Sunday, February 24, 2008

PrognOSCARcations: Why Julie Christie Will Win

Well, If I wait much longer these won’t even qualify as predictions. ‘Cause the Oscars are almost upon us. The ceremony that looked for so long as if it wouldn’t be happening at all should be getting underway within a matter of hours. The long, long train of Oscar predictions is about to pull out of the station. So if I want to slap my own placard onto the back of the caboose, it’s now or never.
This year’s male categories (Actor and Supporting Actor) are almost universally considered to be locks . For Daniel Day-Lewis("There Will Be Blood") and Javier Bardem ("No Country for Old Men") respectively. No argument here. Not that either of them would be my choice. But both have attracted massive critical acclaim. And both performances have been perceived as singularly ballsy. Effectively neutralizing the danger both films initially faced of being relegated to art-house ghetto status. By now, mass audiences have been thoroughly wooed and won. Day-Lewis – if not the Olivier of his day – seems to be at very least its Paul Muni. In other words, his generation’s idea of what constitutes a great actor. His film appearances are rare enough to qualify as events; he’s famous for awesome amounts of preparation and commitment. And for disappearing chameleon-like into every role he plays. When he’s not filming, he’s basically M.I.A. Certainly no tabloid staple; his personal life pretty much stays just that. The actor emerges into public view every few years like some prodigious passing comet. Then –poof! Gone again.
Whether you like his TWBB performance or not (and most, it seems, do), there’s no denying it’s impossible to ignore. Big, plummy, grand or grandiloquent (depending on your viewpoint). It certainly seems to be a lot of people’s idea of great acting. And – no question about it – absolutely central to the film. He’s also won a lot of precursors and shone at the SAG and BAFTA ceremonies ( both widely televised). Gracious and unassuming with acceptance speeches that played very very well. What with the continuous affirmation all through award season, it’s now reached the point where a win for anyone else would undoubtedly ignite a firestorm of disapproval. Even George Clooney , who generally seems to have most of Hollywood eating out of his hand, is not going to be able to stop the Day-Lewis juggernaut.
Bardem’s even more of a lock. Not only is he part of a hugely acclaimed box-office hit. He’s generally perceived as the coolest thing in it. His character – Anton Chigurh, a kind of evil Energizer Bunny, has attained pop culture icon status. Something fan boys, geeks, yahoos and serious film buffs all seem to be buying into. It’s not a performance I’m particularly taken with. As I’ve said elsewhere, Bardem’s characterization is intense, but one-note – a sort of land-roving shark from "Jaws". But – for the vast majority of viewers – Bardem seems to have captured and combined the nasty cool of Hannibal Lector and the Terminator. And (apparently) that’s a good thing. Like Day-Lewis, Bardem’s dominated the precursors. And let’s not forget the man has an impressive resume. Long a superstar in his native Spain, he’s already delivered outstanding work in drama (Oscar nominated in "Before Night Falls" and (some felt) Oscar-robbed in "The Sea Inside") and comedy (check out "Boco a Boco", a Spanish film from ’95; he’s fantastic in it!). Bottom line: there’s no way JB’s going home empty-handed on Oscar night.
"No Country"’s also set to take picture and director. Its cool factor is substantial. And the Coen Brothers are widely regarded as overdue. 90% of the film operates as a gritty, kick-ass action thriller. As for the ending – well , some people actually do like it. And a lot more are saying they do. Because one’s response to it seems to be this year’s litmus test for sophistication and hipness. There’s no percentage in being the boy that says this emperor has no clothes. And of course "No Country" plays quite brilliantlly into the prevailing zeitgeist i.e. civilization as we know it is already waist-deep in a growing shit-storm and "you can’t stop what’s coming."
Supporting Actress is this year’s most wide-open race. At least four of the five gals concerned (Dee, Ryan, Blanchett and Swinton) have a strong shot at the trophy. But my guess is that Ruby Dee’s name’s the one we’re going to hear when the envelope’s opened . She’s the only nominee in this category who’s got a strong tide of industry sentiment behind her. An elderly, beloved veteran (who, surprisingly, has never been nominated). A woman whose artistic credentials are matched by a laudable life as a social activist and general class act. Let’s admit it – there are some who’ll simply consider it their civic duty to vote for Dee. Her name was nowhere to be seen in the year-end critics’ polls. But that didn’t stop her colleagues from giving Dee the SAG award. Of the nominees, she’s the only one whose victory would guarantee a standing ovation. An ovation I fully expect to see on Sunday night.
And finally there’s the Best Actress race. Julie Christie seems to be the front-runner. But unlike Day-Lewis and Bardem, she’s not considered a lock. Canada’s Ellen Page is 2007’s breakout star, playing the title role in "Juno", one of the year’s biggest box-office triumphs. It’s made more money than all the other Best Actress nominated pictures combined. Like Bardem’s Anton, Page’s Juno now has pop culture icon status tucked in her back pocket. She’s also tremendously likable. But I suspect Academy voters will feel 21 year-old Page can wait. She’s young, pretty, talented and probably swimming in A-list scripts right now. For her, the nomination will be her award – with a rain-check for a trophy sometime ahead.
France’s Marion Cotillard probably represents even stronger competition. Her jaw-dropping performance as singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" has crashed gloriously through all the barriers foreign films generally face when it comes to Oscars. There’s very little you can say about her work without resorting to superlatives. She portrays the legendary entertainer from girlhood to death, capturing each phase of Piaf’s tumultuous life with power and passion. Watching her recreate the concert segments from the singer’s later years is like getting lost in some kind of sublime, delirious Piaf /Garland continuum. But Cotillard makes the off-stage moments just as mesmerizing. She has a quiet scene near the end sitting on a beach that ranks with the best work I’ve ever seen from anybody anywhere. Recent American TV exposure for Cotillard has alerted Academy voters to the magnitude of the actress’ transition – physical and emotional – in "La Vie en Rose". She’s young, fresh and pretty. Don’t count her out for the trophy. She recently beat out Christie and Page at (Britain’s) BAFTA’s; she also won top honors from the LA Film Critics a group that’s certainly geographically close to most Academy voters. But Oscar or not, Cotillard seems set for a bright bright future. Currently on her schedule are roles opposite Javier Bardem, Christian Bale and Johnny Depp.
As a matter of fact, I’m down with all five Best Actress nominees. The Academy choices are the same five I’d have picked. And that’s never ever happened before. Laura Linney ( who’s always good) is good again in "The Savages". She and Philip Seymour Hoffman play symbiotically squabbling siblings. And just placing Hoffman in a situation where he has to interact non-stop with Linney’s quiet brilliance, helps him create his own career-best performance. Still, the picture’s low on buzz and box-office. Linney’s (richly deserved) nomination is – among other things – an indication of how respected she is within the film community. But a Linney victory’s about as likely as seeing Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice co-hosting the Teen Choice Awards.
Most critics have dumped on "Elizabeth:The Golden Age" (Sorry, I liked it). But the Golden Globes, The BAFTAS and the Screen Actors’ Guild have all found it impossible not to honor Cate Blanchett’s performance – at least with a nomination. Blanchett seems to have pretty much assumed the default slot that once belonged to Meryl Streep. The thinking being that "If there’s a spot available, let’s give it to Cate; she always delivers". Personally, I wouldn’t go that far. But, let’s face it - Cate Blanchett gives good Queen Bess!
Still, I’d say there are a great many reasons why Julie Christie’s got this one in the bag.
(1) First of all, Christie’s work in "Away From her" is marvelous and memorable. Oscar-worthy without a
(2) She plays an Alzheimer’s patient, which means there’s a built-in emotional resonance to the role.
Especially as the vast majority of Academy members are probably baby-boomers (or older). This is an
issue that –one way or another many of them have had to deal with within their families. It’s true that
"Away From Her" presents a rather picturesque, poetic view of the situation, shying away from the
bed-pan realities and traumatic hysteria. Judi Dench’s "Iris" came at least a little closer to that. But the
sheer magnificence of Christie’s performance trumps anything in "Iris".
(3)Christie remains a symbol for her generation. And a great many Academy voters come from that exact
generation. She started as a free-spirited and bracingly beautiful icon of the Swinging 60’s. Her Oscar
win for "Darling" in ’65 was regarded as some sort of changing of the guard – an exhilarating sea-
change as it were. You could practically feel the fresh air as she swept up to the podium in a mini to
collect her award. A Christie victory this year will give Academy members a lovely echo of - not
just her halcyon moments – but their own as well.
(4) It doesn’t hurt that Christie seems to have lived her life with zest, intelligence, grace and dignity. She’s
always radiated an aura of independence and self-sufficiency. Even in the 70’s when she and Warren
Beatty constituted one of Hollywood’s golden couples. Christie also has a reputation as a committed
Liberal – and that plays well with a lot of Academy members.
(5) Her career has been exemplary. She made a quick and seamless transition from 60’s goddess to
respected actor. And she’s never been one for over-exposure. Preferring to lead her (undoubtedly
fascinating) life far from the spotlight. But her artistic choices have been interesting and varied.
The Academy has nominated her a couple of times since "Darling" – for the Altman classic "McCabe
and Mrs. Miller" in the 70’s and for the admirable "Afterglow" in the 90’s. But her resume’s also
peppered with quality titles like "Shampoo", "Heat and Dust". Heaven Can Wait" and "Finding
Neverland". Heck, she’s even played Hamlet’s mother (and quite impressively) in the Kenneth
Branagh version. And, let’s not forget. She’s Lara from "Doctor Zhivago". And that can’t hurt her.
(6) Julie Christie’s also a rather impressive role model – an actress who doesn’t seem too bothered about.
aging. Neither Botox nor cosmetic surgery appear to rank high on the Christie priority list. Yet we should
all be lucky enough to look as good at 66 as Christie does. A marvel of inner and outer beauty. A
pleasure to think about. And certainly still a joy to behold.
(7) Christie’s apparently given out signals that "Away From Her" may be her very last film. Talk about
going out on a high note. And an Oscar victory would only amp it up just that much more. Coming
42 years after her first Academy Award , it should make for a lovely last hurrah.

P.S. If I had a vote, my ballot would look like this:
Actor: Viggo Mortensen "Eastern Promises"
deeply and eerily immersed in his role – and ultimately moving.
Actress: Marion Cotillard "La Vie en Rose"
– a Christie victory will be sweet, no doubt – but I’ve got to admit
this year my heart’s with Cotillard.
Supporting Actor: Hal Holbrook "Into the Wild"
Supporting Actress: Amy Ryan "Gone Baby Gone"
-but that’s because my favorites in these categories
Philip Bosco "The Savages"
And Patricia Clarkson "Lars and the Real Girl"
weren’t even nominated.

P.P.S. Thanks, Ultimate Addict for the recent link. Very kind of you.

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