March 5, 2012

Oscar Shark in Shallow Waters

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I admired the man for maintaining a smile, but the breaking of his voice betrayed his true disappointment. The man, Ithaca native John Dennis, had just seen his son get passed over for an Oscar on ABC. The son, Danfung Dennis ’05, had directed Hell and Back Again, a film that examined the psychological toll of the Afghan War through the eyes of an American soldier. I was sent by The Sun to cover the 60 or so friends and family of Danfung’s who packed Ithaca’s Cinemapolis Theater to watch him take home an Academy Award. Yet while his documentary garnered an Academy Award nomination and major buzz within the industry, Danfung remained a mere audience member in the Kodak Theater as the makers of Undefeated bounced onto the stage to receive the golden statue for Best Documentary from presenters Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. Those watching from Cinemapolis stared in silence as the three directors of Undefeated began their acceptance speech from the podium. The first director gave a fist-pump. The second dropped an “F-bomb.”  And then, nearing the end of their speech, the third director revealed the main reason why their film had just won an Oscar. He thanked Harvey Weinstein.

Harvey Weinstein is the titan of all Hollywood producers. He is depicted in Season Four of Entourage as an overweight foulmouthed maniac who pesters E about financing Vince’s upcoming film. However, this characterization is rather inaccurate, for while Weinstein is indeed overweight, foulmouthed and maniacal, he rarely finances films that are as bad as Medellin. Instead, the founder of Miramax backs gems like Pulp Fiction, Chicago, The English Patient and Good Will Hunting. And it is a well-known fact that Weinstein doesn’t simply pick award-winning films to produce; he makes the films he produces award winning. With more influence in Hollywood than Scientology, Weinstein campaigns, bullies and sweet-talks Academy voters into selecting his films for the major awards. He is a relentless advocate for his movies, going so far as pressing an ailing Sydney Pollack to release a favorable statement regarding The Reader. Pollack, perhaps coincidentally, died soon after.

This Weinsteining pays off come late February. In 1998, he earned Shakespeare in Love a Best Picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan, and in the past two years, the makers of The King’s Speech and The Artist have thanked the Weinstein Company while accepting the most prestigious award at the world’s most prestigious film ceremony.  And there is a unjust downside to the Weinstein machine. Now I wouldn’t cry foul that The Artist won best picture last week, for the silent French flick was probably the least flawed candidate in a year where all the nominated films kind of sucked in their own way. And though The King’s Speech should not have won over The Social Network last year, it is understandable that the Academy’s notoriously old voters would choose the charming British 1930s period piece over what they probably remember as “that computing machinery movie featuring that whippersnapper Justin Timberlock.”

And even if films like Saving Private Ryan, The Social Network or The Descendants got unjustly left off the Best Picture podium because of the Weinstein machine, these are big budget films acted and directed by big budget people. They will get over it just fine.

But what about the little guys? What about the Danfung Dennises of the world whose critically acclaimed films fail to earn an Oscar because Harvey Weinstein decided to drop a couple dollars and a few phone calls in support of a competing documentary? I do not know if Hell and Back Again should have won the Oscar, but the film does deal with an incredibly relevant, under-examined issue, and it does have a 100% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  So on the surface, Hell and Back Again looks like it could have won the award. Undefeated, judging by its trailer and Rotten Tomatoes rating, looks to be a good but very generic movie about poor inner city high schoolers dealing with all the obstacles that unfortunately come with being a poor high school student in the inner city. One player’s father was shot. The team linebacker keeps getting suspended for fighting. The coach makes an inspirational speech. It is all really emotion stuff. I mean that sincerely. But I have already seen this story in the movie Coach Carter. I have read this story in books and heard this story through rap songs. Undefeated is not even the best documentary profiling inner city strife that came this year. Released last March, The Interrupters, profiling neighborhood violence in Chicago, was considered to be one of the biggest Oscar nomination stubs in years.

And while many cry foul to the clout Weinstein has on the Best Picture race each year, think about how much impact a mega-producer like Weinstein has on a less scrutinized category like Best Documentary.  The nominees in these categories have less money and fewer networks to promote their films to the Academy voters.  Thus Weinstein competing in the Best Documentary category is like a shark hunting in a fish bowl or like Barack Obama running for Mayor of Ithaca.  It isn’t fair to the American moviegoer who trusts the Academy to inform them which films truly are the best in each category.  It isn’t fair to the filmmakers who dedicate years of their lives to their projects.  And it isn’t fair to the fathers of the nominees whose sons or daughters never had a chance to take the Oscar from Harvey Weinstein.

Original Author: Brian Gordon