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Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

Oscar’s Hosts, Hollywood Hit? and Passings…

November 30th, 2010 No comments

And the Oscar Comes From…

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced its hosts for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, which are scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2011. As with last year’s choice of “It’s Complicated” co-stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, producers Dan Jinks and Don Mischer opted for Hollywood star wattage over comedy hosting credits this year and cast Hollywood stars (and potential nominees) James Franco and Anne Hathaway as show co-hosts, the Academy announced yesterday. Neither actor is a newcomer to the Oscars: Franco was a presenter in 2009, and performed in a filmed spoof of his stoner character with “Pineapple Express”  co-star Seth Rogen. And Anne Hathaway proved a pleasant surprise when she ‘spontaneously’ sang and danced with  Hugh Jackman during his opening number the same year.

It’s  no coincidence that the Academy aimed younger and more mainstream for its hosts this year; the ratings for the Oscar telecast, a mainstay of Academy funding, have eroded in recent years, and clearly the Academy hopes to stanch this loss. Franco is a likely Oscar nominee for his lead role in the intense “127 Hours,” and Hathaway will soon appear – with an emphasis on appear – opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ed Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” in which the pair perform explicit nude scenes together. Owing to Hathaway’s character’s developing malady, she, too, stands a chance of an Oscar nomination. It’s a fervent hope of the Academy powers-that-be that this year’s telecast will reverse the trend of slipping ratings – and making the hosts younger and sexier is obviously a strategic move toward that goal. Will it work? Check in on Monday, March 8, 2011…

Beverly Hills Murder Mystery

Hollywood is still talking about the murder of successful publicist Ronni Chasen, who was shot multiple times early Tuesday, November 16th,  as she waited for a traffic light in her Mercedes on Sunset Boulevard in a quiet stretch of Beverly Hills. The murder of the diminutive publicist, who was hailed by clients and studio heads alike as tops in her field, has shocked the moviemaking community. Chasen was returning home from attending a premiere and after-party for Screen Gems’ “Burlesque,” when she was apparently targeted at the traffic light at Whittier Drive. Beverly Hills Police, who rarely see homicides, are keeping mum, although they have reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the Los Angeles Sheriff and the L.A.P.D.. Within hours of the killing, B.H. Police confiscated computers and other items from Chasen’s home and publicity firm office, but in the weeks that have passed no further information has been forthcoming. Even still, rumors circulate, including a disputed suggestion today that red-light cameras at the intersection had been tampered with to make them inoperable.  

Chasen, 64, was credited with creating the modern ‘Oscar’ campaign that is so ubiquitous at year’s end in Hollywood. The “For Your Consideration” ads that pepper Hollywood trade publications are a testimony to Chasen, whose publicity efforts brought Oscar gold (and instant credibility and higher salaries) to actors, producers and composers involved with films like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few. In a rare show of Hollywood unity, six major film companies joined to honor Chasen with a memorial service a week after her death. She is survived by her brother, filmmaker Larry Cohen (“Q,””Phone Booth”).

Darth is Dad? Surely You’re Not Serious…

As the year winds down, there are more losses from old Hollywood… Irvin Kirshner, perhaps best known as the director of “The Empire Strikes Back,” died Saturday at age 87. Kershner, who studied film at USC, began his career producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Service in the Middle East, then turned his attentions toward television, where he directed documentaries and episodes of popular shows like “Ben Casey” and “Naked City.” Kirshner transitioned into feature films, earning a distinction as one of producer Roger Corman’s first proteges when he was handed the directing reins for 1958’s “Stakeout on Dope Street.” A-list films (and stars) followed, including “A Fine Madness” and “Never Say Never Again” with Sean Connery, “Up the Sandbox” with Barbra Streisand, and “Eyes of Laura Mars,” with Faye Dunaway (featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones as a killer). But Kirshner had his greatest commercial success with “The Empire Strikes Back,” a substantially darker film than its “Star Wars” predecessor; while critical reaction was muted at the time of its release, now the film is often referred to as the best of the original three “Star Wars” movies.

Leslie Nielsen, whose career as a dramatic leading man took a left turn to embrace comedy stardom in his mid 50s, died from complications of pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 84. Born in Canada, the handsome young Nielsen studied acting at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, and later at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Live television roles followed on shows like “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Kraft Theatre.” Before long, the much-in-demand Nielsen was making feature films, including “Forbidden Planet,” while he continued working steadily as a TV guest star for the next 20 years. Although he remained busy, his roles grew increasingly colorless until he was cast in 1980’s “Airplane!” as Dr. Rumack. His deadpan delivery of lines like “Don’t call me Shirley” and “I’m a doctor, you can tell me anything” revitalized his career, and Leslie Nielsen was ‘rediscovered,’ at age 54, as a comedic star. He went on to star in a TV series, “Police Squad!,” as well as 3 “The Naked Gun” feature film spinoffs starring that series’ main character, Police Lieutenant Frank Drebin. All told, Nielsen’s career covered over 60 years and resulted in 239 TV and movie roles; his credits ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but he will surely be remembered for making us laugh.