Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The 88th Academy Awards

Sunday night the 88th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Ratings for this year's Oscars were at an eight year low, I suspect because many people might not have been interested in this year's Best Picture race (aside from Mad Max: Fury Road there were no real blockbusters nominated in the category). While the average television viewer might not have been interested in this year's Academy Awards,  the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences found a good deal of press this year after controversy over the nominees in its acting categories being entirely white for the second year in a row. The controversy over diversity in the Academy's ranks and the nominees for awards dominated much of the press regarding the Oscars as well as the Oscars themselves.

As to the controversy over the Academy and diversity I have two thoughts. The first is that I do not think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences alone can be held responsible for a lack of diversity in its nominees. Instead I would blame the American motion picture industry at large for a lack of diversity in the movies they make. For the year 2015 I can think of a whole lot of films with white leads and I can think of  a a few films with black leads. That having been said, I can think of no films with Latino leads, East Asian leads, South Asian leads, or Native American leads. Quite simply, if Hollywood at large does not cast minorities in lead roles in major films, how is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science going to be able to nominate minorities for the acting categories?

My second thought is disappointment in how the discussion on diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unfolded both in the press and at the ceremony itself. Quite simply, it seemed to me that the discussion addressed the Academy and industry's lack of diversity only in terms of black and white. Only a very few noted that Hollywood's lack of diversity is a problem that affects all minorities. As I said above,  I can think of no films made in 2015 with Latino leads, East Asian leads, South Asian leads, or Native American leads. For that matter gay, transgendered, and disabled characters are still relatively uncommon in American films as lead characters. Indeed, I have a dear friend of Pakistani descent who expressed similar disappointment in how the discussion unfolded given she almost never sees people who look like her in American films and only a few on American television. I will admit that Hollywood does need to make strides in casting black actors in lead roles, but it also needs to make great strides in casting other minorities as well.

With regards to the Academy Awards ceremony itself, for the most part I don't have any real opinion on the winners and losers. Sadly, this past year I didn't get to see any of the movies nominated for Best Picture, not even Mad Max: Fury Road. I will admit that I was surprised that Spotlight  won the Oscar for Best Picture. Quite simply, except for The Big Short, Spotlight was the nominee I had heard the least about. While I knew it had won quite a few critics' awards, I had heard much more about Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, and Room. Indeed, most of my friends seemed to be favouring Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Room for Best Picture. What is more, momentum seemed to be favouring Mad Max: Fury Road  and  The Revenant going into the ceremony. I was then rather surprised that Spotlight won.

Having seen none of the nominees this year, I really did not have any opinion on the Best Actor category either. That having been said, I am glad that Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar. Having been nominated three times before for Best Actor, I almost thought he was on his way to becoming the Susan Lucci of the Oscars--always nominated, never winning. While I have not yet seen The Revenant, I have to suspect he deserved the award. I have always thought Mr. DiCaprio was a very talented actor, someone who delivers good performances even when a movie in which he stars may not be particularly good (he was easily the best thing about Titanic).

While I did not have an opinion on most of the categories this year, I do have an opinion (as always) on Best Original Song. I really was not that impressed with any of the songs nominated for Best Original Song this year. While I respect the sentiment expressed in "Til It Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground and I am a Lady Gaga fan, I find the song itself somewhat bland (I blame co-writer Diane Warren for that--she is one of my least favourite songwriters). As to the other nominees, most of them were sub-par and one was downright bad. Sadly it was the one that was downright bad that won the Oscar for Best Original Song. "Writing's on the Wall" is quite possibly the absolute worst James Bond song of all time, worse even than "Die Another Day"by Madonna. Of course, with its win for Best Original Song, "Writing on the Wall" became the worst song besides "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp" and "Lose Yourself" to ever win the award.

While I am on the subject of Best Original Song, I guess I should note that Sam Smith's acceptance speech stirred up some controversy. Quite simply, in his speech he seemed to suggest that he was the first openly gay man to ever win an Oscar. Of course, this is not the case, not even for the Best Original Song category. Howard Ashman won in the category in 1989 for "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid and again in 1991 for "Beauty and the Beast" from the movie of the same name. He was nominated several other times, the first being in 1986 for "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space" from Little Shop of Horrors. Sadly he died of complications from AIDS at age 40 in 1991. In 1991 Elton John won for "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" from The Lion King. I won't even go into the many other categories in which openly  gay men have won Oscars well before Sam Smith....

As to the Oscars ceremony itself, I thought Chris Rock did fairly well as the host. His opening monologue was very funny, even if I wish he had included minorities other than blacks in addressing Hollywood's lack of diversity. For much of the rest of the ceremony he was  bit uneven, with some bits being very funny and some falling flat. The one major misstep Mr. Rock made was in a bit in which the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants are portrayed as Asian American children. I personally found the joke offensive, especially given the controversy over diversity that has surrounded this year's awards. A lot of people on Twitter did as well. One can't really talk about diversity and then turn around and make light of ethnic stereotypes.

As to the presenters at this year's awards, only two really impressed me. One was Priyanka Chopra, who with Liev Schreiber presented the Oscar for Best Film Editing. It wasn't anything she particularly said, just the fact that she is Priyanka Chopra... The other was Louis C.K., who was extremely funny when he presented the Award for Best Documentary Short. It was easily the best bit of the night and if he doesn't host the Oscars one day I will be surprised.  None of the other presenters impressed me quite so much, although one offended me more than even Chris Rock's joke about the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants. Sasha Baren Cohen presented the Oscar for the films Brooklyn and Room in his guise as Ali G. Not only was he extremely offensive, but he did not even give Olivia Wilde a chance to talk. I have always thought Sasha Baren Cohen was exceedingly unfunny and often offensive as well, so I am a bit surprised they even allowed him to present anything on the Academy Awards.

As to this year's In Memoriam segment, I was once more disappointed. While I thought Dave Grohl did a very good rendition of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird", once more the Academy omitted many who died the past year from the segment. Among others they omitted Patrick Macnee (best known from TV's The Avengers, he appeared in such films as the 1951 version of Scrooge, Les Girls, and This is Spinal Tap), Coleen Gray (Red River, The Killing), Martin Milner (Sweet Smell of Success), Monica Lewis (Excuse My Dust, Earthquake), Joan Leslie (High Sierra, Sergeant York), Abe Vigoda (The Godfather), Betsy Palmer (Mister Roberts) and Geoffrey Lewis (The Culpepper Cattle Co.). Now I realise that the Academy might wish to honour those who were members and contributors to the Academy before anyone else, the fact is that most people (film buffs and the general public alike) regard the Oscars as a celebration of Hollywood and the movies. The In Memoriam segment should then be used as an opportunity to honour those who have died in the past year who have made significant contributions to the movies whether they were Academy members or not. All of the people I listed made significant contributions to film. I realise the past several years the Academy has been concerned about the length of the awards ceremony, but the In Memoriam segment is not the place to make cuts. I think I can speak for many when I say that the In Memoriam segment should be much longer and much more inclusive.

Speaking of things being cut from the Academy Awards, I also have to say that for next year they should begin once more including the honorary Oscars as part of the proper ceremony. For the past many years the honorary Oscars and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award have been awarded at a separate Governors Awards ceremony. This year Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands won honorary Oscars, while Debbie Reynolds won the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. To me these should have been given out at the primary ceremony itself. First, I think it is important for the Academy to remember movie history and to honour those who have contributed to it. Second, I think I can speak for most classic film buffs when I say we would rather see Debbie Reynolds than Ali G. There is a good deal of fat that can be cut from the Oscars to make room for the honorary awards.

Regardless, I am hoping that by the next Academy Awards ceremony there will be some major changes. I hope that we will see more diversity in the casting of roles this year. I also hope that next year's In Memoriam segment will be longer and much more inclusive. Finally I hope they return the honorary Oscars to the main ceremony itself.

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