Friday, February 26, 2010
This is the year that the Academy gets everything wrong in the acting categories.
It won’t be quite so bad on the men’s side. Jeff Bridges will win for his work in Crazy Heart and he is worthy. Personally I think George Clooney’s performance was better in a better film Up in the Air. But he has already won and Jeff Bridges hasn’t so I’m okay with that. Chris Waltz will win for his outstanding turn in Inglourious Basterds. His role was really the lead, however, and so he has an unfair advantage over his fellow nominees. Since Waltz didn’t support anyone but rather stole the movie and made the villain far and away the most interesting thing, I’d probably give it to Woody Harrelson or Christopher Plummer.
But it’s especially the women’s categories that will be a travesty. There’s no way that Sandra Bullock is remotely in the same league as Meryl Streep. Her work in The Blind Side is somewhat better than her Razzie-nominated work in All About Steve or equally lame The Proposal. Still, all she does is go from being a deeply devout and concerned Christian to … well, a deeply devout and concerned Christian. Meryl Streep is the greatest actor of her generation, male or female. Unfortunately, Hollywood takes her for granted. So while she gets nominated often – a record 16 times – she hasn’t won since 1982 (Sophie’s Choice). Her other Oscar was for supporting work in Kramer vs. Kramer, so Hillary Swank has more Best Actress awards. No one in their right mind believes that Swank is superior to Streep.
Okay then, what about Mo'Nique in Precious?
People have been assuming with good cause that she’s a lock to win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards in March. She has already claimed the award in every other awards show, especially the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, and now BAFTA. Her competition doesn’t appear all that stiff either. Penelope Cruz sizzles in Nine but the movie itself was a critical and commercial flop, and besides she’s already a recent winner for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Maggie Gyllenhaal is very fine as always in Crazy Heart. But that was an okay film with strong acting and so Academy voters may be content to honour Jeff Bridges and leave it at that. Both Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are terrific in Up in the Air but two nominations in the same category have a way of dividing the vote so that neither wins. Still, if I had a vote it would go to Vera Farmiga.
But I don’t, and Academy members are notorious for sometimes voting based on good intentions rather than artistic merit. They generally like to spread the wealth with their awards. Precious received 6 nominations, but has no chance in 5 of them. The Best Picture, Best Director and Editing awards will be a friendly battle between former spouses James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow and their respective films Avatar and The Hurt Locker. Gabourey Sidibe doesn’t have a hope in hell against Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep in the Actress category. Best Adapted Screenplay still looks like a sure bet for Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner with Up in the Air in spite of the smear campaign against them. So that leaves Supporting Actress as the best bet for Precious not to go home empty-handed.
Her performance makes a strong impression too – that is if you don’t put much thought into it. She rants and raves, gets violent, shouts racist epithets at her poor victim of a daughter, and eventually has a tearful outpouring. It’s all very powerful, however contrived, melodramatic and manipulative.
But is it good acting? No.
She probably didn’t have to stretch much to do the nasty stuff, as she gave the impression of being naturally very crusty herself. She refused to promote the film (e.g. she was the only player from the film not to appear at Sundance or the Toronto International Film Festival), apparently demanding an appearance fee of six-figures. She argued with past nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson on her talk show about promoting her film and said, “what does it mean financially?” According to New York Daily News, "she said she didn't care about 'no Oscar' - all that mattered was 'those Benjamins!' [i.e. dollars] Because Oprah and Tyler Perry are backing the film, she feels as though there should be a budget to pay for her promotional duties." Only later did the film's P.R. people manage to turn it around claiming that her work speaks for itself, and framing it as her being above it all and the others being needy and political.
As for her big weepy scene, it really is no big deal. Many people are too easily impressed by crying onscreen. But most actors can cry on cue. It’s not hard for the pros. It’s often harder not to cry. That’s actually what director Lee Daniels asked them to do in that scene. But he said they all started crying as did he, so that's what they kept.
His decision to keep it showed his own lack of experience. It reminds me of Donald Sutherland’s anecdote on Inside the Actors Studio. He spoke about crying buckets for the scene on Ordinary People when he tells his wife he doesn’t love her anymore. When he saw the rushes, he told director Robert Redford and the producers, “I screwed you. That was too much.” But it was Redford’s first film, so he and the others said it was fine, that they loved it. It was only months later that they came back to him and said they had to reshoot that scene, with him playing it with a feeling of emptiness.
The same thing has happened with Precious. Her tears make a strong impression, but they end up really screwing the movie. *SPOILER ALERT* It ends up making the mother a more sympathetic character than Precious. And Precious, who has been passive throughout the movie, finally makes a decision for herself and it’s the wrong one. Rather than reconciling with her mother, she chooses to hurt her back. Thus she perpetuates a cycle of pain, and leaves the impression that she will be a hurtful mother like her mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on. That was a major story flaw to begin with, but Mo'Nique’s tearfulness really underlines this problem.
So the one really compelling acting scene from her is really an example of weak acting, inexperience and indecisive directing. If she were a better actor, she would have been more fully immersed in the world of the character. The classic actor’s question is, “what’s my motivation?” Mo'Nique didn’t ask that. If she did, she would have realized that she would not cry at that moment. She might have been totally spent and blank, or she could have fought mightily to not cry. Either would have worked better than opening the floodgates.
It continues to bother me that non-actors like her continue to get attention. I know so many talented and devoted black actors who go unrecognized because the industry prefers to cast rappers, singers, comedians and athletes to someone who can really act. They can win awards too, like Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls. She can sing but can’t act to save her life, as she showed in Sex and the City. She was an embarrassing Oscar choice who had no business winning.
Mo'Nique is this year’s Jennifer Hudson.