A trio of Oscar winners for Million Dollar Baby: Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hillary Swank.

The 77th annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2004.  The nominations were announced on 25 January 2005 and the awards were held on 27 February 2005.

Best Picture:  Million Dollar Baby

  • The Aviator
  • Sideways
  • Finding Neverland
  • Ray

Most Surprising Omission:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  A Very Long Engagement

Best Eligible English-Language Film Not Nominated:  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Rank (out of 84) Among Best Picture Years:  #12

The Race:  There was no Lord of the Rings lurking around long before any films opened, but that didn’t mean that the 2004 Academy Awards would be starting from nothing.  There were five films already in the Oscar rumor mill right from the start.  First, there was Finding Neverland, the film about J.M. Barrie that Miramax had held back a year in order to be able to use scenes from Peter Pan (the owners of the copyright hadn’t wanted it to compete with the 2003 film version); starring Johnny Depp, fresh off his first Oscar nom, it was expected to be the big Miramax film of the Oscar season.  Then there was The Aviator, the long awaited Howard Hughes film from Martin Scorsese that would be coming out for Christmas, and was sure to inspire new talk about how the great director still didn’t have an Oscar.  Third was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new off-beat film from Charlie Kaufman, the off-beat screenwriter who had been behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet.  Then there was Passion of the Christ, the Biblical epic from Mel Gibson that debuted the Friday before the Oscars to the fifth-biggest opening of all-time and polarized critics.  Finally, there was Phantom of the Opera.  The musical, which had been a hit on stage in London and New York for almost 20 years, was finally making it to the big-screen and many Oscar prognosticators figured that it could, sight unseen, shake up the race and move in to win Best Picture, just like Chicago had just two years before.

After several weeks of Passion holding onto the box office and the headlines, it was Eternal Sunshine who captured the adoration of the critics.  But while the critics loved it, there were questions when it came to the Academy.  Could Jim Carrey win over the Academy finally?  Would Kaufmann’s strange script fly with the more straight-laced Academy, or would he have to settle for a nomination without a win again?  Could the film itself overcome low box office to find Academy success?  The good news for the film was that as the summer moved in, nothing came in to push it away.  Several films that had Academy hopes faltered very badly – Troy had been savaged by critics, The Terminal had tepid box office returns, considering its Spielberg / Hanks pedigree and Collateral had hopes for acting or directing, but wasn’t a strong Picture contender.  In fact, the only potential Best Picture that opened between March and October was Fahrenheit 9/11.  The new documentary from Michael Moore had quickly become the largest grossing documentary of all-time and Moore made it clear that he had no interest in another Oscar for Best Documentary – he wasn’t even planning to submit the film.  Instead, he was hoping (especially after a win at Cannes) to break into the Best Picture race itself and the box-office, reviews and word-of-mouth made it seem a distinct possibility.

Finally, in October, came the slough of Oscar contenders.  There was Vera Drake, the new Mike Leigh film about a British woman who performs abortions in the 50’s, with massive critical acclaim falling on star Imelda Staunton.  Then there was Ray, the long-awaited biopic of Ray Charles, starring Jamie Foxx.  But the biggest acclaim was for Sideways, a comedy about two wine-loving friends from director Alexander Payne.  Critics couldn’t decide what they liked more – the performances (from Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church and Virginia Madsen) or the script – and both received adulation from nearly every critic around.

November saw the long-delayed release of Finding Neverland, and with solid reviews and decent box office, it looked like Miramax had a film in the race.  In fact, it now had two films in the race – in order to lighten Warner Bros. load, Miramax had taken over domestic distribution for The Aviator, which was still set for a Christmas release.  Then came Kinsey, the biopic about the famous scientist of sexuality, played by Liam Neeson.  When Premiere magazine listed their Oscar favorites in mid-November, their own predictions for Best Picture were The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Kinsey, Ray and Sideways.

As December began, came the first reviews of The Aviator, and they were all solid.  All the talk of Scorsese vying once again for his long-overdue Oscar was back in full-force.  Joining it in the conversation was a new film from a director who hadn’t been involved in the Oscar race in over a decade: Mike Nichols.  Nicholas had adapted the critically acclaimed play Closer, with Jude Law (one of his six films of the fall), Julia Roberts and a pair that were getting serious Oscar buzz: Clive Owen and Natalie Portman.

Then came the awards season.  The National Board of Review kicked things off by giving Best Picture to Finding Neverland.  Joining it in the group’s Top 10 lists were most of the expected suspects: The Aviator, Ray, Sideways, Kinsey, Closer and Vera Drake.  Joining it also were Hotel Rwanda, a true story of one man’s heroism during the 1994 genocide.  One other film made a sudden impact: Million Dollar Baby.  The new film from Clint Eastwood hadn’t even been shot until July and hadn’t been on the lists of suspected Oscar contenders.  But suddenly, with a very limited release set for just before Christmas, Eastwood was in the Oscar race yet again.  Then came the LA Film Critics and they were all over Sideways – giving it Picture, Director and Screenplay.  It was followed closely by the New York Film Critics, who also gave Best Picture and Screenplay to Sideways but whose Best Director award went to Clint Eastwood.

If this put Million Dollar Baby in the midst of the race, the Golden Globe nominations pushed it higher – it joined The Aviator, Sideways, Closer and Finding Neverland in the Best Picture and Director races, though it was replaced in the Screenplay race by Eternal Sunshine.  Also in the Picture race were Kinsey and Hotel Rwanda (in Drama), Ray, Eternal Sunshine, Phantom of the Opera and The Incredibles.  The potential surprises for Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 seemed to be going by the wayside while all the other expected contenders were making a run of it.  All of the same films, except Closer and The Incredibles were also nominated at the Broadcast Film Critics, which was quickly becoming the best barometer for the eventual Oscar nominees.  In the meantime, The Aviator opened to strong box office while Million Dollar Baby continued to do well in limited run.  But Phantom of the Opera had finally opened and it was to weak box office and even weaker reviews.

Now awards and nominations were everywhere and it was a question of who could maintain momentum.  Sideways, The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby were everywhere.  They were all nominated for the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild and the Ensemble award at the Screen Actors Guild.  They were most often joined by Finding Neverland (all of the above except for the WGA) while Ray had the all-important fifth DGA nomination.  With Closer a complete wash with the guilds, Eternal Sunshine being a bit too strange and Kinsey and Hotel Rwanda unable to gain box office traction (and Phantom of the Opera buried by its reviews), the final five seemed to becoming increasingly clear: The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby, Sideways, Finding Neverland and Ray.  Now, with Scorsese losing to Eastwood at the Globes, but his film winning Best Picture and taking the PGA just before the Oscar noms (and adding 14 BAFTA nominations where Million Dollar Baby hadn’t opened in time to qualify), it was the question of who would come out the eventual winner.

The Results:  The Aviator took an immediate lead.  It had by far the most nominations – 11.  Since 1981, only two films with the most outright nominations had failed to win Best Picture – Bugsy and Fellowship of the Ring.  Still in serious contention were Sideways (5 noms, including Picture and Director) and Million Dollar Baby (7 noms, including the big 5).  Ray was in for Picture and Director.  Finding Neverland was in for Picture but not Director, which meant that the DGA had again predicted Picture 5/5 but Director only 4/5.

But it was Million Dollar Baby that had momentum.  It timed its wide release to the nominations and every weekend between the nominations and the awards themselves it was in the top 5 at the box office, something no other nominee was able to do even once.  Then Martin Scorsese lost at the DGA yet again (moving within one loss of Sidney Lumet’s record of seven).  Next up were predictable wins at the WGA by Sideways and Eternal Sunshine.  It was now a question of whether the momentum of Baby‘s side could overcome the fact that it didn’t have any awards wins for Best Picture.  With another win at the BAFTA’s, The Aviator now had three.  No film since Braveheart had managed to win the Oscar without winning at least one of the Globes, PGA, BAFTA or BFCA and no film since Saving Private Ryan had lost the Oscar while winning three of them.

The night began well for The Aviator – going into the major awards it had won 5 awards.  But then the major awards began.  First, the screenplay awards were, predictably, split between Sideways and Eternal Sunshine.  But then came Best Director and again, no amount of sympathy could sway the voters – Clint Eastwood had won another Oscar and Martin Scorsese would again be denied.  After that, it almost seemed predictable that Million Dollar Baby would end up winning the biggest prize of the night.  The Aviator had ended up with the most Oscars (5), but Marty again would go home empty-handed.

Clint wins a second Best Picture and Best Director.  Too bad it’s not as good as his film from the year before.

Million Dollar Baby

  • Director:  Clint Eastwood
  • Writer:  Paul Haggis  (from stories by F.X. Toole)
  • Producer:  Clint Eastwood  /  Albert S. Ruddy  /  Tom Rosenberg
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank, Morgan Freeman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Actor (Eastwood), Actress (Swank), Supporting Actor (Freeman), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  420
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Sports)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $100.49 mil  (#24  –  2004)
  • Release Date:  15 December 2004
  • Metacritic Score:  86
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #175  (nominees)  /  #46  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Actress (Swank), Supporting Actor (Freeman)
  • Nighthawk Points:  105
  • First Watched:  Opening week at Pioneer Square

The Film:  Million Dollar Baby takes a lot of things which are bad ideas and somehow manages to put them all together and overcome them.  First, it takes on a sports film through the old familiar cliche – the older manager taking on a young talent, hungry to succeed.  Second, it has a voiceover which is unnecessary and distracting – mostly telling us things the film itself should be able to show us.  Third, it mixes in religion and a McGuffin type distracting sub-plot.  With all of this in the mix, it’s not a surprise that the Academy gave it Best Picture – after all, they have been embracing cliches since the beginning – but that it succeeds as well as it does.

Many of the problems stem from the writing – the script by Paul Haggis.  It’s clear from his other films, that Haggis often tries to write himself out of situations (that’s certainly what he does with Crash).  That can be easily seen from the weakest part of the film – where Swank goes back home and tries to give a house to her mother, only to have it rejected because they can’t seem to understand her and resent her success (which also comes back around at the end of the film – seriously, did we need the cliche of ungrateful and golddigging relatives all in one, and white trash to boot?).  But luck happened upon the film when Clint Eastwood decided that he didn’t want to just star in the film, but also would like to direct it.  Haggis stepped aside and Eastwood stepped in and that’s where the strengths of the film come in.

Eastwood has long had a sure hand with actors.  Actors flock to him to be in his films, the way NBA players used to head to Miami because they wanted to play with Pat Riley.  He runs a tight ship, doesn’t push the actors beyond their limits, yet manages to get fine performances every time.  In his hands, the film smooths over its cliches and crafts a poignant, touching film.  He reminds us why he has long been one of the most underappreciated actors in film history – because he knows exactly how much to underplay, how much emotion to put into a line, and how much to hold back (interestingly, in a career full of great performances like Outlaw Josey Wales, White Hunter Black Heart and A Perfect World, his only two nominations for acting would be in his two Best Picture winners).  Then he also has the perfect rapport with Morgan Freeman, working seamlessly with him in every scene (that they had worked together on Unforgiven probably helped).  And it’s a curious irony in the film that one of the most triumphant scenes in the film, the one designed to bring viewers closer into the action of the film – when Freeman beats the cowardly bully who has been beating up on Danger – is at once both a triumphant moment and yet another cliche, which we can see coming from a mile away.  Then there is Hillary Swank – a decent actress in most films, but here, like in Boys Don’t Cry, somehow managing to find that extra bit of toughness to move her up onto the Oscar stage.

In short, Million Dollar Baby is a great film.  But it is a film that is not great enough to make the Top 5 in 2004, not in a year with The Aviator, A Very Long Engagement, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sideways and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (or House of Flying Daggers and Closer).  And it’s definitely not great enough to be standing at the podium at the end of the night in a year when The Aviator is there, with more nominations, and a better film to boot (never mind the fact that Marty had yet to win the Oscar at this point).  So does that make Million Dollar Baby a bad choice.  Well, I’m gonna have to go with a yes on this one.

For the third time, Marty wins the Nighthawk but loses the Oscar (all three times losing to actor turned directors).

The Aviator

  • Director:  Martin Scorsese
  • Writer:  John Logan
  • Producer:  Michael Mann  /  Graham King
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Danny Huston, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, John C. Reilly
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Alda), Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  450
  • Length:  170 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $102.61 mil  (#22  –  2004)
  • Release Date:  17 December 2004
  • Metacritic Score:  77
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #52  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (DiCaprio), Supporting Actress (Blanchett), Editing, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Costume Design
  • Nighthawk Points:  655
  • First Watched:  opening day at Century Westport with Tavis

The Film:  Fuck the Dos Equis guy.  Spend the time watching The Aviator and you’ll remember why Howard Hughes was, for so long, the most interesting man in the world.  And then he became the most interesting, least-seen man in the world, though that goes beyond this film.  Because the real dramatic arc of Hughes’ life, the interesting stuff, that goes away after the film ends, and we enter the slow, sad decline, the mind eaten away by impulses it is unable to control and he would disappear up into that room of the Desert Inn and slip out of life and into legend.  And this film isn’t about legend.  It’s about a man who is very much alive.

What does it take to be the most interesting man in the world?  Well, first you design yourself a plane – making sure to get all the rivets even with the body so they don’t create any wind resistance (one of the best cuts of Thelma Schoonmaker’s career – and we’re talking a career that encompasses three Oscars – is in this film when Hughes is caressing a woman’s back and then he is caressing his plane’s body).  Then, you actually take your plane out yourself, the H-1 Racer.  You break the world speed record, averaging a speed of 352 miles an hour on four passes, but then run out of fuel and are forced to crash-land in a beet field.  After your men show up, you say, with complete implacability, “She’ll go faster.”  Then you go home to your gorgeous, cocky, witty, redhead lover, who, by the way, is the greatest film actress of all-time.  That’s what it means to be the most interesting man in the world.

And he, of course, is the subject of The Aviator, and all of that is so perfectly dramatized.  Hughes is played in the performance of his career by Leonardo DiCaprio (the look on his face when he says “She’ll go faster” is priceless).  And even better is the pitch-perfect performance of Cate Blanchett as the magnificent Katharine Hepburn, the biggest female love of Hughes’ life.  I say the biggest female love because, as the title makes clear, no matter how many Hollywood starlets he took to bed, no matter how many films he made, how much money he built up in his empire, what Hughes loved best was being in the sky.

After a short introductory scene, that helps set the stage for Hughes’ over-bearing fear of germs and his eventual descent into madness, we are greeted with him heading out into the sky on “Hell’s Angels Year One.”  That World War One aviation film, still great entertainment after 80 years, is the focus of his obsession, as he can’t wait to get more and more cameras in the sky.  We see them, the world’s largest private air force, headed up into the clouds, to shoot scene after scene, and we still think about later at parties, as Hughes tries to beg two camera out of Louis B. Mayer.

So much is done right with this film that it’s hard to know where to start.  First, there are the performances.  The film is anchored by the Nighthawk-winning, Oscar-nominated DiCaprio and the Oscar-winning Blanchett, but they are simply the tip of the iceberg on a magnificent ensemble that includes John C. Reilly, Ian Holm, Alec Baldwin, Danny Huston, Kate Beckinsale and Jude Law.  Then there are the production values – the magnificent sets and costumes, the cinematography that specifically only uses the color pallets from films at the time (that grass on the golf course is green, but it looks bluish because that’s what color film was like at the time) and of course, the magnificent editing, moving from shouting on the ground one second, to flying through the clouds above Oakland for vital shots on Hell’s Angels.  And there are the visual effects – absolutely amazing ones in both the early crash and the horrific one that nearly killed him.  But there is also the script.  The biggest problem with Scorsese’s films between Age of Innocence (1993) and The Aviator was the writing.  But here, with the script by John Logan, that’s not a problem.  We get a dramatic arc, following Hughes from his early obsessions making his film, to facing off against Senator Brewster (in an Oscar-nominated performance by Alan Alda), determined not to be called a liar.  And so, we move easily through to a dramatic, yet satisfying ending, with that brief flight of the Spruce Goose (which I have stood under, marveling at its sheer immensity).  Yet, Scorsese doesn’t cheat, by pawning us off with a Hollywood happy ending.  We hear those final words “The way of the future,” over and over again, and we know what lies ahead – the sad, lonely life that can be left for another time.

The ultimate critics film: Sideways.

Sideways

  • Director:  Alexander Payne
  • Writer:  Alexander Payne  /  Jim Taylor  (from the novel by Rex Pickett)
  • Producer:  Michael London
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Stars:  Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Supporting Actor (Church), Supporting Actress (Madsen)
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  126 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Box Office Gross:  $71.50 mil  (#40  –  2004)
  • Release Date:  22 October 2004
  • Metacritic Score:  94
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #4  (year)  /  #110  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Church), Supporting Actress (Madsen)
  • Nighthawk Points:  150
  • First Watched:  opening week at the FOX Tower

The Film:  What is it that saves me from being Miles?  Why am I not teaching English to kids who don’t want to hear it in San Diego, lost in a drunken haze, desperately hoping that my novel will someday see the light of day beyond chosen friends?  Well, in a couple of ways I’m luckier than Miles.  The first is that I chose wisely when I got married (with some considerable luck involved there – finding the person who was absolutely right for me).  So I don’t have to escape the pain of a failed marriage and dive headlong into a bottle of wine and never struggle to come out.  But it’s not just that.  Yeah, I drank in the years between when Deborah went off to art school and never looked back and the first time I saw Veronica there in the dance line, making a silly video on my first day of work.  But then comes the second way I’m luckier.  Miles sinks into his wine with grace (though not always dignity), and in the end, would rather be drinking than doing anything else.  I never did that.  I never loved the taste of alcohol enough to make any sort of serious try at it.  I enjoy a good beer, will occasionally drink wine.  But I’m not much of a drinker and I never have been.  So my novel ends up just as unsold as Miles’ is, but that isn’t all to my life.

But I watched this film the first time just after turning 30, just after becoming a father, when a lot more things seemed to be in front of me.  Looking at it now at 37, with a professorship forever gone out of reach, with an actual rejection slip to look at from The New Yorker, with the hope that the grants continue to hold up long enough that we can figure out the rest of our lives when I no longer have my current job, it’s a lot more difficult to smile, even when I know the scenes are funny.

What is it about Sideways that makes me and all the other critics think it’s so good when others watch it and turn away in disgust?  Is it the fact that it’s basically a critics film?  Miles is a critic – a critic of wine, of writing, of lives.  He’s not just the kind of man who does the New York Times crossword puzzle in pen, he does it in pen while driving on the 405 (which is insanely stupid – but still).  Bear in mind how many critics over the years have been that person, drinking, looking down on others, wishing that novel hit a publisher who would see the talent in them that they knew they had.  Part of it is that.  But part of it is simply that the characters in this film are so well-developed.  Yes, there is no question that Jack does any number of stupid things in the film (and Miles’ has his fair share – though I, like many critics, can see myself running down that hill, drinking that bottle when faced with the potential of seeing my ex at my best friend’s wedding – hell, if two weeks ago I had gone to my college roommate’s wedding, I would have seen an ex, though not one that would have prompted that reaction – KG, if you read this, that’s not a dig – I heard you’re married and doing well and I’m happy for you).  But none of those things are out of character.  They all develop perfectly from the character that we have come to know.  The character who wants to help his friend, but still, when faced with the comment “Hemingway, Sexton, Plath, Woolf. You can’t kill yourself before you’re even published.” all he can do is say “What about the guy who wrote Confederacy of Dunces?”

So, yes, Jack is a pathetic womanizer (though played so well by Church – no one could have guessed he had this performance in him).  And Miles is pretty sad, trying desperately to sort out his life and his lies (and his desperation – one of the best scenes in the film, so heartbreaking, is when he steals the money from his mother’s dresser and ends up staring at a picture of himself with his father, the picture of course being Giamatti with his actual father).  But he’s a real human, and when he is asked what it is about Pinot that he loves, he gives a speech as good as any other film monologue in the last decade.  He is that rare thing on film – a complete human portrait, sad, but complete.  And that is what so many of us identify with in this film.

Johnny Depp gets another Oscar nomination – this time for acting more like a normal human being (well, relatively more).

Finding Neverland

  • Director:  Marc Forster
  • Writer:  David Magee  (from the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee)
  • Producer:  Richard N. Gladstein  /  Nellie Bellflower
  • Studio:  Miramax
  • Stars:  Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Kate Winslet, Dustin Hoffman, Julie Christie
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Screenplay Adapted from Another Medium, Actor (Depp), Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  235
  • Length:  106 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (True Story)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG
  • Box Office Gross:  $51.68 mil  (#61  –  2004)
  • Release Date:  12 November 2004
  • Metacritic Score:  67
  • Ebert Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #17  (year)  /  #229  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none
  • First Watched:  Opening week with Terry Lopata and Veronica

The Film:  It was like somebody watched Johnny Depp for years, in all the Tim Burton films, and watched his growing critical acclaim and thought, “what would happen if we put him in a film that is total Oscar bait?”  So, take one up and coming young director (Marc Forster, who had just made Monster’s Ball), possibly the most critically acclaimed actresses to come along since Meryl Streep, a couple of distinguished former Oscar winners (Dustin Hoffman and Julie Christie), give them a very talented young actor for a key role, a bit of true story with just enough Hollywood thrown in to make it even more heartbreaking and see what happens.

What easily could have happened was a sappy mess of a film that was just enough of a hit to win over the Oscar voters and end up in the Best Picture race undeservedly.  Instead, what happened was a bit of the old magic that J.M. Barrie used to show that he had at his disposal.  The film works so well that even though when we get to the key moment of being won over, we know exactly what is going to happen and who it will happen to, and yet, we don’t roll our eyes at the sight of the woman clapping her hands desperately to keep the fairy alive.  We understand and we can smile along with it and recognize the kind of film that Hollywood used to be so good at making, and smile again at the thought that it isn’t a big studio going back to its old bag of tricks.  It’s Miramax, that great independent company, doing its own thing.

This is the story of J.M. Barrie and the odd way in which he went from a critical disaster of a play to the success that would define him for the rest of his life.  Along the way, it involves the widening gulf between him and his wife and the every growing tenderness between himself and a family of boys, complete with mother, yet absent a father.  It is not a love story, though there is certainly love enough to go around, both between Barrie and Mrs. Davies, but also between Barrie and the boys.  That love is what allows Barrie to tap into his muse, and in his friendship with the boys, in the look of young Peter, who has been forced to grow up far too soon, and in the memory of Barrie, who would rather have not grown up at all, we discover the story that will become that of the boy who will never grow up.  When young Peter Davies is surrounded by high society at the premiere of the play and they comment “So you’re Peter Pan,” he replies, “I’m not Peter Pan.”  And pointing to Barrie, he replies, “He is.”  And in the space between them is the answer.

As I said, all of this could have been a standard product and been Oscar bait without being Oscar worthy.  But in the most restrained performance of Johnny Depp, we find real pathos; there is the pain he knows he brings his wife, and the pain he feels every time he looks at this family of boys and knows they are not his.  But aside from Depp, there are strong supporting performances from Kate Winslet, Julie Christie and Radha Mitchell and a surprisingly good one from Freddie Highmore, one of the best child actors of recent times.  With good costumes, wonderful sets, an Oscar-winning score and a solid dose of imagination, we have a lovely tale, designed to pull at the heart without descending into sappy cliches.

Another biopic, another Best Picture nomination. The genre rolls on.

Ray

  • Director:  Taylor Hackford
  • Writer:  Taylor Hackford  /  James L. White
  • Producer:  Taylor Hackford  /  Stuart Benjamin  /  Howard Baldwin
  • Studio:  Universal
  • Stars:  Ray Charles, Sharon Warren, Kerry Washington, Regina King
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Actor (Foxx), Editing, Sound, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  245
  • Length:  152 min
  • Genre:  Musical  (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Box Office Gross:  $75.33 mil  (#37  –  2004)
  • Release Date:  29 October 2004
  • Metacritic Score:  73
  • Ebert Rating:  ****
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #37  (year)  /  #298  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Best Actor  (Foxx)
  • Nighthawk Points:  35
  • First Watched:  Century Westport in its first month with John Ramirez

The Film:  We try to watch films for what they are.  But over the course of watching the whole history of the Oscars, it is impossible to view films completely in a vacuum, even if the film they are being compared to isn’t on the list.  I watch Ray and I am reminded of Jon Stewart at the Oscars the next year describing Walk the Line as “Ray, with white people.”  But it’s not just Walk the Line (a film I find to be better for a variety of reasons, not the least of which, is that I happen to prefer Johnny Cash’s music to Ray Charles’ – a very subjective opinion to be certain, but one which colors a film which is a musical biopic).  There is also Walk Hard – which manages to perfectly savage several key scenes in both films.  It was always a bit hard to watch the “creation” of “Hit the Road, Jack” and find it authentic, but after watching the way that Dewey Cox takes any phrase from his life and turns it into a hit, it’s almost impossible not to come up with at least a little bit of a giggle.

Now, none of those should be a problem when simply watching Ray.  And if Ray were a better film, it wouldn’t be.  The problem is that Ray, while containing a fantastic performance at its core, isn’t a great film and that’s why such comparisons can be a problem.  Ray Charles lead a rather extraordinary life.  But that does not mean that the film of his life qualifies as an extraordinary film.  Granted, on first viewing, it holds up better than it does a second time around.  Watching this film the first time, in the theater, going in knowing that most of the music would be songs that I never much cared for, I still came away impressed from the experience.  But watching it again, looking at it as a film, I see the weaknesses.

First, there is a bit too much psychology hitting us over the head.  We keep returning to the moment where he watches his brother die and the deterioration of his eyesight, as if one automatically lead to the other.  Then, we have considerably too much back and forth in time.  It’s stunning that the film was nominated for its editing when that’s clearly one of the weakest parts of the film – it is far too distracting.  Then there is the script, which kind of goes all over the place (but has the honesty to show that Charles had considerable failings in his personal life – and the decision to end the film with his release from rehab is the right choice – the rest of his life, except for the brief moment they end the film with is too much of a triumph to warrant any interest) and the direction (Taylor Hackford has never been known to be that great of a director and I was convinced that this was the film that would get a Picture but not a Director nomination rather than Finding Neverland).

But then we can come back to the strength of the film – the performances and the sound.  As I said, I am not a big fan of Ray Charles’ music (not to denigrate his importance in modern popular music, which is considerable – it’s purely a taste thing), but the film sounds fantastic.  And then there is Jamie Foxx, as Charles himself.  Who would have guessed, going into 2004, that Foxx could give two such strong performances as he did in Collateral and Ray?  Hell, he hasn’t given two such performances since then, so maybe the year was a fluke.  But Foxx anchors a solid ensemble (with the next best performance being the mostly unknown Sharon Warren as his mother), one around which the film builds and ultimately establishes itself as a very good, though not a great film.

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