The Alternative Oscars
February 24, 2013 § 2 Comments
The last time I watched the Oscars was in 2011. My friend M and I had decided to throw a little Oscar-watching party for ourselves, and the best bits of the evening were her company and cooking: the ceremony itself seemed to encapsulate just about everything that’s wrong with the Oscars. We were treated to The Social Network being robbed of Best Picture and Best Director, Melissa Leo’s graceless acceptance speech, Kirk Douglas humiliating himself, to say nothing of the car crash that resulted from giving the hosting job to Anne Hathaway and James Franco – whose rendition, in full drag, of ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ ruined Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for me before I even had a chance to see it. (Thanks a lot, James.) Then last year they didn’t nominate Michael Fassbender for Best Actor yet somehow saw fit to nominate Brad Pitt, and that was the last straw. I didn’t watch then and this Sunday, I think it’s safe to say, will be Oscar-free as well.
I’m well aware that I’m far from being the only film buff who finds the Oscars increasingly irrelevant, for many reasons – their conservatism (on many fronts), the way they tend to privilege certain types of films and roles over others, their attitude toward foreign film and actors. There’s also the annoying rule (I don’t know whether it’s de facto or de jure) that seems to forbid recognising films that come out earlier in the year, thus writing off a great many worthy and interesting ones.
So this year I’ve decided to have alternative Oscars, with my own rules. Any film, in any language, that’s come out (in the UK) since the 2012 nominations were announced is fair game. I’ll leave Best Picture and Best Director to the experts and focus on the acting. The envelope, please…
Best Actor: Denis Lavant, Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012)
Denis Lavant is the sort of actor who would never, ever make it in Hollywood. He has a face that possibly not even a mother could love, a pockmarked, pug-nosed, battered mug whose compelling scariness is only matched by Klaus Kinski’s. (Age has at least given his face a measure of humanity it lacked when he was a young man – watch Boy Meets Girl or Mauvais Sang if you don’t believe me, preferably not in the middle of the night when you’re home alone.) But once you get over the shock of his face, you discover something even more startling: this tiny, terrifying imp has the daredevil grace and flexibility of an acrobat and the elasticity of a silent film star.
I’ve admired Lavant in every film I’ve seen him in, but Holy Motors is his best role yet – or, more properly, roles. His character, Monsieur Oscar, is chauffeured around Paris day and night by a mysterious driver, emerging in a new guise to act out (or insert himself into? It’s never clear) various scenarios. In the space of two hours, he morphs from a banker into a homeless woman, a motion-capture actor, a sewer-dwelling monster, a grumpy father (whose interaction with his daughter is, oddly, much scarier than the monster), a Bacchanalian accordionist, two hit men trying to kill each other (the film’s most blackly funny set piece), a dying man, then himself, saying goodbye to a former lover and then going home for the evening – or is even this the real M. Oscar?
There’s been considerable debate on what Holy Motors is really about, and although the consensus seems to be that it’s a commentary on the nature of film and filmmaking, I would argue that it’s about acting. Lavant immerses himself in each ‘assignment’ with a chameleonic verve that has only a very little to do with makeup and costume changes, but the glimpses of M. Oscar in between roles prevent this from coming off as a succession of exceptionally skilful parlour tricks: we realise that he has no life and no identity outside of the unending parade of roles. The back seat of the limo, kitted out with a bottomless supply of costumes and makeup, is the only place we see flashes of the real man – or what’s left of him – and Lavant conveys his resigned weariness and alienation more effectively with the twitch of an eyebrow or the slump of a shoulder than pages of dialogue could ever achieve.
Carax, when asked whom he would have cast as M. Oscar if Lavant hadn’t been available, replied, ‘Lon Chaney or Charlie Chaplin.’ A response that both pays tribute to the two actors of whose dazzlingly changeable physicality Lavant is a natural heir, but also suggests – rightly, I think – that no other actor alive could have done the role justice.
Honourable mention: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln. Because it would be churlish not to – and to be perfectly honest, I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t win.
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Fassbender, Prometheus (dir. Ridley Scott, 2012)
Let’s get one thing out of the way now: Prometheus is not a good film. It has so many plot holes that if ‘spot the plot hole’ were turned into a drinking game, most people would die of alcohol poisoning before the end of the first reel. Some really good actors (Idris Elba, Charlize Theron) are completely wasted in underwritten roles. And there’s that scene, where, for the first and thus far only time in my life, I did that stereotypical scared-girlfriend move of burying my head in my boyfriend’s shoulder with a muttered ‘Tell me when it’s over’. (Granted, I have a very low tolerance for nasty, scary aliens; I grew up on classic Doctor Who so anything more realistic than a monster made of bin bags filled with green jelly is liable to make me run away screaming.)
So why would I put myself through this punishment? Because Prometheus has one character, one saving grace that trumps bad writing and gruesome space creatures: David, the ship’s resident android, who keeps it running while the crew is cryogenically frozen… and from the moment he first appeared, I was completely enthralled. Fassbender plays him with an eerie, chilling, androgynous grace, a near-perfect replica of a human being one tiny but crucial step removed from humanity. It’s a fantastically controlled and pitch-perfect performance, no detail uncovered (the stiffly balletic walk, the Peter O’Toolesque vocal mannerisms, and I defy anyone to catch him breathing – he never does!), but with layer upon layer of ambiguity – are David’s actions the result of a childlike curiosity untrammelled by any moral sense? Is he actively malevolent? Does he have a soul, or the beginnings of one? It’s left tantalisingly unresolved, and where in every other part of the film this lack of resolution is the result of annoyingly bad writing, in Fassbender’s hands it’s an advantage.
Now if only they’d release a version of Prometheus that consists solely of his scenes…
Okay, Academy, sometimes you get it (partly) right. But not entirely. You nominated Emmanuelle Riva but not Marion Cotillard (because apparently there’s some unwritten rule about only one foreign-language nomination per category??), so I’m going to break the rules and give two awards in this category – partly because I can’t choose, and partly because their performances, their characters, are such intriguing opposites, one representing decline and death, the other rebirth.
When we first meet Anne (Riva), she’s an intelligent, beautiful 80-something (yes, Hollywood, in French films an 85-year-old woman can be beautiful), one half of a long and happy marriage, radiating quiet contentment. Fate, in the form of a stroke, deals her a blow from which she never recovers, and over the course of the film we watch her decline slowly and inexorably, a descent made shockingly vivid and painful precisely because Riva’s performance is so quiet, nuanced and naturalistic, because each stage gradually effaces our memory of what she was like before dementia began to claim her. How far the effacement goes is thrown into high relief by the breathtaking last couple of minutes of the film, which I won’t spoil for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Cotillard’s orca trainer Stéphanie has the opposite trajectory – from a (figurative) death back to life. Hers is – apart from that one moment of howling anguish when she wakes up in hospital to discover that she’s lost her legs – also a strikingly quiet performance, but one in which we’re always conscious of emotion roiling beneath the surface, one after another chasing across her face like the images in a magic lantern. It’s also remarkably devoid of self-pity – even at her lowest point, she never loses her pride. In the wrong actress’s hands, the way she rises above injury and depression and not only regains control of her life but also, thanks to the unlikely help of a selfish, feckless bare-knuckle boxer (whom she, in turn, teaches a salutary lesson in humility), finds new reasons to take joy in it, would have been unbearably maudlin; in Cotillard’s, it feels – without any exaggeration – like watching a miracle occur.
Honourable mention: Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook. A wild (but not melodramatic), bold, and very funny performance – and very few actresses could put Robert De Niro in his place the way she does. As with Daniel Day-Lewis, I’ll actually be quite pleased if she wins.
Best Supporting Actress: Cécile de France, The Kid with a Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2011)
This is a bit of a cheat – The Kid with a Bike came out in France in 2011. However, it came out in the UK last March, thus well within the permitted timeframe, so it counts.
I’m hard pressed to think of another performance in recent memory the like of what Cécile de France pulls off in this film: a portrayal of a woman who is thoroughly, unshakeably good without being in any way a plaster saint. When we first encounter her character, a hairdresser named Samantha who lives in a depressed Belgian industrial town, she’s almost a blur, the camera quickly cutting toward and then away from her face: we see her from the viewpoint of a frightened, heartbroken, angry boy, an orphan in all but name (his father wants nothing to do with him) who, running away from news he can’t bear to hear, simply grabs onto the first person he sees. Without a word, without even a proper glimpse of her face, she conveys everything we need to know about Samantha by not only not flinching or pushing him away, but carefully putting her arm around the boy and calming him down. When we get to hear Samantha’s voice and see her face, they both convey a kindness and a dignity entwined with, but not beaten down by, bone-deep weariness. It’s a quiet, unshowy turn, the sort that normally doesn’t get rewarded with Oscar glory, but that puts the sorts of performances that usually do get the awards to shame.
Honourable mention: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus (dir. Ralph Fiennes, 2012) – the scariest Volumnia I’ve ever seen (and given that the character is one of Shakespeare’s most terrifying female roles to begin with, that’s saying something).
…and I’ve just realised something: with a couple of exceptions, it’s not so much the alternative Oscars as it is the Césars. Oh well!