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Entertainment / movies / February 8, 2009
By Eileen Jones

This will necessarily be a short article.

The Academy Awards are so great because they keep us in touch with the ratty old values of our forefathers and foremothers. We no longer know how to churn butter, or why it’s improper to wear white after Labor Day, but we can still bond with our grandparents over our terrible taste in Cinematic Art.

You can watch the awards ceremony on February 22nd with your great-grandma and, if she’s still alive, chances are she’ll feel pretty comfortable with the whole familiar experience.

For one thing, the ceremony still looks a lot like the old variety show format, which has its roots in vaudeville, and that was once great-grandma’s idea of a hot time. Musical acts, solemn flag-waving recitals, a host or emcee doing intros and telling lame jokes. No plate-spinners or dog acts, though. It seems a shame they didn’t keep those going—we agree with great-grandma about that.

As for the awards themselves, great-grandma could probably win the Oscar pool. She’d look over the nominees and say, let’s see, there must be a high-minded biopic here about a dead or damaged do-gooder or a beloved entertainer or a prominent historical figure. Bet on the actor playing the lead to win. This time around it’s Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, but a few years back it was Helen Mirren winning as Queen Elizabeth II and Jamie Foxx winning as Ray Charles and Julia Roberts winning as Erin Brockovich. Jump back seventy-odd years to 1938 and it was Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town for disadvantaged youth. Back in ’36 it was Paul Muni as Louis Pasteur and back in ‘33 it was Charles Laughton as Henry VIII and back in ’30 it was George Arliss as Disraeli and back in…well, you can’t go back much further, they only started giving out awards in 1928.

You follow me? We’re in kind of a rut here. But that’s good, because it’s only by getting into a rut and staying there that you affirm your cultural values. So here in America we’re planning on giving Academy Awards to high-minded biopics till we rot.

Which is not to say we neglect our big-budget spectacles. No, across the generations we’ve made sure our Best Picture award-winners are among the fattest, frilliest, most special-effect-stuffed monstrosities ever made. Ultimately we realize that most of them are unwatchable—from The Great Ziegfeld to The Greatest Show on Earth to Titanic—but keep in mind it’s our triumphant cultural heritage we’re really celebrating. After all, what was it that allowed Hollywood to dominate those loser film industries overseas if not humongous production budgets no other nation could match, especially after World War I laid waste to Europe?

This year our leading candidates for Best Picture and future-unwatchability are Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. They’re both pretty grotesque, but the word is people consider Slumdog the more spewingly sentimental of the two. Great-grandma says it’s a shoo-in.

Another way the Oscar jamboree ensures that we, the people, bond over our shared cultural treasures is by showcasing movies based on critically pre-approved source material—Pulitzer Prize-winning books, that sort of thing. We may not read the novels that get put into the canon or taught in the classroom or blessed by Oprah, but by God we watch the movie adaptations when they’re up for Oscars. And the same goes for respected Broadway plays. Most of us have no use for “legitimate” theater anymore, but we’re willing to sit through the film versions of plays (or the play versions of films).

So when producers and studio types are wondering which films to plug for possible Oscars, it’s easy to get the ball rolling by checking the source material. John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer for his play Doubt. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Revolutionary Road is adapted from the Richard Yates’ novel that literary types consider a neglected masterpiece. The Reader derives from a prestigious novel by some German professor and Oprah picked it for her book club and it’s about the Holocaust, which seals the deal.

It’s so handy for Academy members to know what’s already been deemed worthy by experts in the older “museum” arts. Takes all the guesswork out of the voting process.

And that’s important if our great-grandmothers are going to continue enjoying the Oscars along with us. An occasional odd or daring nominee is all right, like a comedy performance—that’s what the Best Supporting Actor slot is for. However, when it comes to the big awards, well—we know not what course others may take when handing out film prizes. But as for us, give us earnest pomp or give us death!


Add your own

  • 1. CapnMarvel  |  February 9th, 2009 at 6:35 am

    I can count the number of good movies I’ve seen from 2008 on less than one hand, and none of them are nominated for Best Picture.

  • 2. Mark  |  February 9th, 2009 at 6:56 am

    In Bruges was my favorite movie of the year. I noticed it was nominated for a Golden Globe, but only as Best Picture in a Comedy or Musical, which I guess is supposed to mean not good enough to be Best Picture outright because, obviously, ‘comedies’ aren’t as serious as deep meditations on humanity like Benjamin Button.

  • 3. The People  |  February 9th, 2009 at 7:24 am

    We, the people, have decided to eschew all film related expenses this year and instead dole out our earned pocket money directly to the small group of American filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, Mike Judge, and Alexander Payne who excel time and time again in the delicate art of reminding us of how fucking stupid we actually are.

    Here, here.

  • 4. 2.35:1  |  February 10th, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    I’d be interested to see you critique on those films advertised on this site upon my viewing of this page. The Changeling and Flash of Genius could easily be lumped in the lull of cinema you describe. It only goes to show though Hollywood’s inundation of our systems where its marketing fingers touch every Jane and Joe’s ass.

  • 5. Wozzi  |  February 10th, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I didn’t realize “In Bruges” was a 2008 film, but I would certainly put it up as a contender.

    Eileen, you forgot to mention that “Slumdog Millionaire” was also adapted from a book called “Q&A” by some Indian author.

    English literature is still a small time deal in India so such books are usually read more overseas than they are in India.

  • 6. allseing-I  |  February 13th, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I agree 99% with this article but I cannot say a bad thing about “Slumdog Millionaire”, albeit growing up in a third-world country will make a person sensitive to sort of material… so if I could get beyond my bias, I still wouldn’t pic “in Bruges” as a best picture nominee.. come on man!? don’t get me wrong the movie was cool fine but finally seeing Colin Farell in his element is not enough to warrant that kind of mention… now if we can get back to what is then “Burn After reading” is the definite work to beat… I think it’s a better movie than ” No country..” But the academy can’t stray to far from the self idolization that’s made Hollywood what it is today… and for this reason Heath ledger will win the Oscar for best supporting actor and Slumdog will win best picture. One would give his life, the other gave it’s soul… so that the cycle would endure…

  • 7. nobody  |  February 14th, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    I liked the first line, that part was great.

  • 8. The Amazing Crustacean  |  February 15th, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Valkyrie kicked most of the other movie’s asses, certainly Benjamin Buttons, but it wasn’t even nominated because….

    I’m going to be charitable here and say that it wasn’t nominated despite being a movie that’s top level in almost every way because reviewers don’t want to stray into controversy, especially if there’s a character portraying Hitler.

    If I was less charitable I’d say that the only types of movies about World War II that are eligible to win Oscars are either renditions of “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan”.

  • 9. quinn  |  February 19th, 2009 at 7:28 am

    This is quite untrue, however, Q&A is not a book that actually warrants reading. There are much greater Indian authors writing in English. Q&A is a sorry excuse for a book, and for that matter so is Slumdog Millionaire. The kind of attention it is getting in the West is also quite unwarranted. Slumdog is far from being a great film.

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