Armchair Oscars – 2016

| March 3, 2017

Best Picture

THE WINNER:
La La Land (Directed by Damien Chazelle)
Moonlight (Directed by Barry Jenkins)
The Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High WaterHidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea


MY CHOICE:
O.J.: Made in America (Directed by Ezra Edelman)
My Nominees:
Fences (Denzel Washington), Jackie (Pablo Larrain), Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a sweet romantic musical confection about the aspirations of a handsome jazz musician and a pretty budding actress set amid the lush ocean-side landscape of The City of Angels was the darling of the 2017 awards season winning six Golden Globes, five BAFTA awards, plus Best Film honors from the Screen Actor’s Guild, the AFI and honors from film critics associations in Boston, Atlanta, Denver, Ohio, Detroit, Florida, Houston, Las Vegas, London, New York, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Venice and of course, Los Angeles.  Then on Oscar night it was named Best Picture . . . for about five minutes.

In one of the biggest snafus in Oscar history, presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope just before the announcement of the year’s biggest award.  Looking befuddled and confused, Beatty hesitated at the announcement and then turned the envelope over to his former co-star who announced Chazelle’s musical as the year’s Best Picture winner.  For five brief minutes, everyone in the world stood under the misapprehension that La La Land had won including the film’s producers who crowded the stage to thank their wives and their agents.  But a commotion ensued behind them as the blunder was revealed.  It was not La La Land but Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight that had won the year’s Best Picture.  Brian Cullinan of Price Waterhouse Coopers had handed Beatty the duplicate envelope for the Best Actress winner Emma Stone.

To be honest, the blunder got no complaints from yours truly.  While I think La La Land is a perfectly lovely musical, I didn’t regard it with the revere that other critics had (maybe it’s because I don’t live in L.A.).  Meanwhile Moonlight was an achingly powerful examination of a fatherless boy’s struggles with his identity while growing up in the Miami projects; of how his environment and the people he meets shape the man he will become.  It takes place over 20 years as we see the little boy, nicknamed Little, grow into a teenager who reclaims his given name Chiron, and later into an adult as he becomes a burly drug dealer nicknamed Black.  All three chapters of Chiron’s life shape his world and the emotional process that creates the identity that he forges for himself.

By the time Oscar night rolled around I had settled in to the fact that there was no way that Moonlight had a chance to win – I predicted that La La Land would be the winner, with Fences as a dark horse.  I personally think that Moonlight was the best and most challenging film among the nominees and I was proud of the voters for stepping outside of their comfort zones and choosing an important film that was really about something, a film that that spoke to issues of personal and sexual identity without making them seem preachy or overdrawn.

And yet, as much as I love the film, I’m not choosing it for my Armchair Oscar.  While it is a great film I have to confess that I struggle a bit with the ending.  While Chiron arrives at a moment of realization and reconciliation, I think the last scene was missing something.  Yes, Chiron confesses his love to Kevin, the only man who ever touched his heart, but the end runs up to an image that I felt pulled the conclusion a bit short.  Were he and Kevin in a relationship?  What is to become of their lives after this moment?  Perhaps I could settle on the idea that the film is leaving me something to ponder, but I felt that there was one more beat missing from that ending to make the film perfect.  I know that sounds like I’m nitpicking, but it was something that I struggled to work out on the drive home from the theater.

Never-the-less, Moonlight was brilliant film.  It was not only proof that the Academy was taking their craft seriously but it was also the perfect film to reverse the embarrassing controversy from the previous year with the all-white nomination roster that led to #OscarSoWhite.  The diverse nominees for this year were not simple apologies.  They were quality films that proved that the Academy had listened and responded in kind.

My favorite film of the year was part of that diversity in that it focused on an African-American celebrity who seemed to have no use for race as a driving force to get ahead, but never-the-less as its backdrop, the racial history of America as it existed in the last third of the 20th century.  Ezra Edelman’s brilliant Citizen Kane-style documentary O.J.: Made in America is about as stunning, relevant and monumentally important as it gets.  At a time when any and every piece of recent bleeding history can be trotted out and turned into exploitative trash, it is unusual that one of the most exploited of recent historical events is turned into a film that is not only insightful but an important portrait of our recent cultural history.

The story of O.J. Simpson might have been easy to recount as populist trash, hashing out the facts for the easily-satiated purveyors of tabloid media.  Director Ezra Edelman, however, is smarter than that.  He knows, full well, what an unbelievably dense story he has on his hands.  He’s interested in more than just the bloody glove and the white Ford Bronco.  His is a brilliantly executed piece of full-blooded investigative journalism, a look into the life of a sports legend that became famous during the worst racial tensions in American history and gained infamy at a moment when those race relations were becoming the focus of a newly global visual media.  There was bloodshed and violence in the atmosphere and not just at Rockingham.

O.J. Made in America is one of the great documentaries of our time that is also about our time.  Like Shoah or Eyes on the Prize, it takes a subject that we think we know all too well and expands it to the broader spectrum, not just of the facts of the case but of the world that helped to inspire it.  In this case the rise and fall of a once-great football star who made himself a celebrity brand name and then, arguably, an even bigger celebrity for the murder trial and acquittal that rocked the nation nearly a quarter of a century ago.  Edelman’s film pans back to see Simpson’s rise and fall in conjunction with an America that was racially at odds with itself and brought the problem to light using as its fulcrum a man who became famous by refusing to even acknowledge his heritage.  “I’m not black,” Simpson said, “I’m O.J.”

Never-the-less, this documentary, which runs eight hours and is divided into five parts as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, wishes to see this man through the broader spectrum of race relations in this country in the closing years of the 20th century.  O.J.’s rise and fall seemed to parallel an America that had racial fire in its blood especially in the waning years of the 1960s.

*   *   *   *   *

Part One deals with his origins, of how young Orenthal James Simpson came out of projects and entered USC in the mid-60s and became a prodigy, a celebrity on campus who no one seemed to single out or acknowledge as black.  He was young, he was good looking, he was a terrific football player who won the Heisman Trophy in 1968 and became a celebrity.  Yet, it was a celebrity that was bred behind the closed-in walls of USC.  Outside those walls were the Watts riots, the murder of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, the rise of The Black Panthers and, in short, the fires of racial discord between the black community of L.A. and the LAPD that would continue for the next thirty years.  Edelman shows us the high walls of the L.A. Coliseum, seemingly an island that kept O.J. safe and sheltered from a sea of racial discord.

O.J.’s rise to celebrity was rather benign in comparison with more vocal, African-American athletes like Muhammad Ali who was refusing to be drafted, and John Carlos and Tommie Smith who were seen to raise their fists in protest on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Olympic Games.  In the midst of their protest, O.J. minded his P’s and Q’s, hung out (and seemed visibly uncomfortable) with celebrities like Bob Hope and Joe Namath.  It might have seemed that he was kowtowing, but in a way he was charting his own revolutionary path, becoming the first African-American spokesman for several brands, most notably Hertz in a series of commercials that featured the Running Back racing through an airport terminal on foot as bystanders cheered him on.  We are caught off-guard when O.J.’s childhood friend Joe Bell points out that all of the bystanders in the commercial (by design) just happen to be white.  Unlike other athletes of color at the time, O.J. charted a path to celebrity by courting white America.

Personally, something was driving Simpson to succeed.  The movie opens with a voice-over by the man himself who admits that his dream was simply to be loved for being O.J.  He wanted to be famous, he wanted it badly and he came through a difficult childhood to get there.  He grew up in the projects raised by his mother while father was only an occasional presence.  His father was gay, and Bell retorts that this was the most shameful avenue for a black man.  “Back in our day,” he says,”that was the worst thing in the world that you could ever think about, an African American man being homosexual.”  The particulars of his early childhood can be seen in the choices that O.J. would make for most of his life particularly with regards to women, relations with friends and the construct of the identity that he would forge for himself.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Two focuses on Simpson’s life and career after leaving the NFL, dealing mainly with his instantly difficult relationship with Nicole Brown and his rampant womanizing.  He moves further away from the black community, buying a house in Brentwood – his “Graceland,” a friend recalls.  The difficulties with Nicole begin almost immediately – after their first date, a friend of Brown notes that Simpson’s future wife had ripped blue jeans to which she responded “He got a little rough.”  The tumult that follows is interesting in that Edelman’s shows us how O.J.’s image made way for a lot of permissiveness to his destructive behavior, in particular domestic abuse, in part because of the misinterpretations of masculinity and the people who shared his immediate space.  Joe Bell, a childhood friend of Simpson, remembers how much of O.J.’s ability to manipulate, how he manipulated his friends and how he manipulated women.  He recalls how, as a teenager, O.J. blatantly stole Al Cowling’s girlfriend Marguerite Whitley and later married her then years later divorced her to be with Nicole.

At this moment, O.J.’s aspirations fell through as he struggled to find work as an actor and then a businessman.  He lobbied for, and lost the role of Coalhouse Walker in Milos Foreman’s Ragtime (he lost it to Howard Rollins, Jr.)  He talked about one day running a movie studio at the moment when his aspirations to be an actor were proving to be fruitless – he even fumbled as a color commentator and was dismissed from Monday Night Football.  Then, while the larger pieces of his post-football career are falling apart, he struggles to maintain control in his marriage.  Reports start to surface of domestic abuse

At the same moment that O.J.’s relationship with Nicole was becoming dangerous, Edelman again widens the scope to show us the parallel of the state of race relations between the LAPD and poor and middle class minorities were heating up, ultimately ignited by two acquittals: First of the woman guilty of the murder of teenager Latasha Harlins and second, the police who had beaten Rodney King.

King’s incident, famously caught on tape by bystander George Holliday, set off an international firestorm when the acquittal led to the L.A. riots.  How this ties in with O.J. is kind of fascinating.  We learn later in the film that some of the jurors in O.J.’s murder trial voted not guilty as revenge for the acquittal in the King case.  That’s the greatness of this film (and why it gets my Armchair Oscar for Best Picture), it establishes a foundation for what would come later in the trial when the “race card” came into play, when Mark Fuhrman and the entire LAPD became the public face of racial hatred and the minorities effected by it finally have their moment to strike back.

Yet, much of the second segment deals with the deterioration of the relationship between O.J. and Nicole.  Edelman is not shy about establishing O.J.’s control over his former wife, his jealously over her association with other men and his anger and outrage over her attempts to move past him and forge a life and a career for herself.  Nicole was young, beautiful and a free spirit and it seemed to anger O.J. who attempted to exert control over the most mundane aspects of her life.  Over and over again we move through stories of O.J.’s physical and psychological abuse and his manipulation not only of her but of the police.  Nicole, meanwhile, was chained to O.J. by the presence of their children, even still she finally arrived as a moment when she was ready to cut him completely off.  Nicole’s friend, actress Robin Greer, ends this segment with a bone-jangling observation: “There was something almost unattainable about her that he couldn’t quite control, and I think that was part of the attraction, and I think in the final analysis that’s what got her killed.”

*   *   *   *   *

Part three deals with the immediate aftermath of the murders and the lead-up to the trial.  We see the personal and national response to the murders – the anger of whites and the embracing of O.J. by blacks – the investigation and then Simpson’s famous 75 mile chase by LAPD down the Los Angeles freeway to his home in Brentwood while holding a gun to his own head.  While the episode is pretty straight forward and sticks mainly to the facts, Edelman allows and provokes obvious questions: If he was innocent, why did Simpson run?  Was he really suicidal?  Why didn’t the LAPD simply block his path?  What was at stake for the already shaky reputation of a police department that was seen as racist and violent in a chase that was being seen around the world?  How could they end this pursuit without having it end in tragedy?

After Simpson is finally detained, Edelman spends at least half an hour setting the stage for what will become The Trial of the Century.  In analytical detail, we are introduced one by one to all the players:
Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, Kato Kaelen, Alan Dershowitz, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman, Fred Goldman, Gil Garcetti, Barry Sheck, Robert Shapiro, Lance Ito, Daryl Gates, Denise Simpson.  The cast of characters is laid out and so are all the elements for the trial to come, including the difficult jury selection in which Clark disastrously underestimates the input of black women and Chris Darden’s unwise assertion that placing the N-word before black jurors would cloud their judgment.  For Darden and Clark, it becomes painfully obvious that, in many ways, their prosecution team is woefully outmatched and overwhelmed in relation to Simpson’s far superior “Dream Team.”  It’s an uneven match that would point the way for the verdict that was to come.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Four deals, at great length, with the trial itself.  Edelman does a brilliant job of compacting a year’s worth of evidence and testimony and investigation into a two hour package that allows us to see both the prosecution and the defense in the cold light of day; how the prosecution mishandled and misread the situation; how the defense manipulated and redirected certain pieces of invaluable information to pull it back in their favor (i.e. redecorating O.J.’s house to make it “more black”) and, of course, pulling out all the dirty laundry of the LAPD out into the open – in particular the difficult, and apparently racist career trek of one Mark Fuhrman.  Was the racism relevant to the case?  Why didn’t Judge Ito throw it out?

What we get from this chapter is a clear understanding of why the prosecution team lost, and not just from the ill-advised stunt of having O.J. try on the gloves.  We see that the defense uses the larger scope of what is at stake and, in many ways, uses the outside forces that would propel O.J. to be set free.  It uses the larger issue of the LAPD, the racially-charged atmosphere and the fact that much of the jury was black and had built up a deep hatred of the LAPD after years of abuse and mistreatment.

The recalling of the trial can and will inevitably feel like tabloid renderings, as the unfeeling retelling of a shameful miscarriage of justice seen through the filter of luxuriating and exploiting the tragic deaths of two innocent human beings.  That’s the tapestry of these events no matter how in-depth and investigative they are presented.  However, what separates O.J. Made in America from other recollections of the case is the addition of Edelman’s interview with Bill Hodgman, the Deputy District Attorney who served with Clark and Darden as part of the prosecution team.  In the midst of recalling the events of the trial, Edelman takes us through the scenario of the murders step by gruesome step.  He recalls how Nicole would have answered the door expecting Ron Goldman but instead was met by Simpson who hit her in the head with the blunt of the knife and then stabbed her repeatedly and cut her throat.  He recalls how Goldman might have arrived at the scene before or after the murder and was struck from behind by Simpson who stabbed him about the face and neck.  Then – in a heart-rending moment – Hodgman recalls the stab wound to Ron’s abdomen that caused him to bleed out, how his abdomen filled with blood and ultimately caused his death.  Hodgman’s step-by-step analysis followed by stomach-turning photos of the wounds brings the story home and reminds us of the horror of the crime in question and reminds us of what a shameful circus the whole trial had been.

*   *   *   *   *

Part Five begins with the verdict followed by a joyous celebration by blacks all over the country for the acquittal of a man who had, ironically, become famous by erasing his own race and courting the same white America that now vilified him in the face of his acquittal.  What follows becomes the irony of O.J. Made in America, after his subsequent 1997 civil trial – in which the Brown and Goldman families were awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages, thereby finding Simpson “responsible” for the respective murders – O.J.’s life falls into the gutter.  He is taunted by whites where ever he goes.  He is no longer allowed in the white country clubs, of which he had been the sole black member.  He struggles.  In one humiliating moment, just before the house at Brentwood is demolished, Simpson and his manager Mark Gilbert engineer a fake home video of the former running back looking emotional as he takes down the flag at Rockingham and then shooing away the apparently random person (actually Gilbert) who is operating the camera

Still trying to hold on to whatever celebrity he had left, O.J. moves to South Florida (mostly to escape the Goldman family) and begins a shameful spiral, associating himself with unscrupulous hangers-on, thugs and sycophants.  He makes desperate grabs at making money by peddling his sports memorabilia and hiring a ghost writer to pen a nose-thumbing hypothetical account of the murders called “If I Did It,” for which the Goldman’s were rewarded handsomely by the decree of the civil case.  And worse, the release of an embarrassing Punk’d-style pay-per-view special called “Juiced” – a long way from the early shaping of his image by Chrysler and Hertz.

And then, of course, Edelman finally arrives at the bottom of Simpson’s barrel – a stupid, reckless stunt in which O.J. tried to steal back valuable memorabilia from a peddler that he accused of stealing from him.  He went to trial and, with no superstar defense team, he was this time given 33 years in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center.  The prosecution not only had its revenge but handed down the verdict exactly 13 years to the day after he was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ronald Goldman, Simpson was found guilty of all charges.

I’ve seen O.J. Made in America three times now and every time it reveals something new (an eight-hour documentary inevitably will).  It’s about so many things.  It’s about race, murder, domestic abuse, the rise to fame, the fall from grace.  It’s about criminal justice, grieving families, race relations, police procedures.  It’s about our culture and how it sees itself.  It’s about how we see our celebrities at their best and at their worst.  It’s about the dangers of the need for celebrities.  At the center it’s about Citizen Simpson, a flawed individual who had it all and only had himself to blame for letting it all blow away.

 

Best Actor

THE WINNER:
Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea)
The Nominees:
Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantasic), Denzel Washington (Fences)


MY CHOICE:
A (The )

My Nominees: A (B), A (B), A (B), A (B)

Adam Driver (Paterson),
A (B),

You

Best Actress

THE WINNER:
Emma Stone (La La Land)
The Nominees: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)


MY CHOICE:
Natalie Portman (Jackie)
My Nominees:
Amy Adams (Arrival), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Jessica Chastain (Miss Sloan), Lily Collins (Rules Don’t Apply), Taraji P. Henson (Hidden Figures), Ruth Negga (Loving), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

The

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About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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