Saturday, February 23, 2013

When I Stopped Caring About the Oscars

I was a little stuck for a post idea today, because I'm assuming you aren't interested in "Why Boxers Are the Cutest Dogs in the World, Oh Yes You Are, Oh Yes You Are!!!" (We've been spending our last several Saturdays looking at rescue puppies.) I thought about doing my Oscar picks...but then I looked at the list, and realized that a) I had absolutely no idea which way those withered old prunes at the Academy would vote, since it seemed to have no correlation at all with the actual quality of the films, and b) I had absolutely no ability to care, since I had no respect for the decision-making ability of the Academy and no longer view an Oscar as any kind of sign of a film's quality or lack thereof.

So instead I'm going to talk about when that started and why.

Let's take a quick trip back to 1996. I'm in college, I'm a lit major, and Kenneth Branagh's 'Hamlet' is in limited release. The film pretty much only did a limited release; it was so damn crazy prestigious and ambitious they couldn't get most theaters to show it. A four-hour long unabridged, uncut adaptation of 'Hamlet'? Every scene, every line of a Shakespeare play? Yeah, that's not going to Mall of America 14. The only theater in the Twin Cities to even show it was the Uptown, an independent arthouse theater that showed prestige films and foreign movies. I didn't care about any of that; I just knew I had to see this movie. It was 'Hamlet', my favorite Shakespeare play, as performed by Ken Branagh, who'd done previous adaptations I liked a lot. (I forgive him his casting of Keanu. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.)

So off I went, one cold January day in 1997, to see 'Hamlet' when it finally got around to Minnesota. And I was stunned. The film was lush, it was vivid, and it was spectacularly dynamic--there are scenes in the play that I still feel like I never truly understood until I watched the Branagh version. (His treatment of the "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation with Ophelia, for example, is absolutely astounding and explains Hamlet's abhorrent treatment of her in terms that the audience can understand--he thinks that she's in on Claudius' full conspiracy, not recognizing that she's being used. Which is entirely in keeping of his murder of Polonius and his actions throughout the play.) This was, in short, a magnificent experience.

About halfway through, the heating broke.

Let's repeat this: The heating broke, in January, in Minnesota, during a four-hour movie. And I sat through it anyway. And the next day, I went back out and saw it again. The heating still wasn't working. I didn't care. That is how good Ken Branagh's 'Hamlet' is--I will watch it in sub-freezing temperatures.

The Academy nominated it for four awards. It was not nominated for its direction, for any acting awards (despite having a cast that included Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Kate Winslet and Richard Briers as well as Branagh himself) or for Best Picture. All it got were two technical nominations (Art Direction and Costume Design), Original Score and Screenplay. It lost three of those to 'The English Patient', and the fourth to 'Sling Blade'. Let's repeat that--what is arguably the greatest work of literature in the history of the English language, in the eyes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,  somewhere in the same neighborhood but not nearly as good as "Forrest Gump Meets Psycho". (Actually, more like "Psycho II".)

After that, I just couldn't respect their decision-making abilities any further. I watched the awards a few more times (most notably a psychologically-scarring night out in 2002 at a cinema grill in Raleigh that "livened up" the commercial breaks with their amateur variety show. Emphasis on "amateur".) But ultimately, the show isn't entertaining when you don't care who wins, and I don't.

There are other "WTF?" moments in the history of the Oscars, like their inexcusable failure to nominate 'WALL-E' for Best Picture or their snub of 'Pulp Fiction' in favor of the overhyped 'Forrest Gump'. But 'Hamlet' is always going to be the one that sticks with me. So yeah, it'll probably be 'Lincoln' or 'Argo' or something that wins 'Best Picture', or possibly 'Django Unchained' simply because someone will have decided that Tarantino deserves a "make-up" Oscar for the one he should have gotten. But it won't matter to me.


Kevin Brennan said...


Branagh's version is just fantastic. I mean, thousands of pages have been written trying to explain Hamlet's motivation and yet watching Branagh's version everything just makes sense.

The one that hit home for me: Hamlet's "indecisiveness". It's clear with Branagh's performance that he really isn't sure whether the ghost is real or just a hallunication (or a devil trying to tempt him) for most of the story, which is why he doesn't go after Claudius. Only after the "play within a play" is he really certain that Claudius murdered his father, and after that point he's totally intent on revenge.

Oddstar said...

I didn't like Branagh's Hamlet very much, because he did what far too many productions do: he turns Fortinbras' arrival at the end into a surprise attack by which he conquers Denmark, rather than what it actually is in the script, which is Fortinbras' arrival to show his respect. There is literally nothing in the script to suggest that Fortinbras wasn't really attack Poland, or that this was some kind of subterfuge so that he could really attack Denmark. That's why Branagh had to add lines and scenes, as when there is the guard reading the newspaper about Fortinbras' ongoing build-up, or when one of the guards shouts "It's an attack!" right before Fortinbras' men tackle him (because apparently the entire nation of Denmark has two guardsmen).

It wrecks the whole story for me, for two reasons. First, it makes the whole plot meaningless, since it doesn't make any difference what Hamlet, Claudius, or any of the rest of them do if Fortinbras is going to show up to kill them all anyway. Secondly, the whole point of the story is that revenge destroyers the avenger too. Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras all want revenge for their dead fathers. Fortinbras gives up his desire for revenge and prospers; the other two don't and are destroyed. Letting Fortinbras take his revenge by conquering Denmark undermines the whole point.

Unknown said...

I had a similar reaction to the Oscars, only mine was to "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan".

Ironic in light of your post, I know.

Nevertheless, the opening minutes of Private Ryan are harrowing. Nothing short of being in a war is exactly like a war, but the scenes on Omaha Beach are still enough to give viewers a hint of what it is like, and it is terrible. Nothing in Saving Provate Ryan makes war seem like fun or exciting. Instead you feel the terror, the exhaustion, and the pain of it. You can't help but feel that even though there has never been and maybe never will be again a war that was as important to fight as World War II was, war itself is a horrible thing and should be avoided whenever possible. The number of war movies that are able to really teach that to their audience can be counted on one hand, and to me that makes Saving Private Ryan an important film.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare in Love was a breezy comedy that I quite enjoyed but hasn't stuck with me beyond vague impressions of liking it.

Naturally, the Academy picked the movie that they enjoyed more (or had better marketers and better swag bags) rather than the important one.


Oddstar said...

The problem, Jon, at least as I see it, is that Ryan didn't end after the first fifteen minutes, and Oscar voters quite reasonably had to judge it on the basis of the whole film. And the rest of the film was nowhere near as good. The last act in particular just made no sense.

Dean H. said...

For me, it was Martin Scorsese finally winning for THE DEPARTED.

I was happy for him as a person, but it meant that according to Oscar history THE DEPARTED was his best film. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the film. It is a pretty good police thriller with a bunch of solid performances. However, it is on (at best) the second tier of Scorsese films and (more likely) the third. Scorsese made three utter masterpieces: TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL and GOODFELLAS. Missing on one (or even two) is justifiable, but all three? Moreover, Scorsese made a half dozen other films that were every bit as good as THE DEPARTED.

From there, it was a short leap to realize that the same was true many film-makers. Schindler's List is an admirable film, but it barely cracks the Top 5 of Spielberg's career. If I were settling in for Robert Zemeckis retrospective, I wouldn't be shocked to see the Baby Boomer nostalgia-fest FOREST GUMP omitted and yet somehow it beat a masterpiece, like PULP FICTION. That is before you start with all-time greats, like Hitchcock, or Kubrick, or Welles never winning at all.

Oscar history bears only a modest relationship with film history. Sometimes they get it right, but mostly they get it wrong. Part of that is their traditional aversion to certain genres (comedy, action films, sci-fi, westerns), but when they broke those conventions it was often worse. DANCES WITH WOLVES isn't a Top 5 (or even 10) Western. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE might crack the Top 10 all-time Romantic Comedies, but it would be a judgement call.

Oddstar said...

I realize I've already commented twice without saying when I lost all respect for the Oscars, but here goes. For me it was 2009. That was the year that the nominees for Best Picture were Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire, which won. Now, of those five films, only one, Slumdog, even deserved to be nominated. It certainly did not deserve to win. That was the same year that Iron Man, Dark Knight, Wall-E, and Tropic Thunder came out. Those would have been my nominations in addition to Slumdog, and Dark Knight should have won.

Why did those films get passed over? Well, mostly because they are so-called "genre" films. Iron Man and Dark Knight were both superhero films, which hurt, and Iron Man and Tropic Thunder were both comedies, which probably also hurt. Wall-E was a cartoon, which probably killed its chances. Only three animated films have ever even been nominated for Best Picture, and none of them won.

Now, instead, they've created a special category for animated films. The problem is that there aren't really enough great animated films in a typical year to fill the whole category, so brilliant works of art like Wreck-It Ralph have to go up against Paranorman and Frankenweenie.

Anyway, sorry for going on so long, but I really don't understand why they bother to have a Best Picture category when what it really means is Best Overwrought Drama about an "Important" Subject. By the way, I confidently predict that Lincoln will win Best Picture, even though Argo was by far the superior film. And don't even get me started on the fact that Lincoln, which was at least half an hour too long got a Best Director nomination, and Argo did not. So, yeah, you are absolutely right: The Oscars suck.

Oddstar said...

Sorry to be commenting again, but I have to admit I was wrong: Argo did win, as it deserved. So I guess every so often the Academy gets something right.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I have watched every English language production of Hamelt available on DVD, VHS, and youtube, and with the exception of high school productions and one or two college efforts,
Branagh's version is one of the most inept, poorly done versions ever to hit the screen.

When it lost the Oscar, you could probably hear the howls of joy and celebration coming from almost every theatre expert, actor, and playwright in the world, almost every fiml expert, actor, and screenwriter in the world, and every educated Brit or Canadian.

It's a rather self-absorbed thing for you to dislike the Academy Awards simply because they snubbed a film you happened to like but which the vast majority of Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts found deeply disappointing -- disappointing because it pandered to people, simplified Shakespearean horribly, and would corrupt all future efforts to present Hamlet with any depth or truth to it.

Branaugh gave us a cartoon version of Hamlet dumbed down for Americans. That may make it entertaining, but it certainly doesn't make it worthy of an Oscar.

Anonymous said...

"Branaugh gave us a cartoon version of Hamlet dumbed down for Americans. That may make it entertaining, but it certainly doesn't make it worthy of an Oscar."

That part merits repeating.