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Babel rousers

Oscar opts for liberal gilt
By PETER KEOUGH  |  January 17, 2007

THE QUEEN: Helen Mirren will get a Best Actress nomination and probably the Oscar.

It’s not often that I feel this way, but this year I’m kind of proud of my profession. Not one film-critics organization gave an award of any significance to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s phony, pseudo-political Babel. Many gave their top prize to Paul Geengrass’s harrowing, mostly uncompromising United 93. The Academy members will not follow suit, because (a) they like their politics gaudy, facile, star-studded, and inconsequential, as in Babel, and (b) they probably didn’t have the guts to watch United 93 in the first place. Likewise, they’ll find such critics’ favorites as Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro’s El laberinto del fauno|Pan’s Labyrinth (though the latter might get a Best Foreign Language Film nomination) too edgy (and opening too late) to be considered. And if I even suggested Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, I’d be laughed off the page.

So what’s left? Feeling vindicated perhaps by the recent changes in the ideological landscape, Hollywood and the Academy might be inclined to settle into their least appealing stereotype as ineffectual limousine liberals. That would explain why Babel appears to have a lock on a Best Picture nomination. So too does Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls. Like the Condon-scripted Best Picture of 2002, Chicago, which confectionized issues of class and capital punishment into inert razzle-dazzle, Dreamgirls transforms the thorny issues of race, power, and culture in the ’60s into an inoffensive minstrel show. How can it miss?

Meanwhile, Martin Scorsese gets his annual build-up and letdown with The Departed, and the divine right of Stephen Frears’s The Queen will be confirmed. As for the fifth spot, what with the recognition it’s received from SAG, the Golden Globes, and the Directors Guild (not to mention the need for the nominees to include a lightweight critique of the hypocrisy of suburban America), that would seem likely to go Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris’s Little Miss Sunshine. But can we count out Harvey Weinstein and the cringe-worthy liberal platitudes of Bobby? And the powerful voting bloc of its huge, star-laden cast? Chalk in Emilio Estevez’s political tearjerker as a darkhorse.

So much for the issues. When it comes to the acting categories, might not speculation about 2008 presidential candidates have something, consciously or not, to do with the Academy’s choices? Certainly in the Best Actress category. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal, and, of course, Helen Mirren in The Queen — what revered and reviled ballbusting politician do these termagants remind you of? Long before Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, these three will get Oscar nods, and one, probably Mirren, will most certainly win.

The also-rans will include the standard discontented housewives rebelling against patriarchal tyranny. In the case of Kate Winslet’s bored, disillusioned, voiceover-addled suburban homemaker in Little Children, rebellion against her oppressive role ends, through typical Hollywood cynicism, in the vindication of it. As for Penélope Cruz’s resourceful but haunted housewife in Volver, Pedro Almodóvar’s bright-hued and empowering revision of Stella Dallas, I think she’d make a great president.

None of the Best Actor nominees, on the other hand, can I see lodging a convincing bid for the White House, though all embody some of the contradictory elements needed for a successful film career. By day Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson indoctrinates his inner-city junior-high class with a left-wing agenda worthy of Sean Penn; by night he indulges a derelict lifestyle that would be the envy of Robert Evans. Leonardo DiCaprio’s mercenary smuggler in Blood Diamond is as ruthless as any studio honcho and his redemption as phony and hypocritical as any studio movie. In Venus, Peter O’Toole embodies Hollywood’s self-aggrandizing apotheosis of its own venality as he plays an aging legend whose past and future shittiness fades before the sentimental glory of being an aging legend. In The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith’s dogged family values and Horatio Alger determination make it okay that he becomes the kind of capitalist who puts people like himself on the street in the first place. And might not Forest Whitaker have drawn some inspiration from Harvey Weinstein in his portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland?

Speaking of Africa: the continent has lately become fashionable in Hollywood, and not just for celebrity adoptions. Representing the millions of Africans starved, murdered, displaced, tortured, and maimed there of late, the photogenic Djimon Hounsou should get a Best Supporting Actor nod for Blood Diamond. Brad Pitt in Babel stands in for all the spoiled white people indifferent to the sufferings of others and due for a comeuppance as his Moroccan tourist gets a lesson in the interconnection of life, the stupidity of American bureaucrats, and the lousy medical care available in the Third World. And Jack Nicholson in The Departed, Eddie Murphy in Dreamgirls, and Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children will be cited for bringing a human face to, respectively, Whitey Bulger, James Brown, and a child molester.

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