Saturday, February 23, 2008

Alternate Oscars - Great Unsung Performances

Danny Peary, whose great books on cult movies are sadly out of print, has another great out-of-print book, Alternate Oscars. He looked at every Oscar year since day one and picked who he thinks should have won. His picks are thoughtful and interesting.

So I've been wanting to feature some forgotten yet great performances. Like most of America I've seen zero of this year's nominated films. I'm not buying into the yearly time-frame when it comes to watching films anymore. I know--what about the big-screen experience; movies aren't made for television viewing, etc. But films cost $10 or more to see now. Kind of steep. And this year's crop is alternately violent, grim or heavy, and that's just Juno. Sorry. They all sound like excellent films and I will have a look, but meanwhile, let's revel in the fabulousness that was Party Monster.

That's right. Particularly Seth Green as James St. James in Party Monster (2003). The film has a convoluted background. Directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato had already made a critically acclaimed documentary about late-80s club kids in New York called Party Monster. They then went on to make another fine doc, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and then somehow, some way, secured funding for a dramatic re-telling of Michael Alig's rise as a successful party promoter and fall as a homocidal maniac. Former club kid, James St. James wrote a book called "Disco Bloodbath" (Now out of print and worth hundreds of dollars, but reprinted as "Party Monster" which is still available. How I mentally kick myself for not buying it in 1999 while it sat in stacks at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro.), and this is what they based the film on. Therefore James St. James, who had a love/hate relationship with Alig, is our storyteller and moral core in an increasingly decadent and vacuous club scene.

Macauley Culkin plays Alig, and if he seems a bit stiff and mannered, it's because Alig, who's a sociopath, never knew how to be completely human around his peers. Unfortunately for Culkin, there's no reward in playing the part of a bad actor. It just looks like bad acting. Green, on the other hand, is funny, smart, kooky and increasingly horrified by the goings-on around him. Two flamboyant guys, traipsing around New York City, dressed in raw meat and glitter--it could have been a nightmare--and in some ways it was--but somehow it works for me. I honestly think Seth Green deserved an Oscar nomination, but this might have been a little too edgy for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

The clips here won't give away any important plotlines from the films, but some of the links to other clips might curtail your first-time viewing pleasure, should you want to see these movies from start to finish. So if that's the case--don't click on anything.

Here, James teaches newly arrived Michael how to be fabulous.

And here, Michael cheers up James, who's just received some bad news regarding his trust fund.

Best supporting actress goes to Marilyn Manson as the late Christina Superstar. I've seen a lot of footage of the real Christina and Manson's portrayal is not exaggerated at all. Genius!

Another great and surprising performance is Ben Affleck in Hollywoodland (2006), playing George Reeves, former Superman television star of the 50s.

Affleck is now getting back on the career track after directing critically acclaimed Gone Baby Gone, but in 2006, he was nowheresville as an actor--almost washed up and left to dry after a bunch of box-office duds and an avalanche of annoying press about his love life. Then, he played opposite the excellence that is Diane Lane (as Reeves' sugar mama, Toni Mannix--best supporting actress material), and all the bitterness and disappointment that was Reeves' life and career trajectory just oozes out of him in a subtle, masterful performance. I think it's safe to say that Ben Affleck could relate to the sense of failure Reeves felt after he couldn't break free of his Superman role to obtain serious film work.

In 1959, George Reeves shot himself in the head, or did he? Director Alan Coulter's film bops back and forth between past and present, as the borderline sleazy detective played by Adrien Brody tries to piece together the life of the man of steel. The choppy storytelling is sometimes disruptive and annoying but in the end, Affleck's and Brody's characters reach their epiphanies, for good and ill. Affleck does a great job portraying the popular, charming Reeves. Who even knew Affleck could be charming? That's some great acting right there. Watching him flail and flounder on the low-budget TV show is really pathetic and funny, and finally you see his spirit slowly getting crushed--not by external forces, but from within. Great stuff. Unfortunately the only clip I could find of Affleck playing this role is in French (Unsung! Except by the French!), but here's the trailer.

Let's wrap up with Chloe Sevigny in Whit Stillman's last film of his yuppie trilogy, The Last Days of Disco (1998, following earlier films, Metropolitan and Barcelona). Sevigny plays Alice, a sexual neophyte and college-grad, struggling to maintain some sort of dignity in the early-80s Manhattan disco scene. Her bitch of a friend Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) has given her some bad dating advice, which Alice is employing here, hoping to score with her crush, Tom, a corporate lawyer.

You know this won't end well for Alice, but She's such a pure soul, that you can't help feeling some empathy for her, surrounded by heartless, motor-mouthed scenesters. Sevigny infuses Alice with a quiet dignity--not an easy thing to do in today's movie madness--but Chloe Sevigny has got the magic charisma x-factor thing going on and it looks like several hundred thoughts are swimming around in her brain throughout her quiet interludes--so rare. Best supporting actress: Andrea True Connection singing "More More More!" during that seduction scene.

To marvel at the talent that is Chloe Sevigny, rent HBO's Big Love, where she plays Nikki, the second wife in a Mormon polygamist family. A conniving, manipulative compulsive spender in a ankle-length prairie skirt, Nikki will fill you with seething rage. Hey Chloe--thanks for the emotions!

Since disco will always live on in our minds and hearts, I'll end with my favorite disco song, Heatwave's "The Groove Line." Lead singers/brothers, Keith Wilder and the late Johnnie Wilder, Jr., are Dayton, Ohio's finest.

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