Because I’ve listened to or watched the Academy Awards ceremony since I was a teenager, high on my Short List right now is this weekend’s 84th annual presentation. I’ve always been star- struck, spending my allowance on movie magazines and adorning my bedroom walls with photos of Olivia de Havilland, Tyrone Power, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, even Randolph Scott and Sunset Carson. My tastes range widely.
Through the decades, when a favorite failed to receive the deserved award, I learned that hard lesson that life’s not always fair. In fact, it’s surprising that I continue to view the ceremony since I’ve never forgiven the Academy for slighting my idol, Bette Midler’s, performance in “The Rose,” and naming that inane, banal Sally Fields “best actress” in 1979. (It serves Fields right that she now does osteoporosis commercials while the Divine Miss M. takes Vegas with her “The Show Girl Must Go On.”)
But, beyond fairness, I’m learning these days that, in my considered opinion, films just aren’t as good as they used to be. Obviously, technological advances permit interesting innovations, and there’s often some fascinating digitally enhanced wonder, but it’s been a long time since a scene in or lines from a movie imprinted on me.
Perhaps if Cosmo (“Beginners”), Uggie (“The Artist”), or even Joey (“War Horse”) had received a nomination for their films, which they certainly carried, I would be in a less critical and cranky mood as this year’s show approaches. I believe Mel Brooks revisited black and white, silent films just as brilliantly as “The Artist.” That favored “best” of 2011 was so predictable and clichÃ©-ridden that a woman in the aisle near me slept soundly enough during it that she snored ”“ which, in a production with only music for a sound track, isn’t a swell thing to do.
I acknowledge that several performances in “The Help” are terrific, but the film version created dissonance for me because I had scribbled caustic criticisms in the margins as I read the novel, partly because I thought it trite and partly because I identified with it too closely, having lived through that era. (I could play with Annabelle, the daughter of our “colored” maid, all morning long in the yard, but I couldn’t eat lunch with her.)
Here are two rhetorical questions: why are best sellers so often poorly written? Can a brilliant film result from a hackneyed text?
What was the last film among those chosen by the Academy as the year’s “best” that contained unforgettable scenes or lines? When was there anything as memorable as: Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on the beach in “From Here to Eternity” ”“ the gleeful performance of “The Rain in Spain” in “My Fair Lady” ”“ Marlon Brando’s “I could’a been a contender” speech in “On the Waterfront” ”“ the rescue of the little white poodle in “Silence of the Lambs” ”“ Bette Davis’ admonition (so often misquoted) “Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy night,” in “All About Eve”?
How long has it been since we’ve experienced anything as brilliant and thus unforgettable as Susannah York and Albert Finney’s ”“ let’s call it “shared meal” ”“ in “Tom Jones” or Dustin Hoffman’s monologue as he descended the staircase on the soap opera set in “Tootsie”?
They just don’t make ”˜em like they used to. Why is that? Is this just another indication of what some label the dumbing down of our critical taste, expectations, judgment? Since I admire contemporary literature, I need to examine my disappointment with many contemporary films so that I can try to understand and come to terms with the reasons I find them lacking.
I have a suspicion that I may be becoming pretentious in my old age, and, if that’s the case, I blame it on Trinity’s high admission and hiring standards and my associating each and every day with such articulate, assertive, discerning adults. YOU may be responsible for encouraging me to hold what just might be unreasonably high expectations for movies I admire and literature I appreciate.
Whatever the disappointments in store for me, I’ll be glued to the television set for the 84th Academy Awards ceremony and will be, as usual, talking back to the screen when choices don’t go my way.