I'd like to spank the Academy

Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, James Coburn, Roberto Benigni

Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench, James Coburn, Roberto Benigni

These movies were the Oscar nominees when I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember thinking even then how odd it was that all five were historical movies. Not only that, they only came from two time periods: World War II and Tudor England. Filmmakers had all of human history to choose from, and they made that many movies from two time periods in one year? It was just strange coincidence.

At the same time, it made it kind of fun for me to watch them all at once. It was interesting to watch the World War II movies, all of which are about different aspects of that war (Pacific theater, European theater, the Holocaust) and reflect on the very different experiences of people in the same war. Watching Guido fight for his family made me think about Captain Miller and his men, and how they were fighting so that Guido and others like him could live in his town and have a bookshop and be happy. Although the movies didn’t really overlap, together they made me see a bigger picture.

The two Elizabethan pictures, on the other hand, just made me kind of hate Joseph Fiennes. He plays the same role in both movies: a slightly slimy married man having an affair with a naïve young woman who is unaware of his marriage. I’m not sure how he ended up in both movies in such similar roles, but I guess he plays Elizabethan adulterers well. Geoffrey Rush is in both films, too, but the men he plays are polar opposites: Elizabeth’s spy and assassin in Elizabeth; a slightly befuddled producer in Shakespeare in Love. Because they are so different, he makes it work much better than Joseph Fiennes.

But that brings up another issue I saw in all these historical movies. The makeup has to be done very well, or else the viewer will see the actor, not the character. As much as I loved Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love, they didn’t look like 16th century men. They looked like Ben Affleck and Rupert Everett in funny clothes. Thin Red Line had the same problem; so did Saving Private Ryan, although to a lesser extent. I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors in Life is Beautiful, so it wasn’t a problem there. Elizabeth was the one movie where I didn’t feel that with any actor. Yes, Joseph Fiennes was obviously Joseph Fiennes, but since I’ve only ever seen him in Elizabethan garb, my first thought was not, “Oh, there’s Joseph Fiennes!”, but “Oh, there’s Shakespeare!” Since I’m not a makeup artist, I’m not sure what would have to be done to fix it, but it is a problem.

So do I believe Shakespeare in Love truly was the best picture of the year? Nope. It was a fine movie. It was a cute love story. But I feel that in order to be the best picture, a movie should be more than cute. A movie needs to mean something, to reveal something about the human condition. And while Shakespeare in Love did many things well, it didn’t have a deeper meaning. Life is Beautiful did. Saving Private Ryan did. I would have accepted either of those as best picture over Shakespeare in Love. The fact that Shakespeare in Love won makes me wonder exactly what Harvey Weinstein did in his campaign to convince the Academy that it was the best movie.

If I could change the past, which would I have picked?  For me, it would have been a contest solely between Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan, but in the end I would have to go with Saving Private Ryan. I don’t like feeling like I’m jumping on a bandwagon, but I really do feel that Saving Private Ryan was unfairly slighted. It is a masterful piece of storytelling and filmmaking. The meticulous recreation of D-Day alone should have been enough to win the Oscar, but it went beyond that. It really is an amazing movie, and in my opinion, the best picture of 1998.

How do I rank the nominees?

5. Elizabeth
4. The Thin Red Line
3. Shakespeare in Love
2. Life is Beautiful
1. Saving Private Ryan

Join me next week for sex, crime, race relations, and talking animals!

Comments on: "The 71st Academy Awards: My Verdict" (7)

  1. You should know there’s a problem when your typecast is as narrow as “Elizabethan adulterer.”

    Haha I forgot Rupert Everett was in SiL. Does he play Kit Marlowe?

    Really, though? “Saving Private Ryan” beats “Life is Beautiful,” even though you were never able to buy Tom Hanks’s character? I’ll go with it until I watch SPR, I guess, but that just seems like crazy talk.

    Wow–sex, crime, race relations AND talking animals? Disney’s gotten really dark.

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    • It wasn’t exactly that I didn’t buy Tom Hanks’s character. It was more that I couldn’t ever forget that it was Tom Hanks. So basically, I did see a World War II army captain; he just happened to be an actor named Tom Hanks when he was back home. Does that make more sense?

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  2. I’ll agree with your Tom Hanks assessment: Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks whether he is a WWII army captain, a lonely FedEx employee, a little boy who got his wish, or sacrificial food to an angry god (ok maybe not that last one…). I have a different view on the phenomenon though.

    I feel that talented actors can produce a performance that transcends the character they happen to be in any given production. Think of Laurence Olivier or Sidney Poitier, for example. Their acting abilities are generally so stunning that one cannot think of the character apart from the actor. For me it’s the same thing with Tom Hanks. He’s no character actor who plays the same person in different roles (Hugh Grant, ahem). He plays different personalities well, but he just does such a darn good job that one cannot ignore the fact that this is Tom Hanks.

    I will make one exception to the above: Gary Oldman. He is absolutely a great actor, but he is so absolutely different – in looks, facial expressions, voice – that I at times have difficulty thinking that the character that he is portraying is actually him. Think Batman Begins vs 5th Element vs Book of Eli.

    By the way this is a really great site. Your posts are well thought out and well written, and are fun to read.

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    • Hm. I guess I can see where you’re coming from, but there are a few good actors (including Tom Hanks) that I just can’t separate from the character, to the detriment of the film. It’s not that Tom Hanks is so such a brilliant actor that I can’t ignore that Tom Hanks is the one on stage; its that he’s NOT good enough to make you forget that he’s Tom Hanks. In contrast, Bette Davis is absolutely a larger-than-life actress, but I’ve never thought she was anyone but Margo Channing while watching “All About Eve.” A great actor (who’s not being typecast, obviously) should slip so perfectly into another person’s skin that you don’t confuse the two.

      It doesn’t make Hanks’ films less entertaining, just less immersive, I guess.

      On the other hand, I think some character actors (like the ever-dour Alan Rickman) add to the excellence of their character portrayals as a result of having convinced the watcher over and over that he is that type; and then on the rare occasion when the typecast is broken (oh, Colonel Brandon!) it’s remarkable.

      Gary Oldman is insane. I didn’t even realize he played Sirius Black until I checked imdb. It makes me want to watch Dracula, if it didn’t sound like a stupid movie.

      For the record, I also like this blog.

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    • Hey, thanks! And the Tom Hanks issue is a tricky one. Did you see Saving Mr. Banks, where Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney? That was hard, because there was someone specific that he was supposed to be, but I could never forget he was Tom Hanks. I agree with you about people being in a role so completely that you can’t imagine anyone else in that part.

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  3. Sheesh, am I the only one who doesn’t hate on Tom Hanks? 🙂 I saw Saving Mr Banks and I LOVED it. I thought Hanks’ performance was stellar!

    And for Mrs Von Dew, yes I recommend you see Dracula. The first time I saw it I thought it was quite mediocre (I had read the book and was blown away by it). The second time I saw it I realized that it was actually a decent production. But if you don’t already know that Count Dracula is played by Gary Oldman, you wouldn’t know that he’s in the movie.

    Ha! And just as another Gary Oldman aside, the other day I was watching Friends, and after the episode it listed Gary Oldman in the credits. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember seeing him in the show, but then Meagan told me that he was the actor who played opposite Joey in a filming. His role wasn’t small either, I just didn’t recognize him!

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  4. It’s not hating on Tom Hanks! Let’s see if I can explain what I mean.

    E. You watch Hayden Christensen in Star Wars and think, “Man, his acting sucks. It sucks so bad it is ruining this movie. You suck, Hayden Christensen.” The question of whether or not he is Anakin Skywalker never even comes into question. He is sucky Hayden Christensen, the actor, ruining your childhood.

    D. You watch Gwyneth Paltrow play Emma in “Emma.” She isn’t a great actress, so you never forget that it’s the slightly-spoiled/narcissistic Gwyneth Paltrow playing the slightly-spoiled/narcissistic Emma, but it doesn’t ruin the movie or anything. (I’d say Drew Barrymore falls in this category, too.)

    C. You watch Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle.” You never forget she is Jennifer Lawrence, but she plays the character with such good timing and is so lacking in self-consciousness that you don’t really care and she pulls it off and you’re entertained. (I think a D-category actor (like Orlando Bloom) can be elevated to this level by a good script or director–Pirates worked in part because they mocked Bloom throughout, which cancels out his flat acting skills.)

    B. You watch Tom Hanks play Walt Disney. You think, “Wow! Tom Hanks is doing a great job portraying Walt Disney! He is an amazing actor! I love Tom Hanks! He always does such a great job acting!” Most of my favorite actors fall in this category.

    A. You watch Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” (or Meryl Streep in anything, really). You think, “Wow, Miranda Priestly is powerful and brilliant and calculating.” When you next see Meryl Streep in something, you wonder briefly how they convinced Miranda Priestly to play Maggie Thatcher. But then that thought passes, because no one is *playing* Maggie Thatcher–she’s right there, on screen, being herself. The best actors don’t seem like great actors while you watch them; they so disappear into their character that you forget they *aren’t* that character. (I’d classify Gary Oldman in this category, too, and maybe Johnny Depp or Robert Downing Jr. or Christian Bale.) No-name actors have an advantage in this category of not having to convince us that they aren’t their no-name selves; once they become Tom Hanks-level famous, they not only have to play Walt Disney but make us forget that they aren’t Tom Hanks. And very few can out-act their own fame.

    Bonus category: actors who are so typecast that the audience starts to suspect they share similar personalities with the people they play, so you’re not sure how much is acting as the character and how much is just the actor reacting to those scenarios as they themselves might. Examples: Harrison Ford (good-guy scoundrel/renegade adventurer), Alan Rickman (moody, antisocial, intellectual, probably some tragic love story somewhere in the past), Samuel L. Jackson (do NOT piss him off), Will Smith (officer with a sassy mouth).

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