Monday, November 17, 2008

Cinematical Seven: Outrageous Oscar Disqualifications

by Eric D. Snider

With the news that the musical score from The Dark Knight has been disqualified from Academy Awards consideration on the grounds that too many people were credited with composing it, outrage against the Academy's stringent, complicated rules has erupted afresh. In the interest of fueling this indignation and making the world an angrier place, let's take a belligerent march down memory lane and look at seven other controversial disqualifications.

The Jazz Singer disqualified for being a talkie. When the very first Academy Awards were held in May 1929, honoring films released between August 1927 and July 1928, everyone was talking about The Jazz Singer -- the first feature-length movie to use recorded sound in some of its talking and singing scenes. So great was the attention that the Academy disqualified the film from the inaugural Best Picture category, reasoning that its use of sound put it on an uneven playing field against the films still stuck in silence. Instead, the Academy gave Warner Bros. a special award "for producing The Jazz Singer, the pioneer outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry." It's true, too! I don't know if you've noticed, but pretty much all movies nowadays have talking in them.

Young Americans disqualified from Best Documentary category ... after it already won. Whoops. This is a sad case, and a unique one. The documentary, about the peppy Young Americans show choir, won the Oscar at the 1969 ceremony for being the best feature-length documentary of 1968. But a few weeks later, the Academy discovered that the film had screened at a theater in October 1967, making it eligible for that year's awards and not for 1968. The Academy actually took back the Oscar statues from the filmmakers, Alex Grasshoff and Robert Cohn, and gave the award to the film that had been first runner-up. When Grasshoff died earlier this year, his widow told the Los Angeles Times how heartbroken he'd been. Can you imagine?

Musical score from The Godfather disqualified because some of it was from an earlier score.
Nina Rota's haunting score from The Godfather actually got as far as being nominated for an Oscar before someone discovered that its love theme had been previously used in another film Nona had scored, Fortunella. The rules say the music must be written specifically for the movie at hand, so Nona was disqualified and the score from Sleuth was added as a nominee in its place. Two years later, Rota was co-nominated with Carmine Coppola for their Godfather Part II score, and actually won. How could that be, though, when much of the music was simply reused from the first Godfather? Because the Academy had changed the rules in the meantime. Arrgh!

"Come What May" from Moulin Rouge disqualified because it was actually written for a previous project. This is the one that irks me, personally, the most, since the song is gorgeous and actually fit the story of the film. But to be eligible for the Best Song category, the song must have been written specifically for the movie. (That's why screen versions of Broadway musicals usually toss in a couple of new, just-for-the-movie tunes -- because the preexisting songs can't win Oscars.) "Come What May," as it turns out, had been written for Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. He wound up not using it, but it didn't matter. The fact that it hadn't been written with Moulin Rouge in mind made it ineligible. I always wondered why "Come What May" songwriter David Baerwald didn't just, you know, lie about it. I mean, who would have known that he'd actually written it for something else? Apparently he's a more honest person than I am. Oh, and as usual, the Best Song winner that year was something that played over the closing credits and had nothing to do with the movie. Happy, Academy?

Fahrenheit 9/11 disqualified because it aired on TV too soon. The Academy gets a break on this one -- it was Michael Moore's own damn fault. The rules said that to be eligible, a documentary cannot air on television any sooner than nine months after its theatrical debut. Fahrenheit 9/11 was released in the summer of 2004, and Moore chose to show it on pay-per-view TV on Nov. 1, hoping it would influence the election in John Kerry's favor over George W. Bush. He knew it would disqualify him from the documentary category, though he hoped it might still get a Best Picture nomination. (The eligibility rules are different in that category.) Well, as it turns out, the film didn't get nominated for anything, and Bush still won the election. Nice try, though, Mike.

The Band's Visit disqualified from the Best Foreign Language Film category for having too much English. In the foreign-language category, the rules are pretty simple. The film must be predominantly in a language other than English, and it must come from a country other than the United States. The Band's Visit, an optimistic, can't-we-all-get-along? comedy from Israel in 2007, seemed like a shoo-in for a nomination, and many considered it a good bet for the win. The problem was this: The movie is about an Egyptian police band getting lost in a small Israeli town. The characters don't speak each other's languages, so they communicate in the smattering of English that they do have in common. It makes sense, and it enhances the film's overall theme of learning to understand and communicate with one another. Doesn't matter, the Academy said. Since the English spoken in the film adds up to more than 51% of the dialogue -- and yes, people from the Academy sat there with stopwatches -- it didn't qualify as a "foreign-language" film.

Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood score disqualified for not being original enough. It would seem that the music categories are the ones that cause the most trouble, and this sting from last year is still fresh in a lot of people's minds, especially fans of the Radiohead guitarist Greenwood. The Academy ruled that his haunting, unusual score for There Will Be Blood was ineligible because it was "diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music." Greenwood wrote about 35 minutes of original material, used about 15 minutes of some of his own previously written music, and incorporated music by the likes of Arvo Pärt and Johannes Brahms. Whatever the combo was, the Academy nixed it -- but not before the preliminary ballots had already gone out with the score listed as being eligible. Still, at least they made up their minds before the thing actually got nominated -- or, heaven forbid, before Greenwood actually went home with the trophy. One take-back in an 80-year history is enough.

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'JCVD' offers Jean-Claude Van Damme as a case study


Peace Arch Entertainment Group

Jean-Claude Van Damme stars in "JCVD."

The booze, the drugs, the waning fame and bad decisions are all part of the jokey yet sincere confessional.
By Chris Lee
Call it Jean-Claude Van Damme's "Being John Malkovich" moment.
In the opening sequence in his namesake drama "JCVD," the C-list martial arts movie star is shown punching, kicking and blasting his way across a wartime wasteland. Even if he's looking pouchy and a bit road weary these days, it's precisely the kind of thing audiences expect to see from the star of such so-cheesy-it's-genius action fare as director John Woo's "Hard Target" (1993) and "Double Team" (1997), opposite basketball bad-boy Dennis Rodman.

But then the scene falls apart, literally, when a prop wall accidentally tumbles down behind the Belgian-born action hero. Cut! Turns out, we've been watching Van Damme make another schlock action flick, the latest in a string of straight-to-DVD duds that have been Van Damme's stock in trade for most of the last decade. "It's very difficult for me to do everything in one shot! I'm 47 years old," the actor complains to a contemptuous Asian action auteur who scoffs, "He still thinks we're making 'Citizen Kane'?"
It's a telling exchange. "JCVD," which arrived in theaters Friday after generating some industry heat at Cannes and the Toronto Film Festival earlier this year, is Van Damme's first art-house offering. A jokey yet sincere "celebreality" confessional, the movie is a standout in the actor's two-decade filmography, which is distinguished by some of the most jaw-droppingly, unself-consciously wooden acting committed to film

Nonetheless, his Adonis-like physique, his balletic finesse with roundhouse kicks and shoot'em-ups, and his goofy charisma allowed Van Damme to occupy a special tier of popcorn-movie stardom just beneath early action icons like Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"JCVD," shot in French, arrives at a cultural moment when being a yesteryear action hero willing to filmically deconstruct past glories is a definite plus (if the early Oscar buzz surrounding Mickey Rourke's ballyhooed performance in "The Wrestler" is any indication). It also provides a mordant meditation on the downsides to stardom, using Van Damme's singular plight -- his real-life history of substance abuse and DUI arrests, precarious financial situation and waning fame -- as a kind of case study. In an effort to shatter his hard-charging image, the former European middleweight karate champion better known as the "Muscles From Brussels" takes on a role unlike any in his last 38 movies: himself. That is, a middle-aged Hollywood has-been looking for a new lease on life.

"I decided to talk about myself and open myself. Peeling off the skin of a peach," Van Damme said by phone from Bangkok, where he is editing a movie he directed and self-financed called "Full Love." He continued with the metaphor: "Cutting into the pulp and going to the seed -- to the pit -- of the peach. And I cut that pit into pieces. This is what I saw."

He added: "In 'JCVD' I am naked."

This gutsy, oddly entertaining movie can trace its DNA to a 2003 French TV documentary called "Dans le Peau de Jean-Claude Van Damme" (Under the Skin of Jean-Claude Van Damme) directed by Frederic Benudis, which features the action star speaking candidly about his career mistakes and on-screen image. With screenwriter Christophe Turpin, Benudis went on to co-write a meta-movie script called "The King of Belgium"; the action-comedy's plot has Van Damme embroiled in a bank robbery and hostage situation reminiscent of 1975's "Dog Day Afternoon" but deriving a certain antic energy from the idea that Van Damme would be powerless in the face of a real-life crisis.

The screenplay got optioned and made its way to indie director Mabrouk El Mechri, who was on the rise in France after the success of his debut feature, "Virgil." And when "King of Belgium" producer Marc Fiszman offered to introduce El Mechri to Van Damme, the director jumped at the chance -- more excited to meet one of his childhood heroes than to discuss bringing the movie to the screen.

El Mechri seized the opportunity, however, to deliver the karate chopper some tough love.

"I said to him, 'You're a great action star,' " the director recalled. "But I told him he was just doing the same film over and over. Everybody got bored. Add to that the problems with substance [abuse], the weird stuff he's known for saying in the media. He became this weird pop-culture icon. I was allowed to say that. I didn't care if he liked it or not."

Turns out, that dose of reality was exactly what Van Damme needed to hear after years of being stuck in career purgatory. "I fell in love with that guy," Van Damme said of El Mechri. "He told me, 'Don't be scared. I want to do something that shows another side of you.' "

El Mechri did a top-down rewrite of "The King of Belgium" ("I didn't like the script. It was written by people who didn't know Jean-Claude at the fan level, who weren't aware of what a big star he used to be"). And although the end result, "JCVD," is hardly worshipful to its subject, it uses his foibles as a five-times married, coke-sniffing, down-on-his-luck matinee idol to humanize Van Damme.

"Even though he didn't have a film in the theater for years, you walk with him on any street anywhere in the world and he's still a star," El Mechri said. "But when you're that huge, you don't necessarily have access to honesty."

About two-thirds of the way through "JCVD," Van Damme takes a step back from the action -- a hostage drama set in a bank in his native Belgium in which police are mistakenly led to believe Van Damme is behind the robbery plot rather than one of its victims -- to breach moviedom's fourth wall and speak directly to the viewer.

Looking exhausted and puffy, he takes stock of his life over the course of a 6 1/2 -minute monologue: the matrimonial failures, escalating tax debts and estranged children. In a further nod to his real-life circumstances, he speaks candidly about how he turned to drugs when having it all no longer seemed like enough. As well, Van Damme grapples with the way the movie biz built him up and cast him asunder.

"It's not my fault if I was cut out to be a star," he explains to the viewer. "I asked for it, really believed in it. When you're 13, you believe in your dream. Well, it came true for me. But I still ask myself what have I done on this Earth?" Visibly weeping, he answers his own question: "Nothing! I've done nothing!"

Of the scene, which has become the movie's primary talking point, El Mechri said: "It was a complete improvisation based on some notes he had on a pad. The weirdest thing is, I know him really well. And I can't say if he's acting or not in that scene."

Despite what he says during his tearful monologue, Van Damme feels "JCVD" has raised the curtain on a third act in his career.

For evidence of this, look no further than his passion project, "Full Love," in which he stars in addition to having written, directed and produced with the intention (perhaps a not entirely realistic one) of reingratiating himself in Hollywood's studio system. Van Damme is still cagey about it's plot and genre but detailed a few fragmental basics: It's largely set in Southeast Asia, flashes between the present and 1960, follows the story of a "psychologically deranged" guy in love.

"It's low-budget because I financed it myself," Van Damme said of "Full Love." "I made the movie for the simple reason: to show some responsibility. I'm not going to get paid. I'm going to give them the movie. I just want them to open it in a thousand theaters on the East Coast. That was the technique with 'Lionheart' and 'Bloodsport.' If it works, I can go back to the studios.

"It's going to be very controversial. It's kind of a dangerous movie for my career. But after 'JCVD,' why not? Why not push further?"

Lee is a Times staff writer.

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