... in jail." So says Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to a crazed with joy George Bailey (James Stewart) in It's a Wonderful Life. Mr. Potter is the heavy of the movie and we're supposed to dislike him but the thing is, Lionel Barrymore does such an exemplary job at portraying him in all of his nastiness that I kind of like him. The "jail" line, referring to George Bailey's Savings and Loan customers as a "bunch of garlic eaters" and hanging on to the money even when George Bailey comes to him in a desperate panic, knowing it will destroy Bailey and his family if he loses everything and goes to jail. Jesus, what a bastard! And yet, Mr. Potter makes me smile, that old curmudgeon. Probably because I already know everything turns out fine so I can sit back and enjoy Old Man Potter's bitterness. But a part of it also comes from the fact that at this time of the year I'm pretty much an old bitter curmudgeon myself.
Join me in my bitterness. Specifically, Oscar bitterness.
I wrote last year on this blog of the recent Oscar phenomenon of awarding the lead acting Oscars to impersonations of real life characters and the trend continues. Four of the last six Best Actor winners (Adrian Brody, Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Forest Whitaker) and a whopping five of the last six (and seven since 1999) Best Actress winners (Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, Reese Witherspoon, Helen Mirren, Marion Cotillard) all portrayed real life characters. That's 9 to 3 in favor of impersonation. And if you don't think this is something new you're wrong. Want to know how many Best Actress winners were for portrayals of real people before 1999 (remember, seven of the last nine have been for portrayals of real people)? If you said "seven" you're right. That's right, in the Oscars handed out before 1999, the same amount were given for impersonation performances for the first seventy one Oscars as for the last nine! It could be argued that it's eight if you count Ingrid Bergman for Anastasia, loosely based on real characters and events. That's how, last year on this blog, I was able to correctly predict in December before any nominations were even out that Marion Cotillard would win Best Actress. I hadn't seen her performance or any of the others yet that would end up getting nominated and it didn't matter. She was playing a real person. I knew she'd win. This year's Best Actress hopefuls don't have any big impersonation performances to get in the way so we'll have a brief respite from it this year. But don't worry because the two front runners for Best Actor are...
Sean Penn and Frank Langella! And who do they play again? Oh yeah, real life politicians Harvey Milk and Richard Nixon. Penn already has an Oscar, Langella's been around for ages without one (or even nomination) and someone has to finally win for playing Nixon right? Right. Go with the even money and the recent impersonation trend of the Oscars. Frank Langella gets the Golden Boy.
So why does all this make me bitter (remember, that's how all of this started)? Not because I think it's easy playing a real life character, in fact, one could argue it's more difficult because you're working against audience expectations of how the character should look and sound. On the other hand, if you get the look and sound just right (Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman) you can fool a lot of people into thinking you just gave a performance. Not that those two actors didn't give a performance, but the look and sound of their characters took precedence over any emotional arcs or deeper reflection. Heath Ledger gave a performance in Brokeback Mountain. He inhabited a character, made him real and filled him with loneliness and pain. Hoffman played Capote. Sorry, that probably sounds snide or flippant, but the two performances don't compare and the fact that the Oscars increasingly looks to see who is doing the best impersonation onscreen annoys me. But what really bothers me about is...
I can't stand biopics! Okay, that's too harsh. There are many I like actually, but on the whole, biopics bore me. I'd bet good money there are plenty of good wholly fictional stories out there in the minds of talented screenwriters that will never see the light of day because come Oscar time the studios want to put their "prestige movie money" into a biopic where everyone can "oooh" and "aah" over how much Charlize Theron looks like Aileen Wuornos! Wow! I mean, she's ugly and everything! So if only for the sake of less biopics, I hope Oscar eases away from this trend sooner rather than later.
I'm still catching up on 2008 releases so a post on Best Picture bitterness will have to wait. We've made it seven years since a biopic last won the top award (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) so we're probably due, which means, being the Oscar completest I am, I will have to see Milk and/or Frost/Nixon and even though I know I'm pre-judging here, I'd rather have my teeth drilled. But I'll do my duty and take them in soon. In fact, I'll go online right now to get my tickets. Hmmm... my teeth do feel a little sensitive right now though. No, no, I'll get the tickets. Hmmm... maybe I'm getting a cavity. Yeah, you know what, first things first. I'm making an appointment for the dentist.