December 09, 2009

After The Dark Knight failed to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination, the Academy expanded the number of nominees for its top honor from five to ten. With luck, these improved odds will prod popcorn movies to aim a little higher and license Oscar-bait films to let themselves be a little more entertaining. We”€™ll see in another year or two.

The first side effect, however, has been to exacerbate the crush of year-end Oscar-qualifying releases. For example, Fox Searchlight had intended to release Crazy Heart, a bittersweet indie production about the redemption of a drunken old country singer played by Jeff Bridges (looking like Kris Kristofferson on a bender), in the traditional dead spot of early spring, when it would have served as a welcome respite. Instead, it’s being rushed out Wednesday, December 16th in Los Angeles and New York for Academy Award consideration.

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<embed src=“” type=“application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=“always” allowfullscreen=“true” width=“390” height=“180”></embed></object><p>Crazy Heart is a good little movie. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who looks like a sad cartoon turtle, is more plausibly cast here as a single mom desperate enough to take a chance on an irresponsible ex-star than she was as the heartbreaker who bedazzles Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight.

Colin Farrell, Hollywood’s It Boy of the first half of this decade, is also well cast as the old singer’s former guitarist, now a Nashville superstar who wants to make it up to his one-time mentor by persuading him to sober up enough to write him some more hit songs. Farrell’s trademark lack of confidence in his own star power, which undermined his leading man career in busts like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, serves him well here in his role as a nervous realist trying to look out for the ornery old drunk who taught him everything he knows without his ex-boss’s bad karma rubbing off on him.

The fine original music”€”strong electric guitar country in the mode of Steve Earle“€”is overseen by old reliable T-Bone Burnett. (The most prominently featured country classic on the soundtrack is Waylon Jennings”€™ awe-inspiring “€œAre You Sure Hank Done It This Way?“€)

Bridges and Farrell sing well enough. Given the chance, a surprising fraction of famous actors turn out to be good singers (for example, Meryl Streep started singing in her movies as she approached 40), perhaps because high school musicals serve as a key filter for an acting career.

Even with ten Best Picture slots open, however, Crazy Heart seems a little too under-scripted to snag a nomination. As with many low budget indie films these days, Scott Cooper’s screenplay is oddly lacking in jokes and plot twists (which, you would think, would be more affordable than, say, the film’s lovely dawn and dusk cinematography of Santa Fe).

Rather like the Ray Charles and Johnny Cash biopics of a half decade ago, the plot, such as it is, revolves around the singer’s struggle to go on the wagon so he can live long enough to pen another hit. (As Mickey Kaus has cynically pointed out, however, if you study the timelines of famous musicians like Charles and Cash, the happy endings in their movies when they finally get sober turn out to be when they stopped composing great tunes.)

The studio is giving Crazy Heart a big Oscar push not because the film deserves the Best Picture award, but because it just seems about time for Jeff Bridges to finally win his Best Actor Oscar, 38 years after his nomination for The Last Picture Show. Thus, Robert Duvall is on hand in Crazy Heart to play Bridges’s bartender friend, and to remind us that he won an Oscar for a similar role as a country has-been in 1983’s Tender Mercies.

Bridges has enjoyed a long, pleasant, but slightly odd career. The popularity and energy of his father, Lloyd Bridges (who played scuba diver Mike Nelson on Sea Hunt, which I watched each afternoon upon coming home from first grade), propelled Jeff and his older brother Beau into early stardom. “€œI’m a product of nepotism. The doors were open to me,”€ he readily admits.

Hollywood thought young Jeff looked like a leading man, and he rewarded the moguls”€™ faith in him with numerous skillful and idiosyncratic performances. For example, in the 1970s alone, he was excellent as a moonshiner turned stock car racer in The Last American Hero, as Clint Eastwood’s assistant bank robber in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and as the brother of an assassinated Kennedyesque President in Richard Condon‘s intriguing follow-up to The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills.

Yet, the public never seemed to take Bridges to heart (in fact, it seemed unable to reliably distinguish Jeff Bridges from Jeff Daniels) … until 1999, when a box office flop called The Big Lebowski started playing on cable TV.

Therefore, Crazy Heart‘s opening is constructed to remind us of what’s now Bridges’s most famous role, El Duderino (if you”€™re not into the whole brevity thing), the “€˜60s radical turned foul-mouthed bowler. During the opening credits of Crazy Heart, Bridges drives his beat-up van across New Mexico to get to his next gig, which turns out to be in a less than dignified venue. His first line in Crazy Heart, as he pulls up in the parking lot, is “€œFucking bowling alley …”€

Yet Crazy Heart might have a better chance of picking up a Best Picture than a Best Actor nomination because the Actor category is still stuck with only five nominees, even though it’s often the most competitive race. Last year, for instance, there wasn”€™t enough room in the Best Actor derby for Robert Downey Jr.’s triumphant star turn in Iron Man. (Instead, Downey got squeezed into the Best Supporting Actor competition for Tropic Thunder.)

The problem with doubling the number of Best Actor nominations, however, is that it would be ungentlemanly to add slots for Best Actor without an equal increase for Best Actress. Yet the Academy already has a hard time filling out its five Best Actress nominations. Last year, for instance, one of the Best Actress nods went to Melissa Leo for Frozen River, which grossed all of $2.5 million.
Hollywood, at present, is very much a man’s world.


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