Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

One ring to rule them all

There is one obvious topic to talk about this week. Yes, that’s right, it’s the Irish Reels Film & Video Festival in Seattle, Washington USA. If you’re not in Seattle by the time you read this, then hurry up and go there and see some great Irish films. It runs from Thursday, March 4, through Sunday, March 7.

The opening night film is John Crowley’s Intermission, featuring Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy, among a large cast. Neil Jordan is the producer of that movie as well as being the subject of a tribute on Saturday. His Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa and The Crying Game will be screened. Other feature films to be screened during the festival include Cowboys and Angels, Headrush and Mystics.

Now that that’s out of the way, I suppose we should also discuss the Oscars. But what’s a fantasy-loving cynic supposed to do when the greatest fantasy movie of all time gets nominated for a whole bunch of awards and gets every single one of them? The answer, of course, is to pick apart the awards ceremony itself.

I suppose the best thing that can be said for it is that we didn’t have to see Janet Jackson’s breast and (more importantly) have to hear all the discussion about it afterwards. But every year the broadcast seems more and more devoid of surprise and spontaneity. This is apparently comforting for the producers, but less than exciting for the audience. It was good to have Billy Crystal back, although even his shtick is starting to get a bit familiar. He was as funny as ever, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that, when he’s the host, the show tends to about him. A telling moment was when Crystal did the obligatory joke about the academy president being boring, and president Frank Pierson snapped back that he didn’t mean to ruin “his show.” Maybe this was pre-scripted banter poorly delivered, but it sounded testy. Coincidentally, the degree of Crystal’s comic stridency was actually emphasized, as we got a bunch of clips of Bob Hope’s major moments hosting the program over an amazing 18 years. The Hope tribute unexpectedly made the late comedian seem classy and irreplaceable when contrasted with Crystal. But it could have been even worse. The tribute could have been for Johnny Carson. (Personal note to Billy: way too much about Pete Rose. Not that funny and who cares anyway?)

The winners and presenters are so well trained now, that hardly anyone seems to go off the script or make a speech too long. Everyone seemed anxious to avoid embarrassment or platitudes. Even the winner of the Best Actress award, Charlize Theron, insisted that she was not going to cry, apparently because that has now become such a cliché. The best moment was the deliberate Inspector Clouseau moment when Blake Edwards got his honorary Oscar—enhanced by presenter Jim Carrey’s wry quip that “they don’t let me have these” when Edwards handed him his statuette so he could make his speech. The runner-up was when Will Ferrell and Jack Black sang lyrics to the music that forces people off the stage when their speeches go too long.

Much as I was pleased with how well The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was doing, I was a bit embarrassed by the film’s good fortune and actually started rooting for Lost in Translation to win more awards. In particular, I was desperately hoping for Bill Murray to get Best Actor. What I would have given to hear the speech he had prepared. It would have unquestionably made the evening. It’s a shame he didn’t get to give it. Apparently, he felt so too, so visibly that Crystal started kidding him from the stage about the sour look on his face.

As for the trappings, the red carpet was back and Hollywood is clearly no longer on a war footing. Politics didn’t intrude too much, perhaps because everyone remembered what a fuss it caused when Michael Moore gave his “shame on you, President Bush” speech last year. Indeed, there was an echo of that brouhaha in Crystal’s trademark movie collage, in which he inserts himself in every scene. As Crystal becomes an elf in a battle scene in Return of the King, Moore appeared suddenly, decrying the “fictitious war” against Sauron and intoning “Shame on you Hobbits!” before being trampled by a rather large mythical creature. The only winner this year to venture an overt political comment was Errol Morris, who deservedly won for The Fog of War which, as he put it, showed how America “went down a rabbit hole” in Vietnam. Morris said he feared America was going down another rabbit hole now, which I guess means he thinks rebuilding Iraq is a bad idea? I wasn’t quite sure. Maybe he will make another movie and explain just what he meant. Another slightly political moment came when Sean Penn got his Best Actor award. As he basked in the heartfelt applause and adulation of his peers, he couldn’t help making a brief comment about what actors know, calculated to remind everyone that he gone to Iraq before the war and had reported that he had seen no WMDs. Guess you got the last laugh there all right, Sean, although you also didn’t see all the mass graves, which turned up after the war either. But Penn deserves points for sincerity, loyalty and idealism. As an unfailing supporter of Dennis Kucinich, he is one of about 14 Democrats in the whole country focused on something besides “electability” at all costs.

The biggest surprise for me personally was Annie Lennox. So much for that image I have always had of her in my head as being so impossibly beyond cool. I have never seen anyone more star-struck in my life. When she got the award for best song for Return of the King (she had two co-recipients, but you would hardly have known it at the moment), she was high in the clouds. But the Oscars have a way of doing that to people. Watching the Irish coverage, I was amazed to see RTÉ’s normally earnest and dour America correspondent, who usually does the kind of critical reports on the down side of U.S. society and government that a university sophomore would be proud of, all glammed up on the red carpet and gushing like a giddy school girl.

Fashion-wise, I didn’t spot any get-ups on the far side of the absurdity scale. Liv Tyler’s hair made my head feel lopsided, and Diane Keaton did come in for some razzing from the BBC wags who were commenting on the proceedings, with host Jonathan Ross insisting that she must be a very good sport since she had obviously lost a bet with a friend, requiring her to dress in Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp outfit.

After all is said and done, however, we have to deal with the fact that a fantasy movie finally got recognized by the Oscars. And not just recognized. It got as many Oscars as any movie has ever gotten. What does this mean? Well, I suppose generational attitudes have something to do with it. Most people working in the film business these days would have grown up with sci-fi movies and Star Trek, so they would tend to be less snobbish about the genre than their elders. Anyway, the real breakthrough is not that a fantasy movie got Best Picture. It’s that the best movie of the year got Best Picture in spite of being a fantasy movie. It did me a world of good seeing Peter Jackson and his cohorts on stage collecting all the awards, if for no other reason that Jackson looked pretty much the same way I do when I try to wear a suit. A very nice touch was at the very end when, among all the multitude of thanking going on, producer Barrie M. Osborne remembered to thank “the fans.” This is a case where the built-in fan base of a book adaptation really made a difference. If Jackson hadn’t paid attention to all the chatter and feedback among Lord of the Rings fans and remained as faithful as cinematically reasonable to the books, the resulting movies would certainly not have been as good. As a result, we are all the richer.

One more time: thank you, Peter Jackson.

-S.L., 4 March 2004

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