Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Queen vs. The Fresh Prince

As a gal who often prefers to pore over movies, movie stars, and their combined fates instead of actually watching movies, Betty was thrilled by the unlikely results of today's just-released Blockbuster Oscars poll. Mind you, the stats that follow reflect what the People want to win, not what they think will win:

Popular Picks for Best Picture
"The Departed" 24%
"Little Miss Sunshine" 22%
"Babel" 14%
"Letters from Iwo Jima" 13%
"The Queen" 12%

Popular Picks for Best Actress in a Leading Role
Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada" 36%
Helen Mirren in "The Queen" 21%
Kate Winslet in "Little Children" 13%
Penelope Cruz in "Volver" 11%
Judi Dench in "Notes on a Scandal" 6%

Popular Picks for Best Actor in a Leading Role
Will Smith in "The Pursuit of Happyness" 43%
Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland" 21%
Leonardo DiCaprio in "Blood Diamond" 17%
Peter O'Toole in "Venus" 4%
Ryan Gosling in "Half Nelson" 2%

"Who better to make a call on this year's most inspired films and performances than the people who fill the theaters, rent the movies and are the ultimate audience for the movie industry," said Joyce Woodward, senior vice-president, rental film with Blockbuster Inc.

So, there are a few things to be said about these numbers. You could infer from the high ranks for Little Miss Sunshine and Meryl Streep that the People (well, the Blockbuster people) like Comedy, and that they tend to live in places where Half Nelson, Venus, and Notes on a Scandal didn't play, or only played in dingy theaters with uncomfortable chairs and healthy snacks like unbuttered popcorn. You might also conclude from the data that the People like Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio. These all seem like fair assumptions.

Perhaps you would also look at the extremely high accolades for Will Smith in The Pusuit of Happyness and think that the People like sentimental pap. A ha! This is where you are wrong, because as I have recently learned from David Mamet's grumpy, pretentious, and totally addictive new book of essays, Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business what the people want, and why not?, is PLOT.

Lay out a character and her heart's desire. Show us concrete steps she takes to obtain that heart's desire. Foil her progress with a scene predicated on the idea of "And then, when everything was going so well..." Get her back on her feet again. Then decide what kind of ending you want for her: comedy (she gets her heart's desire), tragedy (she doesn't get her heart's desire) or drama (she either does or she doesn't get her heart's desire, but only ends up a little sadder and wiser for the trying). This is PLOT!

I think the reason many people I know have sniffed their nose at The Pursuit of Happyness has to do with another of Mamet's dramatic principles spelled out in no uncertain terms in Bambi vs. Godzilla. The Pursuit of Happyness invites us to have our suspension of disbelief, and thus or capacity for wonder and thrills, systematically violated for 120 minutes by casting Will Smith - dashing, ultra-recognizable Will Smith - in its leading role. In other words, because a bona fide superstar is playing the leading role in this movie about a homeless man struggling to find success and support his son, the film is dramatically dishonest - we are essentially being invited to watch Will Smith when we see an ad for this movie, and that offends those of us who think we deserve to be invited to be thrilled.

The movie may not be so bad after all. Perhaps it overcomes its superstar/suspension of disbelief problem with an excellent, gripping plot and great, emotionally believable acting. I haven't seen it, but even if I had I don't think I can distinguish a vote for Will Smith the actor from a vote for Will Smith in this role, and that keeps me wary. I guess this means I'm guessing it's not a very good film, and that it doesn't overcome the limits Mamet would have guessed it has. For a clarification of my motives for doubting the People on this one, please re-read this post with an emphasis on the first sentence.

Remember to enter the Oscars pool by February 25!

p.s. In a popularity contest based on qualities like attractiveness, pluck, and the power to make me smile, I would vote for Will Smith. I don't think I would vote for David Mamet, although he can be mighty plucky.

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