Oscars 2017: Part One
The ‘lesser’ awards have now been handed out, and the people who make the magic are tilting the world to the left coast (and if you don’t think its left, just check out the statements of the winners of those awards to-date!). We now have two weeks of parties, dinners and other gatherings of the clan leading up to the big night: The Oscars! As you, my dear readers, prepare your ballots for your own parties – private or pubic – here is my annual Oscars preview. Part One now; and Part Two next week.
Achievement in Directing
Will Win: Damien Chazelle
Should Win: Kenneth Lonergan
OK, we might as well get the conflict started right away. As you will discover throughout both Parts One and Two, I am a BIG fan of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ and NOT a big fan of ‘La La Land’. But I am clearly in the minority: both the popular reviews and the awards at all levels point to a big night for ‘La La’ at the Oscars. And while I won’t deny that Damien Chazelle has made a risky, creative and beautiful film, it is really just a rom-com with music and dancing. And as the writer and director, Chazelle must take responsibility for making a musical that echoes the great singing and dancing films of the past like ‘Singing in the Rain’ – but has chosen two leading actors who can neither sing nor dance to the level required for great movie musical. This is the fatal flaw in ‘La La Land’.
Kenneth Lonergan, however, has put together a cast of actors who may not be as pretty or as well known, but who are simply outstanding at their craft; and who fit together as an ensemble as perfectly as any in recent film memory. Furthermore, Lonergan has taken a difficult, complex story of family, loss and reconciliation set in a lovely but somewhat desolate seaside community, and given us the most beautiful, heartfelt film of the year. I defy you to remember a song from ‘La La Land’; and I defy you not to cry at ‘Manchester by the Sea’. That should be enough said.
Of course, there are other excellent nominations for Best Director, most notably Barry Jenkins for ‘Moonlight’ and Dennis Villeneuve for ‘Arrival’. Jenkins will be the strongest challenger, having delivered a great film. But this is an issue of timing – the right film against the wrong competition. And while Villeneuve draws one of the best performances of her career out of Amy Adams, he fails miserably with the rest of the cast, who mostly just phone in their supporting work. And then there is Mel Gibson. What can I say, besides the fact that ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ is hackneyed filmmaking. Move along Mel, and let the real artists work….
Achievement by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Should Win: Viola Davis
Will Win: Viola Davis
While every performance in this category is excellent in its own way, this is probably the only real ‘no brainer’ among all of the Oscars to be awarded. Standing up to Denzel Washington in a forceful and eloquently quiet way, Viola Davis once again separates herself from her peers as the beleaguered wife in August Wilson’s ‘Fences’. It is very difficult to transfer an intimate, small piece of theater to the big screen; and the acting required in each is very different. We have seen many an actress fail in the transition from one form to the other. But Davis is uniquely able to ‘dial back’ the emotions needed to project the 150 feet to the back of a Broadway house (where she appeared originally with Washington) and then to compress them into the few feet to the camera’s lens.
As noted, Davis has real competition in this category from every one of her fellow nominees, but none of them are matched with a partner like Denzel who can showcase their excellence; nor do they have the magnitude of role that raises them above their peers. Naomie Harris as the mother of Chiron, the young boy struggling with his sexuality as he grows up in Miami, is the perfect portrait of the addict who wants to do better for herself and her child, but cannot overcome her obsessions. Nicole Kidman, as the adoptive mother of Dev Patel’s Indian orphan is outstanding as a mother by choice who beautifully, but tragically, embodies the idea that if you love something you must set it free. Octavia Spencer is the strongest – and often smartest -- woman in the room as the titular leader of a group of black women scientists and mathematicians who must endure racism while enabling the success of the space program. And, finally, Michelle Williams is amazing in a role so heartbreaking and real that you want to reach right through the screen and embrace her when Casey Affleck’s repressed character cannot. In the end, any one of these actresses could legitimately win without criticism. But Viola Davis has the role and the acting partner of the year.
Achievement by an Actor in a Supporting Role.
Will Win: Mahershala Ali
Should Win: Mahershala Ali or Lucas Hedges – but really Sunny Pawar!
Once again, every one of the Supporting Actor nominees is worthy of the Oscar. As is often the case, the supporting roles tend to generate the best acting. Big, leading star turns tend to attract both ‘stars’ – often in the worst sense of the word; and the chewing of scenery for which leading characters are famous. But a supporting role provides more latitude – and nuance. These are the kinds of performances that we are offered in this category. Mahershala Ali, as the reluctant father figure and mentor to a young gay boy/man in ‘Moonlight’, rises above his peers through the very nuance that the role allows. Ranging from tough to tender; macho to mannered; father to mentor, Ali delivers a performance that has great range delivered with quiet authority. While it has likely not been seen by as many people, the Academy will likely take notice of Ali’s SAG win.
But Ali certainly has some notable competition in this category. Newcomer Lucas Hedges, as the recently orphaned teen who Casey Affleck reluctantly inherits, delivers an outstanding performance in ‘Manchester by the Sea’, simultaneously wise and clueless in unexpected circumstances. And Dev Patel is excellent as another orphan, this one the now-grown child who was lost in the slums of Calcutta and the adopted and raised by an Australian family in relative luxury in ‘Lion’. Patel’s intensity and growing obsession with finding the family that was taken away from him as a child is the core of this film; and we both cheer and cry when he finally discovers the gold at the end of his personal rainbow. The only real question is why Sunny Pawar, who plays Patel’s younger self, did not get a nomination in this category. Pawar is a revelation and worthy of his own nomination – as well as a very good reason to see the film.
So there are the first three of the major categories; Part II will be posted in a few days. There is no Oscar contest this year, but I would welcome your comments and predictions! And if you have not seen all of the Oscar nominated movies, this is your chance since ’50 Shades’ is probably not on your list for the weekend – probably.