Evan Williams. Oscars and other frivolities

My vote for best performance by an actor in this year’s Oscars goes to Leonardo DiCaprio – not for his much-touted appearance in The Revenant, but for his rousing speech at the presentation ceremony. I don’t know if he scripted it himself – if he did he deserved a screenplay Oscar as well – but I rate it the most powerful contribution to the climate debate delivered from a public platform in recent memory. His passionate plea to “save the planet” drew cheers from the crowd. Yes, I know showbiz luvvies tend to be self-indulgent lefties and climate alarmists, but what an audience he had! By all accounts he was heard by 80 million people around the globe. What politician could wish for more?

Speaking of politicians and great performances – and digressing for a moment – TV audiences the same evening witnessed rare footage of Malcolm Turnbull shedding tears on camera while recalling an encounter with an indigenous woman. It may not have been Oscar-winning material, but at least it showed Malcolm has a heart (as I suspect it was meant to do), and put Malcolm in the same lachrymose company as Bob Hawke, who famously shed a prime ministerial tear before the cameras while speaking of problems in his family. Cardinal George Pell made another TV appearance on Oscar night – this one from Rome – but I rate it the least impressive of the night’s offerings. No tears from George. Not yet.

Getting back to the actual ceremony, I found DiCaprio a much more impressive performer than Chris Rock, the black comedian who hosted the evening and treated us to a seemingly endless harangue on the vexed issue of white actor bias in the Oscars. It’s not the first time the disparity has been noted. But could the reason simply be that, like it or not, more parts are written for white actors than black ones, or as we now say, for people of colour? It’s fanciful to suggest that the imbalance has anything to do with conscious racial prejudice. When actors of colour are called for, actors of colour are cast – witness In the Heat of the Night (1967), Gandhi (1982), The Last Emperor (1987), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and 12 Years a Slave (2013) – all featuring great performances by actors of colour, and all of them Oscar-winning films. So there, I’ve had my say.

What else? My vote for best costume design goes to Cate Blanchett for the frilly blue number she was wearing on the red carpet – the one with the non-existent neckline – which may be some consolation, I trust, for missing out on a best actress Oscar for Carol. Which brings me to the high point of the evening – those six gongs for Mad Max: Fury Road, a wonderful boost for the local industry. Admittedly they were only “technical” awards – best sound mixing, best hairdressing, makeup and the like, which most audiences couldn’t care less about – but when the film is revived soon in Australian cinemas, as it surely will be, “Winner of Six Academy Awards” is going to look great in the ads. It was the biggest Oscar haul by an Australian film since Jane Campion’s The Piano in 1993, which picked up best picture as well.

Whether Mad Max deserved the best picture Oscar that many were hoping for is another question. Technical tour de force it may be, but for my money, The Big Short and Carol were both better films. And much as I hate to say it as a loyal, movie-going Australian, Mad Max: Fury Road strikes me as the apotheosis of today’s debased, spiritually exhausted, action-ridden cinema in which plot, character and dialogue are subservient to the hyper-kinetic demands of stuntmen and special effects designers. The film has almost no dialogue – though, as The Artist beautifully demonstrated in 2014, it’s possible for a silent film, even a silent film in black-and-white, to win the Oscar for best picture.

But whatever you think of Mad Max: Fury Road, you have to feel sorry for George Miller. Six Oscars and he couldn’t crack it for best director. Bruce Beresford met a similar rebuff in 1989 with Driving Miss Daisy, which picked up four Oscars, including best picture and best screenplay, but no director’s gong for Bruce. And it was noticeable this year that Spotlight – of which more later – won both best picture and best screenplay but no prize for the director, Tom McCarthy.   All of which raises an old question: if you have a great script, how important is the director’s contribution to the final product? Well, of course, it’s important – some would say all-important – but not perhaps in ways that audiences care about. Alfred Hitchcock directed some the best films ever made, and no director in the 20th century was more widely admired and imitated. But Hitchcock never won an Oscar for direction. A few years before he died he was given an honorary one for lifetime achievement.

And so to Spotlight – a fine film, an important film, though not, I think, a great one. To many people’s surprise it beat The Revenant for the best picture award. Reviewing it a few weeks ago, I wrote that it consisted of little more than a series of low-key conversations – which put it well outside the Mad Max class as an action movie. But it’s unfailingly gripping and well-crafted. This is the one about a team of reporters on the Boston Globe uncovering evidence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Massachusetts. The parallels with the church’s crisis in this country are obvious enough, which is no doubt helping at the local box-office.

Tragically, clerical paedophilia has become a hot-button issue, and I suspect that Spotlight got its best picture Oscar at least partly on the strength of its topicality. When the Academy members were casting their votes, George Pell had yet to give his latest round of evidence to the Australian royal commission, but the scandal that rightly or wrongly surrounds him was already widely known abroad. Is it possible that George helped swing a few votes in Spotlight’s favour, perhaps clinching the Oscar for it? No doubt he would hate to think so, but at Oscar time, never underestimate the power of a cardinal.

Evan Williams reviewed films in The Australian newspaper for 33 years. He is a Life Member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia for services to film criticism and the film industry.In 2015 he received the Geraldine Pascal Lifetime Achievement Award for critical writing.

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