Milking it For All it’s Worth

As Hollywood prepares for the annual Oscar bash, the signs are it isn't going to be a vintage year

Peter Whittle

Prone to devastating fires and living with the near-certainty of destruction from massive tectonic plate movements, tomorrow or in a century’s time, Los Angeles continues to exist on the same basis on which it was first established – through an act of sheer will. It bears little relation to any other city, living or dead. And as such, it chooses its own high days and holidays. Christmas may come and go for a large part of the planet, but the true summit of the year for LA happens a couple of months later, when just about everything comes to a grinding halt for the Oscars.

There are private parties and public bashes. People come together to mock, take stock and pretend they don’t care about it all. Those not invited to the big events – most notably Vanity Fair’s Oscar night party in West Hollywood – would rather leave town than be seen to be not seen. Having lived in the city for five years, I can attest that it is indeed the best of times and the worst of times. It is exciting and depressing. No other city has such a hierarchy – one based solely on physical attributes and box office numbers. This makes it weirdly and exhilaratingly democratic. It also makes it just about the harshest environment known to man.

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the first Academy Awards ceremony, when the statuettes were handed out at a modest dinner party for a couple of hundred industry types in the fake baronial surroundings of the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard. Now the Academy regularly boasts of a global audience of billions, although of course everybody knows that this is a ridiculous claim. How many Americans actually watch it depends largely on the popularity of the films in the contest. If they’re smallish films, the telecast will be shunned, no matter how much the critics swooned.

This happened last year, when the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men won Best Picture, and the ceremony registered its lowest TV audience ever (a mere 31.7 million). This is not a sign of a declining interest in cinema-going. Far from it. Recessions, like bad weather, are great for the movies. Britain alone has seen the biggest number of ticket sales for 40 years. The success of the Abba musical Mamma Mia – already, I am sure, very familiar to Standpoint readers through multiple viewings – has been remarkable. It’s likely, though, that it will have to make do with its bazillions of dollars, because the chances of it turning up in the Oscar nominations, when they’re announced shortly, are slim. Instead, and despite the similar success of The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace, it’s looking like another “small” and worthy year.

Some of the films which are already gathering media moss are opening here this month. One of these is Revolutionary Road, directed by Britain’s Sam Mendes, and starring his wife, Kate Winslet, and her Titanic partner, Leonardo DiCaprio. Based on the novel by Richard Yates, it is a drama about a young couple fighting “conventionality” and “routine” in 1950s’ America. Rather like that other poison-pen letter to suburbia, the slick and self-pitying American Beauty (also directed by Mendes), it has the themes that are beloved of many in the LA film industry (in the course of five years I met precisely one declared Republican working in it, and he was an agent). Us against them? Individuality crushed by conservative conformity? It surely cannot fail.

Like George Clooney’s much-praised 2005 drama of the McCarthy era, Good Night and Good Luck, other films in the running this year continue Hollywood’s trend of returning to examine or celebrate past social and cultural battles. The first part of Steven Soderbergh’s epic four-hour retelling of the life of Che Guevara comes here stamped with Cannes approval. It has been praised for being even-handed, although the fact that we needed another one so soon after The Motorcycle Diaries speaks of an abiding fascination with Che. Benicio del Toro, however, who plays the title role, might find himself having to feign joy when the winner of the Best Actor award is announced: the strongest contender for this right now is Tinseltown’s über-liberal and taker-up of good causes, Sean Penn, for Milk.

And the fact is that if Penn wins, it will have been richly deserved. His portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to official office in America (as a City Supervisor in San Francisco), a man who became political late in life, mobilised a community almost by accident, and was then assassinated by a disturbed colleague, is extraordinary. He appears, I think, in every scene, and his nuanced, unselfish and humane performance elevates a film that, while admirable, is in all other respects the very definition of niche market.

For some of us, knowledge of the political leanings of an actor can get in the way of a performance. I recall the critic James Delingpole once commenting that he could not watch Sean Connery as Bond any more without thinking “that horrible Scottish nationalist”. While I understand this completely, I think one should try to resist it. Clooney’s narcissistic, risk-free fearlessness does not detract from his skill as a light comedian. Vanessa Redgrave is still one of the greatest instinctive actresses of our time; I love watching her despite, well, everything. Penn’s extra-curricular posturing is very irritating, but his stature as a great screen actor is not in doubt.

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