I watched the Oscars, as I do every year, and, as happens every year, was bored to tears by the parts of the broadcast intended to entertain me and entertained by happenstance, accident and humiliating failures. The ‘theme’ this year was ‘heroes’ or something, which meant we were subjected to 418 looonnnngggg montages about heroism. I’ve seen all those movies, and mostly enjoyed them; seeing 2 seconds each from 50 of them is dull. Idina Menzel sang the winning song from Frozen, but her performance, though perfectly fine, was much less entertaining than John Travolta’s butchering of her name in her introduction. Matthew McConaughey is an amazing story, a lightweight actor in movies like Failure to Launch and We Are Marshall and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days who like three years ago decided to completely reinvent himself as an actor. He’s terrific, he earned his Oscar, and boy does he know it; his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was a comic highlight.
But there is an interesting message that emerged from this Oscar season, and it has to do with the films that didn’t win as much as the films that won. Gravity won, and deserved to win, a boatload of Oscars for things like Sound Mixing and Special Effects–it’s a technological achievement of the first order, plus an immensely exciting and entertaining film. 12 Years a Slave is a deserving Best Picture winner–a powerful, issue oriented film. Her had one great strength as a film–its innovative, imaginative screenplay, and Spike Jonze won in that category.
But two films had to have been considered the biggest losers of the night: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street. Multiple nominations, critically acclaimed, and between them, they won bupkus.
American Hustle is a comedy; I think that hurt it. But it’s also a specific kind of comedy; a comedy about dreadful people who do dreadful things. And it’s also a film about unattractive dreadful people. Christian Bale was great as a two-bit conman turned government informant, but he was hardly playing Batman; Bale got a pot belly and a spectacularly awful combover, plus ghastly 70’s costumes. Amy Adams gave a tremendous performance, I thought, easily deserving of a Best Actress Oscar (though frankly the same could be said of all the women nominated in that category), but her costumes were, again, horrid looking (intentionally and comically). Best of all, her British accent came and went–sometimes it sounded sort of authentic, and other times it went away completely. Which was, again, intentional. Adams’ character, Sydney, is a conwoman, and not a very good one–her schtick is to pretend to be an upper class British woman, but it’s all fake. Adams, the actress, created an inconsistent and inauthentic British dialect for a character who is only pretending (unconvincingly) to be British. It’s a great choice, and a great comedic choice. But it could also look like bad acting. So a great actress created a character who is a bad actress, and I think it’s quite possible she fooled at least some Academy voters in the process. Because the Academy voters do still tend elderly, and conservative; not politically conservative, but aesthetically.
But The Wolf of Wall Street was the real surprise. Martin Scorsese is 72 now, but he’s still the youngest director out there, and though his filmography is astonishing, Wolf could well be his masterpiece. But it’s a good deal uglier than Hustle. It’s a film about morally repugnant human beings behaving badly, and enjoying it, and profiting from it. And it’s a film that never redeems them or anyone else. There’s no character or moment in the film where a sympathetic character says ‘you’re bad people, and you deserve your comeuppance.’ The moral center of the film resides outside the film itself, in the collective conscience and judgment of the audience. We’re sickened by the characters’ choices, and worse, we’re titillated by them, implicated in them. It’s a film that condemns the American financial industry, shows how it destroyed America, shows how much fun everyone in that industry had while they were doing it, and reveals their utter contempt for average Americans, their utter misanthropy.
It is, in short, the perfect example of new American naturalism. It’s the heir to the theatrical tradition of Neil Labute and David Mamet; it’s Glengarry Glen Ross with a lot more cocaine and much higher class hookers. And as such, it’s a deeply disturbing, deeply moral, powerfully redemptive film. Redemptive? Yes. Because we need to see this; we need to recognize its essential truth. Examining our consciences as a prelude to confession. It’s an Occupy film, really, only it focuses and channels the moral passion of the Occupy movement and gives it a name and an identity; Jordan Belfort. Leonardo DiCaprio. Gatsby without Daisy. Richard Roma with a sales staff and motivational speeches.
It’s a terrifying film, in part because it’s so hypnotically addicting. The Oscars had to ignore it, I think. And it’s not like 12 Years a Slave let us off easy.