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Oscar the Screw-up

When was the last time he got it right?

Steve Burgess 3 Mar

Steve Burgess is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He writes the Please Advise! column and other effluvia as required. He is a former CBC host and author of the 2011 book Who Killed Mom? from Greystone Books. He has won two National Magazine Awards and three Western Magazine Awards.

Raised on the Canadian Prairies, he has lived in Vancouver since 1988. Find him on Twitter @steveburgess1.

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It's pointless to fight Oscar. He owns the hill. Millions watch and millions more pay attention to the results. Every other awards ceremony, cinematic or industrial, gets described as "The (Someplace-or-Something) Oscars." Railing against the Academy Awards is like trying to stem the tide.

So call me King Oscar Canute. The spring tide of Oscar nominations floats a lot of garbage these days. For proof, look no further than the reigning Best Picture winner. Last year's champion, Million Dollar Baby, stands as a lasting indictment to the mediocrity of Hollywood's self-congratulatory night.

Golden boy

Clint Eastwood scored a legitimate Oscar victory in 1992 with the excellent Unforgiven; a meditation on the traditional, violent Western themes that examined the truth behind the frontier myths. Having thus marked himself as best picture material, Eastwood flashed his club membership and entered last year's race with Million Dollar Baby; a boxing flick intent on squeezing out tears like a wringer-washer. The fact that it sacrificed any shred of plausibility in its rush to catharsis was apparently not important to Academy voters.

Consider the climactic moment of the plot. (Spoiler alert: if you have yet to rent this award-winning turd, I am about to save you a few bucks here.) Hilary Swank is a rising star in female boxing (already a stretch-the filmmakers want to get around people's modern aversion to the brutal sport of boxing by making their star a plucky woman. In reality, professional female boxing is still pretty much a carnival sideshow, give or take a Laila Ali). In the title match, Swank's evil opponent waits for the bell that ends the round and then, when Swank turns and heads back to her corner, sucker punches her in the back of the head. Swank falls, breaks her neck and becomes a quadriplegic.

And how does her manager, Eastwood, respond? Basically, with a shrug. You lost, kid. That's boxing.

Well, no it isn't. It's felonious assault. This is a movie that purports to be a gritty, realistic look at boxing. But in what universe would that be considered a legitimate ending to a prizefight? Why not simply have Swank's opponent pull a gun and shoot her? Then have Eastwood shrug "Hey, that's boxing, kid. Should've kept your guard up."

And for this, the filmmakers were crowned by the Academy as the leading exemplars of cinematic excellence in 2004.

Only a movie?

People often respond to this sort of carping by saying "It's only a movie." Which is true. It's just not a good movie. Good movies understand their subject matter; good movies do not invent ludicrous plot turns just to rush some character into a hospital bed where she can be visited by her one-dimensional, trailer-trash family and we can squirt out our last remaining drops of bodily fluid. Good movies are not shameless, manipulative tripe. And apparently, good movies rarely win best picture.

The 2001 winner, A Beautiful Mind, was an attempt at high-minded cinema that more frequently displayed simple-minded mediocrity. The 2002 champ, Chicago, will never measure up to the classic musicals or to that other Bob Fosse creation, Cabaret. The 2003 best picture statuette handed to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King can perhaps be justified as an award for the entire trilogy, but Return was the weakest of the three. In 2000, Gladiator was a much-criticized choice in some circles, but I actually thought it was a legitimate candidate for Hollywood's ultimate salute-it was after all a very successful attempt to do what Hollywood does best, the epic popcorn flick. At least it went against the standard Oscar mentality of rewarding subject matter rather than quality. The near-complete absence of comedies from Oscar night reflects the shallowness of Academy thinking-screenplays lifted from Hallmark greeting cards are generally the betting favorites.

It's usually the script that determines a movie's ultimate fate. The fact that Lost in Translation and Good Will Hunting have both won Academy Awards for best original screenplay ought to sink the credibility of that award for all time. Ben Affleck-Oscar winner. Think about that.

The random nature of the nominations is noted every year-someone is always overlooked, while someone else gets the make-up nomination after being overlooked previously (hello, Paul Giamatti). And yet, the blatantly random nature of Academy recognition changes nothing. Oscar rules supreme. Complain all you want, but his authority is everlasting. Oscar is the Fidel Castro of Hollywood.

Stewart the saviour?

Occasionally, Academy recognition will fall on a worthy underdog. Careers will be boosted and deserving people allowed to enter the mainstream. Plus, this year we get to watch John Stewart. With his own writing staff providing the material, we can even hope he will escape the downward pull of Academy influence and actually get to be funny. (I will not try to argue here that David Letterman's infamous "Oprah-Uma" routine was sidesplitting. But I do think Letterman, one of the smartest comedians ever to do network television, was completely thrown off stride by Oscar's middlebrow tradition. His failure was as much an indictment of the Academy as of Letterman himself.)

People will watch the Oscars regardless. I'll probably watch awhile myself, for Stewart's opening, if nothing else. (Skit suggestion for Stewart: put on a pair of clown pants and play an ice fisherman. It killed in Turin.)

Watching the world's premiere celebrity horserace can be fun-the disappointed losers, the embarrassing speeches, and, with any luck, a moment or two of outright bizarro behaviour. So spend that endless three and a half hours if you must. But make no mistake-Oscar is a tyrant. Viva la revolucion.

Steve Burgess's interesting holiday in Asia is over and clearly he's not settling in happily.  [Tyee]

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