July 25, 2014

Two of the All-Time Greats

We've lost a lot of illustrious and brilliant people recently--Nadine Gordimer, Lorin Maazel, Johnny Winter, Paul Mazursky. The losses that affected me most personally were those of James Garner and Elaine Stritch. They have both received many eulogies, all more than deserved; this will be more of a personal musing, beginning with my disappointment that they never worked together, at least according to the Oracle of Bacon at the University of Virginia (a search engine that can tell you instantly who has worked with whom in movies and TV). I could see them in a Y2K-vintage sitcom, playing the Bickersons-style grandparents of one of the regular characters. Or a late-70s crime drama, with Garner as a wry, sly private eye and Stritch as a bitchy grande dame who isn't about to reveal what she knows. Or a Fifties Western, with Garner as a wry, sly cowboy and Stritch as a seen-it-all, done-it-all showgirl. But none of it ever happened, and the world is poorer for it, even as it is immeasurably richer for having had James Garner and Elaine Stritch.

For both performers, I have a favorite screen moment, one that sums up their particular strength and appeal in a nutshell. For Garner, it's a moment in "Support Your Local Sheriff," a delightful and underrated comic Western (and one of my father's favorites, incidentally). Garner, as a peace-loving sheriff determined to clean up his town with as little gunplay as possible, is facing down a black-hatted, black-hearted gunslinger.

"Draw!" the gunslinger says.

"Go to hell!" Garner replies, and starts throwing the rocks he had in his pockets, chasing the nonplussed gunslinger out of town. This, for me, sums up Garner's unique charm: he could handle himself in any situation, in ways that perhaps looked ridiculous on their face, but in fact called for considerable resourcefulness, panache, and cojones, to go multilingual on you. In all the history of movies, only Cary Grant was Garner's equal in this regard. But Garner's drily folksy charisma was all his own.

For me, Stritch's crystallizing moment was during her guest appearance as a defense attorney on "Law and Order," for which she won a richly deserved Emmy. In the moment she discovers her client is a liar, she speaks this line: "I am an officer of the court. I cannot and will not perpetrate a fraud upon it."

Not a memorable line, perhaps, except for the way Stritch delivers it. Into those seventeen words, she packs the world-weariness of someone who has seen every possible permutation of human depravity and perversity, combined with a moral and ethical clarity that informs a steely refusal to give in to depravity.

Elaine Stritch saw it all and did it all, told us what she had seen and done, and told of it with an honesty and decency that signified she was someone we could trust and admire at all times. It's hard to think of anything better you can say about anybody.

July 24, 2014

A battle of mockingbirds

I received an advance copy of Marja Mills' "The Mockingbird Next Door" in the mail a couple of months ago, my choice from the Amazon Vine Program, which allows frequent reviewers to read and review books in advance. It was a fairly short book, a quick and easy read. But for anyone interested in Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird," it was a momentous event--the very first time, according to the book's publicity, that the notoriously reclusive Lee had agreed to speak publicly to an author in fifty years. "I'll talk to anybody," Lee once told a friend. "Just not for publication." To journalists who contacted her for an interview, her reply was standard: "Not just no, but hell, no."

According to Mills, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, she got to know Lee (always Nelle, never Harper, to her intimates) and her sister Alice while researching an article about the Chicago Public Library's designation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" as its first choice in its Free-for-All reading program. The friendship grew, Mills said, to the point that Nelle and Alice helped her rent the house next door to theirs in Monroeville, Ala., and agreed to sit for hours of informal talks about themselves, largely to counter the lies and half-truths told about them by others.

I found "The Mockingbird Next Door" to be a pleasant and mostly satisfying book. It was definitely the work of a journalist, not a formal biographer or literary scholar. I gave my advance copy to a friend, so I can quote the book only from memory. Most of the book consisted of the placid rounds of Nelle and Alice's lives--feeding ducks in the park, meeting friends for coffee, fishing for catfish, going to services at the Methodist church they attended from childhood, and reading, reading, reading. It was somewhat annoying that Mills kept referring to the great stories the Lee sisters told her, but herself repeated very few if any of them. Still, the book painted a persuasive picture of the sisters--Alice calm and steady, Nelle more mercurial but still likable--even if, in the end, it was more of a snapshot than a full portrait. I assumed Mills was keeping the Lee sisters' stories in an archive for future biographers. I gave the book five stars on Amazon, not because I thought it was a masterpiece, but because I thought it was a valuable source of information for anyone interested in Lee and her only, much beloved, novel.

I did not hear of Lee's disavowal of "The Mockingbird Next Door" until the book's formal release in mid-July, though apparently Lee signed statements as early as 2011 declaring the book a fraud. Newspapers across the English-speaking world have published news articles and essays about the scandal--generally sneering at "The Mockingbird Next Door," which in my opinion is deserved only if Mills is a liar. Lee has gone so far as to say that she left town immediately whenever she heard Mills was coming. Alice has countered her sister's statements, saying that the book and the information inside it are genuine. Nelle pointed out that her sister was 100 in 2011, but others have pointed out that Alice practiced law until she was 102.

If Nelle Harper Lee is telling the truth, this wouldn't be the first time a writer claimed greater friendship with his or her subject than actually existed. (This doesn't seem to be a case of Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes, but Solomon Volkov and Dmitri Shostakovich come to mind.) But it would still be sad and dispiriting, to say the least. One way Mills could dispel the controversy would be to produce the notes and tapes of her talks with the Lee sisters--sooner rather than later.

But what if Lee herself is lying? Then the abyss opens up, and Lee is cast as an unpleasant control freak, if not a monster of willfulness. This is not what we want to think of the woman who wrote one of the loveliest, most touching books of the past century.

What is saddest of all to think is that the key to the controversy is Lee's current, vulnerable state: she has been confined to a wheelchair and a nursing home since 2007, when she suffered a massive stroke, Mills herself refers to Lee's decline at the end of "The Mockingbird Next Door;" There will be a special circle of Hell just for her if she is in any way exploiting it. But is there someone else who is exploiting Lee--someone who might have put a paper in front of her to sign, disavowing Mills' book, for purposes known only to them but which almost certainly have something to do with money?

We may never know the whole truth, and the speculation is saddening in any case. I prefer to hold in my mind the image I gleaned from Mills' book: two elderly sisters, sharing a book-crammed house in the town in which they grew up, living lives that are calm, dignified, and happy.

June 4, 2014

A Face from Tiananmen

She is outraged to be dead.
In her demon's mask,
her eyes cross with hate. Her plump
void of a mouth
freezes forever on a curse.
Blood paints the creases of her face.

What she accomplished with her death
is not yet known. The dead
have graves of earth, no faces. The living
have graves of brick and iron, no faces.
Eternal Mao, the One True Face,
still beams over Tiananmen.

(From The Bears of Paris by Miles David Moore, Word Works, 1995.
In honor of the martyrs of Tiananmen Square, on the 25th anniversary of the uprising.)

May 26, 2014

Remember the Fallen

Today is Memorial Day, and this morning I found a post on Facebook from my friend Kevin Pachas: "An actor dies from a drug overdose. All over the news. A soldier dies protecting our freedoms. Not even mentioned."

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I've written plenty in this blog about Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and other actors who died because of drugs. I am not ashamed of writing about Ledger or Hoffman, who were great actors who deserve to be remembered. But I do most bitterly regret having said nothing up to now about those hundreds of thousands of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice so that people like me can write their blogs and have their comfortable lives.

I never served in the military; the Vietnam draft effectively ended six weeks before my eighteenth birthday, and although I registered, I was never called. Had I been called, I would have gone, because that's what boys from Sugar Grove, Ohio, did. I know myself well enough to know I probably wouldn't have lasted two weeks In Country. But as the son of Staff Sgt. Russell E. Moore, who fought in the Battle of Okinawa, and 1st Lt. Dorothy L. Camp, who landed on Utah Beach as part of the 108th Evacuation Hospital, I would have gone.

Mom and Dad came home, married, raised my three sisters and me, spent 53 years together. Dad was a post commander of both the American Legion and the V.F.W.; Mom came to Washington for the dedication of the Women in the Military for America Memorial. Neither ever talked much about the war; that was typical of World War II veterans. The enormity of the conflict they fought in, and the memory of the brethren they left behind, stilled their tongues.

Newspapers and news broadcasts list the names and show the pictures of those killed in action. Except for those we knew personally, or those who died in an unusually well-documented attack, it is difficult to remember each name. But seeing that parade of strong, resolute young faces, and knowing the sacrifice each has made, reminds me there are some debts I can never repay. Nor can this country.

Seeing the post from Kevin--who is a veteran of the First Persian Gulf War, and was a first responder at the Pentagon on 9/11--brought it all home to me today. What is required of us is simple and heartbreaking: Remember the Fallen.

May 3, 2014

Bob Hoskins

One of the greatest joys of moving from Akron, Ohio, to Washington, D.C., in 1980 was the ready access to foreign and indie movies--movies that wouldn't necessarily reach Midwestern multiplexes. (Note to younger readers: this was LONG before streaming, DVDs or even VHS.) One of the very first foreign movies I saw in Washington was a then-new British gangster film, "The Long Good Friday." I knew Helen Mirren, the film's leading actress, from a couple of Masterpiece Theatre productions, but the lead actor, Bob Hoskins, was totally unknown to me.

By the time I finished watching the movie, Hoskins had become one of my favorite actors. I had never seen any actor quite like him before: squat, bullet-headed, with an accent that made Bill Sikes sound posh, Hoskins projected an overwhelming, terrifying power as Harold Shand, a London crime boss who suddenly finds his organization attacked by persons unknown. But along with that was a vulnerability that was strangely coherent with the more brutal side of his character. Harold could tenderly embrace his mistress Victoria (Mirren) in one scene, then cut a man to pieces with a broken bottle shortly after. The only remotely comparable performances before that, at least in my experience, was James Cagney in "Public Enemy" and "White Heat." (I woiuldn't be at all surprised if James Gandolfini watched "The Long Good Friday" a few times before playing Tony Soprano.)

For weeks after seeing "The Long Good Friday," I annoyed friends and family with my imitations of Hoskins' Cockney accent, delivering some of Harold's best lines"

"Lads--try to be discreet, eh?"

"The only decent grass is the grass that grasses to me!"

"Poor Mother--she went to church to say her prayers, not to get blown up!"

"Diabolical naivete!"

Though Bob Hoskins had more famous roles--including his Oscar-nominated, Cannes-winning performance in "Mona Lisa" and his delightful clowning opposite Roger Rabbit--"The Long Good Friday" was for me his masterpiece, indeed one of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. His final scene in that movie--in which, finally cornered by his enemies, he seems to go through the seven stages of grief in less than two minutes--deserves to be screened forever in every acting class in the world. It is pleasant to think of this performance as the accomplishment of a kind and genial man, universally beloved by his colleagues, who loved life and lived it to the fullest. It is unbearably sad that his life ended far too soon.

April 11, 2014

A durable "Raisin"

"Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' may or may not be a great play, but it's a profoundly fair one." So begins Hilton Als' excellent essay/review on the new Broadway production of "A Raisin in the Sun" in the April 14 "New Yorker," Als' article contains much that puts Hansberry's work and life in context--not least that her father, Carl Hansberry, was a successful Chicago real estate developer. Carl Hansberry fought and won a Supreme Court case against a Chicago city covenant barring blacks from buying homes in a white neighborhood; however, the case left him despairing that blacks could live in a racist America, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Mexico while making plans to move his family there.

Als' essay is fascinating and informative, but it the full measure of "A Raisin in the Sun" that the new production at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater doesn't need the subtext Als provides to be fully enjoyed. The story of the Youngers--a poor black family living in a cramped apartment in the South Side of Chicago--and the injustice of the society that put them there were crystal-clear from the time of the play's first production fifty-five years ago.

Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred"--the poem from which Lorraine Hansberry took the title of her play--is emblazoned on the theater curtain in the current production directed by Kenny Leon. This might sound like an affectation, but it is completely appropriate in this production, in which the disparate dreams of the Younger family are so achingly at war. Walter Lee Younger (Denzel Washington) goes so far as to accuse his wife Ruth (Sophie Okonedo) not only of having no dreams, but of trying to destroy his. "Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby!" Walter Lee tells her at the beginning of the play. "And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work." Actually, Ruth has dreams, but they have less to do with Walter Lee's pie-in-the-sky and more to do with finding some measure of comfort and stability,.Her dreams are similar to those of Lena (Latanya Richardson Jackson), Walter Lee's mother, but the strain of two strong-willed women living together in a small household is apparent. And Beneatha (Anika Noni Rose),seeks fulfillment by studying for a medical degree and immersing herself in African culture with the help of a handsome Nigerian, Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas).

The crux of the play is the ten-thousand-dollar life insurance check Lena receives for the death of her husband. Everyone in the family has hopes for the money, but Walter Lee makes peremptory claims on it. Walter Lee dreams of being a big man like the white business tycoon he drives around; at the play's beginning, he grandiloquently gives his son Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) fifty cents to spend at school, then is forced to ask Ruth for carfare. Out of love, Lena gives Walter Lee the bulk of the money, with disastrous results. ("That money is made out of my father's flesh!" Walter Lee cries when he learns the worst.) .Two questions remain: whether the family can survive this catastrophe, and whether Walter Lee can regain his family's respect.

The great strength of "A Raisin in the Sun," besides the universality of its characters and its story, is that it remains optimistic for the Youngers and their future, even as Hansberry remains completely clear-eyed about the obstacles they face. "I hope you know what you're getting into," says Karl Lindner (David Cromer), the play's representative of white racism, to the Youngers at the play's end, as the family packs up to move to the lily-white neighborhood of Clybourne Park. We can guess they know exactly what they're getting into, but it is still a big step forward from what they have. The very last moment of the play--in which Lena makes a simple, hopeful act--is a harbinger for better times for the Youngers, and the fulfillment of at least some of their dreams.

The ensemble cast in this production may fairly be described as a dream cast. Of course Washington is the big draw, and his performance--which combines swagger, anger and vulnerability in exactly the right proportions--is worth the hefty ticket price. Yet the ensemble is so fine that Washington doesn't stand out. The performer who moved me the most was Latanya Richardson Jackson, exuding strength and dignity as Lena. I also loved Anika Noni Rose, who brings a sassy,thoughtful charisma to the role of Beneatha.

"A Raisin in the Sun" is a portrait of a very specific family at a very specific time in American history, and as such imparts a timeless message of human aspiration. If it isn't a great play, it is certainly a touching and durable one. After three Broadway productions, four film and TV versions and a musical version, it remains a commanding portrait of a family in trouble, struggling toward the light. Lorraine Hansberry's vision has lasted 55 years, and it seems it will last at least 155 more.

April 10, 2014

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney was the ultimate show-business survivor. A working actor for 91 of his 93 years, Rooney was a household name for at least 80 of those years, despite multiple career downturns, multiple bad marriages, constant bad publicity, a longtime battle with alcoholism and a generally messy life. Even at his death, he was embroiled in an ugly financial battle with his eighth wife and two of her sons from a previous marriage, in which all the participants seemed to be at each other's throats. Yet when you compare his history with that of his close friend and frequent co-star Judy Garland, you realize that Rooney was not only luckier, but had much more stamina.

Part of it was the incredible, almost feral depth of his talent, even if at times that talent wasn't accompanied by good taste. Some of his performances were just embarrassing, such as his portrayal of Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." But at his best, throughout his long career, Rooney never lost his power to delight and astonish. My two favorite performances of his both came from TV--as Sammy Hogarth, a sadistic star comic in 1957's "The Comedian," and Bill Sackter, a developmentally disabled man in 1981's "Bill." He was nominated for an Emmy for both performances, and won for the second. Aside from Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi" and "Sexy Beast," it's hard to think of an actor who gave such magnificent performances in two such disparate roles.

Throughout his life, Mickey Rooney took a childlike joy in performing. He often spoke of his delight in being a grown man who gets to play dress-up, and said he always tried to make sure all his projects were "in the key of fun." For all his tribulations--many of them self-inflicted--Rooney seems to have taken Andy Hardy's smiling optimism to heart. One can only grieve that other performers in Rooney's situation could not find the inner happiness that he did.

March 19, 2014

From the Department of Corrections

In his March 2014 Scene4 review, Mr. Moore stated that "Nebraska" was the first major film since "The Artist" to be filmed in black-and-white--thus forgetting his own, highly laudatory review in the September 2013 issue of Joss Whedon's "Much Ado About Nothing," which was also shot in black-and-white. A pox on Mr. Moore for a clumsy lout, and his apologies to Mr. Whedon, for forgetting "Much Ado About Nothing" and implying (completely inadvertently) that it was not a major film. Anyway, rent "Much Ado About Nothing" if you haven't seen it yet. The same goes for "Nebraska" and "The Artist.",

March 3, 2014

A Momentous Oscar Broadcast

The 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone, and as Oscar broadcasts go it was one of the better ones. First of all, there was a host whom the audience didn't want to beat up in the parking lot. Ellen DeGeneres treated the whole event as a big party, and appropriately she introduced some party games--mass selfies with superstars, a pizza delivery in the middle of the show. She was pleasant and charming, as she always is. Even her one moderately unkind remark, to and about Liza Minnelli, was taken in stride.

There were no surprises among the winners in the major categories. "!2 Years a Slave," Alfonso Cuaron, Matthew McConaughey, Cate Blanchett, Lupita Nyong'o and Jared Leto all won as expected, and all deserved to. The nominated songs were better than usual, and the performances of them were sparkling (though how could John Travolta mangle Idina Menzel's name so badly?). The annual "In Memoriam" montage was more of a gut-punch than usual, beginning with James Gandolfini and ending with Philip Seymour Hoffman, though the others seemed fairly pointless, at least to me.

The most inexplicable set piece, if you think about it, was the 75th-anniversary tribute to "The Wizard of Oz." It doesn't seem so weird to have a tribute to a movie as beloved as "Oz," except when you remember the very famous, very successful film that beat "Oz" for Best Picture--"Gone With the Wind."

It probably wasn't politic to mention "GWTW"--a 20th-Century white Southern woman's fantasy of the Civil War, however entertaining it is--the same year as "12 Years a Slave," an unvarnished tale of slavery written by a man who experienced it firsthand. It probably isn't tactful, either, to speculate that Scarlett O'Hara probably wouldn't have been much nicer to her servants than Edwin Epps was. Or that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes, as kindhearted and high-minded as they were, would have been largely analogous to William Ford and his wife.

It has to be taken as an irony of historic proportions that "12 Years a Slave" won Best Picture exactly 75 years after "Gone With the Wind." Adding to the irony is that "12 Years a Slave" is the first film ever directed by a black director to win Best Picture. To top it all off, Lupita Nyong'o became the first black African to win an Oscar for playing a horribly mistreated slave exactly 75 years after Hattie McDaniel won for playing Mammy. McDaniel, of course, was a fine actress trapped by the prejudice of her time. (Her role in "The Great Lie," made two years after "GWTW," as written makes Mammy look positively progressive.)

"12 Years a Slave" doesn't exactly transform "Gone With the Wind" into "Birth of a Nation 2," but it does underline the comforting little (and big) lies white Americans have always told themselves about race relations. It will be interesting to see where Hollywood goes from here, and what the cinematic offspring of "12 Years a Slave" will be.


February 28, 2014

A Miscellany for the end of February

Considering the abominable weather this winter, it seems that millions of people will be stuck in their homes this coming Sunday night watching the Academy Awards broadcast (provided, of course, they still have power then). Little has changed in my predictions since I posted them a few weeks ago: Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in for Best Actress, likewise Alfonso Cuaron for Best Director and Jared Leto for Best Supporting Actor. Matthew McConaughey is the likely Best Actor winner, though Leonardo DiCaprio or Chiwetel Ejiofor might still squeak past him. Best Supporting Actress is a two-woman race between Lupita Nyong'o and Jennifer Lawrence; I'm guessing Nyong'o will win, because her role was so harrowing and also because Lawrence won Best Actress last year. Best Picture, again, boils down to either Gravity or 12 Years a Slave, though American Hustle--the nominee that gave audiences the most pure enjoyment--can't be counted out. In two days, all will be history.

Speaking of history, the last few weeks have seen the passing of stars who will be sorely missed. Shirley Temple went from being the most important child star in history to a woman who served her country's diplomatic mission with skill and dignity. My colleague Kathi Wolfe has an excellent eulogy to Temple in the March Scene4; I cannot add to it in any way. Sid Caesar was one of the brightest comic lights of early television; it was his misfortune to see his star dim while so many of his "Your Show of Shows" colleagues--Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen--soared past him. "Your Show of Shows" was a little before my time; I will remember Caesar best for his supporting performances in such movies as Brooks' "Silent Movie." The scene with Caesar in the hospital, transformed into a blinking, jerking puppet when Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise start playing Pong with his EKG machine, is testimony to Caesar's enormous gifts as a comic mime.

The two performers whose passing means the most to me personally are Ralph Waite and Harold Ramis. Waite was one of the greatest TV dads ever; as John Walton Sr. on "The Waltons," he projected a combination of strength and gentleness as potent and moving as any performer in TV history. John Walton and his family could be said to be the ideal audience for Shirley Temple; faced with adversity in the middle of the Depression, they heard the curly-haired girl's message of joy and hope, and felt it in their own lives.

Just as surely, Harold Ramis was a true thespian descendant of Sid Caesar. Caesar pioneered the sort of sketch comedy at which Ramis excelled, first as a member of the Second City troupe and then as a co-creator of "SCTV," for my money the best comedy sketch show ever televised. From "SCTV" Ramis went on to become a memorable comic writer and performer in such movies as "Ghostbusters" and "Stripes." However, it was as the writer-director of "Groundhog Day" that he made his greatest contribution. From the absurd, surrealistic notion of a man (played magnificently by Bill Murray) living the same day over and over for years, Ramis drove home this message: to achieve true happiness, all of us have to look within ourselves, and explore what we are made of. That was a message Shirley Temple and the Walton family could endorse, and it was as fine a valedictory message as anyone could hope to leave for posterity.

February 5, 2014

Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Schell

Philip Seymour Hoffman served a long apprenticeship as a journeyman actor before he became a star. Only a week ago, it was a delightful surprise to play with the TV remote and happen on Hoffman in his "Law and Order" guest shot playing a punk on trial for rape, or his brief role as a befuddled young policeman in the Paul Newman film "Nobody's Fool."

From now on, it will just be unspeakably sad.

Much has been written in the past few days of Hoffman's unexpected and horrible death, an almost exact replay of Lenny Bruce's, lying on his bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. It is nearly impossible to wrap our minds around the loss of this uniquely powerful and protean actor, but of course that hasn't stopped writers all over the world from trying to do so. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, stated the simple, bald truth of the matter. "Why would a man held in such high esteem, a man with so much going for him and so much to live for, risk it all by buying illegal drugs from a criminal on the street and then injecting them into his veins?" Robinson wrote. "For the same reason any addict uses drugs: to get high."

Robinson and others have used Hoffman's death to advocate the position that addiction should be treated as a disease, not a crime, and that better treatment of addiction would prevent tragedies such as Hoffman's. I agree wholeheartedly. But it is the loss of the actor, not U.S, drug enforcement policy, that has me reeling at this moment. This was Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor who looked like a high-school athlete gone to seed but who transformed himself into an eerily perfect doppelganger for Truman Capote. To look at Hoffman's IMDB listing is to be astonished at both the quantity and quality of his work in the past 15 years, in such disparate films as "The Master," "Doubt," "Boogie Nights," "The Big Lebowski," ":Moneyball," "Charlie Wilson's War": and the "Hunger Games" franchise. IMDB lists 63 credits for Hoffman in 23 years, with five films still to be released. The only comparison I can think of is Rainer Werner Fassbinder--equally brilliant, equally driven and hyperactive, with an equally sad and abrupt end. I also think of John Belushi, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger...but Hoffman's loss hurts even more. I can't imagine anyone ever thought that Hoffman wasn't here for the long haul, and that we wouldn't eventually see him play King Lear.

Of all of Hoffman's films, the one that keeps going through my head is "Synecdoche, New York," the 2008 film written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. In "Synecdoche, New York," Hoffman plays a theater director who, having won a genius grant, uses it to build an entire city in which to stage a play based on his own life. Over decades the director adds to his gigantic set, changing it constantly to fit the vagaries of his life story. At the end, he is old and decrepit, and the rat-infested city-set is crumbling around him. No longer able to direct, he needs a director to whisper through his hearing aids when to walk outside, when to stand up and sit down. He tells his nurse, "I've finally figured it out--how to direct the play of my life." At that moment, the unseen director says, "DIE."

The grief over Hoffman's death has been so great that most people have forgotten the loss of another great but more fortunate actor whose passing occurred just a day or two before Hoffman's. Maximilian Schell astonished everyone back in 1961 in "Judgment at Nuremberg," in his commanding performance as a young defense attorney, deftly stealing the picture from the likes of Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich and Burt Lancaster. "Judgment at Nuremberg" was the high point of Schell's film career, but he continued to give excellent and high-profile performances in numerous films. My favorite performance of his later years was as the loopy chef Larry London in "The Freshman," staring down Matthew Broderick and Frank Whaley as he intones, "Zey said zere vould be vun boy. Zere are two!" It was a role removed as far as possible from "Judgment at Nuremberg," and it serves to illustrate the wide-ranging talent of Maximilian Schell.

,One more sad thought: comparing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell, I can't help but think of two of Schell's co-stars in "Judgment at Nuremberg:" Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland.

January 29, 2014

A Tale of Two Seegers

But I've a rendezvous with death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.
--Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?
--Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

I am not a scholar of either Pete Seeger, who died quietly in New York last Sunday, or of his great-uncle Alan Seeger, who died in the Battle of the Somme on the Fourth of July, 1916, while fighting with the French Foreign Legion. It just seems supremely ironic, and supremely fitting, that the author of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" should be a descendant of the author of "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." It is both ironic and fitting that "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" was a favorite of John F. Kennedy, while "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" became the anthem of a generation that became passionately divided because of the war that, for Americans at least, began during the administration of John F. Kennedy.

I have no brilliant insight regarding these ironies, but it occurs to me that Pete Seeger was born during the administration of Woodrow Wilson--the president who re-segregated the White House cafeterias and lunchrooms integrated by Theodore Roosevelt, and whose histories of the Ku Klux Klan provided material for "The Birth of a Nation." Seeger died during the second term of Barack Obama, who carried former slave states in both his presidential elections. The questions of war and peace may have proven as elusive for Obama as they were for Wilson, but Obama's very presence in the White House signifies that the sort of society Pete Seeger fought and sang for is moving a little closer all the time. "We shall overcome," Seeger sang, and he was right.

January 17, 2014

An Overcrowded Field

In my last column, I lamented the fates of those who deserved but did not get Academy Award nominations this year. (The omission of Robert Redford, giving a remarkable, nearly wordless solo performance in "All is Lost," was particularly unjust.) Like the fabled year of 1939, 2013 had an unusually large crop of meritorious films, and the Motion Picture Academy would have been well-advised this year to expand the number of nominees in each category, as it did last year and this with the Best Picture nominees.

So far I have seen seven of this year's nine Best Picture nominees; only "Her" and "Dallas Buyers Club" have eluded me so far. In any case, it currently seems like a two-movie race between the Golden Globe winners, "12 Years a Slave" and "American Hustle," though "Gravity" could conceivably slip through to victory if the vote is split between the other two. All three films are of unusual excellence, and each is as different from the other two as it is conceivable to be. "American Hustle" is the most fun of the three, and "Gravity" the most awe-inspiring, but I think that "12 Years a Slave"--the rare message movie that achieves and even exceeds what it sets out to do--will be the eventual victor.

The other Best Picture nominees have little or no chance of winning. "The Wolf of Wall Street" conceivably could win, but there is a vocal minority condemning the film's perceived immorality. (Personally, I think it's an extremely moral film about extremely immoral people, but more on that in a future column.) "Nebraska" is wonderful, indeed almost novelistic in the richness of its story and characters, but too small a picture in comparison with the three front-runners. "Captain Phillips" is an exciting action picture with political overtones, not quite on the level of the front-runners. I loved Judi Dench in "Philomena"--if there were a ballot to elect the Greatest Actress in the World, she'd have my vote--but I was only medium-warm about the movie itself, and I'm not quite sure why. It may be because Steve Coogan, for me, is like kippered herring on the breakfast table--definitely an acquired taste.

For Best Director, I foresee an Oscar for Alfonso Cuaron, who won the Golden Globe and who in "Gravity" achieved esthetic and even moral splendor through his transcendent mastery of special effects. The Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor awards also seem settled after the Golden Globes: Cate Blanchett and Jared Leto should start rehearsing their acceptance speeches now. Personally, although I adore Blanchett, I'm not sure she deserves to reign so completely over her category this year. I haven't yet seen Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County," but I have seen Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, and of course Dame Judi. Blanchett's performance is on a par with theirs, but doesn't tower over them. (Aside: If you want to see two great actresses at the top of their game, rent "Notes on a Scandal," starring Dench and Blanchett.) Blanchett was masterful in "Blue Jasmine," but both her character and the movie itself left me slightly cold. For that I blame Woody Allen, whose screenplay for "Blue Jasmine," though well-crafted, suffered from a slightly skewed moral viewpoint and the "dese-dem-and-dose" cliches he created for the male characters.

I haven't yet seen Jared Leto's performance, but the Best Supporting Actor category further demonstrates what a plethora of worthy performances we had in 2013. The Best Supporting Actor category has always been a haven for memorable screen villains, and all four of Leto's fellow nominees--Barkhad Abdi in "Captain Phillips," Bradley Cooper in "American Hustle," Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave," and Jonah Hill in "The Wolf of Wall Street"--provide textbook examples of different styles and nuances of villainy. (Abdi--deadly serious and sympathetic; Fassbender--deadly serious and psychotic; Hill--total clown and total scoundrel; Cooper--gradually unveiling successive degrees of instability, egomania, and general doofusness.) However, I wish there had been room for other memorable bad guys, such as Stacy Keach in "Nebraska." I also wish there had been room for good guys other than Leto, such as Kyle Chandler, playing a shrewd and upright FBI agent in "The Wolf of Wall Street." The best-played movie scene of 2013, bar none, was between Chandler and DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street," sizing each other up over a thin veneer of bonhomie.

The Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories are much harder to read. At first I thought Chiwetel Ejiofor was a shoo-in, but the many critics' prizes going to Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio, and especially Matthew McConaughey make this a wide-open race. Christian Bale has had a somewhat lower profile during the awards season, but he is a perennial Oscar favorite, and an Oscar sweep for "American Hustle" could well raise his chances of winning. The award could credibly go to any of the five.

As for Best Supporting Actress, everybody loves Jennifer Lawrence (including me), and her Golden Globe for her delightfully ditzy performance in "American Hustle" raises her chances for an Oscar. But Lupita Nyong'o gave such a commanding performance in "12 Years a Slave" that she cannot be ignored. I think this is a two-woman race, but it is not inconceivable that June Squibb could prevail for "Nebraska" (especially if Bruce Dern wins Best Actor). Also, Julia Roberts cannot be completely counted out any year she is nominated. Sally Hawkins, unfortunately for her, is just along for the ride.

For Best Adapted Screenplay, I would love to see Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater win for "Before Midnight." the capper of a romantic trilogy that was a supreme act of skill, courage and insight on the part of all three. But John Ridley also is deserving for "12 Years a Slave," and I think he will win. For Best Original Screenplay, I can't yet judge Spike Jonze's screenplay for "Her" or Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack's for "The Dallas Buyer's Club," but the general acclaim for their films make them viable candidates for the award. So are Bob Nelson for "Nebraska" and Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell for "American Hustle." The overwhelming popularity of "American Hustle" would seem to give Singer and Russell the leg up. I would just beg the Academy: PLEASE don't give the Oscar to Woody Allen again this year! His screenplay for "Blue Jasmine" really isn't one of his best.

So that's my take on this year's Oscar race. The Screen Actors Guild Awards are tonight; between those and the BAFTAs, there may be a little more light shed on this year's Oscar race. Stay tuned.


January 16, 2014

Locked Out of the Dolby Theatre

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 86th roster of nominees earlier today, and on March 2 the lucky winners will accept their awards at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. One distinguishing feature of this year's nominations was the incredibly large number of omissions of eminently deserving films and performers. I personally was shocked by the almost total lack of love shown to "Saving Mr. Banks," "Inside Llewyn Davis," and "All is Lost," each with only one or two nominations among the less prominent categories, and the total back-of-the-hand treatment afforded to "Enough Said, "The Butler," and "Fruitvale Station." That doesn't even count the award-worthy movies that received no Oscar buzz at all, including "Mud," "The Place Beyond the Pines," and Joss Whedon's idiosyncratic version of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing."

As always, one can only speculate as to why some movies were dissed, and others showered with certificates of nomination. One could guess, for instance, that the denunciations of Walt Disney as a bigot, sexist and union-buster--by authorities including Meryl Streep and Walt's own niece Abigail--created a backlash against "Saving Mr. Banks." Then why all the nominations for "The Wolf of Wall Street," against which a backlash began as soon as it opened? (Jordan Belfort makes Bernie Madoff look saintly, never mind Walt Disney.)

This was a year where the Academy should have taken a cue from its decision last year on Best Picture nominees, and expanded the number of nominations for the Best Acting categories as well. It's hard to fault the choice of those who actually were nominated, but it's still inexcusable to omit the likes of Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Oscar Isaac, Michael B. Jordan, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Carey Mulligan, George Clooney, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, or the late James Gandolfini. And again, there were actors who gave superb performances in 2013 who were completely ignored by the awards-givers. Chief among that group, in my opinion, were Dane DeHaan, who brought a rare excitement to the screen in both "The Place Beyond the Pines" and "Kill Your Darlings," and Nathan Fillion, a lovable scene-stealer in "Much Ado About Nothing."

Let us take a moment to honor these excellent performers in our hearts. I'll be back in a few days to consider the lucky band of this year's nominees; meanwhile, to see a full list of nominations, go to http://oscar.go.com/nominees.

December 19, 2013

Peter O'Toole

Peter O'Toole was not like any other actor. If he had never existed, only Shakespeare could have created him, and then only in one of the "problem plays" that was tragic and comic in equal measures that no one could quite analyze. O'Toole was regal, mythical and wonderfully, fallibly human, all at once. He had the kingly bearing of his co-star and drinking buddy Richard Burton, with a similarly magical but more flexible voice; he had the swashbuckling panache of Errol Flynn, whom he sent up unforgettably as Alan Swann in "My Favorite Year." But there was something about that long, aristocratic face and those haunted blue eyes that was unsettling and unique, that burrowed into our brains and never left. It was that quality that made his performance in "Lawrence of Arabia" the most spectacular star debut in cinematic history, and that kept us fascinated for the next fifty years.

One of the most fascinating things about those fifty years, alas, is that he lasted through them. O'Toole considerably outlived all his fellow rakes--Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed. I always found myself rooting for him each August 2--his birthday--to make it through one more year. His ravaged, ghostlike appearance in his final years testified to his struggles with his failing body and his passionate will to live. It was a hallmark of O'Toole's character that even when he could no longer physically take risks, his spirit leapt into the fray with the same reckless courage as always. That was the theme of "Venus," O'Toole's last Oscar-nominated role, in which he played a character notably like himself--an aging, physically frail actor who remains in spirit the same roguish, lovable roue he always was.

Because O'Toole took risks, his output as an actor was uneven. His "Macbeth" on the London stage was notorious for wretched excess. and he also was unfortunate enough to become mired in "Gore Vidal's Caligula," which also ensnared John Gielgud, Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell, among others. But because he took risks, he also gave us performances like Jack in "The Ruling Class," an aristocratic schizophrenic who goes from a blissed-out Jesus Christ to an icy Jack the Ripper in the course of a botched psychiatric treatment. It was a performance of extraordinary, unforgettable brilliance, and it is hard to think of any other actor who could have pulled it off. X.J. Kennedy wrote of Tennyson that if few poets take the risk to write a poem as bad as "Flower in the Crannied Wall," few also take the risk to write one as great as "Ulysses." Tennyson and Peter O'Toole: the comparison seems apt.

We never quite knew what to expect of Peter O'Toole, and that was part of both his greatness and his charm. He was like a beloved friend who would invite you out to dinner, drink three bottles of champagne by himself, stick you with the bill, and come back a month later to give you a treasure chest full of gold doubloons. The death of a beloved actor is always sad, but the loss of Peter O'Toole engenders singularly poignant emotions. We are palpably poorer for his loss.

October 13, 2013

HeisenPAC (spoiler alert for people who haven't seen the final episode of "Breaking Bad")

By now it has been fully two weeks since "Breaking Bad" fans have been treated to the final chapter in the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Dr. Walter Hartwell White, Ph,D., a/k/a/ Heisenberg, a/k/a Ozymandias. The final season, and especially the final episode, has been analyzed from every conceivable Freudian, Jungian, Nietzschian, Darwinian and what-have-you angle, and commented on by everyone from Kim Kardashian to the Dalai Lama.

However, I have yet to see one question raised that comes to my mind readily: What if, instead of becoming the biggest fabricator of crystal meth in the Southwest, Walter White had stayed in Gray Matter Technologies and become a billionaire pharmaceutical tycoon?

As we learned over the course of five seasons, Walt was a dormant Machiavellian, just waiting for the opportunity to bloom, or fester. When he finally admits to Skyler, "I did it for me. I liked it, and I was good at it," it became screamingly obvious--as if it hadn't been for the last two or three seasons--that the wimpy chemistry teacher we met in the first episode was a facade forced on him by circumstance. The badass in the stubbly beard and porkpie hat, who rigged a machine gun in the trunk of his car to revenge himself against his enemies, was who Walter truly was, all along.

So just imagine if, instead of having a meth lab and $11 million in a barrel, Walt had manufacturing facilities on all six inhabited continents and $11 billion in the bank.

Can we truly feel the deep, bitter resentment Walt would feel about Obamacare? Or the burning need he would have to trade his stock on Nasdaq without any pesky interference from the SEC? Dare we commit the blasphemy of noting that a certain resident of the White House bears a slight facial resemblance to Gustavo Fring? Could we even, in our worst nightmares, envision President Walter White, Vice President Jesse Pinkman, Attorney General Saul Goodman, Secretary of State Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Secretary of Defense Todd Alquist and National Security Adviser Michael Ehrmantraut? Can you just imagine the billions of trillions this country could make from its secret deals with Bolivia and Afghanistan?

Of course, this is just a bit of gristle for Vince Gilligan to chew on. Far better to leave Heisenberg bleeding to death on the floor of his beloved laboratory.


June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini

I just woke up to the news that James Gandolfini died yesterday, while on vacation in Rome, at the age of 51. I have still not fully processed the news. Like everyone else, I have heard many times of the unexpected early deaths of favorite performers. Nothing prepares you for it, and in a way it's like losing close friends unexpectedly. I was too young for the death of Marilyn Monroe to have that sort of impact on me, but part of me is still reeling over the loss of Audrey Hepburn, River Phoenix, John Ritter, Peter Sellers, John Lennon, George Harrison, John Candy, Heath Ledger, Lee Remick, Andy Kaufman, Paul Lynde, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, just to give you a portion of my personal list. They shouldn't be gone. Why are they gone? It's unbearable for me and for millions of others, to add James Gandolfini to that list.

Gandolfini was such a vital presence that it seems inconceivable he is no longer with us. Anyone who watched even one episode of "The Sopranos"--well, forget about that. Except for people who are squeamish about violence and sex, NOBODY watched just one episode of "The Sopranos," because one episode was all it took to get you hooked. And, despite the overall hard-charging excellence of the show, the main reason people got hooked was James Gandolfini. There had never been on TV, nor has there been since, such a volcanic mixture of terrifying brutality and delicately nuanced unease as Tony Soprano. David Chase was a genius to create the character, but James Gandolfini was an equal genius to realize him on screen.

Just the other day, a news article spoke of the continuing fascination of the enigmatic final scene of "The Sopranos," where the Soprano family sits in a New Jersey diner, eating onion rings, surrounded by people who exude menace. Are they rival mobsters? Feds? Just people having dinner? Tony pops an onion ring in his mouth, and then--darkness. The Internet is still clogged with speculation about what happened next. (I particularly liked the answer of "Sopranos" co-star Steven R. Schirripa: "Tony choked to death on an onion ring.") I also find myself thinking of the nightmare episode in which Tony, dreaming an alternative life, comes to a country inn where he is received by a smiling host. The host is Tony Blundetto (played by the great Steve Buscemi), Tony's cousin, whom Tony shot to death. The host is very, very eager to have Tony come in and meet everyone inside, but Tony knows instinctively that he must not enter that inn.

We just weren't ready for James Gandolfini to enter that inn, or to fade to black. And we never will be.

April 11, 2013

Annette Funicello

We've lost so many admirable people in the last month that it's been difficult even to keep track. There was Richard Griffiths, an inimitable mixture of the acidulous and the avuncular, who was a highlight of films ranging from "Withnail & I" and "History Boys" to "Hugo" and the Harry Potter movies. There was Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, novelist and screenwriter, who with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory proved beyond doubt that E.M. Forster's novels were a natural for the movies. There was the marvelously beetle-browed Milo O'Shea, prolific character actor who was the silver screen's first--and perhaps its only--Leopold Bloom.

For those of us of a certain age, however, the passing that hit us the hardest was Annette Funicello's. She was the most famous of Walt Disney's Mouseketeers, a regular guest in every American home that had both children and a television. Annette Funicello was a beloved imaginary playmate for millions of children, and for many their first crush as well. Beset for much of her life with multiple sclerosis, she bore her affliction with grace, courage, and compassion for her fellow sufferers. Thanks for all the happy memories, Annette; when the Mickey Mouse Club reconvenes in the beyond, we all hope to be there with you.

April 6, 2013

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert wasn't the first celebrity film critic. Pauline Kael, Rex Reed, Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris all had high public profiles before him. But in the sheer force of his personality and his influence, Ebert was unique. He was the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, and the first to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Unfortunately, earlier this week, Ebert received an honor all of us wish could have been postponed for many years: he became the first film critic to be eulogized by a President of the United States. "For a generation of Americans--and especially Chicagoans--Roger WAS the movies," President Obama said April 4, upon hearing of Ebert's death.

Ebert's speaking voice was stilled years before his death, by cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands that disfigured his face and left him unable to either speak or take nourishment by mouth. But through his blog and his continuing columns in the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert spoke louder and more clearly than ever before in the last years of his life. Ebert's blog ranged well beyond the movies, touching on whatever topics interested him. He wrote a lot about the conflict between religion and evolution, and about politics: one of his most memorable columns was an animadversion against the egregious Rush Limbaugh, dismissing him in terms that should have sent Limbaugh into hiding forever. Ebert also wrote about his illness, which he described calmly, logically, and with an utter absence of self-pity. But his best blog pieces were reminiscences--the things he had seen, the places he had been, the people he had met. My favorite piece was Ebert's eulogy for his favorite London hotel--a delightfully, eccentrically cozy place, in his description--which was torn down to accommodate new buildings for the London Olympics.

It was always a treat to encounter Roger Ebert, in print or on "Sneak Previews," the TV show he shared with his late co-host, Gene Siskel. "Sneak Previews" was just as interesting for the sometimes rocky relationship between the hosts as it was for their reviews. (Ebert put it succinctly: "Gene and I are friends--except when we're not.") Siskel was an intelligent, agreeable host, but Ebert was something else again. Ebert's earnest yet witty personality and plain, clear Midwestern voice made it obvious from the beginning that he was the real star of the show. The way he had of explaining his reactions to a movie was so direct and compelling that you had to listen, even if you disagreed with him totally. In a sense, he turned every viewer of "Sneak Previews" into Gene Siskel; we were all engaged in a dialogue with him, sometimes a passionate one.

Ebert was a reporter AND an esthete, and that made him unique as a film reviewer. To read his columns is to realize he cared at least as much about the art of the cinema as Kael and Sarris ever did. But he was also in the great tradition of Chicago reporters--people such as Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, who were his friends and mentors. Ebert had a desire to communicate that bordered on moral fervor, combined with a combative, cut-the-crap attitude he used against anyone he suspected of being a liar or a scoundrel. He was savage toward any movie that set off his bullshit detector. I still remember his outrage toward the 1986 Rutger Hauer thriller, "The Hitcher." Ebert rightly pegged the film as "diseased and corrupt," a sadistic, mean-spirited tale that pretended to be profound. On the other hand, when Ebert praised the life-affirming qualities of Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," and placed it on his very last "10 Greatest Films of All Time" list for "Sight and Sound" Magazine, I had to bow to his choice, even though I found the film a qualified success at best.

Ebert could be just as combative in person as he was in print, always when his sense of moral outrage was aroused. Years ago I rented a DVD of a movie about a teenage gang, consisting of bored Chinese-American youths in an affluent suburb. The names of the movie, the director and the actors have been wiped clean from my memory, and a search of Netflix and the Internet failed to restore them. But I have never forgotten the bonus "Making Of" documentary on the disc. In that documentary, the director describes presenting his film at a festival, and being dumbfounded at a press conference when a reporter asked him whether he cared that his film set a bad example for Asian youth. He fumbled for an answer, but fortunately Roger Ebert had one for him. The documentary shows Ebert standing up in a fury and saying, "I cannot imagine a more insulting question than the one you just asked. If this had been a movie about a white gang, you NEVER would have asked it!" Game, set, and match.

Roger Ebert was a force not just for good movies, but for good. I close with a quote from Ebert himself, a quote I hope all of us can endorse at the end: "We must try to contribute joy to the world. That's true, no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always feel this and am happy I lived long enough to find this out."


February 11, 2013

The BAFTAs as Augury

Only three films in Academy Award history have won the Best Picture Oscar without their directors being nominated: Wings in 1928, Grand Hotel in 1932, and Driving Miss Daisy in 1989.

Will Argo make it #4?

That's the obvious question after the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards last night, where Argo continued its sweep of the pre-Oscar honors. The film took the Best Picture BAFTA, and Ben Affleck won Best Director despite not being nominated for a Best Director Oscar.

"Ben Was Robbed" sentiment is growing in Hollywood, and that could upset the conventional logic that Lincoln and Steven Spielberg will take home Oscars on Feb. 24. The whole Argo situation could throw the Best Director race wide open, and the most likely beneficiary would be Michael Haneke, whose film Amour will almost certainly win Best Foreign Film and is also a Best Picture nominee. But even if Spielberg wins, Argo could still take its place fourth in line behind Wings, Grand Hotel, and Driving Miss Daisy.

Otherwise, the BAFTAs bolstered the Oscar hopes of Emmanuelle Riva and Christoph Waltz, and virtually cinched those of Daniel Day-Lewis and Anne Hathaway. The BAFTAs aren't always a totally accurate prognosticator of Oscar results, but as an augury they beat hands down the entrails of a goat.