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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 11, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Oscar-So-Scared, Darkest Hour

Everybody's playing Outguess the Oscars, but that's a pointless game now that the Academy members are terrified that if they collectively don't nominate enough people of color, their Oscar voting privileges will be taken away, whether they individually voted for nonwhite actors or not.

Because of the secret ballot, we don't know how any Oscar voters actually voted. The ballots are tallied by the accounting firm that sprang forward and corrected last year's wrong-envelope fiasco, where a wonderful movie about movies, with white actors in it -- the usual probable winner -- was mistakenly announced as the winner, when in fact the votes had gone where they had to go: to the movie about the struggles of a black, gay character.

Moonlight may well have been the best movie of 2016, but what we now know is that it was the inevitable winner because there was no safer vote for the Academy members hoping to preserve their Oscar voting privileges.

Did the Academy voters really think that way as they decided how to vote? I don't know. In fact, the Oscars-So-White whiners could not know how any individual Academy voters and nominators made their decisions in a year with no nonwhite nominees in any major category.

They leapt to the assumption of racism, without evidence. Furthermore, the people trying to "remedy" the "problem" were just as bigoted when they decided that they could purge the Oscar votes of racism by removing voting rights from older Oscar voters. Ageism against old white people is apparently OK.

So in this Battle of the Bigots, why shouldn't we reach the logical conclusion that Academy members who wished to retain their voting rights, knowing that they might be removed by whim in order to remove a nonexistent problem, made sure to nominate and vote for the absolute nonwhitest nonstraightest movie on offer. Which won.

It may have deserved to win. But we will never know. It is a permanent asterisk in the history of the Oscars, with the footnote, "This is the first year that the Oscar voters were terrorized into favoring, not the films and performances they thought were best, but rather those that would avoid any complaints about racism."

So if this year the very best movie is actually a brilliant film about the historical moment when an old half-drunk white man saved Western Civilization, we can expect that it is unlikely even to be nominated, in case it might actually win. Instead, you can be sure the nominators and voters in the major categories have been poring over the cast lists of all the movies on offer to make sure that they vote overwhelmingly for the film with the least-white above-the-line talent they can find.

How can I say that racism in the Oscars was a non-existent problem? Because since the year 2000, black actors have won Oscars at a higher rate than the proportion of black in the American population -- and at a higher rate than their membership in the Screen Actors Guild, and higher than their percentage of speaking roles in movies, and way higher than their percentage of top roles in movies, and out of proportion with the number of black nominees.

In other words, the actual statistical evidence is that prior to the big wipe-out of older white Oscar voters, blacks were already winning at a higher rate than could statistically have been expected.

Not only that, but black actors' percentage of SAG membership was right in line with the black population of the U.S., and black film roles were also in line. Only "top roles" were slightly behind, and that's largely for economic reasons: "Top roles" generally go to actors who are able, by their presence in a film, to sell it to foreign distributors who want to make sure the audiences in their countries will turn out to see the movie.

But that is a problem that cannot be solved by cutting out Oscar voting privileges for old white Academy members. Rather it must depend on a combination of racial attitudes in foreign countries -- which are not always egalitarian heavens, either -- courage on the part of studio executives -- a rare commodity in any year -- and the emergence of completely bankable stars of any color.

If there's any group that should have been annoyed, it's Asians and Latinos. Asians are represented in SAG membership and speaking parts in proportion to their numbers in the population -- but their numbers drop radically when it comes to top roles and nominations. As for Oscar wins, their total is zero.

And Latinos, while they've had a tiny number of wins, are way underrepresented in SAG membership, film roles, and top roles.

Why wasn't there an outcry of Oscars-So-Anglo?

Well, hold on tight, there probably will be. Because to Latinos, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and Halle Berry are just as Anglophone as Adam Sandler or Drew Barrymore or Rosamund Pike.

(Of course Adam Sandler is Jewish, I've heard, but that's a minority that it's OK to hate these days, as long as you're a Leftist and you pretend that it's only "Zionists" you hate instead of "Jews" [who are, of course, all "Zionists" when Islamic terrorists take over the plane].)

If there's any clearer example of how the Victim Lobbies have been given power far out of proportion to their actual grievances, the Oscars are it. The problem was statistically non-existent (except for Latinos and Asians); it arose from financially based casting practices, not Oscar voting; and the remedy was cruel, bigoted, and absurd.

Yeah, that was Martin Luther King's dream.

Meanwhile, at the Oscar Awards presentation you can be sure that before, during, and after there will be a fabulous amount of hate speech against President Trump and the people who voted for him and the party whose nomination he received.

Why? Because everyone in Hollywood has to touch bases with all the left-wing shibboleths in order to prove their credentials as True Believers in the religion of hate and exclusion called "American Liberalism," where it's OK to be intolerant of people on the Naughty list, but impossible to criticize anybody on the Nice list.

It's so reminiscent of the ugliness and hate in late 1930s Germany. We keep having to relearn all the old lessons -- but this time, I hope, not the hard way, as we did from 1939 to 1945.

*

But let me turn now to what is arguably the best movie this year. Even though Darkest Hour is a historical film that overlaps with some of the events of the critical and box office hit Dunkirk, Darkest Hour is far, far better.

First, it isn't filled with a lot of bogus adventures that follow film-school formulas while making hash of history, the way Dunkirk is.

Second, writer Anthony McCarten, faced with even harder problems to solve than the writer of Dunkirk faced, created a script that managed to make absolutely clear the political issues that Winston Churchill was facing -- and McCarten did it without making crap up.

Third, Darkest Hour managed to imply Winston Churchill's whole life without showing any of it outside the events of the time period being retold. That required splendid writing and directing (Joe Wright) and acting (everybody) to bring that off.

I've spent much of my life studying Churchill, and he is the only historical figure that I regard as a personal hero. Yet I have never seen a real historical person so faithfully and fairly portrayed as Churchill was in this movie.

Here's my bellwether point, when I realized that McCarten had actually done all his homework. Churchill's enemies repeatedly mentioned the Gallipoli fiasco in World War I as being Churchill's fault -- and it's historically right to have Churchill's enemies constantly harp on that.

But those who have studied the events know perfectly well that Churchill's thrust at Istanbul in the Great War was a brilliant strategic move, and that it was working splendidly until a British admiral lost his nerve and failed to execute his orders, stranding an army on the useless Gallipoli Peninsula when they should have been landed near Istanbul, achieving strategic surprise, which would have broken the Ottoman Empire on the spot and taken a huge amount of pressure off the trenches in France.

I had no thought of Darkest Hour actually correcting the deliberate falsehoods of Churchill's detractors -- until the film had Churchill testily reply to someone that Gallipoli was not one of Churchill's crazy, failed ideas, it was one of his best and most brilliant ideas which failed only because of other people's fear of taking bold and necessary action.

By simply letting that corrective statement be made, McCarten won my trust. This was an honest writer and a thorough researcher.

What is the actual story of Darkest Hour? It's hard to explain it, mostly because the film does such a superb job of telling it that any plot outline I gave you here would only make it sound boring, which it most definitely is not.

But I'll at least give you a hint. Tory leader Neville Chamberlain -- the man who signed away Czechoslovakia's freedom at the Munich meeting with Hitler -- finds that with Britain now at war, a year after he proclaimed "peace in our time," he cannot remain as Prime Minister.

So he steps down, though his party still holds a majority in the House of Commons, with every intention that his good friend Lord Halifax, just as insane a peacenik and appeaser as Chamberlain was, would take his place. But Halifax, a ditherer, dithers once too often. Besides, the opposition -- Labor and the Liberals -- demand that Churchill be the new Prime Minister.

Why? Because everyone in England knew that Churchill had been stubbornly, loudly right about the terrible danger posed by the Nazis, even during the times when he was universally ridiculed in the press for his stand. Now his worst predictions had come true -- and Britain faced the loss of 300,000 soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk precisely because Chamberlain had not listened to Churchill.

So Chamberlain had to give Churchill his chance to be Prime Minister. However, he and Halifax, who were in Churchill's multi-party War Cabinet, worked ceaselessly to force Churchill to negotiate with Hitler in order to end the war -- with Hitler triumphant.

Since Chamberlain and Halifax were incapable of learning anything from previous failures in negotiations with Hitler, they sincerely wanted those peace talks for the good of their country. And Churchill, knowing that no promise from Hitler ever meant anything, was adamantly opposed to the sham of negotiation, since it would inevitably lead to Hitler ruling England through a puppet government, with the end of English liberty.

So Churchill did two things. He launched that fleet of private boats to rescue the soldiers in Dunkirk -- which we all know succeeded heroically, bringing to safety not only most of the British troops but also large numbers of French troops, who would soon become DeGaulle's Free French Army in England. (The film shows the boats at sea, but the outcome is not known before the end of the movie.)

And the second thing Churchill did was keep feeding Chamberlain and Halifax hope that he might negotiate, so that they could not maneuver him into actions or statements that they could use to accuse him of treason and kick him out of office.

Yet the screenplay and the movie treat Chamberlain and Halifax, not as villains or demons, but as what they were: masterful politicians who truly believed that only they knew what was best for their country.

Just to make things a bit more tricky, King George VI (the same guy who, played by Colin Firth, gave The King's Speech) disliked Churchill a lot, and for good reason. Churchill had supported George's big brother, King Edward VIII, in the controversy over whether he could marry Wallis Simpson and remain king.

Churchill lost that one -- but George would have been more than human if he didn't harbor some resentment. One of the best things in this movie is the way that Churchill, by sheer candor and honor, wins over the king to his side.

One scene in the film -- one of the best scenes, I might add -- did not seem historically correct to me. Churchill, on his way to meetings that would decide the future of his country and his own career, jumped out of his limo and went down into the London Underground to ride with the common people. There he took a very unscientific poll of the people he rode with, and it gave him the resolve and the ammunition to carry off what amounted to a coup against the plotting of Chamberlain and Halifax.

Did any such Underground meeting take place? Anthony McCarten readily admits that the exact event probably did not happen. However, "This is the kind of thing he did right through the war," McCarten has said. Churchill "would go AWOL, disappear and pop up somewhere in London with ordinary people, to find out what they were thinking. So that scene was drawn from deep research, but we have no record that it happened."

[Quoted from an article well worth reading in The Wrap -- https://www.thewrap.com/darkest-hour-winston-churchill-sneak-off-london-underground-subway/ ]

So the scene was absolutely truthful about Churchill and his way of dealing with common people -- during the London Blitz he was famous for going out to the hardest hit locations and weeping at the devastation and suffering. He mocked his own "blubbing" but the people loved him for it. Unlike various pretenders since then, Churchill really did feel their pain.

Churchill's exhilarating and complicated relationship with his wife, Clementine, was also faithfully depicted in Darkest Hour. Kristin Scott Thomas had only a few short scenes in which to portray a lifetime of love, support, and maddening frustration -- and she does it better than I would have thought possible.

McCarten even managed to include many of my favorite Churchillian bons mots, like calling Labor Party leader Clement Attlee "a sheep in sheep's clothing," or commenting that all babies looked like him.

He also included many of Churchill's foibles:

Staying up impossibly late and requiring every government employee to be available for a Churchill phone call at any hour.

Working all morning in his pajamas, mostly in bed, but then continuing his work while in the bathtub (where he did a lot of splashing, like a schoolboy) and then, possessed by an idea, emerging naked to issue orders or dictate paragraphs to his assistants, who had to learn to get used to his utter lack of self-consciousness.

All the character actors are up to the very high British standard for period acting. I especially point out Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, Ronald Pickup as Chamberlain, Stephen Dillane as Viscount Halifax, and Samuel West as Anthony Eden, Churchill's closest political ally.

But this movie rests solidly on the single best acting performance ever given in a historical role.

Gary Oldman is one of the best living actors in the English language, without ever getting the acclaim that he deserves. He not only can pass flawlessly for American characters of many different accents, but also he can perform with any level or region of spoken English, period.

But to play Churchill, you have to master, not just an accent, but all of Churchill's speech impediments and mannerisms, his mumbling and fumbling (usually pretended in order to get the timing right), and his exact tone.

There are recordings of Churchill's speeches, including some that are excerpted in the movie -- but Oldman is not doing an impersonation or an impression. He is playing a character who was also a living man, and whose voice and face and movements live in the memory of thousands of people today.

Though Churchill was still alive when I was born, he was dead before I turned 14. However, in the 1950s and early 1960s, his image was constantly presented to schoolchildren like me, as part of our study of World War II.

Since it was our parents' generation that fought the war, we Baby Boomers were immersed in the stories of their heroes. While Americans had Eisenhower and Patton, Marshall and Bradley, MacArthur and Doolittle and Nimitz, it gradually emerged, to me at least, that there was one figure on whom the whole victory over Nazism depended.

Yes, the Russians bore the brunt of the dying and killing in the war; yes, many people played crucial roles in the victory of the West. Yet it was Churchill alone who struggled to avoid the war by stifling Hitler when he was still weak; it was Churchill who steadfastly continued to fight when all the sensible people "knew" that the United Kingdom could not win.

(Meanwhile, Roosevelt refused to lead America toward war or give any but token help to Churchill, because he feared the anti-war vote in America more than he feared a Hitler victory.)

And one more thing that endeared Churchill to me. Churchill was one of only two Prime Ministers whose personal income before winning high office came almost entirely from his pen.

Benjamin Disraeli had been a fiction writer -- not esteemed highly today, but very popular in his time -- and this provided him with a respectable income in the 1800s.

Churchill wrote nonfiction, but his articles and books made him, for a time, the bestselling writer in the world.

So when Darkest Hour shows Clementine trying to talk to him about money problems in their household, these were quite real: He had not fulfilled some of his pre-war contracts and, because of his duties in office, was unlikely to have time to write those books now and collect the balance of the advances.

Unlike the Clintons, who, out of office, commanded absurd speaking fees and "donations" to their foundation from those who wished to advance the Clintonian cause, Churchill had no open moneybags he could dip into. Eventually, he was able to contract for some post-war promises and get enough money to make ends meet -- and creditors cut him some slack as well, since they knew he was busy saving the world. A few personal friends did step up. But Clementine wasn't making up the problems -- it was a real possibility that Churchill might have gone bankrupt while serving as Prime Minister.

But let's return to Gary Oldman's performance. He was greatly helped by some astonishing makeup work. Oldman met makeup wizard Kazuhiro Tsuji on the set of 2001's Planet of the Apes, where they consulted on a character Oldman didn't end up playing. But he knew that he couldn't take on playing Churchill without Tsuji's support. That meant calling Tsuji out of retirement, because he had left film makeup and was working as a fine-art sculptor. Oldman wouldn't do the movie without Tsuji, and Tsuji came through.

Oh, did he come through! Most of the time, makeups involving prosthetics enlarge the actor's head to an unbelievable degree. I actually expected that Oldman's makeup would be done in post-production, using computer graphics.

But no, Tsuji created and applied pounds of prosthetics to widen and fatten Oldman's cheeks and jowls to closely resemble Churchill's -- and yet at no point, even in the closest of camera work, even when we saw Clementine touch his face in the tightest possible closeup, did the Churchill makeup look like anything but a real part of the character's face.

It is, quite simply, the best makeup job I have ever seen. And Gary Oldman, after hours being made up before any shooting could start, never made us aware of any stiffness or discomfort with the makeup. It wasn't makeup as far as he ever let on. It was simply Winston Churchill.

Other people have played Churchill -- most recently, John Lithgow in the TV series The Crown, for which he earned an Emmy. Lithgow and Oldman communicated about this shared experience after they completed their filming, and it seems there is no rivalry between them -- both actors have reputations for generosity.

It is no slur on Lithgow to say that good as The Crown was (and it was very good), and good as his performance was, he was not working with the kind of material that Anthony McCarten gave to Gary Oldman.

And it is possible to be an actor of the first rank and still not bear comparison to Gary Oldman's perfect artistry.

Here's the marvel of Gary Oldman: You can never tell that he's acting. He simply is the person he's playing, letting us see what that person would let us see of his inner life, his motives, his responses. You never come away from a Gary Oldman performance thinking, What great acting! You come away thinking of the character he played, and responding only to that person, fictitious or otherwise.

Actors who are so real that their acting doesn't look like acting almost never win awards, because, perversely, actors (who make up most of the Academy voters) rarely recognize real excellence in their own art. They are as deceived as the general public is by showy performances in which you are never allowed to forget that there's acting happening here.

But Oldman has won the Golden Globe for this performance, in a rare fit of accuracy by the Hollywood Foreign Press. And white as he most definitely is, if he is not nominated for Best Actor and does not win that Oscar, then we'll know that the Oscars are dead. Because I can't think of any year in which Oldman's performance would not have been the best performance of that year.

I know. That implies that I think this is the best acting performance in the history of film.

Well, yes. I can live with being quoted as saying that. And if Mr. Oldman wishes to issue a denial of this, I'm sure our esteemed publisher will give him space to point out how wrong I am in that assessment.

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