Let's Talk Oscars

We Need More Weird Movie Stars
All about the Academy Awards.
Feb. 19 2009 7:07 PM

Let's Talk Oscars

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Dear Troy,

Greetings to you in your stalking perch outside Penélope Cruz's hideaway. (I imagine it smelling like jasmine and paella.) I can't say I've been following Oscar news with the thoroughness that befits a movie critic—if I did, there would have been no time to see actual movies, and Paul Blart: Mall Copwould have passed into history unsung. Awards season is to our kind what campaigning is to politicians, a vulgarly insistent necessity that seems to expand to take up more and more of each year—but as with a political campaign, the day-to-day jockeying and posturing become a sport unto themselves. I sort of agree with Slate's Timothy Noah that Oscar coverage has gotten beyond ridiculous, but for a movie critic, there's nothing more boring than groaning about how over the Oscars you are. (The equivalent, in political coverage, would be those tedious op-eds bewailing public inattention to "the issues.")

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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The Times handles this art-vs.-industry tension by simply farming out the awards coverage to David Carr (aka "the Bagger"), while the main critics occupy themselves with movies as art. Last year, there was that great smackdown between Carr and A.O. Scott, in which Scott said, in essence, "the Oscars are such horseshit" and Carr replied, "Yeah, but who cares? They're fun." Lacking the staffing to play out this dialectic in stereo, Slate has its critics—us—live the ambivalence, simultaneously scoffing at Oscar excess and, admit it, getting our ducks in a row for a ceremonial viewing Sunday night. (I don't like to watch in company because everyone talks at the wrong times, but I keep my best friend on autodial for those special screech-worthy moments.)

Only moments before opening your juicy e-mail about the Oscars, I finished a piece that was a tribute to Boogie Sheftell, the tender, diffident greaser that Mickey Rourke played in Diner. I love Mickey Rourke with all his excesses, his non sequiturs, his Chihuahuas.(Remember when he thanked them at the Golden Globes?) Each shiny shirt and ill-considered interview only makes me love him the more—and enhances in retrospect his extraordinary work in The Wrestler. (He may be a freak, but the dude can focus.) We need more movie stars who are weird—not just Brad-and-Angie adopt-a-rainbow-family level of weird, but gritty, sordid, I-want-to-thank-my-Chihuahuas weird. (This is why I'm convinced, or busy trying to convince myself, that Joaquin Phoenix's breakdown is a put-on; I want him to stick around as a high-functioning nutburger.) Penn will likely win best actor, and God knows he's earned it; I may like him less as a director than you do, but I find Milk a triumph of both politics and art. But no one who cares about a good story—and why else do we go to the movies?—can help but wish that Rourke would get to ascend the podium, shake his bleached forelock out of his sunglass-shaded eyes, and say … well, that's just it. Wouldn't you love to know what on earth he would say?

Hugh Jackman (or as I like to call him, Huge Ackman) was a very odd choice to host if the Academy is hoping, Benjamin Button-style, to "youthen" the Oscars this year. Doesn't he seem like a throwback to an earlier age of entertainment, a man who could plausibly appear on The Ed Sullivan Show or squire Claudette Colbert to the Brown Derby? I'm not anti-Hugh—he has the gameness of a Hollywood utility player, up for dancing or singing or herding digital cattle, and he may prove surprisingly skilled at the required titration of sentiment and schtick. But he's always had, to me, the same strangely rubberized quality as Kim Basinger or early Richard Gere; if you sliced him down the middle, he'd be the same consistency all the way through, like a Barbie doll. Not that I've ever daydreamed about slicing movie stars down the middle. Why are you backing away slowly?

Numerous attempts to read through Nate Silver's highly technical crunching of the Oscar numbers kept stalling out at this sentence: "Formally speaking, this required the use of statistical software and a process called logistic regression." The Academy's voting practices don't involve "logistic regression"; they involve actual regression, the acting out of primitive, unmappable affects like grief, pity, fear, and desire. Not to give Heath Ledger the best supporting actor trophy this year would feel like a desecration of his memory (a sentiment with which I agree, by the way; despite the many other fine nominees in this category, it's gotta be Heath). And Penélope will win for Vicky Cristina Barcelona because, like you, every red-blooded viewer of that movie, male or female, wants to lurk in her, um, bushes. (All scenes in VCB with Cruz and Javier Bardem speaking Spanish=¡Arriba!; all scenes with Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall speaking English=Zzzzz.)

I'm written out for today, so the reality-TV-ization of Slumdog Millionaire, Harvey Weinstein's ongoing attempt to star in his own private oater, and the mystifying momentum of The Reader (no less an eminence than the Guardian's great David Thomson recently called it "easily the best and most disturbing movie of the year") will have to wait. Until tomorrow?

Yours,

Dana

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