The Oscars take a trip to Paris

Tom Loftus

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The average American probably knows as much about French culture as the character of Ricky Smith’s mother in the 1985 John Cusack cult comedy “Better Off Dead.”

Just to refresh your memory – or create a strange new one – it’s the movie in which “Booger,” a/k/a “Charles De Mar” – Curtis Armstrong from the “Revenge of the Nerds” films – snorts real snow (“Do you have any idea what the street value of this mountain is?”), and tells Cusack (“Lane Meyer”), who is seeking advice on how to ski the imposing K-12: “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way: turn.” (And of course, there’s the ubiquitous paperboy chasing Cusack throughout the movie: “I want my two dollars!”)

Hosting a foreign exchange student from France, Mrs. Smith – mother of the big-boned Ricky – tries to prepare a dinner that the lovely young “Monique Junot” (Diane Franklin) will surely appreciate: “In honor of our special guest, I’ve created dinner mon dieu (note: “mon dieu” means “My God!”) – including Frannch fries … Frannch dressing … and Frannch bread. And to drink (she raises a bottle of Perrier water), Pay-Roo!”

Watching this year’s Academy Awards may be a similarly bewildering experience for both the average American movie fan, and our French des amis across the Atlantic.

We don’t get them, and they don’t get us.

Among the favorites to earn Best Film nods when the nominees are announced next Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7:30 a.m. CST are:

• a story set in Paris in the 1930s, about a young boy who lives in the walls of a train station;

• a story set in Paris in the present day, about a writer with romanticized notions of Paris in the 1920s who actually gets to relive that era for himself;

• a French film, starring French actors, set in the Hollywood of the fading silent film era of the late 1920s; and

• a story about an English boy’s beloved horse, which is shipped off to France to serve in the cavalry in World War I.

France hasn’t drawn this much interest from the United States since its gift to all of us Américains grossiers, the Statue of Liberty, was first displayed in New York Harbor in 1886.

All four of those aforementioned films – in order, “Hugo,” “Midnight in Paris,” “The Artist” and “War Horse” – are worthy contenders for the gold-plated, 8-1/2-pound statuette (officially, the Academy Award of Merit) that was officially dubbed “Oscar” in 1939.

Other top contenders for Best Picture include “The Descendants,” in which George Clooney’s rich Hawaii land owner learns the truth about his comatose wife; “The Help,” in which the gifted Viola Davis, as Aibileen, gives her friend, southern society girl Skeeter (Emma Stone), anecdotes for a book about life as an African American housekeeper caring for white families in Mississippi in the 1960s; “Moneyball,” in which Brad Pitt plays Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, who tries to figure out how to win with no payroll dollars; and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” director David Fincher’s violent, frenetic film about a journalist (David Craig) working with a young, punk computer hacker (Rooney Mara) to search for a long-missing niece.

With the new convoluted system that the Academy has adopted for selecting Best Picture nominees, there could be as few as five or as many as 10 films nominated this year.

And if “Moneyball” or “The Help” make the list, a healthy number of viewers will likely tune in to pull for Pitt, Jonah Hill, Davis and Stone.

The question, though, is whether Americans have enough of a rooting interest in the four aforementioned “French” films – or in the other leading contenders for accolades, as presented at Hollywood’s annual self-aggrandizing red-carpet spectacle – to tune in to watch on Sunday, Feb. 26 on 6 p.m. CST on ABC?

Yes, “War Horse” (78 percent), “Midnight in Paris” (93 percent), “Hugo” (94 percent) and “The Artist” (97 percent) have received overwhelmingly positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.com.

And yet, the domestic box office hauls of “War Horse” ($67 million), “Midnight in Paris” ($56 million), “Hugo” ($54 million) and “The Artist” ($9 million) have been relatively modest. Translation: the unwashed masses don’t dig artsy-fartsy films.

In fact, good luck even catching “The Artist” at all if you’re stuck in Macomb; the nearest theater showing the Michel Hazanavicius-directed “art” film is in Creve Coeur, Mo., three hours away. Apparently Hollywood doesn’t have much confidence that a silent film will be “understood” by us children of the corn in 2012.

Besides, the average méchant Américain – if what we’re spending our money on at the local multiplex is any indication – would much prefer to see thoughtful works of cinematic art as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” ($352 million gross; 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), “The Hangover Part II” ($254 million; 35 percent), “Green Lantern” ($116 million; 27 percent) or “Just Go With It” ($103 million; 19 percent).

(What is it with Adam Sandler movies, anyway? Like a recent episode of “South Park” speculated, Sandler could make a movie about poop coming out of his mouth for 90 minutes, and it would gross $100 million.)

The point is, viewership for the annual Academy Awards telecast – which peaked in 1998 at 55 million when James Cameron did his “I’m the king of the world!” speech after “Tiantic” won – has been on shaky ground for several years.

Viewership spiked to nearly 42 million in 2010, the year that “Avatar” was up for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, but then dropped to 37 million last year, when the show’s producers tried to inject co-hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway into the telecast like an ill-advised youth serum.

This year, after original host Eddie Murphy bowed out when original Oscars producer Brett Ratner (who directed Murphy in “Tower Heist”) quit the show after making some sexist remarks and at least one gay slur, the Academy has turned to its Old Faithful, Billy Crystal, to save itself from itself.

Crystal, who was once famous for actually acting in films like “When Harry Met Sally…” and “City Slickers,” hosted the Academy Awards previously in 1990-1993, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2004. At this point, however, he is in danger of becoming his generation’s Bob Hope: famous for merely being famous (and for hosting the Oscars, which Hope did 19 times).

If things continue down this road, Haley Joel Osment will host his first Oscar telecast in 2030, opening his monologue by looking out at all the face lifts and tummy tucks in the audience and announcing, “I see dead people.”

Sure, Crystal will do his usual show-opening musical schtick again this year, working in rhymes like “Scorcese” and “you’re crazy” and embarrassing every A-list celebrity in the first three rows. And it will be good. For about five minutes.

And then the real show will commence, and the producers will be left to figure out how to make Americans root for a Frannch silent film, starring a Frannch actor, Jean Dujardin, they never heard of, in which Bruce Willis doesn’t blow anything up.

Bonne chance.

 

 

 

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