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My Surprising Best Actor Pic, Or is it?

My Surprising Best Actor Pic, Or is it?

Just take a look at that picture. Can you imagine anyone voting for anything else if they have seen or suffered through that horrendous moment of moments in “12 Years a Slave”? where Chiwetel Ejiofor’s character of Solomon Northrup is hung by the neck until he’s NEARLY dead? And it’s an INTERMINABLE time. It’s goes on and on and on and director Steve McQueen’s camera just holds that horrifying shot. And it comes near the beginning of the film, too.

Northup revolts against Paul Dano’s thoroughly evil twerp of an over-seer and whups the living daylights out of him,and the audience bursts into cheers! Always. But are horrified to see Dano’s character come back with reinforcements, and they string Solomon up and just leave him there for what seems like hours. AND NO ONE CUTS HIM DOWN!!! AND HE’S STILL ALIVE!!! As the other slaves in the background of the above scene just go about their work, and COMPLETELY IGNORE his hanging there before them!

Northup’s feet barely touch the ground and keep trying to find footing or balance as he hangs by his neck until….well, I don’t want to spoil THAT much of the movie But the utter horror of Ejiofor’s Northrup hanging there, and hanging there and hanging there….well, it’s like watching a REAL hanging in real-time.

It’s excruciating and unbelievable but TRUE! Everything in “12 Years a Slave” is directly from that book that Solomon Northrup wrote that is only now beginning to be taught in schools in America….

But for this scene, as Ejiofor as Northrup struggles to free himself, to balance himself, to just keep breathing is well, breathtaking, and is a scene the Academy, if they’ve seen it, will surely reward with a Best Actor Oscar for Ejiofor.

Although the operative word in that sentence is IF THEY’VE SEEN IT. Peggy Seigel, the great Oscar party thrower, said at the Vanity Fair Oscar Chat that Sasha Stone writes so feelingly about at http://www.awardsdaily.com , that many, MANY Academy voters were just NOT WATCHING “12 Years a Slave” AT ALL.

And Sasha keeps trumpeting and advocating for it until the last-minute, and so, this year am I.

She has expressed doubts about it winning Best Picture and thinks that it might be “Gravity.” I hope not. But she’s also said that she thinks, worse case scenario that it might just get ONE big award. And after BAFTA, which Brit Ejiofor won, that THAT would be the Award. “The Big One” that “Slave” gets, if it shockingly doesn’t get anything else.

But I for one think it will get Best Picture. You ask everyone in New York(and I do) on my cinematic travels and everyone HERE says in unison “12 Years a Slave”. Maybe in L.A. you’re hearing something different. But with the BAFTA Best Picture and Best Actor win, I think the Academy may just do the right thing and check both boxes.

Lupita Nyong’o, who may very well be the OTHER “Big One” that “Slave” wins didn’t win at the BAFTAs. She lost to last year’s It Girl, Jennifer Lawrence for “American Hustle.”

So it could be BP, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. But I would also hope Lupita wins. Both the Gurus o’ Gold at http://www.moviecitynews.com and also Tom O’Neil’s Gold Derby at http://www.goldderby.com have Lupita out in front. But Chiwetel isn’t even LISTED in either place.

If “American Hustle” is going to win anything, and the Academy may want to give it SOMEthing, they can award the indefatigable director David O. Russell in “Original Screenplay” which he also wrote and I think that’s where the “American Hustle” voting energy will go. And voila! They’ve honored it and FINALLY David O gets an Oscar.

What else could “Slave” win? It could turn up in some of the below the line categories, like Production Design or even Costume Design. If it wins Best Editing early in the evening, look out, a sweep for “Slave” is coming. But if that early award goes to “Gravity” as well it might, we can look for “Gravity” to take the many, many technical awards it’s predicted for.

But if it’s “Captain Phillips” in editing, there really could be a shake-up and spread amongst the categories, with even an upset like Somali first time actor Barkhad Abdi winning for Best Supporting as he did at BAFTA. Is the Academy so broadened in its’ thinking post-“Brokeback” that giving BOTH its’ Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor awards to TWO gay AIDS victims, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto?

Still smarting from “Brokeback”s loss to homophobia in AMPAS, I’m hedging my bets that both McConaughey and Leto won’t win. ONE of them may. And this could be where Chiwetel Ejiofor is the surprise of the night who triumphs. But no surprise to me, or to you, dear readers, dear cineastes.

Vanessa Redgrave & James Earl Jones Magnificent “Daisy”!

Just when you think this terrific, multitudinous Broadway season couldn’t get any more bountiful – Suddenly! There are two of the greatest actors of our time the hitting never-dreamed-of theatrical heights in “Driving Miss Daisy.” That would be Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones in what is surely going to be considered one of the highpoints of their already legendary careers.

This is great acting of the highest order. The likes of which we rarely if ever see on Broadway. And how do they accomplish this amazing, but not wholly unexpected feat? Well, Vanessa Redgrave does it by utterly underplaying the sour, snippy, uppity, totally self-righteous Miss Daisy, who is a spritely 72 when the play starts in 1948.

Miss Daisy has crashed her car into her neighbors’ garage and now is no longer allowed to drive. And her doting son, Boolie (Boyd Gaines, who is just serviceable here) insists that she get a “colored” chauffeur to make sure she gets from point A to point B without catastrophe. And thereby hangs quite a tale and a play that proves itself here to be a durable American classic.

Miss Daisy  Wertham is Jewish and rich, but she’s the type who can pinch a penny until it screams. She comes from an impoverished background herself, and climbed to freedom and respectabilty through education,  becoming a school teacher  and eventually marrying her rich (now late) husband, the father of Mr.Gaines’ character.

“We had NOTHING!” Redgrave’s voice rises for one of the few times in the Alfred Uhry’s 1987 Pulitizer Prize-Winning play, “NOTHING!” But she does it all with a control and a simplicity that is startling, in that it renders this very familiar play, fresh as…well, a daisy!

Miss Redgrave only lets the gestures fly or her voice ring when she’s onstage with her son Boolie( Mr. Gaines), as his less-than-doting mother. Miss Daisy’s maternal instincts run to the nasty, the snide put-downs of her ever-helpful, ernestly do-gooding son. She’s quite insufferable as a mother.

HOWEVER,  when James Earl Jones finally enters the play (it seemed like it took forever to get them into their famous car-ride together) Redgrave hands the play totally over to him. On a veritable silver platter of well-seasoned acting chops. She gets very, very simple and true, and just let’s James Earl Jones rip the roof off the Golden Theater.

Jones, when we first see him is a shockingly-aged figure. White hair, he’s almost bent over double, with what one hopes is a character choice and not osteoporosis. He seems eager to make some extra money, desperate almost for a job. Especially driving a white lady of “means.” As if to make double-sure, he shuffles and “Yes’M”s and “No,’M”s drip from his lips, shockingly often, and in Jones’ sonorous voice, here controlled like I’ve never seen him before, they sound like honey, and fall throughout the play as naturally as Southern rain. The naturalness of their frequency locks Hoke into his subservient role, like a vise.

And when the Two Greats get together, the sparks fly. And how do they soar so? By absolutely, completely disappearing into their characters in this play that has NEVER,  ever been done on Broadway. Ever. After this magnificent revival, it will be done all the time now.

This theatrical power couple par excellence banish thoughts of the great 1989 cinematic version, which won the Oscar for Best Picture that year and Jessica Tandy was named Best Actress. Making her the oldest Best Actress recipient ever. Morgan Freeman, who also originated the role in the stage play, Off-Broadway, was nominated, but didn’t win.Though he did eventually garner a Supporting Actor Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby.”

Jones, who’s never won an Oscar, but has Two Tonys to his credit for “The Great White Hope” and “Fences,” just takes the part of Hoke and runs with it. Or drives with it, right into the theatrical firmament. And our hearts. And memories.

It’s one of his greatest performances, and hers, too. Taking his cue from her, Jones is also totally without frills and simple, simple, simple.  And as the times change (“Miss Daisy” starts in 1948 and goes on through the tumultous civil right area and into the ’70s) the power shifts from the back seat to the front seat. And when Miss Daisy’s synagogue is bombed, Jones’ Hoke is all protection and help for the distraught, disbelieving Miss Daisy.

You know he knows just how ugly Southern racism of that time can be. Whether it’s directed at Jews or at Blacks, it’s all the same thing, the playwright is saying.

When Hoke describes the lynching of a relative he witnessed as a young boy to the thunderstruck Miss Daisy, Jones is simplicity and quiet, heart-rending eloquence itself. He is also echoing a similarly, frighteningly effecting scene in the “Scottsboro Boys.” The Kander & Ebb musical, playing two blocks away, on the other side of Broadway and it chronicles the horrors and  the injustices 1920s & 30s South. And in the South of Miss Daisy’s 1940s & 50s world it is alive still. Hoke can’t eat at the restaurants Miss Daisy does. And he has to go in, always, by the back door.

Playwright Alfred Uhry, who never again reached the theatrical heights with anything else he ever wrote for the stage (though I did enjoy his “Last Night at Ballyhoo.”) surprises here, too. Because instead of being lost in a big, Broadway house, his “Driving Miss Daisy” OWNS it and fills the space,  and now in Vanessa Redgrave’s and James Earl Jones’ caring hands, we see that his characters are immortal.

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