• Otter Views: Movies, Books, Plays

    The Academy Awards telecast caught me unprepared this time. I usually try to see all the major contenders before the red carpet rolls out, but this year I only got to about half of them.
    Watching the show, I felt like an English major who didn’t finish the assigned reading. I was especially mortified when the camera panned around the audience, settling on one nominee or another.
    “Who’s that?”
    “He played the cruel master in “12 Years a Slave.”
    “And him?”
    “Jared Leto. He was the transvestite in ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’”
    “Why are they showing Meryl Streep? Is she the lifetime achievement winner this year?”
    “No, she was in ‘August: Osage County.’ She’s up for best actress. You mean you haven’t seen any of these?”
    “I’ve seen some of them,” I pouted. “But there were nine best picture nominees this year. I couldn’t keep up.” Even as I spoke, I realized how lame that sounded. It wasn’t as if the movies weren’t accessible. All nine best picture nominees showed here locally, as did several others referenced in the telecast. This isn’t Easter Island.
    No, the truth is I watched some movies I should have skipped, and skipped some I should have watched. Two in the former category came from big fat books I’d read, so I went to those pictures because of the time I had already put in. As a former English major, I also had to see the new film incarnation of one skinny book, “The Great Gatsby.”
    I’m sorry to report that both “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Monuments Men” were far better as fat books than as films. I probably should have spent those popcorn allotments on two of the Oscar nominees. “Gatsby” was a nominee, and Baz Lurman’s recent version was showy enough to take home Oscars for production design and costuming. That said, Fitzgerald’s skinny book still hasn’t found a fitting screen incarnation.
    Doing better justice to their literary sources were three films that made it into the best picture finals. “Twelve Years a Slave” was based on the letters and journals of a 19th century African-American free man treacherously abducted into slavery. “The Wolf of Wall Street” comes from the memoirs of notorious penny stock huckster Jordan Belfort, who lived high and played dirty. “August: Osage County” is the film version of an award-winning Tracy Letts stage play about a disintegrating family. I missed that one in both formats.
    I did watch one Oscar nominee based on a play I had read, and I give that one thumbs-up for honoring the spirit, if not the letter, of the original. The movie is “Blue Jasmine,” a modern re-telling of Tennessee Williams’ wrenching “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I regained some Academy Awards face when “Jasmine” star Cate Blanchett won a well-deserved best actress Oscar, her second.
    As a sucker for science fiction and special effects, I was also glad to have seen “Gravity,” which made me look prescient by taking home seven Oscars. The entire film is a technological wonder, but the first 20 minutes are so astounding I had to remind myself to keep breathing.
    While books, memoirs and stage plays provided the source material for most of this year’s best picture contenders, one came straight out of the headlines. That was “American Hustle,” a financial fraud story that, like “The Wolf of Wall Street,” went home winless. Based on the FBI’s “Abscam” case of the 1970s, “American Hustle” captures the tension and absurdity of a high-risk financial sting that sent several U.S. politicians to jail.
    The film is funny, passionate, outrageous, and boasts an amazing ensemble cast. I would have thought any show starring Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Robert DeNiro (in a killer cameo) would take at least one statuette home. Maybe the 1970s are over?
    In fairness, the same could be said for “August: Osage County,” another winningly cast ensemble project that got shut out. Among them, Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Sam Shepard, and Dermot Mulroney have a station wagon full of Oscars and Tonys, but no new ones this week.
    They weren’t alone. Past Oscar winners Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips”), Martin Scorcese (“The Wolf of Wall Street”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“Gatsby” and “Wolf”) won’t need to unlock their trophy cases this year. Having worked himself into near-bionic fitness for his two lead roles, DiCaprio prudently declined the pizza slices mischievous host Ellen Degeneres ordered for the awards show’s live audience.
    In one of the evening’s best pranks, Degeneres cold-called a pizza delivery guy who thought he was bringing the pies to the show’s writers backstage. When he got there, Degeneres led him out into the house before a thousand Hollywood luminaries and untold millions of viewers worldwide. After passing the pizzas around, the startled delivery man left the hall so hurriedly he forgot to submit his bill.
    Degeneres took care of it. She hustled $600 from the live audience, added $400 herself, and paid the pizza man $1,000 on her morning show the next day. He’ll soon have his own agent.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 7, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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