It is no coincidence that the three-month strike by members of the Writers Guild of America ended just in time to mount the production of the 80th Annual Academy Awards. It's the biggest night of the year for the movie industry and the second-biggest (after Super Bowl Sunday) for television. It has also become a prime showcase for advertisers, some of whom choose to place their biggest and best commercials of the year in the Oscar telecast, safely away from the intense competition of Super Bowl ad derby and the Monday morning quarterbacking that follows.
Certainly, the presentation on ABC this Sunday of the Academy Awards stands to receive greater scrutiny than usual. Because of the strike, indefatigable producer Gil Cates has had to scramble to pull together the production; host Jon Stewart and his writers have had less time than usual to craft a monologue that will impress professional and armchair critics; and the millions of television viewers who still enjoy glamorous Hollywood traditions have been craving an award show fix since the strike left the Golden Globes telecast in a shambles.
In short, all indicators point toward increased interest in this year's big show by the industry and the audience alike.
What a shame, then, that the movies that are at the center of this year's gala are such a collective letdown. I'll be shocked if ratings for this year's show are not lower than last year's telecast. If I'm being honest, as American Idol judge Simon Cowell might say, the only movie among this year's Best Picture nominees that is of any interest to anyone outside of the media and related businesses is the heartfelt teen-pregnancy comedy Juno, a big hit at multi-plexes and shopping malls across the land. (Currently, it is also the movie to beat in this week's JackMyers Media Industry Poll.) Similarly, the young star of that film, Ellen Page, is the Best Actress nominee who matters the most to most of the movie-going public (that would be young people). Me, I'm rooting for Julie Christie to take home the Best Actress award for her heartbreaking performance as an Alzheimer's victim in Away From Her, but that's because I'm from another era and have been a fan of Ms. Christie's since the days of Don't Look Now, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo. Even so, I would be very pleased to see Miss Page win at Sunday's ceremony. But I don't think she will.
What bothers me about the other nominees for Best Picture – Atonement, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and Michael Clayton – is that there isn't a movie in the pack that delivered an entertainment experience equal to that of so many of the drama series that the broadcast and pay and basic cable networks offered last year. That's not to say that any of them are bad movies. But none of them have generated a level of buzz equal to that of the best television series of 2007, most of them still on their respective networks or set to return sometime this year.
It seems movies just can't keep up with television these days, especially television drama. As I sat through a Sunday matinee of the very overrated Atonement, for example, I couldn't help but think about the review screeners of The Wire that were waiting for me at home, or the episode of Friday Night Lights I had recorded two days earlier but had not yet watched. My mind even drifted to the delightfully twisted BBC drama series Shameless (telecast in the United States first on BBC America and later on Sundance Channel), which features a very early (and very winning) performance by Atonement star James McEvoy.
Come to think of it, the movies celebrated at the 2007 Academy Awards had almost as little collective impact as this year's batch. But at least we had Helen Mirren, fresh off her twin television triumphs Elizabeth I and Prime Suspect VII; Forest Whitaker, who had just completed a triumphant turn on The Shield; American Idol alumna Jennifer Hudson, and young Hollywood superstar Leonardo DiCaprio among the nominees. Indeed, one must go back to the nominated movies of 2005 – Brokeback Mountain, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck and the documentary March of the Penguins among them – to find films people seemed genuinely excited about at the time.
I have to admit that, for the first time in my adult life, if I did not have to watch the Academy Awards as part of my job description I would probably go to bed early during this year's telecast, or at least allow myself to fall asleep while watching. Because unless Juno pulls an upset, I really don't care about the outcome in any category.
As an alternative to sleep, perhaps at 10 p.m. I'll click over to Breaking Bad on AMC. I am so locked into this aggressively fascinating show that I don't know if I can stand the wait between recording it on Sunday and watching it on Monday. No movie in all of 2007 or in 2008 to date has impressed me as much as Bad – or, for that matter, AMC's other recent foray into weekly dramatic television Mad Men, the complex period drama about advertising executives in the early Sixties.
Breaking Bad, about a 50-year-old chemistry teacher with inoperable lung cancer (and an uncooperative HMO) who disastrously dabbles in the manufacturing and distribution of crystal meth as a means of providing for his pregnant wife and his physically challenged teenage son before his passing, is a perfect example of the bold, ballsy, brilliant dramatic work being done on series television today. Surely, if Bad were a feature film rather than a television series it would be a big part of Hollywood's biggest night. Come to think of it, Emmy recognition doesn't seem adequate for the performance series star Bryan Cranston is delivering in this show. He should be honored with an Oscar!