Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars: Breaking into the Men's Club

OK. I’m gonna put it right out front and center (like Octavia Spencer's prominent seat at the Oscars.) This year there is not one film with a female lead nominated for Best Picture.

The male dominated academy doesn't seem to consider personal female stories of great enough importance to be nominated for Best Picture. They neglected to nominate, “Wild,” the empowering universal story of a woman’s journey for self-forgiveness, while testing herself on a grueling backpacking hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. Yet they nominated, “Whiplash,” the personal story of a young male drummer suffering for his art. “Boyhood,” the favorite to win Best Picture, is a personal story as well. But deserves attention for director Richard Linklater’s audacity in filming over the course of 12 years.

The Academy favors films about the accomplishments of great men – like this year’s inspiring nominees, “The Imitation Game,” and, “The Theory of Everything,” about a mathematician and scientist respectively. But where are women scientists or mathematicians and their world-changing accomplishments?

As a society, we need more biopics about these incredible women. It is important that their accomplishments be recognized. A few examples: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper has a destroyer named after her to honor her accomplishments including inventing the first compiler, and developing the first high level computer language. Rosalind Franklyn was instrumental in discovering the double helix structure of DNA for which her former collaborators Crick and Watson won the noble prize. This is one time I wish I was wrong. But I when I googled, “Women scientists in movies,” I found only lists of fictional scientists in SciFi films. Perusing the Best Actress nominations throughout the history of the Oscars, I found two movies about women scientists: “Madame Curie” (Marie Curie worked with physicist Pierre Curie to discover radium) back in 1943 and “Gorillas in the Mist” about Dian Fossey’s research with Mountain Gorillas in Africa. “Madame Curie,” was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Greer Garson), Best Actor, and Best Cinematography, yet this accomplished biopic didn't win any academy awards. “Gorillas in the Mist,” was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Sigourney Weaver) back in 1988.

Of course, great advancements don’t happen in a bubble. In the 1840s, Ada Lovelace worked on Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the engine include the first algorithm carried out by the machine. She is often described as the world’s first computer programmer.

Cooperation is one of the themes of, “The Imitation Game.” It took a team sharing their different strengths to break the code of the German Enigma cipher and win the war. It took military strategy, math skills, relationship strengths, and being able to see the whole picture. “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do things that no one can imagine.” Mathematician Alan Turing (Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch) doesn't relate to the world like others do, but it is that difference of perception that allows him to create a machine to crack the enigma. No doubt Turing studied Ada Loveless’ work while at Princeton. That may be how he was able to recognize that Joan Clark’s (Keira Knightley) mathematical strengths would benefit the team. And it is also Joan who taught him to work together with the other team members in order to accomplish their goals.

The “Theory of Everything,” was based on the inspiring story of how Stephen Hawking, (Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne) was empowered and supported by his wife Jane (Oscar nominated Felicity Jones), and postulated the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation and researched a unifying theory of relativity and quantum mechanics while suffering from ALS disease that increasingly paralyzed him. While the movie doesn't cover the “Theory of Everything” or even Stephen’s scientific process in any depth, Director James Marsh illuminates the Hawkings' relationship and the world of science with spectacular poetry and wonder.

Now let’s get down to the Oscar snub. “Selma,” one of the best reviewed, most powerful films of the year didn't garner its director, Ava DuVernay, a Best Director nomination. (Read more about this in my previous review.) Like, “The Imitation Game,” it celebrates the accomplishment of a great man. But "Selma," concentrates on the community and collaboration. DuVernay realizes her vision by inviting the audience into the spirit of the Civil Rights movement from the point of view of its black protagonists. The movement (and resulting movie) was bigger than just one man. It was a community working together, and risking their lives, fighting for freedom for generations to come. DuVernay shows women as partners in the cause. Coretta Scott King enabled her husband to be the voice of the movement by supporting him financially while raising their children. Women and men lock arms and march bravely together.

While, "Selma," shows the effectiveness of collaboration and non-violent protest; "American Sniper," glorifies Chris Kyle as an indispensable, one-man killing machine. “American Sniper,” was produced to draw attention to the condition of vets returning from the war. That is certainly a noble purpose. But it is also a masterfully crafted propaganda movie (much like John Wayne's Vietnam War film, “The Green Berets," which wasn't nominated for an Oscar.) In, "American Sniper," there is no question that Chris Kyle was justified in killing every Iraqi because nearly every one of them was shown carrying a weapon. The theme of the movie is black and white. It is us against the evil terrorists. But what would you do if your neighborhood was occupied and soldiers were breaking into your house? I found it very disturbing when I started rooting for Chris to kill the evil terrorists. The film has already had its desired effect, as a Facebook friend commented, “We need to kill everyone of those evil bastards.” To me this is a misuse of the power of film.

I’m not ready to give up on the Oscars yet. The top runners for Best Picture: “Boyhood,”, “Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)," and, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” all deserve their nominations.

It is a miracle that Linklater was able to pull off this unprecedented feat of shooting the same actors over the course of 12 years. No theme is imposed on, “Boyhood,” aside from memories projected over the passage of time. There is no big turning point that inspires the characters’ growth, just living through life’s daily struggles. This accumulates into something very moving over the course of the film and their lives.

Wes Anderson creates intricate details in the whimsical, quirky world of, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” where the melancholy staff try to maintain bygone civility and loyalty amongst a backdrop of brutality, war and loss. The physical comedy is spot on and the action sequences thrilling and fun!

In Oscar-winning Director Alejandro González Iñárritu's, "Birdman (Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” a comic book action star struggles to express himself as an artist, to find some relevance in his life, to prove that his life matters. It is a biting satire on the price of fame and how Hollywood clips the wings of its artists in their pursuit of profits.

All three films deserve their Best Picture nominations for brilliantly realizing their directors’ original visions. I just hope that next year the Academy chooses to empower women filmmakers by nominating them into the club.

Oscar blessings!
Jana Segal


Patricia Arquette won Best Actress for, "Boyhood" and gave an impassioned plea for equal rights for women in America.

The powerful performance of Best Song winner, "Glory," honoring, "Selma," along with the speeches by songwriters Common and John Legend moved many to tears.

Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor for, "The Theory of Everything."

Graham Moor won Best Adaptation for "The Imitation Game."

Alejandro González Iñárritu won Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (along with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) for, "Birdman."

Congratulations to all the winners! 

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