Published December 27, 2008
Are the nominees all locked up? It's never over until the last ballot is mailed back.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have mailed out the Oscar ballots for nominations. There's already talk of this one or that one being a "lock" to win. But as history tells us, nothing is ever certain. An early "winner" can burn out very quickly in the Hollywood crowd.
The only winner I would guess right now to carry through from the nominations is Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire." It's funny when you think about it: "Slumdog" was a Warner Independent movie. But when that division shut down, big Warner didn't know what to do with this film. So they handed it to Fox Searchlight, which knew exactly what to do. Warner splits the profits from
"Slumdog," but doesn’t get the kudos for turning a Bollywood-like movie with no stars into the sensation of 2008.
If only Warner had done the same with Clint Eastwood's fine "Gran Torino." So far this excellent movie has kind of backfired in the marketing department. In the last couple of days, I looked at the trailer and realized that not only is all of the "Gran Torino" plot given away, but the trailer makes the movie look like Clint plays some crazed vigilante. It's obvious that no one understood what they had in "Gran Torino." Eastwood cannot be happy about how things have turned out. One can only be hopeful that Academy voters will set that right. Eastwood, who's 78, has never won Best Actor. This would seem the right time, and the right movie.
But what about Sean Penn and "Milk"? Penn is sensational as Harvey Milk; of that there's no disagreement. All the acting in the movie is top notch. But "Milk" is repetitive, and the whole of the film tends to sputter in the third act. There are those who think the recent Prop 8 vote in California will turn "Milk" into a cause, and a natural Academy nominee. I'm not so sure. But Penn, who hasn't done a lick of campaigning, is a shoo-in. Only an Academy-wide burst for Eastwood could derail him. It's too bad for Frank Langella, who's marvelous as Richard Nixon.
The big question as the ballots go out is whether voters have taken to David Fincher's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The reviews have been appreciative of the film's look and technique, but tepid when it comes to the acting and emotion. It's not the grand epic statement of great filmmaking that was expected. Also, the movie's resemblance to both "Forrest Gump" and "Big Fish" can't be lost on seasoned voters. If "Button" has caught on, though, it could prove to be a juggernaut. Certainly, it deserves a number of tech nominations.
This column's choices, if we were voting — not a prediction of anything, and totally subjective:
6th choice: Milk
Danny Boyle — Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry — The Reader
Jonathan Demme — Rachel Getting Married
Clint Eastwood — Gran Torino
John Patrick Shanley — Doubt
6th choice: Ron Howard — Frost/Nixon
BEST ACTORS, ACTRESSES 2008
Since the Oscar ballots have been mailed, here are the Fox411 choices for the lead and supporting categories from this year’s films.
Leonardo DiCaprio — Revolutionary Road
Clint Eastwood — Gran Torino
Frank Langella — Frost/Nixon
Richard Jenkins — The Visitor
Sean Penn — Milk
6th choice: Mickey Rourke — The Wrestler
Anne Hathaway — Rachel Getting Married
Melissa Leo — Frozen River
Kristin Scott Thomas — I've Loved You So Long
Meryl Streep — Doubt
Kate Winslet — Revolutionary Road
6th choice: Kate Beckinsale — Nothing But the Truth
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Javier Bardem — Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Josh Brolin — Milk
Heath Ledger — The Dark Knight
Philip Seymour Hoffman — Doubt
Michael Sheen — Frost/Nixon
6th choice: Bill Irwin — Rachel Getting Married
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams — Doubt
Penelope Cruz — Vicki Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis — Doubt
Rosemarie Dewitt — Rachel Getting Married
Kate Winslet — The Reader
6th choice: Cate Blanchett — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
AND THE OTHER TOP PERFORMANCES OF 2008
Debra Winger — Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich and Jeffrey Donovan — Changeling
Brad Pitt, Taraji P. Henson — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Dev Patel, Irfan Khan — Slumdog Millionaire
Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley — Elegy
Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson — Last Chance Harvey
Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise — Tropic Thunder
Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich and Tilda Swinton — Burn After Reading
James Franco — Milk
Lena Olin, Ralph Fiennes and David Kross — The Reader
Jeffrey Wright, Mos Def and Beyonce — Cadillac Records
Marisa Tomei — The Wrestler
Mathieu Amalric — Christmas Tale
Julianne Moore — Blindness
Robin Wright Penn — What Just Happened
Josh Peck — The Wackness
Andrew Garfield — Boy A
Chiwetel Ejiofor — Redbelt
Sam Rockwell — Snow Angels
Ralph Fiennes, Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson — In Bruges
Liv Tyler — The Strangers
Say what you will about Tom Cruise’s acting in other movies, in "Valkyrie," which opened yesterday, he is awful. Amid British and European actors, Cruise stands out like a sore thumb. He doesn’t even attempt a German accent, his mannerisms are all from his "Jerry Maguire" era, and his earnestness suggests at best some kind of fictional American soldier trying to infiltrate the Luftwaffe. You knew it would be bad, and it is.
I’m more concerned that “Valkyrie” could represent a new trend in filmmaking: Nazi apologia. We know already what Valkyrie is about, a group of German soldiers who tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and failed. Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — referred to in this film constantly as “Stauffenberg” — as if to make him sound less German or something.
On top of that, there is the matter of the uniforms and the set design. Suddenly, we have German officers in World War II who are not wearing arm bands. Their swastikas are now small tokens on chests of medals. They look more like airline pilots than Nazi soldiers. When they meet, it looks like they’re at a lovely retreat in the Adirondacks. Director Bryan Singer is so sparing with his Nazi flags, swastikas, etc that you’d think the Nazis hardly existed. What’s everyone so upset about anyway?
Because in “Valkyrie” Singer opens the door to a dangerous new thought: that the Holocaust and all the other atrocities could be of secondary important to the cause of German patriotism. Not once in “Valkyrie” do any of there “heroes” mention what’s happening around them, that any of them is appalled by or against what they know is happening or has happened: Hitler has systemically killed millions in the most barbaric ways possible to imagine.
It’s kind of galling to allow now, in 2008, that von Stauffenberg et al were either totally unaware of this, or that they felt their mission superceded it. In “Valkyrie,” at the expense of making a joke, they are almost like Franz Liebkin, author of Mel Brooks’s fictitious “Springtime for Hitler.” His famous line in “The Producers” is: “War? What war? We vas in the back. We didn’t see a thing!”
Seriously, if, as it’s suggested even by a writer like William Shirer (back in 1960, and a bit naively), that von Stauffenberg was put off by “anti-Jewish pogroms” that “first cast doubts in his mind about Hitler,” why did it take him roughly six years to do so something about it? The damage, as history bears it, was grievously done.
But Shirer also notes in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”: “…when the war came, he threw himself into it with characteristic energy, making name for himself as a staff officer…in the campaigns in Poland and France.” What do we think he was doing then: organizing bake sales or helping to direct millions to the ovens?
This may not be so surprising coming from Singer, who counts among his films the onerous “Apt Pupil,” which fictionalizes the Holocaust and concentration camps. Maybe it’s because he’s relatively young in perspective to the Holocaust, but with these two movies Singer seems to be taking the subject matter in a strange direction post-"Schindler’s List," "Shoah," "The Last Days," and countless other works that brought the truth of the Holocaust into focus at last on film.
Singer has said in interviews: “I think it's very important for us and for history to know that not all Germans were Nazis and that some paid with their lives for opposing Hitler.” Frankly, this is a mistake. Is he really suggesting that the extermination of 6 million people was carried out without the complicity of these so-called non-Nazi Germans? Because that opens the door to a lot of other questions. I can only think of the Holocaust survivor in James Moll’s amazing documentary, “The Last Days,” who confronts her Hungarian neighbors 50 years later. “Didn’t you wonder what happened to us?” she asks.
“Valkyrie” is frustratingly stupid in this regard. Hitler is not frightening anymore. He reminded me of Leo G. Carroll in “The Man from UNCLE,’ a doddering fool with a British accent and a nice suit. He actually addresses his German radio audience in English. Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie make the rest of the Nazis just so out upon and sympathetic. The purpose of all this de-Nazification of course is to trick us into thinking ‘These are the good guys’ when there weren’t any good guys at all. The real story of “Valkyrie” is that is infighting among the enemy.
That much is completely forgotten in Singer’s film. It’s quite unlike another film out right now, Stephen Daldry’s “The Reader.” In this one, no one gets off the hook. Kate Winslet’s unsparing portrayal of a concentration camp guard never asks for sympathy. In “Valkyrie,” Singer works overtime trying to get us to feel something for the Nazis played by Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kenneth Branagh, all nice guys and friendly faces we know from other movies. But you know what? The characters they played were German army just as brutal as Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler. If they’d succeeded in killing Hitler, there was no guarantee anything would have changed. And that wasn’t their point anyway.
As far as “Valkyrie” itself goes, Singer soft pedals the Nazi aspects as much as possible. Then he turns it into a “Mission: Impossible” movie, complete with a version of “M” who shows von Stauffenberg’s gang different kinds of weapons and gadgets. As the group carries out its mission, Singer does build suspense. But frankly, when the assassination attempt fails, the movie simply conks out. There’s no place for it to go. Cruise, et al proceed thinking they’ve succeeded. But the audience knows they haven’t, we know what’s coming, and the insurgents seem kind of deluded and naïve.
Cruise can’t decide how often to wear von Stauffenberg’s eye patch, so sometimes he pretends to have a glass eye. Sometimes he uses the glass eye a calling card—a rather unexplored and loony subplot. His American accent gets very bad, to the point where he’s dropping g’s—as in “What are you gonna do?” He is completely miscast. Also, for some reason they’ve teased his hair. At his diminutive size, he more resembles Charlie Chaplin from “The Great Dictator.”
It’s a tribute to Nighy and some of the other actors that I could follow or care about their characters. But frankly, when the violins come out at the end of the film, and Singer flashes their written fates on the screen, I felt nothing for them and anger for him. The idea that you’re supposed to feel anything but revulsion for all these people is astonishing to me.
Eartha Kitt’s extraordinary career is memorialized all over the media today. My memory of her was from September 2001, right after 9/11, when she participated in Nile Rodgers’s “We Are Family” recording for charity. There were dozens of famous performers in the recording studio, from Diana Ross to Patti Labelle, but it was Kitt, then about 73, who stole the day. She sang danced up a storm, even doing some sweet break dancing with African singer Angelique Kidjo, and wowing the crowd. Spike Lee was filming that day so maybe the footage exists somewhere. Kitt, once “Catwoman” to a generation of kids, just shined. She will be sorely missed…
…Sam Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road” opens today with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio very far from their “Titanic” relationship. The movie is tough, but go see it for their performances. If nothing else, I hope “Rev Road” stimulates interest permanently its late author, Richard Yates. A beautiful but often forgotten writer, Yates’s other works—“The Easter Parade,” “Disturbing the Peace,” his collected short stories—should be filed with literary classics in bookstores and libraries right up there with Cheever and O’Hara. By the way, if you’re a “Mad Men” fan, then “Rev Road” is for you… And Thomas Newman’s score is excellent…