Friday, January 18, 2013

The Unreasonable Movie Project (Vol. 6): Helen Mirren Edged Out by a (Prosthetic) Nose

Hypothetically, let’s say you’re a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and it's time to pick the women you think should be up for Best Actress. The BAFTAs, the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, and the Golden Globes have all nominated Helen Mirren for her role in Hitchcock. She’s in good company too, as one of four women nominated by all three (Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, and Jennifer Lawrence are the others). And she already has an Oscar for The Queen, which makes her Oscar royalty. So Helen is a lock, right?

Well, not exactly, because you’re a Hollywood big shot, and maybe you didn't see Hitchcock (even though all the Academy members are sent ALL the films) because not a lot of other people saw it, and the box office is such a big deal to the Academy, or at least making money is important to its members, like you. And Helen Mirren has been nominated SO many times, and she’s kinda boring, and what would be more interesting than Helen? How about if we nominated a 6-year-old (Quvenzhan√© Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild) and an 85-year-old (Emmanuelle Riva for Amour) in the same category? That would be brilliant drama, wouldn’t it? Great photo ops!

But, if Helen’s out, you still have to nominate Hitchcock for something, don’t you? What else is there? There are lots of famous actors in it, but who stood out? Wasn't Scarlett Johansson in it? You mean no one nominated anyone in Hitchcock for anything, other than Helen? Really? Uh oh. What? The Brits nominated Hitchcock for a Best Makeup award? What for? Ooohhhhh...his nose. Anthony Hopkins had a prosthetic nose to look more like Alfred Hitchcock. I guess that’ll do.

That’s how I imagine Helen Mirren was replaced at the Oscars with a prosthetic nose. Sad. Mildly implausible, but more importantly, sad, I think. And Anthony’s nose is going to get annihilated in that category at both the Oscars and the BAFTAs by The Hobbit, which has half of New Zealand in the cast made up to look like elves, dwarves, hobbits and orcs.

I still had to see the movie, for Helen. As I cross-checked my calendar, my Unreasonable Movie Spreadsheet (which tracks movies and various miscellaneous data), and the local movie listings for various theaters, I realized I might not have another chance to see Hitchcock beyond this week. Its DVD release date hasn't been set, and the three second-run theaters showing it now are not continuing past January 17.

This is an example of some of the logistical problems I've been running into with a handful of movies. It’s showing me the truth about stupid public stunts: it's exciting when you find the fool to wear the stars-and-stripes leisure suit and make the motorcycle jump; it takes effort to find the 30 buses to jump over. So before it disappeared, to the Riverview Theater I went.

The Riverview is one of the best theaters in the Twin Cities. It’s an old theater, in good shape, with new seats. It’s second-run movies are cheap, and so are the concessions. I love it. In this particular case, it’s cool to see a movie about Hitchcock in a theater that may have shown Psycho when it was released. It’s definitely shown it since - the Riverview does a great job with special showings and retrospectives of the classics.

Turns out the movie isn’t really about Alfred (or his nose). It’s about the personal and working relationship Alfred had with his wife, Alma Reville (Mirren). It’s a loosely-interpreted story taken from Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, by Stephen Rebello. In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock had just released North By Northwest, which was a smash hit. Then someone pointed out that he’s 60, and asked why he wasn't retiring. He then starts looking for his next project, becoming enthralled with a book about a serial killer from Wisconsin.

Alfred and Alma, married since 1926, had been collaborating for years on his movies. Psycho, which he begins shooting in 1959 and financed himself, was no different. Alma was heavily involved in the screenplay and the final edit, and the story suggests that while their relationship wasn't always smooth (Hitchcock was known to be somewhat obsessed with his blonde bombshell leading ladies), they loved each other, and brought out the best in one another. I certainly appreciated the story about partnership - my wife edits this blog (thanks babes!), making it possible for me to put something creative out in the world without me looking stupid. Parts of my writing are my wife, and parts of Hitchcock's movies were Alma.

This movie is by no means an exhaustive look at his career (and doesn't try to be), but I thought this was good story about Alfred and Alma, two people struggling not to be dismissed by the public or by each other as they get older, professionally or personally. It was quick-moving and entertaining. I’d give it a $7.50.

And yes, this was another movie with a known ending. Alfred Hitchcock was certainly under pressure to make Psycho a financial success because he had financed it himself, which was a risky venture. The studios didn't want to finance a slasher film. We all know he ended up making an unexpected classic. This tension drives the story forward, but the eventual success of Psycho is secondary. As an audience, we want Alfred and Alma to be alright, to remain in love, and to keep making movies together. Sorry Argo, Hitchcock doesn't lose as many points with me for this issue.

Can I address one more issue? An actor named Michael Stuhlbarg has now appeared in three movies I've seen this year, Hitchcock, Lincoln, and Seven Psychopaths. Some of you know him as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire, and he also appeared in Men In Black 3. I don’t know how he has the time.

There is a mini-trend here. John Hawkes was in The Sessions and Lincoln in 2012. Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in Lincoln, Looper, Premium Rush, and The Dark Knight Rises. Jennifer Lawrence was in Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games, Devil You Know, and House at the End of the Street.

Are there fewer than 50 working actors in Hollywood these days? Is this now an undesirable profession? Are beautiful teenagers no longer flocking to California on buses? Or are casting agents being paid to hire only known actors? Whatever the cause of this phenomena (let’s call it the Stuhlbarg Syndrome for now), it's a sickness. Recognizing character actors too often can produce confusion and disorientation in audiences. Remember when Sam from Cheers showed up in Saving Private Ryan? It threw everyone for a loop, ruined the whole flow of the movie. Spielberg may as well have cast Woody and Coach as German soldiers after that.

If the Stuhlbarg Syndrome turns from mini-trend into pandemic in 2013, we might have to look for a cure. Until then, cover your prosthetic nose when you sneeze.

Next post: Beast of the Southern Wild and the latest Bond movie this weekend, perhaps? Dry martinis, shaken not stirred, afterward?

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