No Concessions: This Year’s Loser Oscar Nominees

Written by Film, No Concessions

Bob Cashill asks if it’s possible to feel bad about a movie that earns an Academy Award nomination. Yes, says sorrowful Way Back star Ed Harris.

Let’s talk about this year’s Oscar nominations. I know they were last Tuesday, but…what? They were the Tuesday before that? Two Tuesdays ago? What…ah, jeez.

Such is my life these days. Besides little remora-like comments on other folks’ hard work around here I’ve been scarce from the Popdose universe, not because of Oscar, but because of another little guy, Ryan, who came into our lives on Jan. 15, just after I wrapped up my end-of-2010 posts (whew!). He joins his toddling sister, Larissa, and together they’re double trouble. When they’re finally put down for the night (or, in the baby’s case, two hours before the next feeding), I mean to post, and there have been things to post about. Like the passing of the great John Barry. Like the passing of the great Tura Satana, the unforgettable “Varla” of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, which I first saw at Northwestern and really heightened my higher education. (If only they’d worked together; what a theme Barry could have written for her.) Like The Green Hornet, The Rite, and Sanctum.

(Just threw that in to see if you’re paying attention. There is nothing to say about any Hollywood movie that opens in Jan-Feb. Not these, anyway. Daily reviewing is a grim job in the dead of winter.)

So, yeah, I’ll say it: As a film guy these days, I’m a loser. Oh, sure, I’ve watched some DVDs, and that will translate into prose soon (“any day now” growls the boss, who does not believe in such extravagant paternity leave). I feel bad that instead of posting I tend to nap between onslaughts of parenting.

But not as bad as the people who shed blood, sweat, and tears on Barney’s Version (pictured) and The Way Back–which I’ve designated this year’s Loser Oscar Nominees.

Let me define this for you. They are not bad Oscar nominees. They are not Biutiful, a movie that may very well be good, but that title (awful) and the grossly overinflated rep of its director will keep me from ever seeing it, at least before the Oscars air. They are not the cinematography of The King’s Speech, a symphony of brown and musk, and one of those rolling snowball nominations that a picture accumulates when the nominating bodies are just ticking off boxes as they hit the technical categories. (OK, I don’t know what goes into it, but The Rite probably has better cinematography than The King’s Speech. All In can say is that if Roger Deakins doesn’t win this year, especially if The King’s Speech wins, there will be hell to pay, once I finish changing diapers.)

They are not worrisome Oscar nominees. They are not True Grit pole-vaulting ahead of The King’s Speech and The Social Network to win Best Picture, which would be horribly embarrassing. A remake of an American film winning the top prize? Gross, unseemly. Bad. I have no problem with The Departed, a remake of a HK film, being the champion. But True Grit winning would be like cannibalism, an Oscar nominee feasting on an Oscar winner.

(And, yeah, I know it happened before, when Mutiny on the Bounty won in 1935 and Ben-Hur won in 1959, but no one recalls the prior Bounty and the the original Ben-Hur was a silent movie. We remember John Wayne in True Grit. It would set a bad precedent–someone would surely figure the Academy for fools and remake The Godfather or Silence of the Lambs and then they would win Best Picture again and pretty soon there’d be no original movies whatsoever being made, just retreads of old Oscar winners that win all the new Oscars. Can we risk this as a nation?)

God, I’m sweating after writing that. Where the hell was I…what, another bottle feeding, at 1:17 am…?

Loser Oscar Nominees, or LONs, as I call them. They are not movies that nab one or two nominations, like, say, Rabbit Hole. That got a good one: Best Actress for Nicole Kidman. Sweet. You can put that on the poster, trumpet it on the web: “Academy Award Nominee: Nicole Kidman, Best Actress.” It’s prestigious, great for business. Keeps the movie alive through awards night. Looks great on the DVD and Blu-ray (“Academy Award Nominee: Nicole Kidman, Best Actress.” Loved her. Like hell she’s winning.) Robert Osborne will say it with pride in a few years on Turner Classic Movies during a future edition of “31 Days of Oscar”: “Our next film, Rabbit Hole, earned its star Nicole Kidman an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress…”

No such glory awaits Barney’s Version or The Way Back (pictured). No new posters will be struck or new TV spots created. As it is, both films are down to two theaters apiece and a few shows daily in New York, which means they are unlikely to be coming to a theater near you. Their DVD and Blu-ray cases may say “Academy Award Nominee,” but what for will be in tiny afterthought type. Yes, they have earned their place in the “31 Days of Oscar” rotation–but Robert Osborne will never introduce them. Ever.

Why? Because they received a nomination for Best Makeup.

That’s a positive for the third nominee in the category, The Wolfman. In fact, it’s kind of nice: the great Rick Baker (monster maker) won the first makeup award for 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, and winning this seventh time for The Wolfman would bring his nominations history full circle 30 years later. (Too late for the theatrical and DVD marketing, though; that wolf has howled.) And it’s obviously great news for Adrien Morot (Barney’s Version) and the trio behind The Way Back, Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk, and Yolanda Toussieng. Morot and Funk are first-time nominees, which is gratifying. Take a bow.

But it’s at the very best bittersweet for everyone else involved in these movies, which I happened to see in December, pre-Ryan. After the screenings I read the presskits, and I felt lousy–why didn’t I like these movies more? These aren’t the usual studio product, but movies that their makers toiled over for 10, 12, years, raising money and fighting for. One’s an adaptation of an acclaimed Mordecai Richler novel featuring Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman; the other the new film from Peter Weir, his first since 2003’s superb Master and Commander, about a true-life breakout from a Siberian gulag and the four years it took for the escapees to reach civilization. Both are labors of love.

And neither is very good. Set in a world unto itself, that of Montreal Jews, Barney’s Version sentimentalizes Giamatti’s selfish and unlikable character, and makes him palatable–which kills any interest we might have in his scrabbling through life and love, with three different women and a cantankerous salt-of-the-bagel dad (Hoffman). All I could hear were echoes of Paul Mazursky’s Enemies: A Love Story (1989), a much different film to be sure, and set in an entirely other milieu, but a richer, more exacting, less slovenly movie that doesn’t pull any punches. Though Giamatti gives it his all, aging 30 or so years (quite well), he seems to be warming up for The Ron Jeremy Story, which doesn’t help. (And Morot isn’t quite as engaged with Barney’s last, more-or-less consuming passion, played by Rosamund Pike. Giamatti’s makeup is subtle; the 32-year-old Pike’s, more a matter of middle-aging costumes and hairstyles.)

The Way Back seemed tailor-made for Weir’s talents. But long-aborning projects like this or Gangs of New York can cook too long, and the film, while respectable, is soggy and exhausting. The early prison scenes, introducing us to a motley crew whose members include Jim Sturgess, Colin Farrell, and Ed Harris (as an American who surrendered his U.S. citizenship in hope of a more fulfilling life in the workers’ paradise, not the only one to have done so), are the best, and are capped by a terrifying scene set in a mine that convinced me the screening room was about to collapse around my ears. The escape, however, is a solemn, enobling trudge, that seems to happen in real time, and the characterizations and dialogue are weak. When Saoirse Ronan (an Oscar nominee for Atonement) turns up as a refugee we think that something unexpected will happen; maybe one of the guys will try to rape her, or eat her. No such luck; she’s absorbed into the fraternity and the movie plods on. It ends with a note of triumph, not that I could hear it as the guy next to me gathered up his coat and briefcase and left with a minute or two to go before the closing credits.

And that’s what it had to have been like at Oscar screenings for each of these films. Dutiful, unenthusiastic watching, everyone mentally grabbing for his or her belongings. Best Picture? Nope. Actors? Feh. Writing? Nada. Sound Editing? Nah. Makeup? Well, the prisoners looked thin and starved and had bad teeth and weird tattoos, and it’s Peter Weir, so, yeah, makeup. Don’t misunderstand; I appreciate good character makeup and like that it gets its due. Yet these are slap-in-the-face nominations when so much more was expected. Their winning, while great for the artists, will only underscore the meagerness. Barney’s Version, Oscar winner: Best Makeup. Wonderful in tandem with a bucketful of other nominations, a little humiliating on its own.

We’ll have more to say about the Oscars as they draw near. (Someone will; I may have little bottles to wash.) This time of the year always gets me thinking about The Oscar (1966), when Tony Bennett rails about “the glass mountain called ‘success.'” Better to be at the top, though, than with a toehold.