Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reading Fans Bid Updike Adieu ...

In memory of John Updike, the acclaimed master of American letters who passed away this morning at at age of 76, here is a link to the piece of his writing that has most touched me, and that has the most relevance to one of the prime topics of this blog - baseball. Go here to read his famous 1960 essay for The New Yorker about Ted Williams' last baseball game, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu". And enjoy your new home, Mr. Updike, where there are never any rainouts at Fenway Park.

Monday, January 26, 2009

A sad legacy ...

With the likelihood of Heath Ledger winning a posthumous Oscar for his role as The Joker in The Dark Knight all but a certainty now, it may be interesting to you to learn about the history of dearly departed actors winning a golden ticket to the Hollywood's golden derby after they have left us. Turns out Ledger is just the latest lamented member of a sad but small club.

Ledger, turns out, is the sixth actor to receive an Academy Award nomination postmortem, but this is the seventh time the event has happened in Oscar history. That's because the first posthumous honoree, James Dean, had the (mis)fortune of being nominated twice in back-to-back years after his death in a car accident in September 1955. Months after he died, Dean made the Best Actor race for his work in East of Eden, and followed that up the following year with Giant. Then came Spencer Tracy. His final collaboration with frequent co-star and longtime lover Katharine Hepburn was in Stanley Kramer's fuzzy-wuzzy race-relations parable Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Tracy already knew he was dying, and in fact Kramer and Hepburn had to fight the suits to keep Tracy in the movie, going so far as to put their salaries up in case Tracy passed during production. But he completed his work before dying on June 10, 1967, only 17 days after filming wrapped. When Guess was released six months later, Tracy was honored with a Best Actor nomination.

Other posthumous nominations include Sir Ralph Richardson in 1984 as Best Supporting Actor for Graystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes; and Italian actor-comedian Massimo Troisi in 1995 as Best Actor for the romance Il Postino. (Troisi put off important heart surgery to complete the film he co-wrote and died 12 hours after shooting his final scene; he also shared a nomination for the screenplay.) The only person to actually win an Oscar in such a manner, though, is Peter Finch. His iconic portrayal of madman news anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 satire Network sported major Oscar buzz; in fact, the Aussie actor was on his way to appear on Good Morning, America as part of the film's - and his - promotion when he dropped dead of a heart attack in the lobby of his hotel on January 14, 1977. Had Finch lived, he likely would have been nominated in the Supporting Actor category, but his sudden death may have been the impetus to propel him into the Actor category alongside his Network co-star, William Holden - whom, to be fair, had logged much more screen time than Finch. Nevertheless, Finch was the winner when the envelope was opened on March 29, and Finch's widow accepted the Oscar for him in one of the evening's most emotional moments.

The only question when it comes to Ledger's forthcoming Oscar is who will accept the award for him. His father? One of his Dark Knight co-stars? Director Christopher Nolan? The only thing we would want, of course, is that Ledger were still around to soak up the well-earned honors his Joker is reaping.

The Oscar Nominations ...

In a minute, boys and girls, I will tell you which individuals and films will win in the major categories at the 81st Annual Academy Awards, which will be dispersed in an orderly if lengthy fashion on Feb. 22. But first, let's look at how I did in terms of my predictions of the nominations themselves.

The verdict? I did pretty good, though I failed to follow some practical advice when it comes to picking the shortlisted actors - namely, pay attention to the Screen Actors Guild nominations. After all, only actors vote for the SAG Awards, just as only actors vote on the acting Oscar nods - and there is considerable overlap there, obviously. So it shouldn't be a huge surprise that Richard Jenkins' work in The Visitor usurped Clint Eastwood's in Gran Torino (in fact, I actually had Jenkins' name on my Best Actor list - really! - before changing my mind before posting my predictions, but sentiment reared its ugly head inside my brain); or that Melissa Leo's work in Frozen River edged out Happy Go Lucky's Sally Hawkins, the latter's Golden Globe win be damned.

Then there is the curious case of ... Kate Winslet, she of the double Globes wins for her devastating work in Revolutionary Road (lead actress) and The Reader (supporting actress). I had her scoring two nominations for the Academy Awards, with a decent shot of becoming the first actor to win two Oscars for two separate performances in the same year. But the problem with that scenario, as observed by my close friend and fellow film buff Beth, is that Winslet's performance in The Reader is not a supporting role in the strictest sense, and the Academy voters seems to have agreed, as they nominated Winslet's Reader work for Best Actress and left her Revolutionary Road character in the dust. Considering that Winslet is now on her sixth Oscar nomination without a win and is a strong favorite to break that streak, I doubt she's that upset about only getting one ticket to the prom. But it's still unusual to see the Academy, with its history of playing fast and loose with the lead vs. supporting categories, see things clearly for a change.

What really tripped me up, of course, was the absence of The Dark Knight in the Best Picture and Best Director contests. Maybe it was still a bit of a pipe dream to see the Batman sequel chosen for those top two categories, but for my taste the epic was indeed one of the best films of 2008 - a crime saga that more than transcended its superhero roots, which were pretty deep as it was. The film still scored eight nominations and will not go home from Oscar night empty-handed - Heath Ledger alone guarantees that - but it's still kind of a shame that some voters apparently couldn't see beyond the comic-book origins, or the huge box-office gross, to truly appreciate a movie that was more than a piece of popcorn entertainment.

(By the way, it wasn't one of the categories I predicted, but can someone explain to me why Bruce Springsteen's haunting theme to The Wrestler didn't make the Original Song list? To me, this may be the largest snub of all this year. The fact that only three songs, instead of the usual five, were selected has to be the only way why the Boss didn't make the final cut, but his absence is particularly glaring nonetheless.)

So now I'll tell you who's going to win Academy Awards in a little less than a month. Granted, it's somewhat presumptuous to go on the record this early in the game, because there's a lot of campaigning (yes, campaigning) yet to go, and conditions can change at any time. Just ask Hillary Clinton and Rudy Guiliani about that. But something tells me that either my choices are already firm or will firm up as we get closer to the date of the big show. (Besides, I reserve the right to change my mind until the very end. Because I can. Because it's my blog. So there.)

Actor: Mickey Rourke over Sean Penn. I'll admit that the prospect of the phrase "Academy Award winner Mickey Rourke" has a strange sound to me. But his performance in The Wrestler can't be denied, and his is a comeback story for the ages. Still, Rourke had better invest in a tuxedo before he gets to the Kodak Theater - the Academy folk are sticklers on that stuff.

Actress: Kate Winslet. Face it, she's way due, and the Oscar can be for two great pieces of acting in one year.

Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger. He would have won this alive or dead. Though, not to be morbid, his untimely death obvious adds to the emotion behind what will go down as the most memorable performance of 2008.

Supporting Actress: Winslet's absence from this category, which often is the wild card of the bunch anyway, truly up in the air. The consensus pick likely will be Penelope Cruz for Vicky Christina Barcelona, but I have a feeling that the ultimate winner will be Viola Davis for Doubt. In a year when other character actors such as Jenkins and Leo broke into the Oscar race, honoring Davis makes sense.

Director: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire, easy.

Picture: In a year where no one movie stands out as being truly extraordinary, the momentum seems to be with Slumdog Millionaire. Bollywood - or at least faux Bollywood - rules.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Faithful" service ... to grammar?

Much hay has been made of the Flub (Literally) Heard 'Round the World, when Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts misspoke the presidential oath he was reciting to Barack Obama on Tuesday, causing the new Commander-in-Chief to awkwardly repeat the mistake. Not only did it ruin one of the most important video clips in recent history, but it caused conspiracy theorists and a few pundits into wondering what it all meant. Was Obama in fact the President since he had recited the oath incorrectly? Had Roberts made a Freudian slip, perhaps conscious or unconscious revenge against Obama after the former Illinois Senator had voted against Roberts' confirmation to the Court in 2005? What was it all about, Alfie?

To be extra careful, and perhaps to shut up the Drudges of the world, Roberts and Obama did a correct do-over of the oath Wednesday night. And the do-over was welcomed despite the general consensus that Obama became president at noon on Tuesday while Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman were jamming on the Capitol steps. (The bungled oath came about five minutes later.) Now Stephen Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University (the alma mater of both Obama and Roberts), as well as the chairman of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, has written an interesting piece for The New York Times about the incident and how it's not the first time a prominent person has played fast and loose with their words on the world stage.

Pinker compares the Roberts boo-boo with situations like Neil Armstrong's "man" versus "mankind" quotation when he hit the Moon with both feet in 1969, or Princess Diana mixing up the several names of Prince Charles when they married in 1981. (Look how well that union worked out.) He then points out that Roberts is a "famous stickler for grammar", to the point that he once corrected a Bob Dylan lyric ("When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to use") in a Supreme Court decision. In the case of the presidential oath, which is explicitly written in the Constitution, Pinker wonders if Roberts may have been fighting the machine that is the "split verb":

in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence.

The line in the oath that goes, "I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States," would fall under that split-verb rule, and could explain why Roberts, or something inside of him, took it upon himself to "edit" the Founding Fathers by moving the adverb "faithfully" to its proper position at the end of the sentence.

Of course, that doesn't explain Roberts' other major error, when he said "President to the United States". But nobody's perfect, not even a Harvard graduate.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mr. President ...

Now let's get to work.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dave's 2009 Oscar Predictions ...

While we wait in anticipation for a certain major event to take place in Washington, another big-time happening will take place across the country two days after Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office. And while the nominations for the 81st Academy Awards aren't nearly the big deal that the inauguration of the first black U.S. president will be - well, they're still pretty important for those involved, from the actors and filmmakers involved to the fans invested in the various movies that will be up for the golden guys come next month. And it's pretty important to me, someone whose career has been to write and report about the entertainment industry and who, God help me, still gets stoked this time every year about the Oscar nominations. So, per usual, I'm presenting to those who care my predictions about what names will be announced on Thursday morning at at ungodly early hour in Hollywood. Some I'll get right, some I'll get wrong - but that's the fun of the whole thing, ain't it?

Best Picture:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Actress
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Sally Hawkins, Happy Go Lucky
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Meryl Streep, Doubt
Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Supporting Actor
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Doubt
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Christina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Best Director
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mike Leigh, Happy Go Lucky
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

We Didn't Start the Fire ...

So that's it? The year's over? Well, there wasn't much to 2008, was there. I mean, what actually happened?

OK, so there was an election of sorts. And, OK, it was kind of historic, since the black guy won. But, come on, that happens all the time ... in the movies, which is all about the real thing, right?

And, sure, the economy hit some pitfalls. They could even be called "catastrophes". But it's not like we haven't faced such crises before, and we came out of things just fine - after a decade or so, and only after a major global war started. But that's no reason to feel glum. It's not like we're soft or bloated or spoiled or anything, no?

And yeah, America was wracked with that peskiest of circumstances known as corruption. Governors got caught with their pants down, or with their pants really down, or with their fancy skirts on. And what about that nasty ol' investor who was caught bilking, well, just about everyone in his sights? Now that was something to remember, eh?

And we lost a few people who were near and dear to us - but just a few. Cool Hand Luke and Ben-Hur, the Joker and Deep Throat, the Catwoman and the Black Moses, the wiseacre hippie and the head of the Firing Line. Gee, that seems like a lot all of a sudden.

Well, things were quiet in the sports world - if you don't count the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the NBA Finals, that racing chick and that fish disguised as a human at the Olympics. Other than that, meh.

So, yeah, 2008 was kind of slow. Here's hoping that something actually exciting happens in 2009. In the meantime, Happy New Year, y'all!