Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Peace to my twin brother, Manny Liyes, a great actor and writer, for adding his personal insights on the recent Oscar award show this week, honoring some of the best films of the year.



The Oscars have come and gone and a lot of opinions have been stimulated by the choice of nominees and winners by the Academy and the films themselves. I've always used the Oscars as a guide to begin my journey of seeing the best films of the year. It is a beginning and certainly should not be the end. Rarely does a film or a performance win an Oscar that is clearly the best. It usually happens once or twice during the entire show. 2008 was no different.
Last year's Oscar telecast was the lowest rated of any previous Oscar show. That may be partly due to the weak comedy stylings of Jon Stewart (smirking after reading every joke is not comedy!!) but that's an argument for another time. It's my own thing. I just don't find him funny. Only Richard Gere can smirk for two hours and call it art (see Pretty Woman). Well, anyway, no one watched the Oscars. Why? No one saw the movies. In the last 4 years, 20 films have received Best Picture nominations. Only three have earned $100 million dollars in this country (2006's The Departed, 2007's Juno and this year's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Last year was one of the strongest years in recent memory with classics like There Will Be Blood and Best Picture Winner No Country For Old Men going head to head in a category that included Michael Clayton, Atonement and Juno. All strong, unique films, worthy of accolades. Hollywood just hasn't produced the best films of these times and they are in desperate need of quality which makes 2008 strange because that's exactly what they got.
Superhero blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Iron Man didn't sacrifice quality in their quest to entertain. Wall E was a revelation that we all took for granted because of the consistently high level of Pixar's output. Even the James Bond series has gotten deep with another strong outing with Quantum of Solace. Best comedy? Tropic Thunder. A hilarious, loud, daring and profound satire of Hollywood itself featuring comeback kid number one in Robert Downey Jr. Hellboy II, Body Of Lies, Benjamin Button--all good films to come out of studios. Some made money, some didn't, but the attempt at quality cannot be overlooked. And it's exactly what was needed to boost this year's ratings. So what happens? Hollywood nominates a bunch of good independent films and overlooks their own classics for the top prizes.
I could debate the merits of The Dark Knight for hours and why it is the best picture of 2008 but the discussion on the Academy's choices runs deeper than personal taste or quality. Awards are a statement. That's why they give them out every year instead of every four like the Olympics. It doesn't mean anything to anyone except the system. It enables them to cultivate and alter their image in the public and establish a foundation for the year to come. They nominate independent films with strong messages and gutsy filmmaking to make statements for them. If Milk has so much to say, why was every studio passing on it? Why did it take over a decade to make? Hollywood needs to reflect the times and they do this by utilizing independent film to give them artistic legitimacy and social and political importance and relevance. There's nothing worse than a system that has no relevance. Anything outdated in this fast moving world is useless and leaves room for its replacement.
Now I love movies, films--whatever!! And I know that they can never be replaced. But their controllers can be. This is what these awards are for. So hot button issues like Prop 8 can be addressed through films they had no part in like Milk by rewarding them. Rebels like Sean Penn will not say no to a forum to speak and educate when it is there. It's no wonder he never appeared at these awards ceremonies until recent years, when his political activism and socially conscious art began to have more purpose and focus as our world got worse. Yet the Academy still saw fit to snub his more potent film last year, Into The Wild. Hey, don't get me wrong, I loved the human rights message and I applaud Penn and Dustin Lance Black for their gracious and eloquent speeches. There should be no control on people's personal lives because it only brings out the worst in them. And Milk certainly depicts that worst coming out of people, gay and straight alike.
Yet Hollywood has used these independent films to give themselves credibility, use foreign films like Slumdog Millionaire to spread a message of tolerance and inclusion of all races even though they had no hand or will want any part of making films like these in the future. And they will not reward their best like The Dark Knight or Wall E because of the stigma against comics as true literature and animated films as films and not just really good cartoons. They must be an entity that has no room for any greatness outside of it's accepted template. That's why actors who play real life figures generally win (i.e. George C. Scott - Patton, Ben Kingsley - Gandhi, Daniel Day-Lewis - My Left Foot, Jamie Foxx - Ray, Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote). All great performances with a leg up because they played real life figures. It's more legitimate than playing a person from "scratch." Unless important social concerns are addressed in a performance. Ray Milland won Best Actor for Lost Weekend in 1945 for playing an alcoholic. Fredric March won the same award in 1946 for playing a WWII veteran having difficulty adjusting to civilian life in The Best Years of Our Lives. Real life. Olivia DeHavilland won Best Actress in 1949 for The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James' classic novel. Laurence Olivier won in 1948 playing Hamlet. What's more artistically legit than Shakespeare? It allows for the perpetuation of an image of artists with their feet planted firmly in the world. This is a very young art form that is still developing. Like baseball slowly desegregating itself, film is slowly (like a sloth) allowing other races and the world to express themselves through this medium. And I mean allow. It takes millions of dollars to make an independent film. Do you have that? I nearly went broke putting on one of my plays off-off-off Broadway!!! They are not giving this up easily.
Their image control certainly made Penn's win possible (and I am in no way impugning the work of this master) despite a performance from Mickey Rourke that was for the ages. A work that in time will stand alongside Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Charlize Theron in Monster (to name a few) as one the greatest, most explosive, transformative and iconic acting turns ever witnessed on film. Much has been made of Rourke just playing a character like himself. And the parallels between the role and himself are quite uncanny. But so is Brando's work in Last Tango in Paris. In fact, much of that character's background and entire chunks of dialogue are straight from Mr. Brando's own experiences. Does that weaken the greatness of that performance? It is maybe the definitive performance of his career, more so than his Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront or his Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. What makes Brando's Last Tango and Rourke's Wrestler great is just such real life input. It takes bravery to use your own life up there and be naked. Because acting is really storytelling and in order to tell one you need to find an understanding or else your story is without an end. How do you search for that understanding when it can change your own life? Most actors--NOO!! Most people would shy away from such self epiphany. But Rourke attacked it, he built his body up, he poured his blood, sweat and tears over this role and now his life is better because of it. I relate to Mickey Rourke for that. As a fellow brother in acting trying to find his way, I love him for it. If a man doesn't receive an award for that you don't question the man or the work. You look at the system and who's offering the fool's gold.


Manny Liyes graduated Baruch College as an English major who spent more time in the theatre than in the classroom. Having studied at The Acting Studio, Creative Acting Company and The School for Film and Television, he has appeared in several films and plays such as Cactus Flower, Breaking Walls, Toughing Slumaria, Six Degrees of Separation and Barcinda Forest. In 2006 Manny wrote, produced, directed and starred in the comedy Burke, his first play. He then wrote, produced, directed and co-starred in his second play, Analog Friend, for the 2007 NYC International Fringe Festival. He returned to the NYC International Fringe Festival this year with his third play, Choke City, which he also starred in, produced and directed. Most recently, he completed his fourth play, Savage International. Manny has also written two novels, which he hopes to see in print someday and hundreds of poems he does not.

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