Oscar Movies: Oscar-Bait Edition
It would be unbearably hipster of me to say Lincoln is a bit too Spielbergian to have any edge. Spielberg is one of the greatest living filmmakers and has a number of masterpieces to his credit. But—like all great filmmakers, he has tics, which over time can calcify into clichés. And as he approaches middle age, Spielberg seems to have reached backwards to the Golden Age of Hollywood for inspiration. Everything he makes now looks like it could star Gary Cooper. Great actors playing great men across history, standing up in courtrooms or in Congress and making stirring speeches while triumphant music (composed by John Williams, natch) plays under them. At the Globes last month, when Daniel Day-Lewis won for Best Actor in a Drama, his speech went a bit long and the orchestra started to play him off (as they do) and I commented to my friends—Lewis was being his usual dignified, eloquent, ultra-serious self—and when the music started to play under him, I commented, “This is the exact experience of seeing Lincoln.”
And that’s not bad, necessarily; I love freedom and earnestness and emotional manipulation, or I wouldn’t have ever been able to watch any Frank Capra movies, or anything with Jimmy Stewart, or Gary Cooper. I love young Abe Lincoln when he was played by Henry Fonda in the corniest little sack of Americana ever. I don’t think Lincoln deserves a Best Picture Oscar, though, because a movie that wins the big prize should have some teeth.
The story itself was far edgier than the treatment of it really reflects. It’s about Lincoln selling out his most sacred value of forthrightness. He makes a bargain he feels that he has to make for the betterment of the future, even though it prolongs the horrors of the present. That’s a compelling concept, and I put the book on which this movie was based into my Goodreads queue as soon as I got home.
But there were these dumbed-down moments in the movie that felt superfluous or contrived. The movie wanted to make sure everybody got everything all the time. For example, the couple that comes to see Lincoln and Seward early in the movie over Macguffiny business, all so they can express their views on the emancipation question. They go so far as to literally emphasize their own ordinariness, so that we viewers will all understand Lincoln’s conflict: the people wanted an end to the war more than they wanted an end to slavery, and they would embrace the end of slavery if that was the means to end the war, but all things being otherwise equal (so to speak) slavery on its own merits really wasn’t hurting them any.
The thing is still plenty entertaining, though. Every character actor and his character actor brother appears in it at some point, everybody having their moments to express all the little nuances of the slavery question. It even manages to build up suspense in the moment of the great vote, and you’re sitting there counting the “Yay”s and “Nay”s and then think, “Chill out. It’s the Thirteenth Amendment. It passed.”
The acting is terrific across the board. Sally Field is good as the unstable Mary Todd (although, I continue to believe, she is twenty years too old for the role). I liked Joseph Gordon Levitt as Lincoln’s older son, and Gloria Reuben (Jeanie Boulet from ER!) as Mary’s lady’s maid, or whatever her position was. As for Daniel Day-Lewis, he is chameleonic, unrecognizable as Lincoln. I’m not sure if he was wearing a lot of prosthetics on his face—the nose couldn’t have been real—but he wears them like they’re his own. He’s especially gangly, too—when we get a full shot of his body his legs seem each a mile long—and I commented to my mom that I thought he might be wearing short stilts, although I haven’t been able to get internet confirmation of that supposition. People complained that the voice was unLincolnlike, apparently assuming that a guy who was 6’5” and born in a log cabin must have been a baritone, and maybe he was (who would know?), but DDL has always had the voice he has—a tenor at deepest—and his bearing and demeanor are right even if the individual elements are not. He talks like a man who’s smarter than everyone he knows, but has never forgotten what it was to live with a dirt floor beneath his feet. He talks like a man who will wait patiently to be heard, but then will make damn sure you listen. He seems like Lincoln. So congrats to the Irishman who brought him to life! I fully expect that DDL brings home the statuette on Oscar night and that nobody begrudges it of him. He’s like Meryl Streep that way. Yes, he gets tons of attention and praise. He’s just so very good.
One last negative thought: I, like many critics, think that Spielberg dogged the ending. We all understand that staging an assassination in a hero piece like this one is a fraught venture. The story is about Lincoln, the man, and to portray his murder would be to make the story about his murderer (so the line goes, although I quibble with that). What the movie does instead is cut from Lincoln going to the theater, to Lincoln’s son, who is also at a different theater (???) seeing some children’s play, and then someone rushes onto the stage to announce that Lincoln has been shot. And then they cut to this awful bit of business at Lincoln’s deathbed, where he is curled up, weakened, beat, people all around, both sons crying, Mary Todd having a hysterical fit (psst, I bet Sally Field wrote this scene and slipped it to Spielberg).
It is a depressing and almost disturbing final image. And it’s a strong parry to the claim I made at the start that it’s a conventional movie. But it’s so weird and out-of-step with the rest of the movie. What gives? I’ve thought it through, and although I would still (were I in the directorial or editorial position on this film, or equally likely a snowboarder or a unicorn) have excised the scene completely, I think it’s meant to recall for us one last time Lincoln’s family ties. His wife and his sons are so important to him—the way he brings the little one around to meetings and everything and just lets him be there, observing his dad at work, is such a refreshingly intimate image of fatherhood in an era where it was probably not much like that. And even though the movie has gone to such great lengths to show us the work of a man whose choices changed the course of American history forever, in so significant a way that maybe nobody else can top him, and forced us to think first of how his death was a national event, a cause for shared, communal sadness, I think the scene propels us back into the family circle to remind us that whatever ties we the people might believe we have over our public figures, they are still men, whose hearts really belong to their wives and children. Describing the scene to myself this way makes me like that ending more, and maybe if it had been staged just a bit differently I would’ve been on board. Oh well.
Expected Awards Attention: As I said in my Argo review, a month ago I would have predicted a Best Picture win here, just because the Oscars love these kinds of movies. A not-too-unpleasant story about one of our greatest American statesmen, directed by Spielberg with all those Spielberg touches—speechifying, swelling John Williams music—that act as shorthand for “this is a great and important movie.” But the winning streak Argo is on has pretty much let us know that whatever splash Lincoln is going to make as a movie has already been made.
Daniel Day-Lewis in the main role is a different story; he has won everything up to this point and will most likely win on Oscar night. He’s a wonderful actor; his performances go bone-deep. He even has Oscar history with stovepipe hats. OK, he didn’t win for that but you have to grant me the fun of that comparison.
I predict a lot of tech categories here. It will lose all the majors, including director (sorry Spielberg) but will take all the Sound and Score-type categories.
Here is my previous experience with Les Miserables: .
Right. I’ve never read the book, which numbers pages in the thousands, and I’ve never seen the stage show; never even listened to a cast recording. I was a band kid in high school, and I knew a lot of people who were musical nerds—Grease, Phantom of the Opera, etc.—but none of that stuff ever worked on me. So not only did I not know the plot going in, I didn’t even have previous knowledge of any of the songs, which are more important to the movie than plot. That’s how musicals work.
My experience now with Les Miserables is basically that the songs are only OK, and that it is far too long.
This is the problem with trying to see a broad range of movies, such as a complete Oscars Best Picture slate. At least one of them is going to be so Not For You that you’re going to really kind of hate it, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect upon the movie in a qualitative way. I think the movie has a lot of qualitative issues, and even people who really love Les Mis have pointed them out, so I’ll feel free to do so as well, in a minute. But this movie was never going to hit me where I live. I don’t like musicals. I have liked movies where people sing here and there, usually when the music is contemporary (Moulin Rouge is the gold standard here). And I also liked Chicago back when that was a thing, but the music there was so much better (brighter, bolder, jazzier) and the staging of that movie was so much better. Regardless of (Chicago director) Rob Marshall’s dubious output since then, he really made that movie visual and full of movement. (He was originally a choreographer.)
Les Mis is directed by Tom Hooper, who won Best Director two years ago for The King’s Speech (not rightfully in my mind, as he beat out much more innovative filmmakers like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, and the Coen brothers who had great films out that year). And the movie is mushy. Everything in it (save Cosette’s hair) is black and brown. The team behind production design probably bent over backwards to recreate the France of Napoleon III and we can’t see any of it. Hooper lights actors’ faces as bright as he can because his focus is on their performances, but it means we can’t see anything else in the background.
The most shameless use of this technique is Fantine (Anne Hathaway)’s big song. Literally the entire thing is done in close-up. So great for her acting, all the expression on her face and blah blah blah. I hated the choice. It was too static. Her face and the song were not interesting enough for me not to get bored. I hated the removal of her character from any kind of movie context for the length of the song. She’s just there, floating in space. And the intense close-up was not flattering. I know they say a beautiful woman looking ugly equals Oscar gold, and it will probably work for Hathaway this weekend, so she’s not gonna mind. But I also know I did not need to see the mucus glistening in her nose, and I would have preferred not to.
In general, I preferred the group songs to the solos. They tended to me more upbeat and energetic. Weirdly, some of the only solos in the movie I liked belonged to Russell Crowe, who is getting almost unanimously panned for the performance. It makes me sad, because I have always liked Russell Crowe, even through his phone-throwing days. His character, Javert, is more stalwart, less dramatic than other characters, but he’s got a sturdy, authoritarian menace that really worked for me. He sings two solos, both standing on a high ledge of something. The first (I think it was the song called “Stars”) was one of my two favorite bits in the movie. Possibly because the camera had to be pulled back so you could see the titular stars, and also have the context of Javert on the ledge. My other favorite part was the two-minute scene where Valjean and Javert have a spontaneous swordfight at Fantine’s deathbed (“The Confrontation”).
I did not find Crowe’s singing outrageously bad, either. His singing voice may not be as rich as Jackman’s, but the presence of Eddie Redmayne ensures that Crowe is far from the worst singer there. (Redmayne has got a Kermity throaty thing that I found literally embarrassing.) I wasn’t particularly taken with Amanda Seyfried’s singing, either, but it may not be her fault; every song she gets is in the upper registers of tweety birdsong.
As for Hugh Jackman as Valjean, he is great, an able leading man, a terrific singer. However, the movie wastes his most intense moments by using them in the first five minutes, when Valjean fights his criminal nature at the bishop’s place. From then on, he’s just sort of low-key and darty-eyed, skipping town every time Javert gets on his trail. And carrying people everywhere. Nobody uses their legs around Valjean!
The length is the greatest problem I had here. Two and a half hours is not an indefensible length for a prestige film, but this one felt like it lasted DAYS. There were so many moments—not one, not three—so many I lost count—when I thought, I can’t believe this is still going on. The movie gets everything done with Fantine kicking the bucket and Valjean rescuing Cosette (whose position I never quite understood; she’s living with the innkeepers, but Fantine was still paying for her, so why didn’t she just live with Fantine? Because of the shame of single motherhood in 1860s France?). The time passes and we settle onto Marius and the revolutionaries, and I’m like Oh God, we still have the entire revolution to go. And then the next half hour was about their damned love triangle! Marius sings about Cosette. Marius sings with Cosette. Eponine sings about Marius. I don’t care about any of you!
Then there is much battling, which like everything else is confusingly staged, and when the dust has settled, Marius goes back to the scene and has a WHOLE SONG about how everyone he knows is dead. I hated Marius so much, and I was so bored. This is my personal hell.
And then MORE stuff happens. Finally Valjean is on his deathbed; I know because Fantine is back and she’s singing there. But Cosette comes to visit, and she tells Valjean that no, he won’t die today. My thoughts at that point: Nooooooooooooo, die!
Drawing me to the conclusion that neither the pacing nor the subject matter was conducive to my enjoyment. I’m glad I saw it because I can weigh in on the performances, which, again (save Redmayne—who I really do hate) were almost all terrific, and I do respect their commitment to the roles, to the singing, to all the extra nonsense that goes into pulling off an endeavor like a large-scale musical.
But I’m not going to the next one.
Expected Awards Attention: Well, its eight nominations pales in comparison to Lincoln’s twelve. I think it has a couple good opportunities, though. Supporting Actress is in the bag for Anne Hathaway. It’s a relatively weak category (Field was too hammy, Amy Adams too forgettable, Jacki Weaver too underused, and Helen Hunt may have been great but it was in a movie nobody saw, including me) and she’ll slide right in there with her acting having been augmented by singing and head-shaving. She’ll take it seriously, she’ll dress to be looked at, and she’ll give a good speech. Hathaway’s in the game, she knows what’s she’s doing.
Jackman was fine, but he has no shot against Daniel Day-Lewis. Jackman is an incredibly engaging presence at awards shows, though, and I’m sure he’ll present and be charming, and the camera will cut often to his laughter and enjoyment out in the audience. In the opposite position as Hathaway, he knows he’s not going to win, so he can just kick back and have a good time. (By the way, HOW AWESOME would it have been if Jackman had been tapped to host the show instead of the odious Seth McFarlane? Is it too late to get someone to break McFarlane’s legs or something? You know Jackman would jump right in. He’s already going to be there.)
Let’s see, other nominations include Best Picture (will lose, because there are much better ones to choose from) and Best Song (will lose, both because the song was forgettable, and because if the Academy can give an Oscar to Adele, they will). It will probably win Art Direction and Costumes, although Anna Karenina will deserve both awards more.
I would gladly see Best Makeup awarded to Les Miserables. (Am I not benevolent?) Everybody looked just as poor and sickly and teeth-rotty as they were supposed to do.