In Most Races, It’s a Handicap

But lameness is obviously an advantage for the best picture Oscar competition. Now that “Little Miss Sunshine” has won the Screen Actors Guild best ensemble prize, it’s more than likely to repeat last year’s “Crash” phenomenon, when the weakest intellectually and aesthetically of the five top Academy Award nominees won the Big O.
Not that LMS isn’t a funny, ever-so-meekly subversive little entertainment (“Crash” was a nice little gimmick movie, too). It’s just not about real people or anything truly meaningful, and its smidgen of formal ambition amounts to a couple of frames’ worth of “Babel,” “The Departed” or “Iwo Jima.” Hell, even “The Queen” was exponentially better shot and staged – with writing and acting and, yes, comedy that left the SAG winner in the dust like a broken-down van on a desert road.
Now the big question is, when LMS conquers the Kodak on February 25, are people finally going to stop taking this whole ridiculously capricious Oscar business seriously? Probably not, even though, if this does come to pass, the lame-os who actually vote for the things will have proven for the umpteenth time that they don’t take movies seriously at all.

My Favorite Justification

While the million-and-one theories as to why the academy didn’t nominate sure bet best picture winner “Dreamgirls” for best picture have been amusing, my favorite is the “voters were just sick of being told what to think” theory.
The premise is that too much promotion by the distributor and unrelenting certainty from the people who waste too much of their lives trying to predict how 6,000 or so quirky, not-all-that-into-it-or-with-it academy members are going to think just made the voters say a collective “Oh yeah? Well, we’ll show you!”
I don’t know if this was a major factor in “Dreamgirls'” top category shutout, and I care even less. I thought the movie was fantastically crafted, slam-bang entertainment without an active brain cell to its name, so whether or not it competes for best picture means absolutely nothing to me.
What I like about this theory, though, is that the people floating it seem to think it’s a perfectly legitimate argument; which, true or not, it’s anything but. When Oscar voters want to express their – oh, let’s call it intellectual independence – over a mixed bag like “Dreamgirls,” no harm no foul. But let’s apply this line of reasoning to last year, which commentators are also using as an example without acknowledging its critical implications. Practically every quality-judging body in the movie universe agreed that “Brokeback Mountain” was the best film of 2005, but not the folks who gave the top Oscar to “Crash.”
Academy members may have been dancing to their own individualistic drummers then, too, but by doing so they stomped on any notion that their awards were a reliable measure of true artistic excellence.
Which, of course, ain’t news. But it’s also something that ought to be remembered whenever we take the term “Oscar worthy” more seriously than we should – which is just about any time it’s mistaken as the ultimate mark of cinematic accomplishment.

Biggest Gripe

Michael Sheen, as “The Queen’s” Prime Minister Tony Blair, was better than any of the actors who got nominated for supporting – except maybe Mark Wahlberg, who had much less screentime in “The Departed.”
In fact, Sheen was arguably Helen Mirren’s co-lead. His ability to parry with her intelectually and performance-wise, while gradually revealing both the tactical savvy and fatal tendency to bow before power that history will remember Blair for, places his work right up there with Peter O’Toole’s and Forest Whitaker’s in the lead actor category.

Racism? Homophobia?

The failure of “Dreamgirls,” the longtime presumptive front-runner for the best picture Oscar, to even be nominated in that category may seem to prove the argument – also floated in the last couple of months – that the movie’s Achilles heel could be the fact that no African-American production has ever won the top Academy Award.
Maybe. Who knows how some academy voters’ minds work (I know that their choices usually baffle me). But, considering other aspects of Tuesday’s nominations, it’s logical to conclude that racism was a minor factor in the “Dreamgirls” snub, if it was even a factor at all.
For one thing, if the overwhelmingly white academy preferred their own, it’s unlikely that seven of the 20 acting slots would have gone to non-Europen people of color – the largest minority representation ever, by many reports.
Then there’s the fact that the top two cumulative nomination-getters are “Dreamgirls” (with eight) and the multi-ethnic “Babel” (seven). The Mexican production “Pan’s Labyrinth” clocked an impressive six nominations. And the film that displaced “Dreamgirls” from the best picture race, “Letters from Iwo Jima,” features an essentially all-Asian cast, speaking in Japanese and empathetically portraying enemies American films virulently dehumanized during World War II and for quite some time afterward.
If you’ve got to make a prejudice case for the “Dreamgirls” snub, perhaps homophobia sticks a little better. We all know that some academy voters were adamantly against giving best picture to “Brokeback Mountain” last year solely because of its sexual politics. And while there’s nothing overtly queer in “Dreamgirls,” it’s a well-known favorite of gay men.
Perhaps most damning, “Dreamgirls'” white, gay writer-director, Bill Condon, was also shut out of the two categories he qualified for. So, as Nathan Lane once said, you do the math.

The Kings, and Queen, of Comedy

“The Queen” reigned as the only multiple award-winning movie at the LAFCA dinner this year. Deservedly so for doing such a wonderful job of humanizing Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair. But the sensitive artists who made it, it turns out, are really just a bunch of jesters.
Take director Stephen Freaers, who accepted for supporting actor winner Michael Sheen, who was stuck doing a play back in Britain and couldn’t be honored for his portrayal of Blair in person.
“I’m sorry,” Freaers started, “Michael is in what he calls rainswept Wales, which means he’s probably a lot warmer than I’ve been this weekend in L.A. He sent me a speech but I’ll edit it, because he’s Welsh and he goes on a bit.
” ‘Thanks so much to the critics of Los Angeles for this great honor, for showing such taste and sophistication. I’m so sorry I can’t be with you, I’m running the country. Many thanks to the wonderful producers [names listed, we won’t bore you] and distributors [ditto], Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins . . .’
“. . . And then there’s ‘arch druids’,” Frears sniffed.
Not to be outdone, best actress winner Helen Mirren concluded her thank yous with a heartfelt shout-out to her spouse, “Ray” director Taylor Hackford: “Last of all, thank you to my husband for still wanting to sleep with me even though he’s seen me dressed as the queen . . . Or, maybe, because!”
And best screenwriter Peter Morgan, who also adapted “Last King of Scotland,” noted that “In an industry that seems obsessed by sequels, I’m somewhat depressed that nobody’s approached me for ‘Idi Amin and The Queen.’ They met on a number of occasions . . . you can imagine.
“He started writing letters to her, and it’s probably one of the great letter-exchanging romances of history. If any producers are noticing, this is a pitch.”

More Fun Than Gypsy Catching With a Five-Alarm Virgin Clinger

Got to sit with Sacha Baron Cohen and his fiancee, “Wedding Crashers'” Isla Fisher, at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s awards dinner. A very fun, thoughtful and sweet couple – she was open and chatty from the get-go, he warmed up after he realized that I was the guy who kept asking off-the-wall questions at his Borat press conference a couple of months ago (seems he liked the idea of having someone to play off of at that highly pre-scripted affair, so I guess I can proudly say I was part of a spontaneous Borat routine).
Cordial table conversation was an off-the-record deal (nothing juicy said anyway). But of course, Baron’s acceptance speech – he shared LAFCA’s best actor award with “Last King of Scotland’s” Forest Whitaker – was a scream.
Choice excerpt:
“I would say it is an incredible honor receiving this award,” Cambridge-educated Englishman Cohen said in his rarely heard natural voice. “Various actors who’ve received this in the past have shown incredible commitment to their roles. De Niro put on, I think, 40 pounds for ‘Raging Bull.’ Other actors have pretended to be blind, other actors have shed weight. Tom Cruise even pretended to have sex with Nicole Kidman.
“However, none of them have had to sit under a 300-pound naked man. It was during that time that I thought to myself: I’d better bloody win an award for this!”

Oscars: Hate to say I told you so

No, that’s a lie. I love to say that there’s no reason on Earth why the Academy Awards should be taken seriously as a worthwhile measure of cinematic quality.

The Academy of Morons Who Thought Crash Was a Better Film Than Brokeback Mountain just proved it. Next year, really, these clowns need to be ignored.