Oscar nominees Taraji P. Henson and Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
And now the nation's euphoria shifts, for a few minutes, from Obama to Oscar. The nominations are here, and, as these things go, they're pretty fascinating. Because the Academy needs a big, long, costumed spectacle (no, "Australia," not you), "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" wound up with 13 nominations, including picture, director for David Fincher (I'll pretend it's for "Zodiac"), and an actor nomination for Brad Pitt. This is a fascinating list, both for what's on it and what isn't. The Reader?" Really? It did better than at least I thought it would -- picture, director, screenplay, cinematography, and actress – which means there are a lot of people in Hollywood who take their Holocaust movies with a cup of tea. That, or they truly miss the film's producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, both of whom died last year.
Meanwhile, "The Dark Knight," released by ailing Warner Bros, was too dark for these cautiously optimistic times, which, in part, is why "Slumdog Millionaire" received 10 nominations, including one for picture and another for director, while Batman and, to some extent, "WALL-E" are snubbed. (One's origins as a comic book and the other's being a cartoon should not be discounted, either.)
"Milk" feels like a movie of our moment, especially in the Academy’s California backyard, where tussling over the legalization of gay marriage continues. More important is the possibility that the Academy, this year, wants to see light amid the dark at this putatively hopeful juncture. Harvey Milk, for all practical purposes, represents Obaman social, cultural, and political change. While “Slumdog Millionaire” sends its camera careening through the ghettos, call centers, torture chambers, and corruptly hosted game shows of Mumbai to come back with the happy, if hardly front-page, news that love is all you need. Even “Frost/Nixon,” with its toothless, postlapsarian Tricky Dick suddenly seems to have a defensive bright side: Dude, the White House is in such better hands now.
The movie industry tends to skew liberal and sentimental – last year’s “There Will Be Blood”/”No Country for Old Men” combo notwithstanding. But you have to ask how Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight,” with its dystopic metropolis and neo-con homeland security ideas, might have been received under a McCain presidency. Oh, well. For now, it’s all good, as they say. Unless, of course, you happen to be Sally Hawkins, whose unstoppable optimism in “Happy-Go-Lucky” didn’t seem to cut it for the actors branch, which went with five comparatively somber performances for best actress. (Ok, four. “Doubt” is a comedy, right?)
Kate Winslet’s nomination for “The Reader” in that category, alongside Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Melissa Leo, and Meryl Streep, was also interesting. The people who arranged these awards campaigns saw that Winslet had two steaming prestige movies (“The Reader” and “Revolutionary Road”) hurtling toward earth – or at least toward the best actress category, where there’s room for only one performance per performer. Sensing disaster, Winslet’s work as a Nazi prison guard on trial was downgraded to a supporting part, which is like calling an SUV a big-wheel. That strategy won her two Golden Globes and two Screen Actors Guild nominations. The Academy, however, saw differently. Winslet was nominated for “The Reader” (the better of her two problematic performances) not “Revolutionary Road,” a movie whose only major nomination came for Michael Shannon, who almost literally brings the house down as a mental patient who visits Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio for dinner.
The poor showing for that movie suggests that it was probably too pristine for voters. It snagged nominations for art direction and costume design, apt acknowledgements that the director Sam Mendes had made a dollhouse of Richard Yates’s novel. Of course, if the Academy is averse to expensive-looking furniture dressed up as filmmaking, how does one explain “Frost/Nixon” or “The Reader”? Well, that’s important furniture. (“The Reader”’s most crucial nomination is for Chris Menges and Roger Deakins's cinematography.)
It’s interesting to note that the director of “The Reader,” Stephen Daldry, has made three movies (“Billy Elliot” and “The Hours” are the others) and now has three director nominations. This is a remarkable, unparalleled average. It’s also inexplicable. But Daldry excels at a certain kind of tastefulness that both audiences and an industry can admire. Of his movie, only “Billy Elliot” is alive with any kind filmmaking verve. These other two movies are triumphs of middlebrow self-congratulation: I’ve captured suffering, cooked it, and served it with a lime risotto.
Three of Daldry’s fellow nominees – Gus Van Sant, David Fincher, and Danny Boyle – have been recognized for some of their more accessible and popular work, which is hardly a crime. It's just very Oscar. In Van Sant’s case, he puts his brilliant avant-garde-film ideas to work in “Milk,” a rousing, unconventional act of movie biography that turns one man’s story into the story of a movement. Fincher directs up such a storm in “Benjamin Button” that choosing to bookend the movie with Hurricane Katrina’s approach seems redundant. And I prefer Boyle in a less hectic frame of mind (“28 Days Later” being a gonzo exception), but his movie, despite its script and character problems, at least brims with color and life.
More blathering to follow in the coming weeks. The actual broadcast – the 81st – is on February 22nd.