very long ago to live with the fact that many otherwise estimable people disagree with my most brilliantly thought-out and rendered judgments.

Opera Lovers

Maria Maggenti’s Puccini for Beginners, from her own screenplay, is as close to a bearable bisexual screwball comedy as I have seen in recent years—though I use the term “bisexual” advisedly, since all the switching is confined to the females of the cast, whereas all the males are irrevocably straight. Still, the last thing I want to do is sound excessively sophisticated about the subject. But I do know this: Even the most homophobic males have been known to get turned on by the spectacle of lesbian sex on a two-for-the-price-of-one calculation.

Anyway, this is an independent film targeted for a small art-house audience in the larger cities of the U.S., which is to say that I would be very much surprised if it were exhibited to a larger audience, Brokeback Mountain or no Brokeback Mountain. The action of the film takes place in contemporary lower Manhattan, where young, self-sufficient women gather at all hours in cafés and coffeehouses like the four girls in Sex and the City, though there is also a strong infusion of Woody Allen in the periodic intervention of not-so-innocent bystanders commenting on the coupling and uncoupling of the mostly lesbian characters.

Elizabeth Reaser plays Allegra, the point-of-view protagonist, who has published a well-regarded first novel even before we begin following her on her mini-odysseys back and forth, to and from, a succession of complicated entanglements with two women, Grace and Samantha (winningly played by Gretchen Mol and Julianne Nicholson, respectively), and a man, Philip (also winningly played by Justin Kirk), who successfully seduces Allegra only after he shows that he has both read and appreciated her novel at their very first encounter—which means, for a change, that they meet “smart” rather than “cute.”

The title of the film arises from Allegra’s love of opera as an expression of her deepest, unrealized feelings of romantic love. When we first meet her, she is enjoying a live performance of Puccini’s Turandot with her lesbian girlfriend, Samantha—who, it turns out, is much less of an opera enthusiast, but just tolerates it for Allegra’s sake. Samantha’s major complaint against Allegra, however, is simply that Allegra won’t say that she loves her, even though they’re living and sleeping together. When Allegra can’t get out the magic words, Samantha leaves her and returns to her boyfriend (Brian Letscher), who has asked her to marry him. (Yes, L-E-T-S-C-H-E-R—that’s what it says in the production notes.)

Act II in Ms. Maggenti’s operatically structured screenplay takes us through Allegra’s liaison with Philip, who, we learn from flashbacks, has been stringing along his regular girlfriend, Grace, for years without ever responding to her frequent pleas to get married. Allegra unwittingly bumps into Grace one day in the park and soon initiates an affair with her.

Act III throws all five of these merry-go-rounding participants into the same engagement party by a series of contrivances that defy synopsizing. I won’t spoil the fun by revealing who finally winds up with whom, except to say that Allegra has become a little older and a little wiser in the process.

Allegra’s three Sex and the City–like companions, Molly (Jennifer Dundas), Nell (Tina Benko) and Vivian (Kate Simses), complete the very accomplished ensemble that makes Puccini for Beginners an above-average adult entertainment. You may not believe the very convenient sociology that gives the characters all the time in the world to experiment with different relationships. But a number of scenes in the film are charming and engaging, with a genuinely unforced lightheartedness, and that takes more than a little expertise on the part of Ms. Maggenti, as well as her cast and other collaborators.

Suffering Sarajevo

Jasmila Zbanic’s Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams, from her own screenplay (in Bosnian with English subtitles), arrives on our shores with many honors in hand, including the Grand Prize at the A.F.I. Los Angeles International Film Festival and the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival. It is also the official entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the 2007 Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar and the European Film Awards nominee for Best Film and Best Actress (Mirjana Karanovic, best known in the U.S. for her role in Emir Kusturica’s world-acclaimed 1985 masterpiece, When Father Was Away on Business).

Grbavica is the name of an unruly Sarajevo neighborhood that served as an internment camp during the “ethnic cleansing” portion of the 1990’s civil war that fragmented the former Yugoslavia into its present multi-state ethnic constituencies. Grbavica is still plagued with instability, an impoverished and virtually lawless environment in which Esma (Ms. Karamovic), a single 40-year-old mother, is trying to bring up her 12-year-old daughter, Sara (Luna Mijovic). Sara is terrified that her mother may abandon her when she sees Esma taking on two jobs in order to provide the “extras” for her daughter. Sara wonders also why Esma never talks about her late husband, who is supposed to have died a martyr’s death, like so many of the other fathers in Sara’s school.

A family crisis arises when Sara wants to go on a school trip with her classmates. She informs her mother that a discount on the heavy cost of the trip can be obtained if Esma provides a certificate attesting to the fact that Sara’s father was a shaheed—a war martyr. When Esma is unable to produce the certificate, Sara’s already shaky world crumbles completely. Esma then confesses to all and sundry that Sara was conceived as the result of a continual gang rape by enemy soldiers who were holding her prisoner.

The point of the film, however, is not so much the climactic revelation of Sara’s true parentage, and the strangely sluggish narrative in which it is embedded, but rather the dismal day-by-day existence in postwar Sarajevo, which is still recovering the corpses from all the carnage of the 90’s. The nuts and bolts of Esma’s two jobs get a great deal of attention, from the womanly camaraderie of her day job in the shoe factory to her job as a waitress in a wild nightclub which almost seems to double as a brothel.

Ms. Zbanic violates one of Anton Chekhov’s best-known axioms of dramaturgy, the one from The Three Sisters to the effect that if one introduces a gun in the first act, it must be used by the last act. There is much brandishing of guns in Grbavica, but none is ever fired, which may be just as well given the film’s theme of survival on the edge of a cliff, from which Esma and Sara are too sympathetically presented for them to jump into oblivion. Hence, there remains some hope for them, as well as for the rest of suffering Sarajevo.

Times May Have Changed,  But Oscars Still Suspenseful