Oscars Q&A

'Lots of Films That Won Oscars Didn't Deserve Them'

Haaretz's veteran film critic answers questions sent in by Haaretz readers about Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Geography aside, which film would you give Best Picture to this year?

Uri Klein: Since Oscars are only awarded to English-language films, with the exception of the foreign category, are you asking what the best English-language film I’ve seen this year is? If so, I’m torn between two — one of them nominated for Best Picture. Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” which got the nod, and the Cohen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Forced to choose, I would go with the Cohen brothers’ film, and I really can’t understand why the Academy ignored the movie, save for the cinematography and sound mixing categories.

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What's your pick from among the nominees for Best Picture?

Uri Klein: From among the nominees, I’d pick “Nebraska,” which in my eyes, is a gentile, beautiful and exciting film, which includes an incredible performance by Bruce Dern, whom I’ve admired since the Sixties. In this film by director Alexander Payne, Dern delivers the performance of a lifetime.

In your opinion, which Oscar winners have been the most and least deserving?

Uri Klein: Do you mean for a movie, director or actor? Lots of good films have won Oscars, like Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night,” Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve,” Vincente Minelli’s “An American in Paris,” David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” one and two and Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall." But we must remember that the Best Picture award is not necessarily a measure of quality, but rather represents the way Hollywood seeks to present itself to the world. Choosing the best picture of the year is Hollywood’s calling card. The movies I consider favorites, and would definitely put on the list of the best of all time, were not nominated for the award, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” and “Vertigo,” Gene Kelley’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” John Ford’s “The Searchers” and many others.

In terms of directors, Hitchcock never won a directing Oscar (his 1940 film "Rebecca" won Best Picture, but Best Director went to John Ford for "The Grapes of Wrath"). Other great directors also never won the prize, like Orson Wells, Howard Hawks and Robert Altman. Some of them eventually won Oscars for lifetime achievement. In my opinion, lots of films won Oscars that didn’t deserve them, like John G. Avildsen’s “Rocky," Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” and, more recently, Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” and Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech.”

As for actors, lots of great actors have won the prize, but the biggest injustice is that Cary Grant, nominated twice, never won. He is without a doubt among the best actors of all time, if not the best, and is definitely my favorite. Surprisingly, legends such as Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich also never won Oscars.

With regards to the Best Foreign Film award, which country is producing the best, and most interesting films these days?

Uri Klein: There is no one country that stands out as a clear best. Every country makes some great films, and some that are less great. But in order not to evade the question, I’d say Romanian, Iranian and Southeast Asian films have been sparking my interest, and yes, Israeli films too. I think that for years, there have been many interesting, varied and astounding films produced here that have placed cinema at the forefront of Israeli culture, after a long period during which cinema sat on the sidelines.

In your opinion, what are the biggest mistaken picks in Oscar history?

Uri Klein: In 1976, “Rocky” beat out Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” If that’s not a mistake — I don’t know what is. In 1982, the distinguished and dull “Gandhi” won over Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie” and Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.,” which apparently didn’t fit with the conservative Academy’s sensibilities (comedies usually aren’t given much recognition). In both cases, the directors were also unworthy of winning, as John G. Avildsen and Richard Attenborough beat out the likes of Scorsese, Pakula, Pollack and Spielberg.

What's so unique about Cate Blanchett’s performance in "Blue Jasmine"? Especially considering you say you don’t particularly appreciate her or Woody Allen? Does it often happen that actors are held up over directors?

Uri Klein: In my opinion, Cate Blanchett is always a good actress. She is remarkably precise, and in Allen’s film, she manages to bring in the emotion that's usually missing from Allen’s works, “Blue Jasmine” included. Allen once said to me, and sorry for the name dropping, that he doesn’t really like the characters in his films, including Jasmine. But Blanchett does manage to get us to feel compassion for her. The character could easily become a caricature of a dumb, rich woman, but Blanchett manages to save her from that fate. Often in Allen’s films, the actors tend to impersonate his style of speech and mannerisms. They talk like him, they gesture like him. Blanchett is one of the only actresses in the film that manages to build for her character an independent personality, separate from Allen’s irritating persona. There are many mediocre, or even bad films, that are worth seeing just for the actors’ performances. Marlon Brando, for example, appeared in lots of forgettable films during his career, before “The Godfather,” worth seeing only because of his performance.

Do you agree that for the past 20 years, or since “Titanic” won 11 Oscars, the level at the Academy Awards has generally been low? Especially for films that win the most important prizes? Do you think festivals like Cannes (or say, Berlin) are a better measure of film quality, especially because they include films from around the world?

Uri Klein: I agree with you, although here and there some worthwhile films did win the big prize, like “American Beauty,” “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “No Country for Old Men.” But we must remember that choosing Best Picture is not necessarily about quality, but rather about how Hollywood wants to present itself to the world. I’m always interested in the nominees, and the winner, because the choice tells me something about how the American film industry, at that specific point in its development, wants to present itself to the millions of viewers who watch the ceremony from home.

The face of the Oscars is the face of American cinema today. That’s what we have, and though from year to year, after the ceremony, when I’m asked about whether or not the film that won is actually the best movie of the year, it gets harder and harder to explain that this isn't really the point. At film festivals too, politics rule all. At Cannes, for example, the most prestigious festival, and the only one I regularly attend, it seems that there is a special club that likes to screen their moves there, or at similar competitions. At the same time, right, Cannes gives us a more complete picture of the current state of the film world, and that’s one reason, aside from the view and the weather, that I attend.

The Academy always prefers to choose a “safe” film, which won’t challenge the audience too much, over a more “problematic" one, which is why in 1981, they chose “Chariots of Fire” over “Reds” (although the directing Oscar went to Warren Beatty), in 1989, they chose “Diving Mrs. Daisy” over “Born on the Fourth of July” (but gave the directing Oscar to Oliver Stone), and in 2006, the Best Picture picture was “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain” (though the directing Oscar went to Ang Lee).

One actress whom Hollywood seems to pass over is the incredible Annette Benning. She should have been given an Oscar for "American Beauty," in my opinion. I would be glad to hear your opinion of her. In my eyes, she’s just as good as Meryl Streep, if not better.

Totally agree. I think her performance in “Being Julia,” for example, was outstanding. But, what can we do — the best actresses aren’t always done justice. Julianne Moore, in my opinion, should have won an Oscar, and perhaps both her and Benning will win one someday. It happens that suddenly a role comes along that brings a career to a new zenith, and an Oscar along with it. With Benning, I hope this doesn’t happen in a year when Hillary Swank is also a contender, because she lost to her twice before.

AP