Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Academy Picks Its Oscar Favourites

Melissa McCarthy and bunnies

 Some folks in the Dakotas consider me an Oscar expert. I’ve long been a regular guest of Don Briscoe at KSDN in Aberdeen, South Dakota as well as Bob Harris at KFGO in Fargo, North Dakota, giving my predictions over the airwaves as to who will go home with golden statuettes. In truth, though, my insights into Hollywood jibe nicely with the dictum of screenwriter William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

This year’s Oscar ceremony was supposed to be a disaster because it had no host. It was supposed to be (even more than usual) several long hours of endless self-congratulation, interspersed with failed attempts at humor. And, because of the political climate we’re living in – as well as logistical controversies within the Academy itself -- it was supposed to be marked by a good deal of negative emotion. Instead, surprise! This was the briskest show in years, a host’s opening monologue was not missed, and the evening played out in a spirit of “Can’t we all just get along?” If you enjoy listening to angry diatribes, this was not the show for you. Basically it was a good-natured lovefest for those passionate about the joy of making movies.

Which is not to say that it lacked lively moments. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph were cheeky and funny as presenters. Keegan-Michael Key descended from the rafters with an umbrella: shades of Mary Poppins. Melissa McCarthy (a deserving Best Actress nominee for Can You Ever Forgive Me?) took the stage in a regal costume that was an hilarious tribute to the bunnies of The Favourite. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper were touchingly passionate in their rendition of the soon-to-be Oscar-winning ballad, Shallow.

Among the winners were women (including Asian and black women) making history. A victorious short documentary called Period. End of Sentence brought the subject of menstruation into the open. A gracious Mahershala Ali, claiming his second Supporting Actor Oscar in three years, was the first winner I can remember who thanked his on-camera double. (This was the pianist who both coached him and provided the hands for many of Ali’s character’s most vivid musical moments, so he was certainly worthy of a shout-out.)  I agreed with most of the honors, but was sad to see Glenn Close lose for the seventh time. How ironic that she was overlooked by the Academy for her brilliant portrayal of an overlooked wife. Still, it was priceless to hear Best Actress winner Olivia Colman exuberantly burble about how she was delighted, amazed, amused, even embarrassed by her victory over someone she’d long admired. And of course any event that features Spike Lee, in head-to-toe purple, rejoicing in the victory of his BlacKkKlansman script by leaping into the arms of Samuel L. Jackson, has got to feel special. 

Lee didn’t stay happy for long. He kept his seat when Alfonso Cuarón was named Best Director for Roma, but apparently couldn’t stomach the Best Picture victory of Green Book, the feel-good road trip movie that has raised hackles among some in the African American community. That’s when he tried, without success, to head for the exit. It fascinates me that some people are so upset by a movie that sees American life through an optimistic lens. (Others with genuine civil rights credentials, like Harry Belafonte and Representative John Lewis who was present to introduce the film, have given it their unbridled support.)

Significant factoid: There were eight nominees for 2018’s Best Picture. Each one of them nabbed an Oscar (Vice’s was for Christian Bale’s makeup). So a good time was had by most.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Albert Finney: A Rogue By Any Other Name . . .

When I read about the death of Albert Finney, at age 82, I realized how many of his later roles I’ve seen. He was the gamekeeper in on the action in Skyfall (2012), the sinister father in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), and the whimsical yarn-spinning dad in Big Fish (2003). His last of five Oscar nominations came from playing Julia Roberts’ attorney/boss in Erin Brockovich. Whatever the film, he was convincing in a variety of moods and with a variety of accents. But I was always surprised, in those later films, to see what a solid, sturdy man he was. That’s because, when I think of Albert Finney, I can’t help remembering him as a lithe young rogue in the title role of Tom Jones.

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling will be recalled by English majors as a classic British novel, written by Henry Fielding back in 1749. It’s the picaresque tale of a roguish young lad who goes out in the world to seek his fortune, as well as his parentage. One of my great achievements in college was reading the entire novel (some 700 pages long) in a single week, because I couldn’t bear to have the ending spoiled when I walked into my class on the 18th century novel. I’m not sure who got the bright idea that Ton Jones would make a good movie, but the 1963 film written by playwright John Osborne (of Look Back in Anger fame) and directed by Tony Richardson was a triumph. In an era when we were all starting to go bonkers for anything British (like miniskirts, Angry Young Men, and the Beatles), Tom Jones proved to be cheeky, sexy, and above all stylish fun. None of us would soon forget how the droll voiceovers, the Keystone Kops pacing of some of the action, Tom’s winking asides to the audience, and the most suggestive of dining scenes turned the stodginess of most costume dramas upside down. (I wonder, in fact, if the makers of 2018’s The Favourite, looked to Tom Jones for comic inspiration.)

In the title role, Finney (a screen newcomer to most of us back then) was a charmingly boyish mischief-maker. And that roguish glint in his eye continued to serve him throughout his career. The film I personally cherish is from that magic movie year, 1967. That’s when Stanley Donen directed Finney and Audrey Hepburn in a before-its-time movie about love and marriage, Two for the Road. Frederic Raphael (an Oscar winner for Darling) wrote a provocative out-of-sequence script featuring a very young English couple who meet and then proceed to fall in and out of love during a series of road trips through the French countryside. Two for the Road is notable for its candor about sex, fidelity, and the  tarnished promise of happily-ever-after. The scrambled time scheme requires us to bounce back and forth between the fun of first attraction, the joy of commitment, the challenges of child-bearing, and the mixed blessings of financial success. Throughout it all, the two leads remain stunningly attractive, even while their hairstyles change and their modes of transportation become increasingly posh. I don’t think Hepburn has ever looked more winsome, and Finney is fully the perfect match. So perfect, in fact, that rumors abound that their real-life affair on the set of this film is what ended her marriage to actor Mel Ferrer.

Finney turned down a knighthood, and steadily refused to attend Oscar shindigs, even when nominated. Vanity wasn’t part of his nature, but variety certainly was. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Looking at Mary Poppins Through a Glass Magically

In an era keen on updating classic movies—or at least concocting sequels—I admit I have not yet watched the new Mary Poppins Returns, in which Emily Blunt cavorts with Lin-Manuel Miranda. Yes, I’m curious to see how these two super-amiable performers handle their respective roles. Nonetheless my heart still belongs to Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, despite the latter’s atrocious mangling of Cockney English.

Last night I took a turn down Memory Lane when I re-watched the original Mary Poppins, the 1964 Disney musical that introduced film audiences to Broadway’s Julie Andrews and the always-useful word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I’m dating myself in admitting that this film debuted (at L.A.’s palatial and now long-gone Carthay Circle Theatre) during my senior year in high school. Of course in one sense my friends and I were far too old for a juvenile entertainment about two small kids and their nanny. But I suspect that’s part of why we kept going back to see it. On the brink of leaving our families behind as we went off to college and the big world beyond, we felt suddenly sentimental about the cheery days of our childhoods. We’d all encountered P.L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books years before, back when we first learned to read. Though Andrews was, frankly, too pretty and too perky (what’s all this “spoonful of sugar” business?) to be Travers’ acerbic nanny, we loved her just the same,  And it was only natural for us to think of our own early days as magic times.

Re-watching Mary Poppins in the company of a seven-year-old boy and a little girl who’s almost five, I delighted in it all over again. The kids loved the jokes (“A wooden leg named Smith!”), as well as such flabbergasting moments as the characters popping into chalk pictures and having tea parties on the ceiling.  As for me, I was reminded of the movie’s technical cleverness. In an era long before the advent of CGI, amazing things happen. There’s also a fabulous chimney-sweep dance number that rivals the barn-raising sequence in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for male Terpsichore, as well as some droll sight gags and the wonderful work of a slew of character actors. The cast includes such British treasures as  Arthur Treacher, Reginald Owen, Arthur Malet, and the hilariously furious Elsa Lanchester (the Bride of Frankenstein herself!) as a departing nanny. In the larger roles of the children’s parents, it’s a pleasure to see David Tomlinson as a strait-laced papa and Glynis Johns as a lovingly addled mama. And some Old Hollywood royalty appears too: that’s Ed Wynn as the buoyant Uncle Albert (he who floats aloft because he can’t stop laughing) and Jane Darwell (an Oscar-winner as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath) selling bird-seed on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Of course, there are some awkward Disney ironies too. We might well question Disney’s trivializing of the British suffragette movement, as reflected in Glynis Johns’ dizzy performance.
And it’s distinctly odd that the dramatic climax of the film comes when little Michael can’t be talked into investing his pocket-money tuppence in his father’s bank because he’d rather spend it to feed hungry pigeons. We’re meant to be squarely on Michael’s side, but since when is Disney (the new owner of Fox Studios and pretty much half of Hollywood) opposed to red-blooded financial investment? 

But finally, who cares? It’s lovely to enjoy a jolly ‘oliday with Mary Poppins. And the message that childhood is fleeting is something of which we could all use a reminder.