Arts & Culture

Cameo: Mark Osteen

Founder, Film Studies program, Loyola University Maryland; author of Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream.

Do you watch the Oscars?

My wife and I usually watch it. Unless I’m out of town. I usually hit the hay before it’s over.

It’s really, really long.

It runs into my bedtime. I hate it that they backload the important awards until the end, but I guess they have to.

Do you think the Oscars are relevant?

a great question. Relevant to what? Relevant to the art of filmmaking
as it’s understood globally? Not very. In terms of a popularity contest
in Hollywood? Very relevant. You can sort of assess the trends Hollywood
thinks are cool and the actors and directors that are considered hot
and deserving by tracking it over the years. For example, Martin
Scorsese never won for years and years, and then he finally got it for The Departed because they figured he was due; he’d been denied all those times.

And Steven Spielberg didn’t win for years, and then he won for Saving Private Ryan.

is devoted to making money, right? That’s what it’s all about. They
have always tried to balance that with creating a product that is not
simply commercial, they hope, and this is an event where Hollywood gets
to say, ‘Look, we’re doing serious art here!’

Well, in their endeavor to make some entertainment of substance, how do you think they did in 2013?

were several quite well made and even stirring and moving films. I
thought it was one of their better years, recently. Although, I have to
say, the last three or four years, I didn’t really watch all the movies
that were nominated. It’s an irony: When you teach film, you don’t have
time to go to the movies. You watch the same movies over and over again
for your class or you watch them at home or in your class, so I seldom
get out. But! Because of this interview, I’ve been seeing a lot of
movies in the last few weeks.

Which movies stand out for you this past year?

Well, I loved American Hustle.
I liked the storytelling style David O. Russell has there. And I
remember the ABSCAM scandal vaguely. And it brought back memories seeing
those ’70s fashions. I thought Christian Bale’s performance was one of
those kind of a stealth performances. He didn’t look great, but he
completely lost himself in the role. I never thought, ‘Oh, here’s a
Hollywood actor doing this.’ I thought it was really strong.

And, yeah, 12 Years a Slave
is devastating. You leave the film speechless. Although, there are
stereotype characters in all of them, like Michael Fassbender: He’s the
evil slave-owner; that’s all he is. And there’s a foil there for him
with the Benedict Cumberbatch character, the ‘nice’ slave owner. So,
there’s some kind of schematic storytelling in that one, but Chiwetel
Ejiofor, his performance is magnificent. All of the nuance he shows in
his face? To me that’s the best actor. I think he’s going to win.

Do you? Because it seems like all the pre-Oscar awards have gone to Matthew McConaughey.

that’s a Hollywood thing there. He’s played these stud roles or in
B-romantic comedies, and he’s stretching. In the last year, he’s really
stretching. He made a movie called Mud, Jeff Nichols’s second film, a real interesting performance there. And he lost all that weight [for Dallas Buyers Club]
and he’s playing against type, so Hollywood may reward that. I think
that Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves best actor, [but] the Academy seems to
favor actors who gain or lose weight for roles. In that light, Matthew
McConaughey and Jared Leto look like favorites for best actor and
supporting actor.

It seems like the best actor race, in
particular, was very strong this year. There were a lot of people who
got left out, in particular Robert Redford.

And how about Tom Hanks?!

Right, and Tom Hanks! Those are two really big names to leave out. What does that say about this year’s crop of leading men?

I think Tom Hanks got left out because Bruce Dern got nominated. Dern
is one of those—he’s 77 years old—he came in that wave of great ’70s
character actors; he often stole films in supporting roles. He’s kind of
dropped off the map in the last 10 or 15 years, and this is kind of a
comeback. And Alexander Payne, the director of Nebraska, is
well regarded in Hollywood, so [Dern] had to be nominated. So there was
no room for Tom Hanks. I don’t know what happened with Redford. Maybe
Dern edged out Redford, actually, because they’ve got the two older guys
there. They can only get one grandpa.

What about the ladies this year? There’s Amy Adams in American Hustle, Sandra Bullock in Gravity, Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine, Meryl Streep in August: Osage County, and Judi Dench in Philomena.

Cate Blanchett won for The Aviator
years ago. She was doing an impersonation of Katharine Hepburn. I
didn’t particularly like that. People can watch five Katharine Hepburn
movies, and you can do that. And Sandra Bullock is kind of a one-woman
show there. I mean, Clooney, he’s in the picture for the first half,
maybe. And she has a lot of talking to herself going on there. I think
there’s a good chance she’ll win because everyone was so impressed by
all the hardship she had to endure during the shoot. And she had to act
with no foil. A lot of times Hollywood rewards that. I really liked Amy
Adams’s performance. The movie is great because you don’t know who is
scamming whom here. Was she really still in love with [Christian Bale’s]
character? Was she really falling for Bradley Cooper’s character? You
weren’t really sure. And maybe she wasn’t really sure either. So she was
going to play both ends against the middle and go with the winner, I
think. And so that kind of deceptive look that she had in her eye, the
things that passed across her face, I thought it was really impressive.
Now, Cate Blanchett, I’m sorry, but I thought her performance was very
mannered in Blue Jasmine. The voice and everything. I don’t
think the movie is very good, and she suffered from a poor script there.
Talk about stereotype characters there, wow. We’ve got the noble
blue-collar guy, the nasty Bernie Madoff character that Alec Baldwin
played. If Alec Baldwin fell asleep and woke up, he could play that
character. It didn’t involve any direction for him.

No. Probably not.

you shouldn’t punish the actors because of the movie. I think Woody
[Allen] makes too many movies, and he doesn’t think it through. My vote
would be for Amy Adams, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandra Bullock
got it. I don’t think Meryl’s going to win this year. And Judi Dench?
She’s won before, so probably not.

Do you think the
recently resurfaced child molestation accusations against Woody Allen
will hurt Cate Blanchett’s Oscar chances? She’s widely considered the
favorite in the Best Actress race—or at least, she was.

question. I doubt the allegations will hurt Blanchett, though. She’s
likely to be seen, even by those who believe the allegations, as an
innocent victim. My guess is that, if anything, voters bend over
backward to be fair to her.

One of the things people were
excited about was the potential for the 2013 nominees to be the most
diverse group in Oscar history. That didn’t quite come to fruition but
there are more people of color represented than there used to be. What
are your thoughts on Oscar diversity this year and in general?

think the Academy Awards still suffer from tokenism. They consider if
they have one African-American or, you know, somebody from some unusual
place, then they’re covered. But I would congratulate them on Barkhed
Abdi’s nomination. That was from left field, completely. He hasn’t acted
before. He’s a funny-looking fella. He doesn’t have a Hollywood look,
that’s for sure. That was a very strong performance in a movie where he
was the villain and he had to add some shading to that. But you know,
Hollywood is filled with good lefties so they do their best, but until
there are more complicated roles for—not just African Americans but
also, say, people with disabilities and so forth—they’re still going to
continue to suffer from tokenism.

You’ve got Lupita Nyong’o for
best actress in a supporting role and one African-American in Supporting
Actor and one Anglo-African for a Leading Actor and that’s par for the
course for the last several years, isn’t it?

Yeah, it’s about what they usually manage.

you could argue too—and this is what Spike Lee always says—it’s really
difficult for an African-American director to get films financed unless
they’re thrillers or unless they’re genre pictures, and they’re not
going to get nominated unless they follow Hollywood: Go there and shake a
lot of hands, get a lot of press. I don’t know if he’s right or not.
Spike’s kind of a provocateur so . . .

Speaking of shaking
hands and kissing babies, the behind-the-scenes campaigning seems so
prominent now—or maybe it’s just that the public is more aware of it
now. Thoughts?

I think we know more. If you read about
the history of Hollywood, it always went on, but it was a different
industry then. You had agents doing so much more of the work, and it was
not known by the public. For example, all of the gay actors—they were
open secrets in Hollywood. Everyone knew, but the general public didn’t
have a clue. So, those kinds of things wouldn’t happen now. So I think
it’s just more out in the open. They lobbied for their awards. They
lobbied for their roles, and so forth. It is more blatant now, and I
think probably a little more energetic, but I think probably it’s just
that the general public knows more about it now. There’s no such thing
as privacy these days, and that applies there also.

Your recent book, Nightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream deals
with the American Dream, and while none of the best picture nominees
are classic noirs, many of them do deal with the American Dream in
various ways. What are your thoughts on that as a theme that unites
these disparate pictures?

The Wolf of Wall Street is about the perversion of the American Dream. Blue Jasmine,
again, you’ve got the perversion of the idea that you rise by your
bootstraps, and you make a lot of money, and you do an honorable
business, and you rise and become wealthy. But, in that one, Alec
Baldwin’s character rips people off, and then you have the contrast
between the upper-class lady played by Cate Blanchett who doesn’t know
how to do anything and her sister, Sally Hawkins, very blue-collar. So
you can see the class theme very strongly in that.

You could argue that American Hustle,
these guys want to get something for nothing. They’re operators,
they’re entrepreneurs. That’s very noirish, actually. The idea that we
don’t know who is really faking and who is not and that someone will get
in over his head completely, like Bradley Cooper’s character who thinks
he’s in charge but actually isn’t, those are all noirish. In Nebraska,
you know, [the character] Woody wants to go get his million dollars.
The dream of getting rich. The backstory is he’s had a disappointed
life. Something happened to him in Korea, and he’s never been the same
since. This is a chance to redeem himself and leave something for his
adult children, so that certainly applies there. And again, 12 Years a Slave
is about how what we think of as the American Dream covers up a history
of slavery and violence and exploitation. So, I think it still applies.

seems like there’s still plenty of material to be mined from the
disparity between the idea of the American Dream and the reality of the
American Dream.

Yeah, I try to argue in the book that
these people are all buying into this ideology and they find out that’s
it’s either vacant or they made one mistake and that was it.

It’s unforgiving.

That’s right.

Any other snubs or omissions?

Many people were expecting the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis to get many more nominations than it did. It kind of got shut out there.

How do you account for that?

think it’s a hard movie to like. The main character, Llewyn, is kind of
a jerk. And, speaking of the American Dream, it doesn’t have the right
story arc. He doesn’t succeed by hard work and then become famous. He
just kind of goes in a circle. There was a guy at the theater with me,
and it was very funny. He got up at the end, and he’s getting past me in
the narrow aisle there, and he stopped. His face was like three inches
from my face and he was like, ‘What was that story about anyway?’ I
think a lot of people got to the end and went, ‘Huh?’ So I think it got
shut out because of that. But I have to say that Oscar Isaac was
riveting. A really wonderful performance even though the character is
not very likable. You wanted to look at him, and that’s what a good
actor does.

Well, he’ll probably get rewarded with more work, which is, in many ways, better than winning an Oscar.

I think so, too. The idea is that once you get an Oscar your career is
made but there are a lot of people who win an Oscar, and then they don’t
get work for three years.

Again, it’s not the American Dream that people think it is.

People say, ‘Oh, he’s going to cost too much now,’ so they won’t hire
him, or ‘He’s too associated with this particular role.’ It can be a
double-edged sword.