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Oscar Hype

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012


 In my last blog, I explained why I don’t care who wins the Oscars. Bottom line? My personal experience working with hundreds of the 5765 members of the Academy revealed that they are predominately too male, too white, too old and too in love with the films they made in their Hollywood heyday — 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago — to be able to pick the best films and filmmakers of today. Over the past 100 years, the Academy has used the power of media hype to convince the world that all the pretty faces in the front rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar Night are representative of the membership of the Academy. This would make them as young, hip and diverse as any organization on the planet. But, in truth, they are none of the above.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s look at the article published three days ago in the Los Angeles Times: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/academy/. The Academy keeps it a secret, so to “unmask Oscar” LA Times reporters, Nicole Sperling and John Horn, “reviewed academy publications, resumes and biographies to confirm the identities of more than 5100” Academy members and found that “Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male…Oscar voters have a median age of 62…People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.”

And, most damning, the Times found that only 42% of the members had received a screen credit in the last twelve years. So their careers are over. They are sitting at home. And how great were they at their job when they were working? Not that great – 64% of the Academy have never even been nominated for an Oscar. They are more Deadwood than Hollywood.

This seriously skews the way they pick the Oscar winners. Don’t believe me? Okay, here is what Dave Karger, who is a Senior Writer at Entertainment Weekly and arguably the world’s leading expert on everything Oscar, told Elvis Mitchell today on NPR’s The Treatment, “when I watch a movie I watch it with two eyes. One eye is for the way I would see it, and the other eye is for the way a 60 or a 70 or an 80 year old guy would see it” because that’s how the Academy will vote on it. So when Karger saw an initial screening of “The Artist” he ran to file an article predicting that it would be nominated for Best Picture. Karger and Mitchell agreed with assurance that it will win the Oscar. Mitchell quipped, “I always get the feeling that the film which wins Best Picture is the Best Picture of 1939.  This is why ‘The King’s Speech’ beat out ‘The Social Network’ in 2010.”

The world seems to think that it matters a great deal if a bunch of 60 or 70 or 80 year-old, white guys like “The Artist” and think it’s the best film of 2011. I’m sorry, but there is something seriously wrong with this picture.

How Are We To Judge?

Posted by Mark W Travis on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The Oscars are upon us again. I’m looking forward to the debates, disagreements, surprises and disappointments that inevitably accompany the Academy Awards. The fact that we often disagree on the artistic qualities of the nominated films and performances is what makes Award Season so damn exciting.

Today, I want to delve into one particular category: Best Actor (in a lead or supporting role). And I want to ask one simple, but compelling question: How do we assess the quality of acting, the caliber of the performance as we seek to define ‘best’? Clearly, such a determination is terribly subjective. There are no tools of finite measurement – no timers, no scoreboards, no bars that can be cleared that indisputably declare a winner. This is not the Olympics, after all. There are, however, criteria I believe we can use not only to narrow down the field of players, but that can likewise provide a more nuanced assessment of excellence.

First, we consider the script. Or, more specifically, the character contained within the script that the actor has been called upon to play. How challenging is the role for this particular actor? Is the character simply a darker or lighter shade of the actor’s personality or does the character require the actor to more or less abandon his sense of self and slip into the skin of one with entirely different sensibilities? Paul Newman once said to me (okay, me and a few other directors), “Don’t judge my work by the roles that were easy, where I didn’t have to stretch and explore and expand. Judge my work by the roles that challenged me physically, emotionally or spiritually. Those are the roles where one false step could bring down the whole house of cards.” Good point. Let’s look at a couple of nominees and the roles they took on.

THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin faced a very unique set of challenges as he embodied the character of George Valentin, a silent film star in 1920s Hollywood. First, Dujardin needed to research, explore and adapt a style of film acting that has long been abandoned. Since it is a silent film, there is no dialogue, so he lost the tool of language, intonation, verbal rhythm and tone. Finally, add in the dancing, an area in which Dujardin had no previous experience and which required five months of intense training.

Contrast this with George Clooney as Matt King in THE DESCENDANTS. King is a wealthy lawyer and member of contemporary Hawaiian aristocracy whose wife is in a fatal coma. Ostensibly, this story is about a distant and disconnected father of two unmanageable daughters who attempts to pull his family back together in the wake of the mother’s accident. In the midst of this, King discovers his wife had been having an affair. Finding his wife’s lover becomes King’s obsession as his wife lies dying in the hospital. Putting aside the gaping holes in the story itself, Clooney’s greatest challenge is bringing credibility to a character who is, at best, two dimensional.

Taking a look at these two examples, we see there are very different challenges. As I see it, THE ARTIST was an acting challenge whereas THE DESCENDANTS was more of a casting challenge. Casting George Clooney in THE DESCENDANTS meant that 90% of the work was done – all he had to do was once again showcase his charm, quirkiness, smiles and charisma in a loosely defined role. For nearly two hours, we watch Clooney do what he does so well, but do we ever really lose sight of George Clooney? In other words, do we feel connected to Matt King or George Clooney? And, does it really matter? Is the experience diminished if we don’t intimately connect with Matt King?

In THE ARTIST, however, the performance challenges are simply much more substantial. If Dujardin had not transformed himself wholly and completely into George Valentin, the film simply would not have worked. All credibility would have been lost.

This brings us to the second aspect with which to judge the success of an actor’s performance: The Transformation. How completely and thoroughly has the actor given himself over to the uniqueness of the character? Has the actor (think Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY) disappeared into the role so unreservedly that we are no longer watching the actor but only experiencing the character?

Meryl Streep not only transformed herself physically, mentally and spiritually into the role of Margaret Thatcher, she imbued the character with such humanity that we often forgot this was a performance. I would also respectfully submit that Viola Davis’s performance in THE HELP and Demián Bichir in A BETTER LIFE are examples of such remarkable transformations.

So, what is it about transformational acting that is so challenging? Abandoning oneself and allowing a character to take up residence in one’s body and speak through one’s mouth is the fundamental challenge of acting. For well-known star actors (Streep, Pitt, Clooney, etc.) this challenge is even greater precisely because of their familiarity to us. We thrust expectations upon them to be as they have been in previous roles we have enjoyed. Essentially, they have more work to do to convince us that they are not who they have been before, but are now this new, fascinating someone dancing across the screen.

I know what you’re going to say. Meryl Streep had the benefit of a real physical transformation to aid in her becoming Margaret Thatcher. Dujardin had the creation of a bygone Hollywood world to support his performance. So, too did Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. Of course, period characters and characters that require physical transformations have a bit of an easier time drawing us into the character (think also Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS), but I submit that the real transformation is internal. In fact, if the actor never lets her own persona take a back seat to the idiosyncrasies, attitudes, behavioral patterns and emotional experiences of the character, we become painfully aware that we are watching an actor parade around in latex.

Taking another brief look at George Clooney as Matt King, my experience was that King never displaced Clooney. I was left watching Clooney play yet another iteration of Clooney. Understandably, this was efficient and effective casting and acting, but is it worthy of an Academy Award?

So, as you take out your scorecards this Oscar season and as you get ready to render your verdict in the category of Best Actor, consider the challenges of the role the actor was required to play and think about how well the actor completed the transformation into the character. Happy judging.

OSCAR NIGHT!!! Do You Care???

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The Oscar nominations have been announced! It is all-Oscar all the time from now until the big night, February 26! You cannot escape it. Every media outlet is abuzz wondering, who will the 6000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences pick to win the Oscars. Do you care?

I used to, until I spent ten years working with hundreds of members of the Academy and got a sense of who exactly makes up this organization and who gets to vote on the Oscars. The Academy will not reveal any detailed information about the demographics of its membership. Why? Because they do not want the public to find out what I discovered when I was working my way up to becoming an episodic TV director.

I did this over a ten year period, toiling as an associate producer on more than a dozen prime time TV shows made at Universal and Fox. I was the last man on the TV assembly line in charge of the hundreds of worker-bee sound-FX, music and dialogue editors who “gang-banged” the hundreds of sound tracks for each episode which were then blended together into a final sound mix on a re-recording stage. Because I was the last man on the assembly line, every delay in preproduction and production came out of the amount time I had to complete the post sound. So by the time the show got turned over to me, the only way to get it done before the air-date was to “gang-bang” it – throw a hundred editors at it and work them around the clock.

The gang-bang would culminate in 24 hour long ordeal of sound mixing. And toward the end of that ordeal it would become apparent that what was holding up the entire process was dialogue track number 2 for reel number 2, commonly referred to as R/2/D/2. (Yes, that’s where George Lucas got the name for the robot.) Or it could have been R/3/FX/23 – reel 3, sound effects track number 23; or R/5/M/1 – reel 5, music track number 1. The bottom line was that whichever editor had built that track for that reel was incapable of doing it correctly, and so we could not mix the reel, finish the re-recording session and go home to bed.

In these cases, I would gather up D/2/D/2 myself, and, as the sun was peaking up above the San Gabriel Mountains, hike across the lot, up three flights of stairs and down the hall looking at the names on the doors to determine behind which of them lurked the genius responsible for prolonging this expensive ordeal. And almost inevitably, when I found his name, it was on a little gold plaque, with an Oscar on it and the initials AMPAS after his name. I would knock. The door would open, and there would stand a humpbacked gnome, under a very bad toupee, wearing a plaid jacket and a striped shirt, peering up at me through his Coke-bottle thick glasses. These, all too typically, were the circumstances under which I came face to face with yet another one of the individuals who have, because of their membership in the Academy, been deemed the ultimate arbiters of award-worthy filmmaking.

This concept is a monument to power of media hype. For almost a hundred years now, the Academy has been promoting itself of being the most discerning body of film critics on the planet, and they have done a brilliant job. They are geniuses in their own mind, and they have sold this entirely subjective rationale to the world.

How do you become one of these self-proclaimed geniuses? You get a credit as the sound-FX editor, assistant director, or camera operator on two theatrically released films and you get a buddy of yours who is already in the Academy to nominate you. That’s it. The Academy would have you believe that their entire membership is made up of all those pretty faces you see in the first rows of the Kodak Theater on Oscar night. But the truth is that, like the dialogue editor who could not get R/2/D/2 right, the 6000 members of the Academy are mostly Hollywood deadwood. They have done their little grunt job well enough to earn their two credits, and they are not dead yet. These are self-proclaimed geniuses who determine who wins the Oscars.

Now, do you care?

Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part III)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

In my last two blogs I explained why if you can learn to identify those moments in the script when it makes sense dramatically for your actors to walking and talking side-by-side coming toward the camera, you are well on your way to understanding how to design the best moving shot for a scene.

A great way to acquire this skill is to learn when the converse is true; when this money shot – the side-by-side two shot – does not make sense. For example look at either clip below from Jerry Maguire and notice when Rod or Jerry stop and face each other or when Avery turns and faces Jerry while walking backwards in front of him. When this happens the side-by-side two shot falls apart. You must cut. Why? Because when we are in conflict with someone we want to get in their face and to do this we must stand in front of them (even if, like Avery, you have to walk backwards to do so). And when two actors are face to face, the best way to get two eyes on each of them is to shoot a close up or an over-the-shoulder shot on one and intercut it with the reverse close up or over-the-shoulder on the other. Yes, if you let them turn into a 50-50 profile shot you do not have to cut, but this in an inferior shot for telling the story because you can only see one of each actor’s eyes. The shot-reverse-shot configuration is the best way to tell most of the story in a movie because drama is conflict, and people who are in conflict with each other face each other. The center of the story is in the eyes of the person who is talking. When they stop talking the best way to put both eyes of the person they are talking to up on the screen is with a cut.

So when reduced to its simplest terms – the key to shooting with a moving camera is breaking down the scene and identifying which parts of the scene can be shot with both actors facing the camera and which moments must be shot with them facing each other in a shot/reverse/shot configuration. To begin to get a sense of how this is done look at the entire “Play with Heart” clip from Jerry Maguire starting from the very beginning of the scene when Jerry meets Rod outside the locker room. Cameron Crowe astutely has them in the side-by-side two shot, backing the camera up in front of them, at those moments when the conflict and the drama are least intense: (1) at very beginning of the scene when Rod is bitching about the quarterback and why he doesn’t have the 10 million dollar contract, which he thinks he deserves and (2) when Jerry gets Rod to assure him that “they both have their friend’s hats on” so he can hit Rod with the hard truth about his being “a paycheck player”. To be sure, there is conflict between Rod and Jerry at these moments. Without some conflict you do not have drama. But both of these moments are essentially the prelude to the two beats of peak confrontation, on which the plot turns. First, when Rod asks Jerry, “so why did you get married?” And then laughs derisively at Jerry’s lame answer: “Because she was loyal.” And immediately after this when Jerry, stung by Rod’s derision, tells him: “You’re a paycheck player. You play with your head. Not your heart.” Crowe gets it just right as to when Jerry and Rod need to be facing each other and when they do not. Learn to do the same and you are well on your way to learning how to shoot with a moving camera.