Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: It’s high time for Oscar voting, but I’d like to start with an unusual appeal: Everybody, go see Michael Moore’s new documentary Where To Invade Next. While the film just opened in limited release with a nice per-screen average, it could soon disappear because its greatest promotional weapon — Michael Moore — is laid up in a hospital bed with serious pneumonia. Just this morning he sent his regrets to the Berlin Film Festival. I’m going to suggest this to the industry that already suffers through our blowhard weekly rants: Rally behind Moore and see his film. And maybe, in exchange for your support, Moore will recognize his moral obligation to take better care of his health. Whether it’s lead-soaked drinking water in Flint or the stacked-deck political system that keeps Congress from passing meaningful gun laws, or the surreal nature of Donald Trump and other White House aspirants, we need this amiable agitator more than ever.
BART: I, too, greatly enjoyed his new film, but here’s what worried me: Michael Moore became famous because his films reflected outrage. I remember doing a conversation with him before a thousand people at the Cannes Festival where he worked his audience into a thunder of indignation. In his new film, it’s as though he were ruminating rather than shouting. He once said that he formed his attitudes at the age of 19, when he first thumbed his way around Europe. I think most of us had similar experiences (and feelings) upon our first overseas journeys. What I was looking for in this film was something beyond that — something, I suppose, “outrageous.” I think, by the way, that a European doc maker could roam around America and find a lot of things that we are doing right. A case could be made that our chaotic, every-man-for-himself society can prove more liberating than the stifling, monochromatic Socialist states (no, Donald Trump, please don’t quote me).
FLEMING: When Moore’s film was shopped last Toronto, some buyers demurred. They liked that it fell in election year, but responded just the way you did. They lamented the lack of bona fide villains like GM CEO Roger Smith (Roger & Me), gunmakers and the NRA (the Oscar-winning Bowling For Columbine), or the George W. Bush administration’s Shock and Awe reaction to the Twin Tower terror attacks (Fahrenheit 9/11). Rumor was the film was chased hard by Netflix, but Moore wanted it on a movie screen and so former RADiUS heads Tom Quinn and Jason Janego teamed with Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League to release it. Moore’s tub thumping was an essential part of the launch plan. I think Where To Invade Next shows that Moore has evolved as a filmmaker; this film is gentle and not polarizing, compared to his past work. His premise: America is a great country in a slump, and improvement can come in learning lessons from other countries. There is an infusion of worthy ideas. Among them, you see the positive benefits of: Italian industries forcing its employees to take 8 paid weeks of annual vacations (sex and tanning leads to higher productivity and longer lives); Portugal decriminalizing drugs; Tunisia empowering women; Iceland recovering from economic meltdown by banishing the bankers responsible; Germany teaching its kids to embrace tolerance by not forgetting about the country’s genocidal role in the Holocaust; French children eating varied gourmet meals in even the poorest schools — with water, not sugary soda — so they learn good dietary habits.
Now, Moore’s solutions aren’t seamless, as evidenced by that last vignette. Each year at Cannes, I see slim, gorgeous French people eating and drinking at outside cafes for hours, and having a much better time than I do on the Croisette. I have come to think it has less to do with school lunches and more with the vast amounts of nicotine they ingest to speed up metabolisms. Each year, as I run past them, late to a meeting at the Majestic, I half resolve to take up chain smoking so I can magically go from Way Before to After, which would make me look like a Frenchman. But then I somehow forget at that crucial moment at the airport, when the opportunity arises to load up on dozens of cartons of Lucky Strikes in the Duty Free shop before I fly home. And I just never take up chain smoking. I also don’t agree with Moore’s blanket assessment that America demonizes the drug trade to control its black population by putting it behind bars. But this film is teeming with good ideas and every lawmaker should see it, with an open mind. In this column, at least, let’s help Michael promote his movie to our crowd. It’s important to support a worthy filmmaker when he is on his back and not sitting next to Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly.
BART: Amen. But let’s move on. Finally, we are at the “moment-of-truth,” as Oscar ballots are out there and 6,261 Academy voters are making their choices. I don’t have a clue how it will come out; it has been that kind of year. Now you and I, Mike, believe that it’s important to remain impartial while the polls are open, but each of us has written admiringly about one specific picture or another. I’ve written about The Big Short, describing how Adam McKay has spent the last four and a half months campaigning for his film. I share his hope that a lot of people will see the movie because of the danger signs in the economy; a repeat of the 2008 financial disaster is an ominous possibility. You ran a very lengthy and thoughtful interview with Leonardo DiCaprio this week, describing The Revenant as “a masterpiece.” But here’s my question: Why did you let him slide on the film’s budget, which at $135 million made it a very risky proposition?
FLEMING: Glad you asked. I didn’t press because I had limited time and I agreed with DiCaprio’s assessment that everybody knew what they were getting into, and because The Revenant will not be historically defined by budget or hardship during production. It will be remembered for artistry and ambition. And now that it is headed for a global gross that will exceed $400 million, The Revenant might well empower the notion that it’s sometimes OK to take an impossibly big swing in the name of artistic ambition, just the way that Spotlight has reminded everyone why investigative journalism is vital. The other stuff becomes distracting white noise, over time. I preferred to spend my dinner with DiCaprio discussing the lessons he learned that made him this guy, who uses his fame to take risks. I saw the same reckless ambition in his performance in The Wolf Of Wall Street and if he keeps this up, imagine his highlight reel down the line when he’s receiving career retrospective awards. I look at the 2016 crop of Best Picture candidates, from The Revenant to Spotlight, Room, The Martian, Mad Max: Fury Road, Brooklyn and Bridge Of Spies — and even a couple that didn’t make the cut like Straight Outta Compton, Trumbo and Creed — and feel like it has been one of my favorite years to cover this race. It’s certainly the most competitive year I can remember.
BART: Back to The Revenant. That film reportedly went as much as $50 million over budget, reflecting the voracious appetite of its director. Now there’s nothing “wrong” with overages per se, but if a filmmaker has a virtually unlimited budget, aspiring for “greatness” becomes a lot easier than if a studio is cutting your budget. DiCaprio has worked as hard in the Oscar campaign as any star I can recall. He has doubtless equaled Adam McKay’s record of 40 Q&A sessions for guilds and Oscar events. He has been all over TV. Given his great success, why does he want his Oscar this ardently? Does he believe he’s made a great movie and wants to support it? Or is it mainly about the movie. McKay believes in the message of The Big Short; does Leo?
FLEMING: See, there you go, dialing up the white noise. Do you think it’s wrong for an actor to admit he’d like to win an Oscar? Every year I get nominated for the Publicists Guild Award, and lose. I think I’ve lost to bloggers named Paco, or Chachi, folks I’ve never heard of. I take my annual walk of shame and smile when my colleagues call me Susan Lucci. And I have nothing to place next to all my “participant” medals from square dancing, in my basement. Of course you want to win. In the Oscar race, you don’t win Oscars if you aren’t out there kissing babies and shaking hands like any political candidate. At least here, you don’t have to denigrate the opposition; you just have to freeze that smile while you pose for endless selfies, hoping the person you posed with isn’t a serial killer who gets caught just after posting your pictures on their Facebook page. Wait, Peter, before you answer, check out this from Michael Moore’s new film, Where To Invade Next:
BART: I could make a strong case for each of the Best Picture candidates: How can any dedicated film goer not admire the superb performances and storytelling mastery of Spielberg’s Bridge Of Spies (or not be perplexed by the Spielberg snubs of previous years, as I will discuss later)? How can audiences fail to admire the brilliant theatrics of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian or the courage of Room or the emotional depth of Brooklyn? And then there’s the brilliant enigma of Spotlight, a movie with an important story to tell and a fine cast to tell it. Some of us would have preferred a structure akin to that other journalistic epic, All The President’s Men, which focused on its two protagonists (and was buoyed by Redford and Hoffman). That’s why I hate the idea of a “Best Picture.” Sure, The Revenant was a “best picture” in its ferocious survivalist genre. But Spotlight was about survival, too. And arguably, a more touching journey.
FLEMING: I schlepped up to Boston and spent the day with those Boston Globe reporters as they prepared to premiere Spotlight to their colleagues and local Boston pols, and the real people played in the film by the cast. Those reporters are wonderful, earnest journalists. Instead of having stars in their eyes, you could see them thinking about the next injustice they were trying to expose. It is one of my favorite memories of this season and worth four hours driving up the I-95 to see that movie play in their home court. And I love the way Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer constructed their film as a true ensemble, and how the cast bought into that. Say, how about a clip from that new Michael Moore documentary Where To Invade Next?
BART: So it seems fair to ask: What will be the determining factors in these eleventh-hour decisions? I can’t read the minds of my fellow voters, but I decided to do some soul-searching about my own past votes. I feel good about some of them, uncertain about others. On reflection, some votes were honest assessments of professional merit, others were reactions to what I sensed were forces in the community. For example:
I voted for E.T. over Ghandi (1982): It was a petulant vote because I felt fellow voters (and the media) were succumbing to political correctness. And E.T. was a giddy delight.
Brokeback Mountain over Crash (2005): Voters seemed so eager to be “hip” about the “big issues” that they were “unhip” about Brokeback.
FLEMING: Fortunately, I don’t have a vote, but I agree with your choices. I still get a bit misty just hearing the Brokeback theme song. I think Terrence Howard’s cop confrontation scene in Crash was one of the most electric movie moments of 2005. I also believe those aging Academy voters, if not homophobic, were unable to accept a love story between men because Brokeback Mountain is a classic. Crash is not. By the way, have you seen this clip from Where To Invade Next?
BART: Saving Private Ryan over Shakespeare in Love (1998): Harvey’s Shakespeare campaign was pervasive, but would Spielberg’s great work be sidelined yet again?
Thelma & Louise over The Silence Of The Lambs (1999): Sure, Silence was theatrical, but Thelma was fiery and feminist.
All The President’s Men over Rocky (1976): Everyone in town was rooting for the great battler, but I’d seen heroic boxers before – when had anyone depicted a heroic journalist?
FLEMING: How does Saving Private Ryan not win, in any year? I’d have gone for Hannibal Lecter over Thelma & Louise, but agree about All The President’s Men. It is an all-time great American movie. But you could have made a case for Network or Taxi Driver, which also lost to Rocky that year.
BART: Good Will Hunting over Titanic (1997): OK, I’ll admit it: I really was rooting for those charming underdogs, Damon & Affleck, even more so after encountering Jim Cameron…..
FLEMING: I’d have given the Golden Guy to Titanic. Overwhelming, epic cinematic achievement. Cameron went 100% over budget and was so hell bent on realizing his vision that he waived his fee and his back end and only made money after Titanic became the biggest-grossing film of all time. Now, you forgot about the film that beat Cameron’s global gross record. I’m talking about Cameron’s own Avatar, which was beaten for Best Picture by a Hurt Locker film that cost as much as the Avatar craft services budget, probably. I thought the Academy got it right that year. Cameron’s 3D achievement was unprecedented, but the story was a bit clunky. I haven’t watched it again, but I’ve seen The Hurt Locker at least a dozen times. Nobody saw it when it got released, and The Hurt Locker was out of theaters by the time it won. Great f*cking movie. Hey, by the way, check out this clip from the new Michael Moore movie:
BART: Now, 2001: A Space Odyssey over Oliver! (1969); that was my first chance to vote and I felt it my obligation to support Kubrick over Hollywood traditionalism. Naturally, the film wasn’t even nominated.
FLEMING: Predates me but I recall as a kid loving Oliver!, which also beat The Lion In Winter, Romeo And Juliet and Rachel, Rachel (which I always thought was a made-up film in an episode of Seinfeld). Aside from Kubrick probably being unwilling to promote it, how the hell does 2001 not win an Oscar? It influenced every space movie made after that, including Ridley Scott’s Alien. But for that matter, how is it possible that Scott hasn’t won and didn’t get nominated for The Martian? You Academy voters are a puzzling bunch, Peter. And you forgot the most recent wide open Best Picture year, 2013. Despite that boorish hosting turn by Seth MacFarlane, Argo won after Ben Affleck got snubbed for a Best Director nom, and Zero Dark Thirty got submarined after it was condemned by three U.S. Senators over waterboarding scenes. The whole year was terrific: Amour, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life Of Pi, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook. That year had everything.
BART: So it’s true…voting can get strictly personal. It’s not always about professional excellence. It can also be about politics, personality and on-the-set experience. And this year other personal issues may come into play. Some Academy members feel this may be their last chance to cast votes before they’re declared too old and “inactive” (good for Spielberg for knocking this). Some might feel a “guilt” issue about diversity. All I know from past experience, Mike, is that if you were voting, too, we’d cancel each other out on our choices. This year, for sure, we’re on opposite sides of the street in terms of “best picture” preferences. Let’s not go into specifics; it’s just that you’re wrong.
FLEMING: It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong, or the last. All I know is, the entire English-speaking population saw Deadpool on President’s Day weekend. So how about going to see the new Michael Moore documentary? Oscar voters like you didn’t even give it a Best Documentary nomination. Talk about getting it wrong. Final clip from Michael Moore: