MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com

Hurray, Independent!

Every year, in the days immediately following the Academy Awards, I rejoice in the knowledge that members of the mainstream and Internet media will get over themselves long enough to ponder something other than who’s wearing what, and by whom; which five, of the 25 equally qualified actors and directors nominated, are mortal-locks to take home an Oscar; why those predictions didn’t pan out; how many people around the world watched the ceremony; why the Nielsen ratings inched ahead, fell behind or remained the same; and, that old chestnut, how come it sucked so bad?

It wasn’t enough for the Los Angeles Times, for example, to assign a busload of specialists – including the architecture critic — to answer these questions and criticize the audacity of the producers, presenters and host for boring them to tears. Several columns in Tuesday’s Calendar were reserved for feedback from readers who disagreed with columnist Patrick Goldstein and TV critic Mary McNamara. She would go to write a reply, patting her dear readers on the head for their willingness to lend their two cents to the debate. They were still wrong, but at least they “cared.”

If they didn’t care, there would be little justification for printing the Times’ weekly collection of fluff, The Envelope, and endless pandering on the paper’s website. Indeed, if the studios were to cut back their print advertising budgets by another 10-20 percent, Sam Zell’s loss leader would go belly-up by Christmas.

On Tuesday, film critic Kenneth Turan, bless his pea-pickin’ heart, stirred the pot by publically admitting to enjoying the presentation and decrying the rumor-mongering, chitchat and temperature-taking that editors now demand of their key staff members. If he were king, he’d eliminate all the pre-Oscars hype and save his paper’s manpower for the night of the ceremony. Personally, I’d start with the meaningless announcement of the National Board of Review’s even more meaningless awards. Then, I’d limit coverage of the Golden Globes, People’s Choice and MTV Movie Awards to the next day’s briefs column. (As entertainment editor of one major daily newspaper, I managed to do just that for several years, receiving exactly no complaints.)

By the time Kenny and Mary’s words were published, though, most Americans had already forgotten the names and titles of the winners. Some diehard bloggers had already surveyed the release schedules and begun picking favorites for 2010. A couple thousand screenwriters and studio hacks were weighing the feasibility of re-setting Slumdog Millionaire in Harlem, East L.A. or the Navajo Nation, and locking Regis Philbin or Ryan Seacrest into the project.

Every other deep-thinker had already begun studying for the Final Four pools. (How many poor schmucks, I wonder, lost their Oscar pools by accepting common wisdom that Mickey Rourke and Waltz With Bashir couldn’t lose?)

For those of us who long for the days when Bob Hope and Johnny Carson effortlessly guided audiences from one category to the next, Sunday night represented just another broken promise. It would be impossible for the ceremony to live up to the incessant media hype and overblown expectations of gown, shoe and jewelry designers whose products are worn on the red carpet. People whose idea of a good time is phoning in votes for American Idol and Dancing With the Stars aren’t going to be too picky when it comes to Academy Award hosts.

After all, how many civilians actually can recall with any certainty the infamous Rob Lowe and Snow White duet during the 1989 opening number, let alone the man who produced it? There isn’t a critic in the country that can erase it from his or her memory, or Allen Carr’s role in the fiasco. Hugh Jackman would have had to have danced with his zipper open, or fallen flat on his face, to illicit much of a response from the folks watching at home. Only the most loyal of Oscar viewers would bother to compare Hugh Jackman’s top-hat-and-tails approach to the ceremony with Billy Crystal’s opening monologues and parodies.

Audiences have the luxury of being able to vote with their remote controls and TiVo players. Critics are required to pay attention throughout the show’s entire 3 1/2-hour length (add another half-hour for the Red Carpet infomercial). Even if they’re paid handsomely to endure the agony – and, of course, wear tuxes and gowns doing it – most critics are going into the assignment, thinking, like Nirvana, “Here we are now/entertain us.”

The same thing happened after NBC bought the rights for the Golden Globes ceremony, raising the show’s profile above any reasonable level expectation of relevancy and pitching it as a key barometer for the Oscars to come. It wasn’t. The higher profile prompted increased scrutiny of the bozos at the HFPA, and its booze-fueled ceremony became, “Hollywood’s best party,” which it wasn’t, either. Nor did the prizes translate into better box-office for nominees.

The Independent Spirit Awards soiree on the beach in Santa Monica once also was representative of the gung-ho, underdog personality of the hard-scrabble indie community. Indeed, it was so laid-back and fun that many in the entertainment media treated it as if it were a family picnic or garden party. The nominees, presenters and publicists could safely lower their guard, knowing that the press would consider anything that happened away from the podium to be off-the-record. The dress code was “California casual” and no one felt obligated to thank their agents, accountants or God in an acceptance speech.

Sometime in the last 10 years, though, the Spirits went legit. The success of Miramax’s marriage to Disney had prompted the other studios to create “boutique” shingles of their own and suddenly more was at stake than bragging rights. While their movies were produced under the same guidelines as the ones governing indie-indies, the titles were released with the support of big-time marketing campaigns and distribution networks. Despite some subsequent tinkering with the rules, many of the same movies that were nominated for Oscars and Globes also would compete against pictures – some without distribution deals in place – that were produced at a small fraction of their budgets.

This also meant that largely unknown actors and directors routinely competed against some of the biggest names in the business. (Woody Allen won a writing prize, in absentia, this year.) Another row of dominos was set up when the easy availability stars became known to the celebrity media and paparazzi. This meant that attendees would henceforth be required to fret about their appearance on the red carpet and hustle designer casual wear. This forced personal publicists to cling to their clients and escort them through the press gauntlet. The value of gift baskets grew exponentially, and live TV coverage meant profanity and other bad behavior would be discouraged. Attendance boomed, but only because the giant white tent had become a magnet for scene-makers, wanne-bes and industry weasels. The whole thing became dull, predictable and increasingly irrelevant. (The after-parties weren’t bad, though.)

Given its recent history, lovers of independent films naturally tuned into last Saturday’s IFC broadcast with some trepidation. Even though his indie cred is impeccable, host Steve Coogan remains a much better known commodity in England than in the U.S. His most recognizable characters are best described as insensitive, if not downright unlikable and obnoxious. Moreover, there was a distinct possibility that the important categories would be dominated by two or three favorites.

To my great joy and surprise, however, the Spirits bubbled with an energy and enthusiasm palpable even on television. There was an abundance of star power in the audience, and those in attendance seemed to be enjoying themselves. (Yes, cocktails are served.) The entertainment was delightful, and the clips plentiful and well chosen.

Just as Jackman would on Sunday night, Coogan opened with a production number. The stage wasn’t remotely as opulent as that in the Kodak Theater, but glamour and nostalgia were beside the point. A higher than normal percentage of lyrical digs and daggers hit their mark, but no one got hurt. Coogan’s monologue was observant, irreverent and reasonably timed. (This might have had something to do with his being from a country where filmmakers have to run much tighter ships and it’s believed the Hollywood sign is situated on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.)

The Best Feature nominees provided the inspiration for a series of clever musical parodies, including those in which Rainn Wilson lampooned Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson, Christina Applegate interpreted Frozen River in song and dance, and Teri Hatcher performed a send-up of the canine-themed Wendy & Lucy to the tune of Elton John’s The Bitch is Back. Indie emeritus John Waters also was on hand to pop the balloons of pretentious newcomers. It even had a Joaquin Phoenix impersonator of its own.

Best of all, though, was the recognition given to filmmakers and artists who must have been out of town when the academy was rounding up its usual suspects. Tom McCarthy won Best Director for, The Visitor, Synecdoche, New York walked away with a pair of awards; Heather Rea copped the Producers Award, for Frozen River; Gomorrah, denied an Oscar nomination, lost to The Class in the foreign-language category; and, here, at least, The Wrestler was given a shot at Best Feature.

Melissa Leo was a popular winner in the Best Female category for her amazing performance in Frozen River. Having worked below the radar for 25 years, she rightfully responded with an exuberant acceptance speech, declaring, “Frozen River is a truly independent film. Hurray, independent!”

Leo also set the bar for Rourke’s delightfully profane speech, which would be unleashed on the audience a few minutes later. Clearly, the spirit finally was back at the Spirits.

Rourke provided one of those rare moments that will be recalled and remembered fondly for years to come. After kissing director Darren Aronofsky on the lips, he recognized Eric Roberts in the audience and pleaded with the producers and directors, “He deserves a second chance.” Rourke dedicated his award to his recently deceased dog, Loki; described Aronofsky as a “mean son of a bitch”; and praised co-star Marisa Tomei for skills as an exotic dancer: “not many girls can climb the pole.”

Before presenting the Best Feature award, Alec Baldwin referenced Rourke’s rise from obscurity.

“I want back into the movie business so bad,” he said, with a deadpan delivery. “I gotta get a dog and start working out. … And drop a lot of F-bombs on live TV. And I want to second whatever Eric Roberts did 15 years ago, please let it go.”

God knows what Rourke would have said if he won Best Actor on Sunday night. Sean Penn gave him a nice shout-out from the stage, but it would have been fun to see if the ABC censor’s beeper could keep up with Rourke’s vivid imagination.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Rourke were asked to host next year’s Oscar broadcast?

Something tells me, however, the academy is going to do whatever it takes to put Billy Crystal back in the saddle. Even with a 13 percent bump over last year – when the ceremony was delayed by the writers’ strike — the 2009 edition was the third lowest rated Academy Awards broadcast in history.  You and I might not care about such things, you can bet that AMPAS, ABC and advertisers want desperately to land another Titanic attraction.

- Gary Dretzka
February 26, 2009

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