A wild Oscar idea and heavenly memories

Image of Nigel Andrews

The Best Actress Oscar goes to ... nobody

You have all seen an Oscar statuette. (Only three months to go if you haven’t.) It’s supposed to be a man, isn’t it? So how come the man hasn’t got – well, you know. Oh, his sword is covering it? That must be it.

Poor genderless Oscar. Yet listen to this. For the first time in Academy history, rumours abound that Oscar may soon become permanently sexless, rendered so by ideology rather than biology. People are going into print – that includes a recent New York Times op-ed – saying: “What’s the point any more of the Best Actress category?” Shouldn’t the acting prize be gender-non-specific? Just Best Actor?

Cometh the thought, cometh the debate. Those wanting to keep the category are responding. Look at the strength of this year’s female contenders: from Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right to a horde of she-Brits (Lesley Manville in Another Year, Sally Hawkins in Made in Dagenham, Helen Mirren in The Tempest), and Nicole Kidman’s return in Rabbit Hole. Should we deny these women a separate mode of recognition? Also, what would happen most years if the acting categories were merged? Quips one-time Oscar shortlistee Patricia Clarkson: “We’d have nine male nominees and Meryl Streep.”

But the other side has a point. We don’t divide actors by race, religion or sexual preference. Why divide them by gender? Food for thought. But don’t eat it all at once. It will help to fill out the February awards feast and accompanying chatter.

Heaven can’t wait

I have an army lying in wait and it won’t wait much longer. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate – that studio-beggaring epic that Hollywood scapegoaters have badmouthed for a generation – is 30 years old this month. My army and I have a plan. We will have a big party before launching a fresh assault. Our intent? To take over every big cinema in the world to re-show a mistreated classic. You got it. I’m a fan.

Remember the story? Cimino’s spectacular spendthrift western about Wyoming wars between settlers and government-supported land barons in the 1890s opened and closed at the end of 1980. Critics and public both scorned the movie. United Artists, having poured tens of millions into Cimino’s coffers, teetered, then collapsed. Cimino, two years after sweeping the Oscars with The Deer Hunter, changed from golden boy to screen industry Satan. The film came to be seen as an epochal turning point in Hollywood blockbuster history: the moment unpredictable mavericks gave way to dependable money-makers.

Over the decades I have spoken to nay-sayers and yea-sayers. I mean the important ones, who made the movie rather than blabbered about it. The only unhappy bunny I found was John Hurt, who played a leading but episodic role in Heaven’s Gate and suffered more than most from the infamous extended schedule. “I’d go out to the location, ride my horse, hang around, day after day after day. During 10 weeks I did half a day’s work. The production was run like an army. A bad army.”

Hurt has his point. Cimino kept everyone on call, says one observer, “in case he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea”. But what is an art form without its monomaniacs? I have seen the real Heaven’s Gate, the long version (close on four hours), not the butchered first release print (150 minutes). When this long cut had a special London showing not long after the debacle of its New York premiere, the audience response was close to rapture.

I cherish what cinematographer Vilmos Szigmond recalled: “It was a gigantic undertaking. Sets started to be built while snow was on the ground. Michael Cimino wanted to create a gorgeous movie. He’d spend hours and hours just picking faces for the supporting characters and extras. He was like a master painter filling in the background.”

Isabelle Huppert, who played the film’s female lead (pictured, with co-star Kris Kristofferson), is its biggest fan. “What people didn’t like is that it was deeply, violently anti-American. It was anti the conquest of the west. It was against a certain belief America has in itself. In form, the film is very unclassical. Cimino used to say that the narrative was like a dream in the hero’s mind. That’s why I love the film. It’s so poetic. It’s not an ordinary western at all.”

It isn’t. It is an extraordinary western. So my army is about to take over the movie theatres. Heaven can’t wait much longer. But first we must clear out the synthetic popcorn epics clogging our screen culture.

Never-ending stories

I am blowing the whistle on mega-sagas based on bestselling books. They have nothing to do with cinema or what cinema should be. They have nothing to do with anything beyond ambushing bookworms, as they wander out of bookshops, and bullying them into movie theatres.

You know the films I mean. The Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy to start with. The Girl Who Did This, That and the Other. Murder/mystery hokum done with solemn witlessness. I can’t remember a single coup de cinéma in the series. Can you? One single memorable shot, angle or camera movement? Compare any Hitchcock film, jewelled, concise, born anew and epihanic even when book-based.

I would next close the cinematic gold window on CS Lewis. No more Narnia. Big with whimsy, inflated with Biblical allegorising, the series is windy without pace or freshness. There is another film out now – flee the country – called The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Even the titles don’t know when to stop.

Finally I apply the torch to Harry Potter. I might spare HP and the Prisoner of Azkaban because Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón brought some genuine magic realism. Latterly the series has become unbearable: a prolix replication of JK Rowling’s plot points, stepping obsequiously in the novels’ footprints.

Film, and that includes adaptations, should be about ellipsis, infidelity, surprise and impudence. However long a movie may be, it should always have the spark, concision and crystalline contrariness of poetry, never the obedient, plethoric trudge of bestseller prose.

And finally...

Critics, however, don’t always render the last verdict on a film’s fate and history. A new poll of favourite Christmas films taken among UK school film clubs has Elf in top position. Elf? The critically disdained Elf? Will Ferrell, we were wrong. Or right but outnumbered.

On the other hand we have been right for 64 years regarding Frank Capra. It’s A Wonderful Life snowstorms in at number three, at least among secondary students, showing that age cannot wither the spectacle of James Stewart grabbing the Yuletide gift of a second chance at life.

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