The right to pursue happiness, according to our Founding Fathers, is guaranteed to us as Americans.
The Founding Mothers didn’t have equal say in the matter, so who knows where that guarantee might have ended up if they had? (One guesses the same. On the other hand, if the Founding Mothers had had a vote on the Second Amendment, things might have been a lot different.)
When it comes to the 2013 Oscars (tonight at 8 on ABC, Channel 7), universal happiness simply isn’t an option. Don’t bother pursuing it. You’ll just get a headache. We could all seek it until we’re blue in the face, but by evening’s end, the 85th Annual Academy Awards ceremony is bound to leave everyone muttering to themselves and swearing at the coffee table or bedspread.
This is my 40th annual Oscar Tip Sheet for this newspaper, and I have never before had to write off as many categories where I knew in advance that my personal favorites didn’t stand a chance.
Take Best Picture – please, as the ancient one-liner spritzer used to say. There were three truly great movies in 2013, three movies head and shoulders above everything else. And not one of them seems to stand a chance of winning: Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”
A victory by any one of them would be a surprise so stunning it might bid fair to be called epochal.
Nothing else in the category is even close to the level of those three films. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” embodies an honest and very traditional yearning for cinematic greatness. And Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is that rare crowd-pleaser that rouses and pleases audiences every bit as much as it intends to – perhaps even more.
Neither one of those would be a wholly dishonorable Oscar. But neither one holds a flickering candle to the power of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour,” or the sublime magical beauty and strangeness of “Life of Pi.”
This year’s Oscars were so maimed and botched on nomination day that no make-good on Oscar night is possible. It became an absolute necessity to have a risky professional smartass like Seth MacFarlane (creator of “Family Guy”) as host. We’re going to need an awful lot of omindirectional snark and bile to appease all of our grumbling. Billy Crystal’s good cheer wouldn’t quite cut it.
No mogul since Louis B. Mayer has ever had the Oscar juju of Weinstein Films’ Harvey Weinstein, once 50 percent of Buffalo rock promoters Harvey and Corky. By the time he worked his voodoo, his films “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Django Unchained” not only both wound up as Best Picture nominees but also as prominent contenders up and down the entire nominee roster.
“Silver” director David O. Russell was one of those who knocked Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow out of expected spots in the Best Director category. (Benh Zeitlin, director of the lovable but overrated indie film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is the other major party crasher in the Best Director ranks.)
As award season wended its way toward tonight, we were entreated to an ongoing afternoon talk show about the emotional worthiness of “Silver Linings Playbook” – the fact, for instance, that Russell wanted to make the film because he has a bipolar son.
When the cast got together to chat it up on Katie Couric’s daytime show, the audience at home and in the studio was treated to the singular sight of Supporting Actor nominee Robert De Niro being too choked up for about a minute to even talk about it.
De Niro’s personal life has never been common currency out there in Brangelinaville and Kardashian-land, and it’s been widely speculated since the show that De Niro, too, has someone with special needs in his immediate family.
When you consider that the film is, in essence, just an occasionally annoying screwball comedy about the blessings of oddness and the romance of two outsiders – one with an ending straight out of “Dancing With the Stars” – that’s a shocking amount of freight to be hauling into an Oscar telecast. So gifted, though, have been the sales and marketing and publicity forces behind “Silver Linings Playbook” that it may win all sorts of Oscars it may not entirely deserve – De Niro, for instance, as Best Supporting Actor, over Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Master,” Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln” and Alan Arkin in “Argo.”
Weinstein, if nothing else, took award-season campaigns a good four levels above previous trade paper ads “For Your Consideration.”
They’re the top
But then there are still good reasons why the Oscars remain the archetype of all TV award shows. They remain America’s Biggest Prize, as idiotic as they’ve so often been for the last 85 years.
Whatever happens to their credibility, their prominence remains inviolate. Whatever silliness interferes, their glamour somehow survives – at least in people’s anticipation. The dress designers and jewelers see to that in the hope that they, too, will get a nice “Oscar bounce” into a higher tax bracket.
No one, for instance, has to be told what an “Oscar speech” is: it’s the expression of phony gratitude to all the “little people” who help the big salaried folks earn more money than the GNP of some smaller nations. It’s also an expression of thanks to agents, lawyers, publicists and drinking buddies that no one at home could possibly give two Doritos about but who, inside showbiz, are expected in shoutouts as the proper etiquette of fame.
There’s no such thing as a “Grammy speech,” or a “Golden Globe speech,” or an “Emmy speech,” or a “Tony speech.” There’s just an Oscar speech that’s being given at the Grammys, Golden Globes, Emmys and the Tonys.
Some people do them well (the Brits still take public mannerliness and grace seriously); some can be unbelievably brusque. A previous record holder for Oscar-accepting surliness – Tommy Lee Jones for “The Fugitive” – stands a decent chance for winning an Oscar for playing Sen. Thaddeus Stevens in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” and may, yet again, give the world a lesson in the proper way to inject misery into occasions of public merriment. His astoundingly mirthless demeanor during the jokiness at the Golden Globes was genuinely stunning to see and a metaphysical triumph. Who says award shows serve no higher purpose?
The envelope, please
My usual batting average for this annual tip sheet is somewhere around .750, but so much manipulation and uncut weirdness has gone into the 85th annual Oscars that I’m expecting that number to plunge seriously downward.
The way this year’s Oscars look:
Best picture: The truly great movies of 2012 – “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Life of Pi” and “Amour” – seem out of the question. The Best Director category snub for “Zero” director Bigelow was a message into the ether that Hollywood doesn’t like movies that tell so many deeply uncomfortable truths about recent American history, even if the ending – the death of Osama bin Laden – was a cause for American satisfaction, if not outright celebration.
On the other hand, the Best Director snub for “Argo” director Affleck was countermanded big time by both the Golden Globes and the SAG Awards, among others, which found room for Affleck’s massive crowd-pleaser in its top ranks. Actors are the most populous of all Academy voters. “Argo” is a film directed by an actor (the Oscars like that; consider Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Kevin Costner and even Mel Gibson). And it’s full of juicy performances.
A Best Picture Oscar for “Silver Linings Playbook” would be possible, but a cause for congressional investigation if it actually happened. It would blot an already blotchy Oscars. “Django Unchained” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” stand no chance, nor does “Les Misérables,” by virtue of what is widely perceived to be truly stunning pomp and tedium.
It seems to be between That Landmark Film Wannabe, “Lincoln” and “Argo,” despite the idiotic Affleck snub.
Audiences love “Argo,” and it’s also the one coming through with a lot of strength. I’m guessing “Argo” to win, even if, personally, I’d make it a tie between “Life of Pi” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” A “Lincoln” victory would cap off a very boring night indeed.
Best actor: The only sure thing of the night. If it’s anyone but Daniel Day-Lewis, it may mean that the Mayans were right – just a couple months early, that’s all. His Lincoln is going to stay in our heads for decades.
Tragically, that obscures the greatest performance of Denzel Washington’s career in “Flight” and the astounding intensity of Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master.” A great category with a sadly certain conclusion.
Best actress: Jennifer Lawrence has all the strength going into the Oscars for “Silver Linings Playbook.” As the heroine of the “Hunger Games” franchise, she has hundreds of millions of dollars of future box office riding on her beautiful shoulders. She is, in interviews, delightfully off-center. She’s the one Oscar for the film that even those unimpressed with it could live with.
The tragedy there is that if she does win, it eliminates the only Oscar chance for “Zero Dark Thirty” – the most important film of the year – by wiping out Jessica Chastain. It’s between Chastain and Lawrence. Expect Lawrence.
An extreme dark horse would be Naomi Watts for “The Impossible.” Some horses, though, just seem way too dark.
Best supporting actor: Has Jones maneuvered himself out of an Oscar by being just too disagreeable for comfort? It could be, even though he comes in with the major awards so far. If everybody’s sick of him, there may yet be room for De Niro in his first nomination at all in 25 years. Or, Arkin in “Argo” if everyone is really riled up about mistreating Affleck.
I’d give it to Hoffman in “The Master,” but that movie represents a Hollywood that nobody but critics wants.
Supporting actress: Sally Field might have stood a chance for “Lincoln” if Anne Hathaway hadn’t already made such a showing as the only award they can possibly give “Les Misérables” without choking on it. Make it Hathaway, even though I’d give it to Helen Hunt for her discipline and fearlessness in “The Sessions.”
If it’s Jacki Weaver for “Silver Linings Playbook,” it will be just way too much Harvey voodooo for a civilized world.
Foreign language film: It’s unimaginable that it won’t be Haneke’s “Amour.”
Best director: A category so botched that the result makes virtually no difference. I’d gleefully give it to the unlikely Ang Lee for “Life of Pi,” but it’s probably another Oscar for Spielberg, just for his ambitions. If Haneke wins for “Amour,” it means that the voters haven’t seen his other films, some of which are elegantly despicable. An Oscar for Russell in the year 2013 would be little less than a scandal, in my view.
Adapted screenplay: If ambition alone carried the day, it would be a lock for Tony Kushner for “Lincoln.” Given, though, everyone’s bad humor about improper recognition for “Argo,” don’t be surprised if it’s Chris Terrio for that film. If it’s Russell for “Silver Linings Playbook,” they should rename the Oscars the Harveys.
Original screenplay: The best category of the night. The only awful winner would be Quentin Tarantino. I’m guessing Writer’s Guild Winner Mark Boal for a “Zero Dark Thirty” consolation prize, but John Gatins’ script for “Flight” deserves respect and Haneke’s script for “Amour” is shattering. Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola’s “Moonrise Kingdom” is enough to give you faith in movies themselves in the 21st century.
Production design: A tough category, oddly. Make it “Les Misérables” for all the money spent and all the expectations carried.
Animated feature film: It should have been “Frankenweenie,” but it will wind up to be “Brave.” If it’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” it means celebrity triumphs uber alles.
Cinematography: My hope, against hope, is “Life of Pi.”
Original score: More evidence of an “Argo” backlash, I think, for Alexandre Desplat.
Original song: Who doesn’t love Adele? Her theme for “Skyfall” wasn’t one of the grand James Bond themes, but it wasn’t bad. On the other hand, there’s all that money in the budget for “Les Misérables” that silly people will want to pay attention to.
Costumes: A category you might think just made for a “Les Misérables” consolation prize – unless, of course, everyone was as bored as I was, in which case, why not “Lincoln”?
Documentary feature: “Searching for Sugar Man” may be too pop. In which case “The Gatekeepers” broke out of the release gate at the exact right time.
Film editing: A tough choice between “Life of Pi” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” In a perfect world, they’d tie. In this world, “Zero” will have more guilt mojo going for it, I think.
Visual effects: “Life of Pi” was just too good a film not to give as many Oscars to as possible – even with all the effects in “The Hobbit.”
Makeup and hairstyling: “Hitchcock?” Are they serious? Let’s give “Les Misérables” the gold. A lot of hard work went into that movie – some of it by members of the audience watching it in theaters.