Friday, April 30, 2021

How to Turn Brilliant into Boring (even with Chadwick Boseman in the Lead Role)

 The following was written before Oscar night. See below for my thoughts on why Boseman, despite all predictions, did not posthumously receive the Best Actor Oscar. 

  (1) Get the best talent money can buy. Get On Up not only has Boseman but also Viola Davis, in the small but key role of the mother who abandons young James but then, years later, sidles into his dressing room at Harlem’s Apollo Theater (Both Boseman and Davis came close to winning  Oscars for their very different roles in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.)

   (2) Stage terrific musical numbers. Boseman only did some of his character’s singing, with Brown’s own voice also featured. But he dances up a storm, and has perfected Brown’s trademark leaping splits, while other musicians in the film are also first-class.

  (3) Hire top-drawer craft personnel, especially those with expertise in hair and makeup. Brown’s black-black locks change their shape and trajectory in almost every scene. This helps the viewer keep track of the passage of time, which is extremely vital because the film’s chronology is so scrambled. (See #4.)

 (4) Decide that cause-and-effect is not nearly so important as an arty bouncing between various widely separated eras. The viewer doesn’t dare blink, for fear of finding herself ricocheting from the piney Georgia woods of Brown’s early days to a crowded recording studio to a Paris concert hall to a country church. .

  (5) Throw in some surreal touches for good measure. Why does young James encounter an unexplained lynched body in the woods? Yes, this might be true to the period, but how does it relate to this particular story? And why do we lurch from the funeral of James’ longtime manager (Dan Ackroyd) to a vision of Ackroyd lying dead on a golf course?

  (6) Fail to decide what the story’s really about. This is a big one, as I emphasize to my screenwriting students. It’s not sufficient to take a subject from cradle to grave, cramming in every detail of a long, complicated life. The key is to focus on a particular area of concern, like Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality or Billie Holiday’s battle with the FBI.  Get On Up wants to cover everything about Brown: his lost childhood, his introduction of a new musical style, his mixed feelings about women, his love/hate relationship with the country of his birth. This ambitious goal inevitably makes for a scattershot approach.

(7) Have plenty of loose threads: intriguing plot elements that surface, but then remain unexplored. Like that first wife: she’s lovingly introduced, along with their baby son, but then she disappears . . . and years later I gather it’s this particular son (Brown fathered at least 9 children) who’s fleetingly mentioned as having died off-camera in a car crash. It’s not good storytelling when you hear about an offscreen death and think, “Who?” 

 Follow these steps, and I guarantee that your audience will be on its way to slumberland.

* * * * * * * * * 

And now some thoughts about what happened on Oscar night, when Bosemanto the surprise of all, including the evening’s organizers—lost the Oscar to 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins for his stunning work as a delusional old man in The Father.

 (1)  Academy voters assumed that Boseman (the sentimental favorite because of his early death) would surely win, which left them free to exercise their independence by exploring other options.

 (2)  Some voters strongly disliked Ma Rainey, considering this screen version of an August Wilson drama basically a filmed play, filled with performances more theatrical than cinematic. Their vote was a rejection of the lengthy theatre-style monologues that made Boseman’s work in the film so incendiary.

 (3)  Political correctness can be its own form of oppression. So much ink was spilled about the strong possibility of people of color taking all four acting prizes-- to make up for past Academy wrongs -- that some voters doubtless deliberately chose to look beyond skin tones in making their choices. So the Oscar went to a Black man, a Korean woman, and two white actors. Diversity, right? 

 But what do I know?