Film flam

Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron's, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian.

OF ALL THE creatures on the face of the Earth, only humans would dream of nominating Ryan Gosling for a best actor award for his exemplary work in a film almost no one has seen.

Actually, the only humans who would make such an extravagant gesture are that tiny group of mysterious voters who make up the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Year in, year out, this largely unidentified group of voters -- many of them quite advanced in years, some presumably dead -- persist in honoring actors, actresses, directors and screenwriters for their superb work in films that are widely ignored and have almost nothing to do with the industry’s raison d’etre.

Let’s face it. The movie industry is not about “Half Nelson,” Rinko Kikuchi, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children,” Abigail Breslin or Ryan Gosling. The movie industry is about Will Ferrell, “King Kong,” Owen Wilson, “Meet the Fockers XV” and, to a greater or lesser extent, all films that either are or resemble “Nacho Libre.” Ryan Gosling and Rinko Kikuchi have nothing to do with it.

To bring into focus the extraordinary iconoclasm the academy exhibits each year in its determination to reward films that Americans do not care about, actors we usually ignore and directors we don’t even like, one need only consider the very different mentality that prevails at the Grammys.


Two weeks ago, the music industry, as usual, went out of its way to honor insanely famous artists who sell lots of records. The music industry does not dole out its highest honors to gallant but obscure recordings made by gallant but obscure artists; it gives its awards to people such as Madonna. The music industry revels in the fact that it is in the revenue-generating sector; it is in the Justin Timberlake, Ludacris, John Mayer, Christina Aguilera and Red Hot Chili Peppers business. It is in the Mary J. Blige, Gnarls Barkley, John Legend and Dixie Chicks business.

It is not in the Kristin Hersh, Richard Thompson or Pierre-LaurentAimard-plays-Anton-Webern-pianotranscriptions business. True, it does give a limited number of awards to artists such as Chick Corea and Doc Watson, whose records do not sell and of whose existence the public is generally unaware. But it does not give major awards to these artists. If there is a music industry equivalent of Abigail Breslin (who played Olive in “Little Miss Sunshine”), then sorry, no Grammy for Parallel Abigail.

The academy has a different approach. The academy does not want to be confused with its craven, vulgar cousins in the music industry. Even though it is well aware that choosing a middling success such as “Crash” as best picture over any number of “Spider-Mans” is the equivalent of Major League Baseball giving the Cy Young Award to a pitcher who went 11-8, or its MVP award to a leftfielder who batted .268 with 13 home runs and 78 RBIs, the academy loves to honor films that make people in the movie business feel better about themselves.

And why not? No one really wants to think that they started out in the “Citizen Kane” line of trade and ended up working for Talladega Nights Inc. No one is really comfortable with the idea that the face of the industry is Adam Sandler and Ashton Kutcher rather than Daniel Day-Lewis and Ralph Fiennes. Nobody wants to go home after a hard day making Brittany Murphy movies when it would be so much more fulfilling to pretend that work was all about Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett.


This is what makes Oscar night so special. It’s not so much a case of the industry presenting itself the way it would like to be seen; it’s the night when the industry gets tanked up and forgets what it does for a living.

Is this a bad thing? I guess not. Hypocrisy and self-delusion are two of America’s most revered traditions, without which none of us could function. More to the point, the academy’s self-delusion reaps vast benefits for us all.

The current cover of Vanity Fair -- the Hollywood issue -- is graced by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. Even for a magazine that once put the dopey, synthetic, rich-boy-discovers-poor-black-people Anderson Cooper on its cover, this is a sad moment.

If this motley crew is the best Hollywood can offer, then the age of radiant movie stars is over. For whatever else this quartet of glamour-challenged chaps may be, they are definitely not matinee idols.


Looking on the bright side, if Oscar night were run like the Grammys, or Major League Baseball, or any of the other organizations that love to hand out awards to people who don’t really need them, then the movie stars stepping up to receive their fulsome homage tonight would be Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Owen Wilson and Jack Black, with Adam Sandler not far behind. This would be a very bad thing.

Personally, I think that any organization that stubbornly refuses to honor Jack Black, even though he will earn more for his worst movie than Helen Mirren will earn in her entire career, is to be congratulated. And so, my hat is off to the academy. The Nobel Prize in literature never goes to a Stephen King or a Danielle Steel; the Oscar for best actor should never go to a Chris Rock or a Jack Black. Leave them on the cover of Vanity Fair where they belong.