“As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”
― Ernest Hemingway
The theme of the 86th Oscars is Heroes. That might come to be regarded ironically when all is said and done on the evening of March 2.
Two of the strongest films in the race aren’t about heroes at all, but rather “Heroes.” Remember in Citizen Kane when Charles Foster Kane tries to take the quotes off “singer”?
Heroes are such a vital part of cinema. They fulfill our need to ratify our goodness. What we do to promote that ideal is to make movies, give the moviemakers statues, and go home satisfied that yes, we really are good underneath it all. Spend enough time online reading the awful comments and tweets that spill out of the bowels of humanity and you’ll wonder whether we’re just kidding ourselves.
There is a brilliant scene at the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street when the camera turns to Kyle Chandler as FBI Agent Patrick Denham, who is looking around at ordinary life on the subway and we hear the lyrics, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” That scene sums up what life is like in the 2010s, or at least the godless world Jordan Belfort was able to worm his way into. How easy to take advantage of a culture that operates like a fluffer, keeping the greed machine humming along — where the only requirement is that you make lots and lots of money. Winning is everything. If you lose, tough luck. It’s a nasty portrait of a nasty culture, a climate of greed. The point of The Wolf of Wall Street is that, to those who strive to thrive in that culture, Jordan Belfort is a “hero.”
But he’s juxtaposed this year by heroes without the quotes. Ersatz “heroes” are many; genuine heroes are few. The second showcase of “heroes” would be David O. Russell’s American Hustle. There isn’t a true hero to be found anywhere in that film because it is about a bunch of bumblers who don’t seem to know where they’re going. It’s the keystone cops version of Goodfellas. There is no high crime here, no real threat, just a handful of clowns. That makes it great, but it also makes hard to really root for any of the characters. You don’t really root for Jordan Belfort either. You kind of root against him. You want him to pay for his crimes. Trouble is, he keeps getting away with it. DiCaprio’s likability makes it even more conflicting — how do you not like a guy you can’t really like? That is, if you walk into the theater with your morality intact. If you don’t, well, you’re what the movie is about. On the flip side, the only way to understand how victims get conned by charmers is when we see how how charming the con-men can be.
But this year’s Oscar race is also about straight up heroes, no quotes.mjkn7 , Chief among them, Solomon Northup, both a real life hero in American history and a cinematic hero, a man who endured 12 years of demeaning torture and came out the other side to tell the tale. What makes Northup a hero is that he told his story. That might be the part about 12 Years a Slave that’s easy to miss, despite how many times we see his family and meet his living descendents. His life after slavery is as important as his years lost as a slave. The film is his memoir but a whole other movie could be made about how he became an abolitionist two decades before the Civil War. And how his death and disappearance remains a mystery. Some said he was kidnapped and returned to being a slave. Others say he was murdered. There is no doubt, though, that he used his experience to make the world a better place. This is why when people complain that 12 Years a Slave wraps things up too neatly because he leaves behind all of those slaves. For starters, the film makes his leaving them, and the pain it caused, a mixed blessing. But secondly, the last thing Northup did was go home and live out his days looking after his own personal welfare. He advocated for others, and helped to start the war that would end slavery.
That, my friends, is a hero.
But there are others. Ron Woodruff in Dallas Buyers Club is one such hero. The whole film is made up of them. Craig Borten spent twenty years trying to get the film to the big screen. The film is about a dying man who set up one of many buyers clubs to help AIDS patients get live-extending, life-preserving, life-saving medication that was being blocked by the FDA. The film exposes the panic and ignorance prevalent at a time when patients were dying by the thousands, much of that was because they were taking toxic doses of AZT. In the film, Woodruff stands in for the people who figured out early AZT, in those large doses, was killing people. This is an important part of our history as well, even if the film doesn’t tell the whole truth about Woodruff himself. That’s really not the point. It’s about the story of the AIDS crisis, and how Big Pharma and the FDA dragged their bureaucratic feet instead of fast-tracking new treatment options.
To complain about Woodruff’s sexuality not being fully explained or explored in the film is to miss everything that the film does offer. Both 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club reveal important, and often ignored, stories in American history where the heroes were reluctant, thrust into life threatening conditions that forced them to see life from another perspective. Might Solomon Northup have lived his life as a free man without ever becoming an abolitionist had he not lived those 12 years as a slave? Would Ron Woodruff have ever become an advocate for the black market which saved countless lives had he not contracted AIDS? True, the gay community was much more active and vital than one straight homophobe in the south (see the movie How to Survive a Plague) but both of these films are fish out of water stories, the kind that audiences respond to best. They become universal when they are about people who aren’t normally inclined towards advocacy. That’s what makes them heroes. Or as Mark Twain would define them:
“Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”
The key to the heroism in 12 Years a Slave and Dallas Buyers Club — and we might as well include Philomena and Captain Phillips — is that these people are coming from one world into another. If Ron Woodruff had been replaced by a gay activist, or if he wasn’t coming from the opposite end of the spectrum, the film would lose a good deal of conflict. Lucky for us, the documentary How to Survive a Plague tells the more thorough story of those who really should get the most credit for progress during the AIDS epidemic. But that doesn’t mean Dallas Buyers Club doesn’t tell a story of its own that is universal enough to reach a broad audience, not just one inclined towards “the truth.”
That was always the true gift James Schamus gace us with the films he pushed forward into the Oscar race during his reign at Focus Features, and he leaves this legacy behind: given the opportunity, he helped to “normalize” LGBT characters into the mainstream and he did this quite deceptively and sneakily — The Kids Are All Right, still one of the only films about gay parents to really hit the mainstream. Milk, with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk telling such an important story in American history that had been all but ignored, or marginalized.
What a shame to see Schamus go. Talk about your heroes.
The real Philomena Lee and the real Captain Richard Phillips might be the only surviving heroes still alive represented in this year’s Oscar race and their presence should not be discounted. Hit early with a really awful accusation that he deliberately disobeyed orders that put his crew in harm’s way, Phillips is the very definition of hero, no quotes. Hanks portrayal of Philips delineates that transformation in the film’s final minutes. What he did that day, how he survived, how he saved his crew had to do with an inner resolve and courage to put his own life on the line to save many others. Meanwhile, facing games of knee-jerk political wiffle ball attempted by touchy conservative critics, the real Philomena Lee stood up and spoke out to defend the veracity and integrity of that film. Instead of allowing others to brand her as “anti-Catholic” she wrote an elegant open letter to set the record straight: “The story the movie tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.”
Speaking of heroes, major props yet again to Harvey Weinstein and the Weinstein Co for being the only studios with big enough balls to back not just Fruitvale Station and The Butler, but August: Osage County and Philomena. Yes, we’re still talking about stories old white guys have to like — and old white guys still ain’t going to like them unless they are “cool.” Philomena was the only one to make it through on their extraordinary slate this year. When we look back on this era we will marvel at that selection, I promise you: how in this year of all years the Academy could ONLY abide Philomena out of all of them. I will make sure people remember that, especially when there are so many complaints about the lack of films featuring strong women, or the lack of diversity in the Oscar race. Well, one studio gave it their best shot. The Academy closed those doors.
Heroes are everywhere in the Oscar race this year. Sandra Bullock plays one such reluctant hero in Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron was a hero for casting her, for defying the norm that tells us audiences only respond to films with a central male character (for the most part, that’s the ugly truth). But he stuck to his guns and being a powerful director with a lot of box office clout behind him he was able to achieve his goal. Bullock finds the will to live after being stranded in space and none of it depends on a man saving her (sure, George Clooney plants himself in her head and tells her if she can think like a man she can win like a man — but he is also her superior, so it makes sense. Furthermore, it’s her head, her memory, her own ability to process her own relationships to find her own reservoir of her own resolve).
Disney put out its first film featuring a princess whose own magic powers were the subject of the film — usually the powerful one is the evil queen but here the superpowers are given to a woman who has trouble controlling them. It’s astonishing that in 2014 we have to point that out — but yet there it is. The economics of film drive the politics of film. Frozen and Gravity are two of the highest grossing films of the season, mopping the floor with the comparable films starring men. You can add Catching Fire to that pile and you have something to celebrate.
While Spike Jonze’s Her and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska don’t really fall into the notion of “traditional hero,” there is heroism in what their characters overcome throughout those two films. It is a quiet heroism, relatable, certainly, to anyone watching the film. Do we see ourselves as heroes of our own lives? Pulling ourselves out of isolation, putting our hearts on the line, taking a risk to cash in big on a false promise for millions? Any time someone steps outside their comfort zone to take a big risk they immediately become heroic.
The ballots are being sent out today. The Academy will have to make tough choices and they won’t do it out of obligation. They don’t vote that way. They vote with their hearts. Some will only have been moved by the heroes this year. Others will have found more relief, more satisfaction and more entertainment with the “heroes.” A vote is usually an act of love — it is also how we define who we are. Which kind of hero are you?
Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Best Orignal Screenplay: David O. Russell, American Hustle or Spike Jonze Her (haven’t decided)
Best Adapted Screenplay: John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Best Editing: Captain Phillips
Art Direction: Gravity
Best Score: Gravity
Best Song: Let it Go, Frozen
Best Visual Effects: Gravity
Sound Editing: Gravity
Costumes: The Great Gatsby
Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club
Documentary: The Act of Killing
Foreign Language: The Broken Circle Breakdown
Animated Feature: Frozen
Live Action Short: The Voorman Problem
Ani short: Get a Horse
Doc short: unclear at this point