My Shameless Oscar Post

If it’s good enough for the L.A. Times and the N.Y. Times, who am I to buck it? Apparently if you write lots of copy about the Oscars, the movie studios will buy huge ads on your site. I haven’t yet tried to pick up any advertising dollars for this site, but if you’ve got the check, I’m sure I can figure something out. But if I don’t hear from anyone, this is probably all I’ll say about the Academy Awards. The way my wife and mother feel about the Super Bowl–that’s exactly how I feel about the Oscars. I’ll work on my screenplay while it’s on. So there. To be nice, maybe I’ll make my wife some guacamole.

Bill Murray.jpgMy thoughts on the Oscars were triggered by Forbes.com’s list of the best-paid actors and actresses. (The list is on a slide show, so I can’t easily reproduce it here. You’ll have to follow the link.) What’s striking is the degree to which this year’s Oscar nominations are completely unhooked from the business of movies, the films and stars that actually appeal to audiences.

“Best-paid” is probably a lagging indicator — I doubt “Everybody Loves Raymond” co-star Patricia Heaton is going to be on this list next year unless Albertson’s sells a lot more groceries — but it’s still the strongest signal of what audiences are interested in. For a few examples:

  • Jennifer Aniston, $18.5 million — The only good movie she’s been in was the indie “The Good Girl,” but she’s probably still making money from “Friends” syndication. “Friends” got old fast for me, for just the reason that I think it remained popular. It’s “time porn,” a vision of a fantasy life in which six friends can hang out together several times a day, as opposed to how it is in the real world where you need to plan six months ahead to get that many friends in one place. Jennifer Aniston is the queen of time porn, and will be rewarded for it for years to come, even if all the rest of her movies are as bad as “Rumor Has It…” supposedly was.
  • Sandra Bullock, $10.5 million, probably due to her appearing in a sequel of the popular “Miss Congeniality.” I didn’t see the first one, so I didn’t bother with the second one, but Bullock is at least in the vicinity of the Oscars for having appeared in the nominated “Crash” as the bitchy, racist wife of the pandering, race-card-playing D.A. She was good in that movie, which of the nominated movies that I’ve seen, was my favorite. But she was better in the flying bus movie, and I suspect she gets big-payday job offers because she still has some of that movie’s magic fairy dust on her shoes.
  • Will Ferrell, $40 million. Ferrell’s wealth seems completely deserved. Sure, his major 2005 vehicle, “Bewitched” was a flop, but he got paid all that money because he entertained us with his deranged normal guy schtick in “Anchorman” (a good reason to have cable is to see the bits and pieces of “Anchorman” that don’t hang together, but are funny in 15-minutes chunks), “Old School,” and his utter disconnection from reality in the wonderful “Elf.” Everything that is wrong with the Oscars can be summed up in the fact that “Elf” was not nominated for anything, even though it is a beautifully funny movie we will be watching years after this year’s contenders are long forgotten. Ferrell also is hilarious in a small role in “Wedding Crashers” — another entertaining movie that it occured to no one at the Oscars to nominate.
  • Tom Cruise, $31 million. I was surprised in looking over Cruise’s list of recent movie credits how many of them are either small, arty films or movies considered to have been unsuccessful. But he rebounded with “War of the Worlds,” which did not get nominated in any of the major categories. Do Oscar voters think they know better than the audiences they are supposedly marketing to? “War of the Worlds” might have been just another space aliens movie, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Why do Oscar voters think an action film like that deserves no consideration?
  • Matt Damon, $27 million. He’s sort of the junior version of Tom Cruise, an actor who’d rather be known for his arty roles, but instead gets cast in franchise movies like “The Bourne Identity,” which was pretty good, and the “Oceans 11-12 (and soon) 13” films. He’s got a role in an Oscar-nominated film, “Syriana.” That movie’s success at the awards won’t make a difference in his earning power. But it probably makes him feel good to be associated with George Clooney’s ongoing campaign to save the world from hateful Republicans.
  • johnnydepp_edwood.jpgJohnny Depp, $37 million. Depp’s is a career I can admire. I’m sure Cruise and Damon look at Johnny Depp and say, “How’s he do it?” Aside from being one of the best actors around: When Depp picks a sure money-maker, instead of picking a film that’s violent or slickly cool, he picks the kind of film almost anyone can enjoy, including children. This year he was in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Successful movie, but it never occured to Oscar voters to even consider it. I guess they felt they’d already given him a nomination for being in a crowd-pleaser, “Pirates of the Caribbean,” a movie based on a Disneyland ride for Pete’s sake. My favorite Depp movie is “Ed Wood.”

That’s probably enough from Forbes’ list to make my point, if in fact I have one. To me, the Oscar voters too frequently pick films that display the kind of high ideals that generate standing ovations, but soon disappear from the public’s consciousness. Winners like “Out of Africa,” “Platoon,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Braveheart,” “The English Patient,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “American Beauty,” or “Chicago” aren’t bad movies, but they aren’t films people love to see over and over.

There are plenty of films like that in every genre, but they never get nominated. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “Terminator 2.” I love it every time. But I’m not just focused on action. “You’ve Got Mail” is wonderful and holds up to repeated viewings. Neither won any Oscars. For a movie-that-feels-like-a-movie to win, it has to make outrageous amounts of money, like “Titanic,” “Lord of the Rings” or “Silence of the Lambs.” And, you get the feeling the Academy was a little embarassed to hand out those awards.

To me, the best American movie of the past 20 years is clearly “Groundhog Day.” It has everything you want in a movie. It’s funny. It’s original. It has an emotional payoff. The character’s journey has a point. The performances are perfect. And I can watch it 100 times and still enjoy it. It didn’t come close to winning any kind of awards. When Harold Ramis wins an Oscar, it will be for lifetime achievement. He just needs to be content with having made three of the funniest, most enduring movies in history: “Animal House,” “Caddyshack” and “Groundhog Day.”

This year’s nominees all seem like “Out of Africa” type movies to me. Now…big admission here… I haven’t seen all of them. I’m like the Bill Murray movieland reporter on SNL; I feel qualified to make these judgments without having to sit through the films. Maybe when I finally see “Brokeback Mountain,” I’ll think it’s on a par with “Groundhog Day,” but I doubt it.

I did see and appreciate “Crash” and “Capote,” but neither is a great movie. The 2005 movie you’ll be watching over and over again on cable ten years from now will be “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” followed by “Wedding Crashers,” “Charlie…” and maybe an interesting thriller like “Red Eye.”

The Oscars’ emphasis on being impressive rather than good reminds me of people I knew in college who wanted to be seen on campus carrying around unreadable novels by John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and William Gass. (Come to think of it, that was me. But I’ve reformed.) There’s a time for that, but making all of America watch Hollywood try to convince itself of its own artistic merit this way is sad. I’m not suggesting box office should drive the awards. All I’m saying is, Oscars should be given to filmmakers who understand what makes a great movie, and not just honor good intentions.

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