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  • Scott Carter Cooper

The Power of the Oscar

In many ways I’m a walking cliché. What gay boy of a certain age didn’t love the Oscars on TV? Maybe they still do. The glamor of it all left me breathless. I think I might have been ten years old the first time I was allowed to stay up and watch the entire broadcast, and from that point all the way through college I never missed them. Then as I became a real, functioning adult with a job, I’d watch as much as I could, rehearsal schedules permitting. When I retired from theatre in general and acting in particular there were a number of years when I wasn’t even aware they were on. I credit Joan Rivers and her red-carpet fashion rundowns with igniting my interest in the Oscars. Like I said: a walking cliché.

As my artistic sophistication has developed, I’ve made the realization that not only is an award not really a signifier of excellence, at best it’s just a marketing tool. That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing artists who’ve won these prestigious awards. That’s not to say I wouldn’t give a section of my liver to get one. It’s just that the Oscar catalog isn’t The Bible, and a winner is not guaranteed a seat at the right hand of God, no matter what their press clippings say.

I didn’t realize they’d expanded The Best Picture category to ten nominees. There’ve been many a year when I’d never seen a single nominee, and this year I’ve seen four of them: West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, Belfast, and The Power of the Dog. I loved three of them. The fourth, not so much.

West Side Story and Nightmare Alley are films that are everything Hollywood was originally meant to be. Astonishing and dazzling, which is really quite an accomplishment given that both of them are remakes. Belfast was moving, if a little pretentious. You really have to earn the right to use black and white in this age of technology, and Branaugh just about does it. If I had to root for a winner, I’d have to go with Nightmare Alley simply because it had a heavier lift. The material of West Side Story is tried and true. And then there’s the dog movie.

As big of a cliché as I might be, the dog movie outranks me. The cast is a collection of excellent actors and the production quality is first rate, but this is a story that needs never be told. Derived from a mid-1960s novel written by a gay man, it drips with a homosexual’s self-loathing common of the period. The hero, who isn’t clearly identified until the last half hour of the film is evil. At least one gay character ends up dead. There’s an overbearing mother and absent father. The only thing missing is Judy Garland and a soupcon of glitter. In what looks like a nod toward modern cinema, there are a lot of longshots with isolated characters against the Montana landscape. Still, Brokeback Mountain defines the world of gay men.

On Netflix there is also a short behind-the-scenes film in which Jane Campion praises herself for writing and directing the film, and almost sort of acknowledges that perhaps a gay filmmaker might have made a different film. She concludes that because the author of the novel was “feminine” she has the authority to take on this story. Even without that qualifier, I’d applaud her telling this story if she had something new to bring to it. She does not.

The Power of the Dog has received eleven Oscar nominations. I’d say that maybe six of them are deserved. I’m always a sucker for a good supporting performance and Jessie Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all deserving, with Plemons in particular giving a career-best performance. The cinematography is gorgeous, if not exactly groundbreaking, and the editing goes a long way toward making the story interesting, if not compelling. The real winner here is the production design. Set in the ‘20s, it’s authentic with nary a flapper in sight. On the flipside, the original “score” is nominated, and there hasn’t been a less imaginative score since…ever.

In summation and in conclusion, as a cliché myself, I feel eminently qualified to identify another cliché. Gay men get major cinematic representation about once a decade, and here in the third decade of the twenty-first century we’re still shown as bitter, treacherous, and murderous with unresolved mommy issues. Long live the Oscars.

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