Thursday, July 26, 2007

Why, in the Middle of the Year, We Have Yet to See an Oscar Contender

By Lars Trodson

Here it is half way through the year and I don’t think we have even two performances that can credibly be called Oscar contenders. Any movie that strives for such elevated territory -- the recent failed “Evening” comes to mind -- seems to sink under the weight of bad reviews. I think perhaps John Travolta as Edna Turblad in “Hairspray” may be the only contender to emerge even though we are now heading into the dog days of summer. The other possible Oscar nominee that we’ve seen is Julie Christie in “Away From Her.”

I don’t know of any serious dramas that have successfully emerged from Hollywood – so far the landscape is cluttered with the dead bodies of successful sequels, movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars but disappear in a matter of weeks, and crap like the throwaway “Mr. Brooks” with Kevin Costner. There is the usual contingent of torture porn movies -- which will never get Oscar consideration, of course -- and movies with a great pedigree but don’t seem to make it: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is one.

Now, the financial success of a movie shouldn’t necessarily be the benchmark by which Oscars are measured, but of course it one of the biggest influencers. Otherwise, why would such an execrable piece of “entertainment” as “Forrest Gump” beat out other movies like “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Nobody’s Fool”, and “Pulp Fiction” for Best Picture, and Tom Hanks win for Best Actor over Morgan Freeman, Paul Newman and John Travolta? “Forrest Gump” was a huge hit -- but it is also one of those strange Hollywood anomalies in that it made a ton of money and yet no one actually really liked it.

But it is also true that 2007 is so far measuring up to be the year of the forgettable blockbuster. Hollywood made two irrelevant sequels to “Pirates of the Caribbean” and ruined the esteem of the franchise even though it made all of the participants richer. But Johnny Depp’s performance in the original film is one of the most truly memorable, joyous performances in film history, yet each successive film managed to not enhance the reputation of that first incarnation, but actually diminish it.

It reminds me slightly of Anthony Perkins in “Psycho” -- a performance I personally regard as the finest performances ever given by an American actor. But the unfortunate decision to mine that story in four sequels -- the last of which, I believe, was a TV movie -- has helped to obscure the beauty of that first outing. I do not blame Perkins -- he had to make a living – but it’s kind of sad to think of “Psycho” as just another failed franchise.

It’s no secret that the distribution of American movies has been divided up into some strange kind of arithmetic. The early part of the year is for the forgotten attempts, just a bunch of product thrown into the pipeline for our consumption. The middle part of the year is for the cheeseball blockbusters. The late summer and early fall is for the certain failures -- although something memorable may emerge -- and of course the end of the year is made for those films Worthy Of Academy Award Consideration.

It’s a thoughtless way to treat the audience, but in the end it’s a theory that seems to work because Hollywood continues to reap in millions in ticket sales. We go to the movies. But even with that acknowledgment we have to realize that the moviegoing year, and the experience of going to the movies, seems more an exercise of habit than one of affection -- and the Hollywood system seems powerless to stop this trend.

What will happen this year is what has happened in the past decade. We’ll wait for the serious dramas to come out at the end of the year -- the so-called “prestige pictures” -- some of which will be released to only a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles to allow their entry into Oscar consideration. And the films and performances that we, the audience, should savor, and debate, will rather be in a crowded field that we’ll have to struggle and jostle each other to get to see before they disappear from the local Cineplex.

In the meantime we’ll be treated to a bunch of movies that no one has any faith in. The problem is that these throwaways will be as forgettable as the movies Hollywood will release later in the year that they so desperately want us to remember.