Okay, here's a little test for you. Put down the newspaper, stand up straight, stare earnestly at the far wall and, in 45 seconds or less, thank everybody who's helped you get where you are today.
Wasn't easy, was it? Lost your train of thought a couple of times. Said "uh" and "you know" too often. Ran way over 45 seconds. Nevertheless, forgot to mention your husband, your wife, your high school drama teacher who's gay. Came up with no memorable lines. Kept blinking, as if you were about to pass out. Finally managed to stop, in the middle of what may or may not have become a complete sentence. Far wall even farther away now. Everything a blur.
In short, you've completely blown it, which makes sense, because you're not a trained professional. But when the winners for Best Actor and Best Actress ascend to the stage of the Kodak Theatre during this year's Academy Awards ceremony (Sunday, Feb. 22, ABC, 7 p.m.), do you suppose either of them will have bothered to, you know, rehearse? Aren't monologues part of what they do for a living? In their day jobs, don't they work from a script, which they've memorized?
Yes, but prepared statements have lost favor in the go-for-it, just-do-it, reality-show era. Now, we want raw emotion, spontaneity, A Night at the Improv - from the Americans, anyway. Oh, sure, we'd love it if our great male actors - our De Niros, our Pacinos, our Penns, our Hoffmans - could get up there and blow everybody away with their Anglo-Irish eloquence, à la Daniel Day-Lewis. But they can't. And besides, they aren't Anglo-Irish. They're American-born and Method-trained. They have to feel it or they can't express it. Or maybe their inability to express it is how they express it.
Remember Forest Whitaker's acceptance speech for The Last King of Scotland? No? Here, I'll refresh your memory. First, he sighed mightily. Then he said, "Yeah, this is great. Wow, this is...wow. Wow, okay. Thank you. You know, thank you, thank you, um, thank you for, for this award."
There was talk that Whitaker's equally dazzling performances at the Golden Globes and SAGs that year might hurt his chances on Oscar night. Earlier awards shows, where the same people tend to win, are like auditions for the role of Oscar recipient. And the trick is to seem like you're genuinely surprised and yet clearly worthy of the honor. But actresses, especially, tend to overdo the surprise part, looking outright stricken when they hear their names called. Some, like Gwyneth Paltrow, never do stop crying. Others heroically pull themselves together in what I've come to think of as the I Don't Deserve This Wait Maybe I Do effect. Renée Zellweger perfected this technique on her way to winning an Oscar for Cold Mountain. And if she'd been half as good in the movie, she would have deserved the damn award.
This year's "Who, me?" It Girl is Kate Winslet, who's been nominated five times before but has never won and is obviously playing the Susan Lucci card. She also pulled a Zellweger at the Golden Globes, all but suffering a heart attack before heroically pulling herself together and thanking everybody down to the hair and makeup department. "PLEASE WRAP UP," the sign implored. "You have no idea how much I'm not wrapping up," Winslet said, but we got an idea soon enough, as she launched herself into a profession of undying love for Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack to her Rose in Titanic, Frank to her April in the sequel, Revolutionary Road. And there was still her husband, Revolutionary Road director Sam Mendes, to get around to. By that point in her spiel, you could practically hear America, as one, shouting at the screen, "Honey, it's just a Golden Globe!"
Will it hurt her chances on Oscar night? Perhaps. She seems almost too needy, whereas Mickey Rourke, the odds-on favorite among the men, knows how to carry his neediness. Mumbling his lines like Brando on Zoloft, Rourke seems to be saying "Thank you" and "Screw you" at the same time, and that can be a winning combination. The expectations for men and women are so different these days. The men have to keep their cool, appear blasé. The women have to wail and moan, rend their garments.
But are they acting? Or are they winging it? Well, let's put it this way: If they're winging it, they're utter fools, and if they're not winging it, they really need to find some better material.
Speaking of better material,
here are looks at the major nominees and some movies that Oscar, in his infinite wisdom, overlooked.
If I could turn back time: We shouldn't be surprised that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button racked up 13 nominations. It's one of those movies that draw a bull's-eye on Oscar's forehead the moment they're conceived. But even Academy pictures have to deliver, and Benjamin Button, about a baby born in an old man's body, the body getting younger as the baby gets older, never quite lifts off the ground. Brad Pitt does a nice job as the Gump-like Button, but scriptwriter Eric Roth (who also wrote Forrest Gump) couldn't figure out how to dramatize Benjamin's predicament, and we're left wondering what the movie's about. The transience of life? Our reluctance to let Brad Pitt grow old? It all starts to seem like the ultimate Hollywood fantasy: looking younger and younger every day. Maybe that explains those 13 nominations.
They'll take Manhattan: You want transience of life? I'll give you transience of life. Way back in January of 2008, Cloverfield lurched into theaters, a disaster film to end all disaster films, at least until the next one. The difference was that Cloverfield used only camcorders, those ubiquitous tools for documenting the YouTube generation's every move. And the Godzilla-flick result was a you-are-there immediacy combined with an experimental-film vibe. Finally, someone has extended The Blair Witch Project's point-and-shoot esthetic. Shouldn't Oscar recognize such a path-breaking achievement?
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Man on Wire reintroduced us to Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who, in 1974, spent 45 minutes on a wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Thrilling, chilling and strangely uplifting, James Marsh's documentary takes us all the way through what some have called "the artistic crime of the century," from the immense amount of preparation to the act itself, which - the age of innocence! - wasn't recorded on film or video. Instead, we look at stills as Erik Satie's "Gymnopédie" provides a slight breeze on the soundtrack. Mesmerizing. Man on Wire is nominated for Best Documentary. I'd move it up to Best Picture.
By the way, neither film mentions 9/11. They don't have to.
Interview with a vampire: Somewhere up or down there, Richard Nixon is smiling, because Frost/Nixon does more for his posthumous reputation than he was able to do while he was still alive. (Once George Bush is dead, W. will do the same thing for his.) Ron Howard's docudrama, which is built around the series of interviews Nixon gave to Brit-twit journalist David Frost back in 1977, has an air of importance that doesn't seem quite justified. Nixon's mistakes-were-made defense didn't exactly constitute a mea culpa, and the play and movie that writer Peter Morgan fashioned out of the media event don't tell us much we didn't already know. Frank Langella manages to avoid a Nixon impersonation, but he's way too smooth an actor to convey Nixon's all-thumbs social demeanor. And he humanizes Nixon in a way that Tricky Dick would have loved, if only because he could have exploited it the next time he ran for office.
Holy Gitmo, Batman: Much more in tune with where our country's been and where it's going is The Dark Knight, which the Academy bestowed eight nominations upon but squeezed out of the Best Picture and Best Director categories. I'd squeeze it back in, so entertainingly does it take on issues we need to be thinking about right now: the nature of evil, what it means to be a hero, how the fight for justice can pit one group of people against another. And the most relevant issue of them all: How far should we go to get the bad guys? Speaking of which, Heath Ledger plumbs the depths of freakdom with his psychopathic clown, the Joker. (The darting tongue was a nice touch.) I'd give him the slight edge over Robert Downey Jr.'s black-like-me movie actor in Tropic Thunder, but I'd give Downey a special two-headed Oscar for his combined performances in Tropic Thunder and Iron Man. And they call Mickey Rourke "The Comeback Kid."
Hotsy-yotsy Nazis: Somewhere up or down there - okay, down there - Adolf Hitler must be smiling, because we've been served a heaping platter of good little Nazis this year, from The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to Valkyrie and beyond. But if you'd told me that The Reader would crawl its way to Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay nods, I'd have eaten my copy of Mein Kampf. Memorably described (by me) as "Summer of '42 meets She Wolves of the SS," The Reader is about a 15-year-old German kid (David Kross) who has an affair with a woman over twice his age (Kate Winslet), only to discover, years later, that she'd been a guard at Auschwitz. Does it matter that the sex scenes are piping hot? Yes, I suppose, but what matters more is that the woman's dark, deep secret isn't that she sent Jews to their deaths but that she's - no! - illiterate. Against all odds, Winslet gives what I'd have to call a remarkable performance, keeping the woman's soul exposed while burying her heart.
A much better movie about cross-generational sexual attraction is Towelhead, Alan Ball's coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old Lebanese American girl (Summer Bishil) who has a Lolita effect on the men around her, whether she wants to or not.
A gay old time: Gus Van Sant's Milk is a loving tribute to the man who, more than any other, lifted the gay-rights movement onto America's radar and was assassinated for his efforts. Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, was a real-life hero, with all the contradictions that should imply. And Sean Penn portrays him with such empathy that you have to remind yourself what a flaming heterosexual he's been in some of his other roles. He even gets the twinkle in Harvey's eye, the sense that behind that semi-respectable faade was a true imp of the perverse. The movie's very impressive, but it works better as a political biography than as a personal biography. It shows a grassroots movement growing up out of the ground, one blade at a time. Somewhere up there, Harvey is smiling.
As good as it is, Milk isn't Van Sant's best movie of last year, in my opinion. That honor would go to Paranoid Park, his trance-inducing look at a skateboarder (Gabe Nevins, found via MySpace) on the verge of becoming one of those disaffected youths we're always hearing about. This is a true Gus Van Sant film, dreamy to the point of narcosis, as if, in trying to understand kids today, Van Sant drew a complete blank, then turned it into art.
Filthy rich: Slumdog Millionaire is, quite simply, the movie of the year, a magic-carpet ride through the junk-strewn streets of Mumbai, India, where the rich are forced to rub shoulders with the poor and you never know what sparks will fly as a result. Directed by Trainspotting's Danny Boyle, the movie has been accused of exploiting its grimy setting for a rags-to-riches fairy tale that ignores the soul-crushing effects of poverty. But have the accusers never seen a Hollywood movie before? Technically an indie, Slumdog Millionaire buys into all the old Hollywood myths about pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you can't afford bootstraps. But if its ends are old-fashioned, its means are new-fashioned, shot and edited like a wild-goose chase through a part of the world most of us haven't seen close up. A cinematic tour de force.
What's a nice girl like you: Equally disturbing/absorbing, though on a much smaller scale, is Mike Leigh's bicycle ride through the litter-free streets of North London, the ever-cheery Happy-Go-Lucky. Sally Hawkins should have gotten a Best Actress nod for her brave portrayal of the foolishly (or is it wisely?) brave Poppy, a young schoolteacher who always says yes to life, even when life is insisting on a no. It was a very risky proposition, building a movie around someone who's so happy-go-lucky she annoys the hell out of everybody, but Leigh pulls it off, finding as much complexity inside Poppy as he found inside David Thewlis' raging misanthrope in Naked. And the scenes between Poppy and her driving instructor, a raging misanthrope played by the Oscar-slighted Eddie Marson, are at once hilarious and terrifying.
Ready to rumble: I wouldn't want to be standing between the podium and Mickey Rourke on Oscar night. He's liable to body-slam you and apply a headlock. We're all glad to have him back, and his performance in The Wrestler, where he plays a former headliner now reduced to high school gyms and VFW halls, is so stripped of vanity that it starts to seem vain after all, an actor daring us to look away. But, truth be told, what is there to see? Rourke is so encased in muscles, his face so immobile, that we have to rely on his ravaged voice to get a bead on the character. Compare that to Penn's Harvey Milk, every square inch of whose face and body is alive at all times. For the kind of performance that Rourke, is his youth, might have given, though, check out Josh Peck in The Wackness, where he plays a lonely, depressed kid just out of high school who sells pot to make ends meet. Peck's as good-looking as Rourke ever was, and he knows just how to sit back and let the camera find him. Something tells me there are a lot more cameras where that one came from.
Kiss me Kate: Okay, it's her turn, I get that. But the fact is, Winslet doesn't have much competition. Angelina Jolie in The Changeling? Too histrionic. Melissa Leo in Frozen River? Not histrionic enough. Anne Hathaway in the Best-Picture-cheated Rachel Getting Married? Very nice performance, but she's too glam, not truly depressive enough. Meryl Streep in Doubt? Puh-leeze. No one seems to mind that Streep is in a different movie from the rest of the cast, a satirical comedy à la Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. She's become our very own Judi Dench, a cinch for a nomination no matter what she does. Well, almost. Mamma Mia! appears to have been beyond the pale. It was certainly beyond me.
Odd and endings: Comedies got laughed out of town, as usual, including a pair of big-budget comedies, Tropic Thunder and Don't Mess With the Zohan, but also the sensitively amusing Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. Scary movies got a stake through the heart: Cloverfield, but also Twilight. And what does it say about the American movie industry that the most touching scenes of the year were supplied by a robot in a cartoon? WALL-E, phone home.