Stars on Sunday
It’s back. The hoopla, the razzmatazz, the one date each year when God, after ruling the cosmos by day, hands it over to Hollywood at night. He can’t compete. Not with that many stars.
Who will win? After consulting the stars – my stars – I offer these racing favourites.
Best Actor: Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. A dead cert. Jeff True Grit Bridges, his only serious rival, won last year for his sozzled grandstanding in Crazy Heart and you can’t win twice for the same performance.
Best Actress: Annette Bening in The Kids Are All Right. Her sole competitor, Natalie Portman, has driven too many people mad with her psychodrama pirouettes in Black Swan.
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale in The Fighter. Bet your shirt, even your house. The Welshman understands that in a supporting role an actor must not just act, he must be seen to act, if possible from Mars.
Best Supporting Actress: Melissa Leo in The Fighter. An outsider, but fanciable. Like Bale, Leo’s possessive mother-from-hell comes on like a tigress, riddled with psycho-spiritual mange.
Best Picture: The Social Network. A made-to-measure Academy winner. How could an organisation fathered by Jewish immigrants with the dream of a worldwide communication enterprise fail to honour a success story about a Jewish youngster dreaming up a worldwide communication enterprise?
Best Director: Unpredictable. I won’t stick my neck out. I hope that image isn’t taken as a clandestine pitch for Black Swan and director Darren Aronofsky.
Who governs the governors?
Four years ago Alex Gibney won the Best Documentary Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, a controversy-stirring look at America’s conduct of the Iraq war. Did the statuette make a difference? I ask the filmmaker who already has a sturdy track record in anti-establishment documentaries (Enron, Casino Jack).
“The Taxi to the Dark Side Oscar brought a lot of attention. In front of millions of people, I was able to make some remarks that were important about that moment in history. It helped confront the notion that the Bush administration sponsored a policy of torture.”
Gibney is moving in on the Rabid Watchdog role long occupied by Michael Moore. Client 9 (opening in the UK next week), which he has touched down in London to promote, is a blisteringly viewable movie about the fall of the “Sheriff of Wall Street”, one-time New York governor Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer, the film suggests, saw the Meltdown coming.
But before he could build on his attorney generalship with a full term as state governor, he was brought down by a sex scandal. Opponents exulted when the married man, righteous about high standards in public office, confessed to nights with call girls.
“Are politicians accountable for character?” Gibney echoes my question. “Spitzer built his career on being a law and order guy, above reproach. So I guess he asked for it. Should it have finished his governorship? What Clinton did – right there in the Oval Office – you could argue was much worse. In fact Clinton broke the law. Believe it or not, oral sex is illegal in the District of Columbia.”
Would Spitzer’s war on the banks have held off the financial crisis? “I don’t go that far. What the film suggests is he would have been an invaluable voice in terms of raising the right questions.”
He was brought down, the film theorises, by enemies who found his fatal flaw. These foes, including bankers Hank Greenberg and Frank Langone, are given as much interview time as Spitzer, with riveting effect. “They were all keen to talk to me. Langone could barely contain himself. You can see that on screen. I gave him a lot of time to vent his spleen.”
Will the same even-handedness prevail in Gibney’s next film, a documentary about Julian Assange? “I’ve only just started, so I can’t answer. But I’m basically sympathetic to WikiLeaks. I don’t agree with the idea that they committed a crime just because they published some documents.”
Exit, accompanied by a bear
Dark convergences of fate. Golden Bear winner Asghar Farhadi – whose film Nader and Simin: A Separation took Best Film, Best Actor and Best Actress prizes at the recent Berlin festival – muses on attending the event in the same year that compatriot Jafar Panahi, once Iran’s top filmmaker, had to absent himself from jury duty because he was in jail.
“There are specific artists the government is focused on,” Farhadi says with strategic vagueness, when I ask if he thinks he might be next.
“With Panahi, the picture is not as bad as people think. Filmmakers in Iran are starting to talk about it. In previous years they would have been silent. But last night, at the industry awards ceremony, the man who won Best Actor went onstage and spoke out about Panahi. There’s a new courage in Iran.”
Even at worst a country’s socio-political tensions can have their upside. “It gives new topics, new themes to the filmmaker,” Farhadi says. But he must approach them obliquely for his own safety? “That is not new. If you look at the history of Iranian culture, you will see in the literature and poetry there is often this allegorical, metaphorical language. Because the artist doesn’t always want to tell directly what he means.”
Keep your allegory-detectors ready. Nader and Simin will come soon to an arthouse near you.
Last month’s item on weepies precipitated a small deluge as many of you submitted your favourite tear-jerkers.
The surprise was the scarcity of overlap. One person wept at art, another at hokum. One liked Lassie Come Home, another The Deer Hunter. Films I had never heard of jostled with films I had hoped never to hear of again. I judged the winners by the number and length of your citations. The runners-up were: The Bridges of Madison County (Clint and Meryl’s Montana romance), The Killing Fields, Philadelphia, Sophie’s Choice, Out of Africa (Streep your clear favourite as weepie queen) and, of course, Casablanca.
The winner was Cinema Paradiso. Nostalgia and full-sail sentiment, Italian-style. Me, I’ll stay with Gardens of Stone. But my second vote would be for a film I’m amazed none of you mentioned: Brief Encounter.
Cranks for the memory
Can’t keep Clint out of this column. I apologise for referring, last month, to the immigrant teenagers in Eastwood’s Gran Torino as Korean. They were Hmong. I probably cross-wired the film with Falling Down, another in which an ageing star, Michael Douglas, gets cranky with an ethnic group.
This, for the record, is a fascinating sub-genre. Actors once kissed with the bloom of heroic youth grow up to portray grouchy bigots. A tribute retrospective would include, along with Eastwood and Douglas, Fredric March (Inherit the Wind), John Wayne (True Grit), Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Mel Gibson (passim, on and off screen). As Shakespeare taught us, every Prince Hal grows up, at some point, to become Henry IV: tormented, judgmental, capricious, unpredictable.
Nigel Andrews’ film reviews appear every Thursday in the FT. www.ft.com/arts