Here We Go Again 

It’s the beginning of the year, and the entertainment industry is cranking up its annual awards obsession

It’s the beginning of the year, and the entertainment industry is cranking up its annual awards obsession

Probably one of the oddest traditions in the entertainment industry is how people in the business spend the first quarter of their year. Rather than break out of the gate with a slew of great new product, film and music companies usually dump their dogs in the first quarter and concentrate on celebrating the successes of the previous year.

That’s right, kids. It’s awards season! For the next three months, you’ll be inundated with garish commemorations of the past year. The majority of these will, of course, be nothing more than a television spectacle designed to sell the pretty people to us—and to give Joan and Melissa Rivers’ existence some semblance of meaning. But since it is my job to take the trivial way too seriously, I’d like to level some gripes against the awards tradition, specifically in the film industry.

In the grand scheme of things, one could argue that the Grammies and its various cousins like the American Music Awards have very little influence on the music world. Nominations are usually based purely on sales and media popularity. The winners typically fall in two categories: predictable and inscrutable. For instance, last year U2 scored little golden phonographs for their comeback song “Beautiful Day.” Well, sure; everyone loves U2. But then Steely Dan won Album of the Year. For what? Being old?

The Academy Awards and their little warm-up award shows, on the other hand, rule the film industry. An Oscar is the ring of Sauron for Hollywood’s flaky, approval-starved minions. As a result, the most high-profile awards are given out not so much for actual onscreen achievements as for what I’d like to call “Oscar acting.”

You know Oscar acting. You’ve seen it millions of times. It’s what happens when a star takes on a part that provides some sort of showy challenge to his or her abilities. Consider, for instance, Will Smith’s turn as “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. This is an example of star power through association. Smith’s Oscar stock goes up if he can pull off a decent impersonation of Ali. Jim Carrey tried the same trick a couple of years back when he took on the role of Andy Kaufman, but it backfired due to the double whammy of a comedian playing a comedian, which really inflamed the Academy’s prejudices against anything associated with comedy.

When I heard that Michael Mann was going to do a biopic on Ali, I figured that there were probably at least five African American actors who could ably inhabit the starring role without any sort of distraction. Ali is an icon, so the role probably would have benefited from an unknown, or at least a lower-profile, actor. Instead, every time Smith heads into the ring with that flattop, what I see is a guy going off to fight Joe Frazier humming “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Another form of Oscar acting is to play against type. Last year Julia Roberts managed to score herself a faceless neutered gold statue for this trick. In Erin Brockovich, she apparently proved her thespian mettle by playing poor and plain in contrast to her glamour and big, straight teeth. What a feat: The role really just consisted of her not combing her hair and wearing an expensive pushup bra that the character would never have been able to afford. Other than that, it was the same sweet/sassy thing she does in all her movies, just packaged differently.

Kevin Spacey, who should be satisfied with the two Oscars he’s already managed to rack up, is apparently trying to sate his ego by doing a little Oscar acting of his own. For the second year in a row, he has tried to undercut the perception that he can only play sardonic middle-aged men with axes to grind. Last year in Pay It Forward, he played a facially scarred teacher whose heart is changed by a little boy. This year Spacey takes a different tack with the midlife crisis theme by playing it mopey and full of discovery in The Shipping News. By the way, both films were trashed by critics and are considered notable for being Spacey’s worst work.

Then, of course, there’s the classic Oscar role that involves a debilitating health or mental problem. Nothing deserves kudos like the ability to portray a wounded, damaged or dying person. Of course, an actor can’t help but attract attention when taking on a role such as this. But true success depends on whether there’s an actual character in there or just an illness. He-man Russell Crowe does himself proud as schizophrenic Nobel Prize winner John Nash in the current A Beautiful Mind. But part of this is probably attributable to Ron Howard’s smart move in allowing the story construction, rather than the actor himself, to convey the illness.

Clearly, Oscar roles don’t always turn out the way an actor might’ve expected. In the trailers for I Am Sam, Sean Penn induces overacting nausea as a mentally disabled man trying to maintain custody of his daughter. This seems like an odd move for the usually stoic, integrity-minded Penn. But maybe he’s hoping an Oscar would provide him with the kind of clout that would allow him to make movies the way he wants to make them.

Director Sydney Pollack once commented that Dustin Hoffman’s acting philosophy was to pretend as little as possible—to take roles where the actor can find something to relate to. That way, he’s able to create convincing characters from experience rather than approximation. Sounds like solid acting advice. Wait, so how did Hoffman win an Oscar? Oh yeah, he played an autistic savant.

Open your eyes

I know I might seem like a curmudgeon sometimes, but I care deeply about the rich and famous. And I hate to see when one of them is heading down a dangerous path. That’s why I am taking the time to warn Tom Cruise publicly that if he is to keep being the No. 1 box office draw, he must dump Penelope Cruz now.

I’m sorry, but the boy traded down, and it’s going to ruin him. That woman is film poison, and he’d better watch out before it rubs off on him. You ever wonder why you even knew Cruz’s name before Cruise started spending some quality time with her? Well, you’d have good reason to wonder, because her American film career is littered with disasters.

There was Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Cruz played the love interest, and the film disappeared from theaters in a week, dismissed by both audiences and critics. Then she was in the Johnny Depp cocaine movie Blow, which, in case you didn’t know, blew. In the summer, she jumped on Nicholas Cage’s downhill career slide for the disastrous Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. And now she seems to have broken Tom Cruise’s impenetrable star armor with Vanilla Sky.

Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe working together for the first time since Jerry Maguire—how could it miss? Well, you cast Cruz, that’s how. Vanilla Sky has made money, but not really Tom Cruise money. And the word from nearly every critic I’ve read and everyone I know who’s seen it is that this dog should have been taken straight to the pound. Look, I’m not even making a statement about Cruz’s acting abilities. She’s good, for all I know. But the woman is jinxed.

Quotidian Challenge

“I’m no fool. I’ve killed the boss. You think they’re not gonna fire me for a thing like that?”

Be the first to e-mail the origin of this useless bit of trivia to poplife the shame of your name printed as the winner and some free useless crap from the Nashville Scene!

Previous week’s answer: “Only way to feel the noise is when it’s good and loud.”—the prettiest man in rock, Lemmy Kilmister, on Motorhead’s “Overkill.”

Winner: Bryant Foley of Lawrenceburg, Ind.

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