Mark is at the Oncenter in Syracuse, New York with the great Dennis Miller tonight, so, in lieu of his Saturday movie column and with tomorrow's Academy Awards looming, we thought we'd take a look back at some Steyn Oscar columns of the past. Here, from his Spectator review of twenty years ago, are Mark's thoughts on the 1999 ceremony:
Around the time of his fiftieth birthday, when he was having a little difficulty attracting A-list celebrities, President Clinton opined wistfully to a friend that it would be nice to go to a gala in his honour that wasn't hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. After Sunday's Oscars ceremony, we all know how he feels. I thought she'd have difficulty improving on her last gig three years ago, when after hearing "Colours Of The Wind", the overwrought eco-ballad from Pocahontas, she mused that she'd always wondered about the colour of her wind. On the evidence of her tacky commentary on Sunday night, the colour would seem to be grey: it wasn't just windy, it was stale and flat and hung in the air. If you're going to get into the "vast right-wing conspiracy" gags a year late, you have to do better than Whoopi's dull quips about A Bug's Life being "The Linda Tripp Story". It was a timely reminder that lazy mainstream Hollywood easy-listening liberalism is somehow even more irritating than those unreconstructed Stalinist fellow travellers outside the hall demanding Elia Kazan apologise. Come back, Billy Crystal, David Letterman, Bob Hope, anyone.
The awards themselves, as distinct from the show, were more interesting. Academy voters, for whatever reasons, had chosen to reject precisely the kind of film that, come Oscar time, Hollywood likes best: commercial pap with aspirations. It seems only yesterday that American critics were hailing The Truman Show as surefire Oscar material: who now even remembers it? In the end - that's to say, the final award of the evening - the same fate befell even Saving Private Ryan. The Academy was always going to have a hard job resisting Roberto Benigni, but I felt sorry for Best Actor nominee Ian McKellen, who gives a lovely performance in Gods and Monsters that's as good as anything he's ever done - better even. The villain roles, from Richard III down, can by their very nature never quite tap into that distinctive softness, gentleness of McKellen. This film does, in a way we've never seen before.
He's playing James Whale, the once famous director of Frankenstein (the 1931 Boris Karloff version, still the best), The Invisible Man (the 1933 Claude Rains version, also the best) and Show Boat (the 1936 Helen Morgan/Irene Dunne/Paul Robeson version, likewise). On 29 May 1957, Whale wound up at the bottom of his pool 'in mysterious circumstances', an obscure Gloria Swanson type reduced to playing his own William Holden. And there he lay, more or less, until a 1995 book by Christopher Bram, Father of Frankenstein. To the dying embers of Whale's reputation, Bram served as, er, stoker, and this film is one of the happy results. Most of the events depicted here are fictitious, but Bill Condon directs with a droll, precise command that is as much a tribute to Whale as anything else. We are in the last months of his life, and Whale has time on his hands and, indeed, on his eyelids and in his consonants: to listen to the way McKellen's Whale lingers over his own name 'Hhwwwhhhale' - is to understand the sprawling emptiness of his days. After 1941, he made just one film - a 40-minute adaptation of a William Saroyan play that was never released: this is a man who has had all the time in the world to perfect every detail of an empty existence - or, as Whale puts it, in a line whose delivery ought to have earned the actor an Oscar all by itself, "My pyjamas are all tailored."
McKellen holds the picture together with a kind of enervated panache and, even when the surrounding campery gets out of whack, he never does. I wouldn't change a thing, except maybe the title, which I'll bet is one reason why it didn't do as well at the US box-office and at the Oscars as it should have. Father of Frankenstein was much better.
As for Elia Kazan that night two decades ago, Steyn wrote in Mark Steyn's Passing Parade:
Kazan can make a claim to be the father of modern American acting, having brought Stanislavskian techniques to Broadway and then to film through Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Rod Steiger. He was the best theater director of the forties and fifties, and later a fine novelist, and when he walked onstage in 1999 to receive a belated Lifetime Achievement Oscar, he might reasonably have expected the orchestra to be vamping Leonard Bernstein's theme to On the Waterfront for a good ten minutes while Hollywood roared its appreciation. Instead, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion elderly hack screenwriters led protests, and inside, the likes of Sean Penn sat on their hands. For both Hollywood's ancient D-list Communists and its A-list anti-anti-Communists, there's only one thing about Kazan that matters: he "named names..." As the former blacklisted screenwriter Norma Barzman told CNN, "Elia Kazan's lifetime achievement is great films and destroyed lives, and even a third thing, which is a lasting climate of fear over Hollywood and maybe over the country..."
At gatherings in the arts it's boorish and tedious to become too exercised about communism—no matter how many faraway, foreign, unglamorous people it kills. Elia Kazan was on the right side of history. His enemies line up with the apologists for thugs and tyrants. Whose reputation would you bet on in the long run?
And here's Mark's Spectator column five years later on the 2004 Oscars, the year of Tolkien:
It was a night of triumph for British film. Well, okay, it wasn't. "UK Overlooked By Oscar Voters" was the BBC headline. "Whatever Happened To The Brit Pack?" wondered The Scotsman. "Ring Of Failure," declared a gloomy Birmingham Post, waking up to the bleak realization that the only Tolkien tourism boom was going to be the stampede to New Zealand to see the actual Shire where the great Kiwi author wrote his famous fantasy.
So it was a crummy night for British film. But it was a great night for British Commonwealth film – New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, even Britain (the one-third of the Best Song written by Annie Lennox, plus make-up man Peter King and set designer Alan Lee, all three sharing in the Hobbit spoils); even my own decayed Dominion picked up Best Foreign-Language Film for Les Invasions Barbares. If the Eurocentric UK press weren't so parochial, it would hail the Oscars as a grand triumph for what the Queen calls "our Commonwealth family": if you were a nominee who had the good fortune to be a subject of the Crown, you had a much better chance of taking home a statuette than those poor souls cursed to be free-born citizens of the United States.
Indeed, the Oscars are a much better – or, at any rate, less feeble - advertisement for the Imperial family than the Commonwealth Conference. If I were Her Majesty, I'd make it the theme of this year's Christmas message: start with one of those sappy Oscar-intro things about movies bringing the world together to sit in the dark and dare to dream our dreams, blah, blah, and then put her next to an Alberta key grip and a New South Wales gaffer showing her how to grip and gaff ("Really? How interesting") and end with her asking Charlize Theron's mum about the night she shot Charlize's dad ("Really? How interesting").
Billy Crystal had some cute cracks about down under: "It's official," he announced halfway through the night. "There's now no-one left to thank in New Zealand." But an opening reference to the Great White North was more pointed: "All of Hollywood is here. It's like the Canadian Oscars." Hollywood is the only place on the planet frightened of Canada. New Zealand is still an exotic, remote location, but Vancouver and Montreal are the default backlot. When Clint Eastwood insisted Mystic River, set in Boston, actually be filmed in Boston, it was considered as radical a move as when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen insisted on filming On The Town in New York. In those days, if they wanted Manhattan or the mid-west or the Rockies or darkest Africa they built a set. Now they just do it in Canada: "New York" is Toronto, "Philadelphia" is Calgary... The film unions, from the carpenters to the bit-players, are sick of it.
On the campaign trail, John Kerry keeps hammering corporations about "outsourcing" and "exporting" American jobs. But you'd be hard put to find as outsourced an industry as Hollywood, except maybe children's toys. The only difference is that, unlike the toy makers, the guys making the big decisions at head office in LA seem to have forgotten the basic business rule: KYC – Know Your Customers. All last week, Oscar types were whining that Mel Gibson was stealing their buzz. That's true to the extent that it was a buzz-less Oscars, and on the big night even the frocks were dull, with a pronounced lack of cleavage, save for game gals of a certain age like Jamie Lee Curtis and Susan Sarandon. But the buzz about Mel's movie came from the Hollywooden liberals in the big media who've spent the best part of a year warning that The Passion Of The Christ was going to be the biggest thing on the anti-semitic scene since The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion. All those liberal columnists who champion the necessity of brave transgressive artists when it comes to giving us a horny Jesus (The Last Temptation Of Christ), a gay Jesus (the Broadway play Corpus Christi) or a Jesus floating in the artist's urine (Piss Christ) have finally discovered a Jesus it would be grossly irresponsible to show to the public.
But what's really hilarious is Hollywood's failure to get The Passion Of The Christ as a business proposition. Until a month ago, the standard line from the studio execs was that Mel Gibson had blown well over 30 million bucks of his own money on a vanity project for him and and a handful of other Jesus freaks. Last week, it racked up the biggest mid-week opening – not just of any film in Aramaic but of any non-sequel movie ever; the only bigger opening gross was for The Return Of The King. Now the new rap on Mel is that he claims to be a Christian but he's making gazillions off his Saviour's suffering. Well, one reason he's making so much is because he doesn't have to share it with any of the big Hollywood muscle who were convinced the fundamentalist weirdo was out of his tree. Unlike all that Miramax pseudo-art-house stuff, The Passion is a genuine independent film: the system wasn't interested, so Mel bypassed it, and he's cleaning up.
How did they get it so wrong? Until 40 years ago, religious movies were a staple of Hollywood. The audience didn't change, Hollywood did. A couple of years back, I was at a conference at Paramount on American values and someone asked why they didn't make more religious pictures. Carmine Zozsora, producer of the Die Hard movies, replied in all seriousness: "Well, we tried that with The Last Temptation Of Christ, and it didn't work out too well."
That's the reality behind all that Oscar-night blather about how movies bind us together in stories of our common humanity, etc, etc. In fact, Hollywood defines our common humanity ever more narrowly. Nobody was in the mood for big anti-Bush speeches on Sunday night, and even Sean Penn contented himself with a mere subordinate clause about how actors had known there were no WMDs. But that's all you need. Like Billy Crystal's crack about Bush's National Guard service, it's the celebrity equivalent of a Masonic handshake – a way of signaling that you're in the club. But the club excludes too many people, and, if it carries on like that, the movie biz will be in as much trouble as the music biz.
That's not my main rap against Sean Penn, of course. Bill Murray was not only robbed but weirdly humiliated in his loss by Billy Crystal. As I said in my review, as you watch Mystic River Penn and Tim Robbins seem to be "furiously tap-dancing for Oscar votes." More fool the Academy for falling for it.
~With his ever mounting legal bills from student-loan billionaire and First Amendment constrainer Cary Katz, Mark is on the road with the great Dennis Miller for the very first time. This coming week they'll be live at the Kodak Center in Rochester, New York on Friday March 1st, and then the following night, Saturday March 2nd, at the Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. And don't forget, with VIP tickets you not only enjoy premium seating but get to have your photo snapped with Mark and Dennis after the show and take home an autographed gift. We hope to see you there!
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