Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Herewith some reflections on this year’s Academy Awards from a longtime film critic currently not reviewing movies. Of course I watched the Oscars as I always do; they provide the kind of entertainment that yesteryear’s really pretentious B-movies used to. But this time round they were mostly just plain boring; still, a few kudos and a number of Bronx cheers don’t seem uncalled-for.

Things began with the very sad appearance of Kirk Douglas as presenter of the Best Supporting Actress award to Melissa Leo of The Fighter. Douglas, saddled with the aftereffects of a stroke, severely speech-impaired and looking like Methuselah on a bad hair day, should probably not be exhibited in public. But far worse was the carrying on of Ms. Leo in a dress bedizened with tiny mirrors, no doubt to attract the attention of fellow narcissists. She had already indulged in an elaborate pre-Oscar self-promotion campaign, which alone should have disqualified her. We would have been spared her lengthy dithering replete with Pinteresque pauses, breathlessly self-serving gush, a laundry list of invoked names, and a general air of participating in a ceremony dedicated entirely to herself. An obscenity inherited from her movie role was not quite obliterated; left intact, it would have revealed her as the vulgarian she seems to be.
The co-hosts, James Franco and Anne Hathaway, were meant to add young viewer appeal, but a prerecorded introductory routine for them already seemed hopelessly contrived. Otherwise they managed to be fairly innocuous, except when Franco appeared in drag as Marilyn Monroe. He did however, look bored or uncomfortable most of the time, whereas Ms. Hathaway effervesced like the queen of the Junior Prom. She did thus contribute some welcome sparkle, though I am bothered by those jet black designer eyebrows, saucer eyes, and large mouth red enough to enrage a bull, rather like a creature born not so much of woman as of Pixar. She had more costume changes than a runway model, but she did sing a bit rather engagingly.

The best Supporting Actor award to Christian Bale, likewise from The Fighter, was yet another reward for overacting. It should, in my view, have gone to Geoffrey Rush, as splendid in his supporting role as Colin Firth was in the lead of The King’s Speech, deservedly winning the Best Actor Oscar.

I have yet to catch Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but am prepared to agree with her Best Actress award. She has been a wonderful performer since her first film role at age eleven, and even her convincing ballet dancing in this movie (I have seen excerpts) strikes me as worthy of recognition.

The Song Oscar had three dismally tuneless numbers competing, and even the fourth and winner—Randy Newman’s “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3—was only minimally better. On the other hand, Newman’s speech was witty and modest, assuredly one of the evening’s best. He noted that if his category had had five contenders like the others, that fifth might well have beaten his.

The other distinguished speech came from the white-haired David Seidler, who won Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech. Tersely and unostentatiously, he spoke on behalf of older scenarists and stammerers. Charming, too, was Sandra Bullock’s presenter’s banter with celebrities in the audience, better managed than a similar undertaking by Jeff Bridges.

The only King’s Speech winner who, though well deserving of the Direction award, came off unimpressively was Tom Hooper with a mostly flatfooted tribute to his mother. Nor was I impressed with a brief guest appearance by Billy Crystal, a former host, even though it elicited a standing ovation. These days, standing ovations have become as commonplace as hellos, and more often than not undeserved.

Testifying to the Academy members’ benightedness was their completely ignoring the French candidate for the Foreign Language award, Of Gods and Men, by Xavier Beauvais. A story about gallant martyred French monks in North Africa, beautifully written, directed and acted, it did not get so much as the slightest nod.

Another folly was the innovation of having ten films compete for Best Picture. This meant racing through ten items without indication of any special merit, and, to make matters worse, doing this with King George VI’s climactic speech on the accompanying sound track. This must have seemed mystifying to anyone not knowing what it was, and a dead giveaway to others of what the winner would be.

Three further questions arise. Why does the talented Helena Bonham Carter have hair to make a Gorgon envious? Why must the vastly overrated Scarlet Johansson’s hair look as if she came from running a windswept mile without having brought a comb? And why hasn’t the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, who numbers among his many achievements making the Coen brothers look much better than they are--despite nine nominations and numerous Society of American Cinematographers’ and Britain’s BAFTA awards—won a single Oscar?

Finally, as always, there were the absurd dresses, but I’d rather not even get started on those. This year, several of them looked metallic, notably Annette Benning’s, which appeared to be artfully cobbled together out of pieces of surplus armor from the year’s historical epics.


  1. Hey, now, I'm fond of Melissa Leo! And as I've said elsewhere, I hated The King's Speech. Even so, this was enormously entertaining to read. Perhaps now with this space, you will -- and should -- write about film more frequently. The movie review form needs every boost of energy and variety of perspective it can get. One John Simon is worth much more than a hundred Hobermans or a wagon-load of Zoller Seitz acolytes.


  2. Thanks for the great piece, and the heads-up on the film "Of Gods and Men."

  3. Mr. Simon, you question whether or not the Coen brothers have ever won an Oscar. Yes, they have -- 4 Oscars, in fact.

  4. The piece questions why Roger Deakins hasn't won. It doesn't say anything about awards for the Coen brothers.

  5. Mr. Rienzi, John Simon questioned why Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, had not yet won an Oscar, not The Brothers Coen. His point that a mediocre director often reaps the credit for a visually strong film that was sowed and cultivated by a great cinematographer is beyond dispute.

    Perhaps "Pauline Sarris" wishes to weigh in on this issue.

  6. That's the old Simon I remember from the National Review days!

    One nit I'd like to pick:

    "...the Foreign Language award, Of Gods and Men, by Xavier Beauvais. A story about gallant martyred French monks in North Africa..."

    Even if it is likely those monks were "martyred" (though that is a technical theological determination to be made by the Catholic Church), a more appropriate, and accurate term would be "slaughtered" -- for, they were stabbed and beheaded by a commando of Muslims enforcing Islamic law (cf. the Belgian convert to Islam, Yahya Michot, who according to sociologist and journalist Caroline Fourest justified the slaughter thusly, and to boot currently occupies the esteemed position of chief editor for one of the best academic journals on the history and doctrine of Islam, Muslim World, published by the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut).

    On the other hand, if the film is the only information Mr. Simon is going by, I don't blame him for his relative illiteracy about Islam.

  7. >Joe Carlson wrote: Perhaps "Pauline
    >Sarris" wishes to weigh in on this issue.

    I've known "Pauline Sarris" (whose actual name is Tony) for years on the past-films newsgroup. He's a gifted, humorous, tiresome child in his 40s. He does actually consider John the greatest film critic of them all, & admires -- as we all probably do -- John's judicial intelligence, his personal style, his individuality, and his acerbity.

  8. Mr. Simon, I've admired your writing since before the days of your succinct summary so many years ago, of the British transfer of "Carousel" to Broadway at Lincoln Center, "...cast without regard to race or talent..."

    You summarize and critique with the ultimate economy. Terse, yet brilliant!

  9. It is especially refreshing, John, to see your erudite and insightful writings on mediocre popular film and television productions with which many of us are only too familiar. Your writings on award shows are especially good at revealing how the ordinary cannot be made extraordinary merely by giving them shiny gold trophies.

  10. Please continue commenting on films. I particularly appreciate your praising "Of Gods and Men," which made a deep impression on me and sent me to the book, "The Monks of Tibhirine." The more you can write about films, the better. I still dig out your books of film criticism to check on what you have said about this one or that.
    But why "Il Vitelloni" as one of your top favorites of all time? It is certainly very good, but better than "Bicycle Thief"? "Forbidden Games"? "Fallen Idol"? "Kanal"? etc.
    And what did you think of octogenarian Wadja's "Katyn"?

  11. "One John Simon is worth much more than a hundred Hobermans"

    "That's the old Simon I remember from the National Review days!"

    Amen to both comments! I just re-read Mr. Simon's collections of film reviews from the seventies with great joy (and nostalgia for when I first read them as a teenager in the eighties) and am very pleased to discover he has a blog. Like others here, I am primarily interested in his opinions and writings on movies. Have these been collected post-seventies in a book or internet cache?