Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Oscars 2014 / Grading the speeches

Lupita Nyong'o
Los Angeles, 2014

The Oscars 2014

by Michael Schulman
New Yorker, March 3, 2014

Matthew McConaughey
Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty
Movie stars—award-worthy ones—know how to play to the big screen, but last night’s Academy Awards were pitched to the four-inch variety, the kind that digests GIFs, retweets, and viral memes with the ravenousness of a Best Supporting Actress nominee chomping on a slice of pizza. Intentionally and not, the evening was full of three-second-or-less moments of pure WTF, starting with Jennifer Lawrence’s tumble on the red carpet. Yes, there was Ellen DeGeneres’s bid for Internet posterity, when she and every A-list actor in reach posed for history’s most retweeted selfie. But there were plenty of unplanned nuggets: Meryl Streep shimmying with Pharrell Williams. (GIF!) Kim Novak’s husky guffaw announcing Best Animated Feature. (Ringtone!) There was Liza Minnelli’s reluctant standing ovation for the “Wizard of Oz” tribute. (Note to Pink: there’s no breath between “some” and “where.”) And no sooner had John Travolta introduced Idina Menzel as “Adela Dazeem” than aparody account on Twitter had sprung up and responded, “THANK YOU, JORN TROMOLTO!”
The acceptance speeches, by contrast, were mostly classy and coherent. The best speeches are emotional but not maudlin (Gwyneth Paltrow), spontaneous but not spacey (Jacqueline Bisset), self-knowing but not self-indulgent (James “King of the World” Cameron). On top of that, several of this year’s speechifiers were navigating some tricky subtext. The “12 Years a Slave” crew had to acknowledge that they were riding to victory on the legacy of slavery (and generally did a gracious job of it), as did “Dallas Buyers Club” with the AIDS crisis (not so much). And Cate Blanchett had to find a way of thanking a director who’s not exactly Mr. Popular. How did everyone fare?
Jared Leto (Best Supporting Actor): At the Golden Globes, Leto used his perch to speak of Brazilian waxes and bubble butts. Had he gone through adolescence between then and Oscar night? Kind of. Looking like a stoned cater waiter, he began, “In 1971, Bossier City, Louisiana, there was a teen-age girl who was pregnant with her second child.” Was this the lede of a New Yorker Profile? In fact, it was an homage to his mother, who was tearing up in the audience. Then Leto thanked his brother (for “this insane and amazing adventure that is 30 Seconds to Mars”) and spoke to “all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight in places like Ukraine and Venezuela.” I’m not sure if the dreamers of the Crimean peninsula were watching the Oscars, since they’re busy getting invaded, but it was a nice thought. Finally, he dedicated the prize to “the thirty-six million people who have lost the battle to AIDS.” No mention of the bubble butt. B+
Darlene Love (Best Documentary Feature): Technically, this award went to the filmmakers of “20 Feet from Stardom,” about the lives of backup singers. But, to everyone’s benefit, they brought up their protagonist, the redoubtable Darlene Love, who stepped center stage—where she belongs—and belted out a gospel verse that was earth-shaking, unexpected, and a long time coming. A
Lupita Nyong’o (Best Supporting Actress): Nyong’o, besides having the best dress of the night, delivered far and away the best speech: humble, gracious, and principled without being grandiose. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she began. Then she thanked her director, her co-stars, the editor (“the invisible performer”), her family, and the Yale School of Drama (which Meryl Streep also attended, so I assume they offer training in perfect Oscar speeches). Finally, Nyong’o, who grew up in Kenya and Mexico, held up her statuette as a reminder “that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” It was a thoughtful, politically meaningful spin on that Oscar cliché that “your dreams can come true.” Extra points (as if she needed them) for hugging Liza Minnelli on her way up. A+
Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (Best Original Song): This husband-and-wife team’s rhyming double act was so adorable that I was ready to book ’em on the Orpheum Circuit. Plus: Lopez (“The Book of Mormon,” “Avenue Q”) is now an E.G.O.T. B+
Spike Jonze (Best Original Screenplay): Jonze’s screenplay for “Her” was nothing if not original, but his speech was on the dry side. Still, his gratitude toward his collaborators felt individual and affectionate, and, unlike his characters, he got through the whole thing without checking his phone. Siri, what is a June Squibb? B
Alfonso Cuarón (Best Directing): The man who made “Gravity” at first sounded strangely Valley Girl-esque and forced. (“What really sucks is that, well, for a lot of these people that transformation was wisdom. For me, it was just the color of my hair.”) But the speech picked up as he thanked his son (and co-writer), Sandra Bullock (“Sandy, you are ‘Gravity’ ”), and, mixing up his idioms, the “wise guys of Warner Brothers.” Finally, he reverted to his native Spanish, ending with a sweet “te amo” for his date, the astoundingly named Sheherazade Goldsmith. B+
Cate Blanchett (Best Actress): Winning her second Oscar, Blanchett presented herself as a shrewd old-timer, beginning: “As random and as subjective as this award is, it means a great deal in a year of extraordinary—yet again—extraordinary performances by women.” Her shout-outs to her fellow-nominees seemed genuine, including “Julia hashtag ‘Suck it,’ you know what I mean?” Well, no one else does, but I’m onboard regardless. When it came to Shmoody Shmallen, she held briefly for applause, of which there was an uncertain smattering. Then she dispelled the notion that “female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people!” Needless to say, making money got more applause than her director. A-
Matthew McConaughey (Best Actor): Cater Waiter No. 2 told his fellow-nominees that “I didn’t see a false note anywhere,” but I could point out a few in this self-indulgent lemon of a speech. Matthew McConaughey, we learned, needs three things each day: something to look up to, something to look forward to, and someone to chase. What he looks up to is God, who has shown him that “it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.” Scientific fact, eh? What he looks forward to is his family, including his father, who’s relaxing in his underwear with a “big pot of gumbo” in Man Cave heaven. His hero? Surprise! It’s him ten years in the future. This was an Oscar telecast with two montages of movie heroes, though shockingly neither included Phyllis Nefler, the Shelley Long character from “Troop Beverly Hills.” Ten-years-in-the-future Matthew McConaughey wasn’t there, either, perhaps because he still hasn’t learned to say something about AIDS when winning an award for an AIDS movie, and is still hawking his grating catchphrase, “All right, all right, all right.” It’s time for the preening McConaissance to come to a close. All right? C
Steve McQueen (Best Picture): By the time McQueen accepted the big prize, for “12 Years a Slave,” the ceremony had gone half an hour over schedule. So it was forgivable that his speech felt a little rushed and rambling. Most of it was a list of names, but they included Sue Eakin, the “amazing historian” from Louisiana who called attention to Solomon Northup’s book and died in 2009. Who can fault a guy for name-dropping a historian? I have a hero to nominate next year.B+
Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty

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