The Undramatic 79th Academy Awards

So Martin Scorsese finally has an Oscar and Peter O’Toole still doesn’t. Pan’s Labyrinth got shunted to one side as Best Foreign Language Film by the German film The Lives of Others, which almost no one has ever heard of. The supposedly unbeatable Eddie Murphy, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, went home empty-handed (maybe a lot of people voted after they saw Norbit) in favor of Alan Arkin as a heroin-snorting grandfather with the vocabulary of a sailor. And Helen Mirren, who was being advertised for her nude scene in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah 35 years ago (“Reveals Miss Helen Mirren full-frontal in a scene longer than the normal glimpse”), took home the statue of the little nude man for portraying perhaps the most prim and proper woman on the planet, Queen Elizabeth II. Try to make sense of it all? Forget it, Jake, it’s Oscartown.

Lacking the kind of controversy that marked last year’s show when a lot of people were angered by Paul Haggis’ Crash preposterously being named as Best Picture over Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (an occurrence that caused a lot of people to swear off the Academy Awards—at least at the time), the 79th Academy Awards were, frankly, on the dull side. Surprises were generally few and far between—and the few that were to be had (like Pan’s Labyrinth loss or wondering why Jack Nicholson had his head shaved like he was set to play Daddy Warbucks in a revival of Annie) weren’t necessarily pleasant ones. But as usual, most of us stayed glued to the proceedings while—also as usual—grumbling about the meaninglessness of it all. (There’s a psychological study to be made there if anyone feels so inclined.)

Part of the problem was the fact that we went into it this year fairly sure where most of the big awards were going. Helen Mirren had her Best Actress Oscar pretty much locked up, and while I personally wouldn’t have minded seeing Penélope Cruz get it for Volver in an upset, it’s hard to fault the choice and harder still to begrudge Mirren an Oscar. And yes, I badly wanted to see Peter O’Toole win, but it’s just not possible to resent Forest Whitaker on any level. I mean, he’s just such a lovable—and talented—guy.

Another problem from a dramatic standpoint was the general lack of bad choices in the nominations. Oscar can usually be counted on for at least a few puzzling and occasionally downright stupid choices. And while I maintain that Eddie Murphy was nominated for Best Supporting Actor less for being good than for simply being less awful than usual, and that a fine actress like Kate Winslet deserves an Oscar, but not for Little Children, there just weren’t that many choices designed to make me want to throw a brick through the TV screen had they won. Seriously, how upset could anyone have been if Meryl Streep had picked up an Oscar for The Devil Wears Prada, or if Judi Dench had won for Notes on a Scandal?

As far as Martin Scorsese’s win—as well as the win for his film, The Departed, for Best Picture—how was it possible not to be pleased? Scorsese is undeniably one of our most important filmmakers, and The Departed was a great picture. Is it Scorsese’s best work? Probably not. Was The Departed really the best film to come out in 2006? I’d say no (I could name at least six better ones), but it was the best of the ones nominated by the Academy. Moreover, his wins were a little less certain considering that he faced competition from Clint Eastwood, a man Oscar voters tend to treat with the kind of reverence usually reserved for the Pope. That at least provided a little bit of drama, and Scorsese’s emotional acceptance speech—not to mention the tumultuous audience response—was the kind of Oscar moment that keeps us watching these things.

One of the more interesting aspects of the awards were the lack of major wins for Mexican filmmakers Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel). The wins for Art Direction, Makeup and Cinematography for Pan were certainly deserved, but we’re talking about a film that was on innumerable best lists from critics groups worldwide (most of which also pegged it as the Best Foreign Language Film). Last week when I was on David Hurrand’s radio show in a panel comprised of fellow film reviewer Tony Kiss, screenwriter Terry Curtis Fox and writer-director Jack Sholder, at least three of us singled out Pan, not as Best Foreign Language Film, but as the best film of the year in any language. So what happened? You tell me.

The fact is that so much of what was great about 2006 in terms of film came from Mexican or Spanish directors. Not only did we have Pan and Babel, but there was Alfonso Cuarón’s (largely overlooked by the Academy) Children of Men and a new film by the indefatigable Pedro Almodóvar, Volver. Something is just a little skewed about Oscar on this point. I suppose—considering the generally conservative mindset of Oscar voters—that we should simply be grateful they recognized the existence of these films and filmmakers at all.

In the end, though, the 2006 Oscars—despite the best efforts of host Ellen Degeneres (neither the best, nor the worst host they’ve had)—lacked much in the way of snap. Had it not been for Scorsese’s win and isolated moments like Forest Whitaker’s heartfelt speech, it was the sort of show that you’d have been just as well off reading about in the morning. Now, does that mean I won’t bother watching next year? What? Are you nuts? I’ll be there front and center just like always—complaining about the stupidity of the whole awards process once again.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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