So, I was kind of taken aback by the De Niro news. He’s very famous for being a New York-based film actor, but it was shocking that Robert De Niro of all people had never been so honored at filmdom’s most famous church. Sure, his filmography has been littered with a lot of Fockeresque, lesser work in recent years, but that’s not uncommon as an actor ages and is forced out of leading man-type roles. De Niro will be 70 this year. Scorsese had found a new, younger muse in Leonardo Di Caprio. De Niro moved on to playing fathers of adult children and grandfathers. Travis Bickle has morphed into Katherine Heigl’s father.
From the mid-'70s or so to the early '90s, Robert De Niro wasn’t just a great actor. He was a legend. He took the method to its logical conclusion, going to some truly frightening places both psychologically and physically. He famously gained 70 pounds to play old, fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. I’m not a cardiologist, but I’m pretty sure that’s bad for you. I would argue the reason the first Fockers movie works as well as it does is all the baggage of playing very intense characters De Niro brings to the table – he’s a truly horrifying, future father-in-law precisely because he’s Robert De Niro.
Indulge me for a moment as I give you an incomplete list of films De Niro appeared in during his golden age:
Bang the Drum Slowly
The Godfather, Part II
The Last Tycoon
New York, New York
The Deer Hunter
The King of Comedy
Once Upon a Time in America
Mad Dog and Glory
Wag the Dog
He even directed and starred in a personal favorite of mine, A Bronx Tale. So, it’s an impressive resume, right? Figure into that his two Oscars wins (against seven nominations), his Golden Globes lifetime achievement award (also eight Globes nominations and two wins), the lifetime achievement award from the Berlin Film Festival, and the Kennedy Center Honors, given for exemplary life achievement in the arts.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but Robert De Niro kicks a--.
But, he’d never gotten his handprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theater until earlier this week and not when he was in his artistic prime. It’s too bad that this past week it was all mostly a stunt.
It’s Awards Season in Los Angeles, that odd time between the end of the year and the Oscars, where everybody jockeys their films and performances for position at the Academy trough. Newspapers and billboards all over the city are gorged with For Your Consideration ads. People who don’t follow the film industry may not be aware of the sheer volume of awards shows that are staged in January and February. The Oscars and Golden Globes are on network TV, but there’s also the Independent Spirit Awards, the SAG Award, the DGA Awards, the PGA Awards, the WGA Awards, the Critics Choice Awards. Then, there are all the awards given out by newspaper and critics groups like the National Board of Review. Most major cities have a critics group tied to their local newspaper that gives out annual awards for films. Trust me when I say I’ve barely scratched the tip of the iceberg. There are a multitude of awards leading up to the Oscars.
This is where the De Niro handprints come into play. The Grauman’s ceremony from earlier this week was all part of an awards campaign that can be just as elaborate as campaigns by politicians. De Niro is nominated for supporting actor in Silver Linings Playbook, his first Oscar nomination in 21 years. Silver Linings Playbook was produced by The Weinstein Company whose boss, Harvey Weinstein, has made a fine art of the Awards Season Campaign. So, De Niro’s massively belated enshrinement at Grauman’s Chinese was less about honoring him and more about creating a big press event that could occur while Oscar ballots are in the voters’ hands.
I’m not a very big fan of the Oscars. I will watch the show when it airs later this month, to be sure, and I am interested in who’s nominated and who wins, but just in a casual sort of way. I think my indifference can be traced back to being a kid. Like many of us, I came into a love of movies through genre films. Star Wars was my gateway drug into geekdom. But, our movies were never recognized outside of tech categories, and, in the odd event they earned major nominations (Raiders of the Lost Ark was a best picture nominee in 1981, for instance), it was understood they could never actually win because “those kinds” of movies don’t get Oscars. Those kinds of movies should just be happy they got invited to the super serious party. And, don’t get me started on the bastardization of film comedy. Everybody knows comedy is harder to get right than drama; as the old cliché goes, it’s easier to make people cry than to make people laugh. But, great comedic work is almost never recognized against a “serious actor” playing somebody with a deformity or a tricky accent. Animated films have been reduced to their own category, because everybody knows cartoons aren’t really serious movies, no matter how hard Toy Story 3 made you cry. Incidentally, Chariots of Fire went on the win Best Picture in 1981. Does anybody think it’s more of a timeless classic than Raiders?
That’s because the Motion Picture Academy rewards a certain kind of sturdy, serious-themed, risk-averse movie. Movies with some rough edges on them almost never win at the Oscars. The Los Angeles Times ran a story about the Academy membership about this time last year. The Times revealed that, demographically speaking, the average Academy member was an older, white male. I know that’s shocking, that in modern day America a bunch of old, white guys are running things. But, I would think an organization like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would want their voting body to be more diverse in terms of age, gender, and ethnicity, so the Oscars they present were more representative of American and world culture as a whole. When middlebrow stuff like The King’s Speech (a movie nobody watches now and it just won two years ago) wins, you know why. It appealed to 60-year-old white guys who are continually amazed by how awesome British people are.
And, does it even make any sense to make works of art compete against each other? For movies to be locked into some sort of mortal combat, celluloid Thunderdome? I have a fairly extensive sports background and I’ve always found ESPN’s Espy Awards to be really stupid – you’re voting on awards for people who get to decide who’s best on the field of competition. What’s the point of that? But, the Oscars may be stupider yet. I’m totally on board for a method of annually recognizing excellence in the film industry. I think the American Film Institute has a pretty good method for doing it: they just produce a list each year of ten great films. Does that exclude some things that should get recognized? Probably, but there’s likely no way around that. The awards show nonsense of creating a list of nominees and then broadcasting a presentation based around the phony suspense of “who will win” produces a strange sense that everybody else is somehow a loser. Sports are designed to have clear-cut winners, works of art can only generate responses based on the individual taste of the viewer. I know people who were moved to tears by The Notebook while I just am astonished at that film’s inherent phoniness. Last year I was profoundly moved by Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life while other people felt it was the most pretentious thing they’d ever seen. Art is inherently subjective.
Frequently the winners shouldn’t win or they win for the wrong things. Al Pacino is a great film actor. There’s no question about that. He won his Oscar for a movie called Scent of a Woman that was made during his shouty period. (Some may argue Pacino is still in his shouty period.) Nobody thinks Pacino’s best work was in Scent of a Woman. He’s quite hammy in it. But, he’d been nominated seven times previously and never won. His win for something less than his best work is something the Oscars specialize in: the “Wait, this person’s never won before?” life achievement award. Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar. Neither did Alfred Hitchcock. Or Cary Grant.
Last year many people thought Andy Serkis should have been nominated for his motion capture work as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Actors who work in MoCap often get some disrespect. Critics of their work will argue that the performance is enhanced by the CG animation once it’s completed. Apparently, prosthetic makeup appliances don’t enhance an actor’s work at all. Many actors are terrified of motion capture, fearing it will replace them sooner or later. But, no matter where you fall in that discussion, there’s no question that Andy Sirkus is forging a trail in a new tech that actors will be following for years. Why couldn’t the Academy just present him with an Oscar for this groundbreaking work? Pixar was given a special Oscar for creating the first fully computer animated film. Why must the Oscars be fenced in with a bunch of pre-conceived categories and limited numbers of nominees?
And then, there’s this nonsense with the campaigning. Again, if the Oscars are genuinely about recognizing excellence, then why do the stars have to put on this ridiculous dog and pony show in order to get people to vote for them? Why do the studios spend millions of dollars on campaigns? And, more importantly, why doesn’t the Academy have some integrity and just put a stop to it? Joaquin Phoenix made quite a stir earlier this year when he called the Oscar campaigning out for what it is (“bulls---” was his exact word) and has refused to participate. Does his refusal to jump through an increasingly silly number of hoops somehow diminish the work he did in The Master? That idea is patently ludicrous. If the Academy were really all about recognizing excellence then none of the campaign whistle stops (like, say, a long overdue handprint ceremony) should matter. At all. But, they do. A lot.
I cringe at the thought of this year’s Oscar show. The host is that bastion of the movie business Seth MacFarlane. Seth’s hosting is the result of the Academy’s increasing desperation to make the awards show relevant to a younger audience. Two years ago that same desperation led them to name Anne Hathaway and James Franco show hosts. Anybody remember that train wreck? Thankfully, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler just showed us that hosting an awards show need not end in bloodshed or degradation. The ratings erosion for the Oscars on TV also led to the bizarre decision to open the Best Picture nominees up to as many as ten films because too many small indies were getting recognized. It’s already been announced that MacFarlane’s creation Ted will be an Oscar awards presenter. I can hardly wait. Why let an established star present an award when you can get a foul mouthed, CGI teddy bear? I get that the Oscar telecast is the Academy’s only source of income. But, that’s going to change in a couple of years when they get their museum up and running on the LACMA campus. They won’t need to be courting the lowest common denominator any more.
I like something Matt Damon said about the Oscars a few years ago. Damon said they should stop giving them out for five years and then start over, starting with the films from five years ago. For instance, in 2018 they would give out the awards for 2013. It allows for a little bit of history to pass and for the Academy voters to see how a film holds up over time. If you’re ever in Los Angeles and you want to brave the crap fest that is the Hollywood and Highland Center, you’ll see in the atrium to the Dolby Theater (Huzzah for more corporate naming rights!) all the names of previous Best Picture winners. And, you’ll be surprised at the number of times you’ll go, “Huh?” The number of obscure or totally forgotten Best Picture winners is about as common as the number of forgotten performers out on the Walk of Fame.
The Oscars are prestigious. They also mean greater box office earnings for movies that can secure nominations and eventual wins. There’s both money and power caught up in them so any reform of real consequence is very unlikely. I guess I should just sit back and enjoy the circus while it’s in town. It’s just that as a film lover, it’s hard to watch a genuine celebration of an art from get the mouth breathing E! treatment. All things considered, in some ways Robert De Niro finally getting his cement moment at Grauman’s Chinese Theater is a bigger honor than if he wins that Oscar or not.
Oh, and one last point: If I’m ever nominated, I’m totally showing up for it. Dude, are you kidding? It’s the Oscars!