William Goldman: Screen trade

When I got in the business, 40-some years ago, the Oscars were swell to have, but they were more terrific trinkets (truly) than the life-changing statues they have become. Today, if you win, that triumph will be right there in the first line of your obit.

When I was nominated for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” I did not attend the Oscars. Two main reasons, the first being that I thought I had zero chance of winning. Of far greater importance was this: My Knicks were in their first championship year, battling the great Earl Monroe of Baltimore. Inconceivable, as Vizzini might say, for me to miss such combat. Today, no question, I would wing west.

The point being? Well, they matter now, and if we voters aren’t careful, talented people who should have won will be forever screwed. I think Miramax is the great company of this era, but I will never forgive them for their campaign that resulted in the putrescent Roberto Benigni winning best actor a few years back. (Fair and just punishment, I suggest, would be locking the Weinsteins up for a fortnight with nothing as entertainment but “Pinocchio” running over and over.)

All of which leads us logically to our subject for today: Who should be nominated as best director this year?

Before we begin you should know I am guilty of not having Oscar “taste.” The Academy keeps honoring medicinal movies, movies that are “good for you,” most of which I detest.

Example: “The Last Emperor.” Up for nine, won nine, and have any of you said recently, “Damn, they just don’t make movies like ‘The Last Emperor’ anymore”? Want to know who wasn’t even nominated for director that disastrous year? John Huston for “The Dead,” Stanley Kubrick for “Full Metal Jacket.”

Anyway, here are the five I want nominated. Nothing medicinal, I promise.

  • Errol Morris for “The Fog of War.”

I know, I know, it’s a documentary. I don’t care; change the rules if you have to. It’s not just that it’s brilliant, it’s also so damn pertinent in this weird and awful period we are hopefully going to slosh through. The greatest in a year of great documentaries — “Capturing the Friedmans,” “To Be and to Have” (trust me, see it, it’s as good a movie about teachers and students as anything you’re going to encounter for a very long while.)

  • Christopher Guest for “A Mighty Wind.”

I know, I know, it’s a comedy. (And it was released by Castle Rock, with whom I have a deal. Sue me.)

There is a famous line you all know, the English actor who is kicking and his last words are, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Here’s the deal: That’s true. And why the Academy votes otherwise is one of those unsolvable mysteries, rating right up there with, “Why aren’t there more good restaurants on the Upper West Side?”

Lately, Woody Allen is the main guy to escape unscathed in the voting. Well, I would like to posit this: the best Guest movies are every bit on a par with the best Allen flicks.

“A Mighty Wind” is different, touching, brilliantly done and, oh yeah, it’s funny. You try making something of that quality on your next day off.

  • Jim Sheridan for “In America” and Clint Eastwood for “Mystic River.”

    Joined here because I have already written about them, naming them as the two best movies of the year, rank them as you will.

No other director could have done “In America” because it is close to being Sheridan’s autobiography. The work is sure, the movie is overpoweringly sad. And Sheridan has never won, though he sure should have. He lost best director with “My Left Foot” to Oliver Stone with “Born on the Fourth of July” — medicinal movies triumphant yet again.

No other director but Eastwood could have gotten “Mystic River” made. I don’t mean his talent is unique — though he’s obviously having one of the all time careers — I mean this: Who else would want to? “Mystic River” is going to be remembered as one of the films of the decade and not just because it’s so brilliant — but what else is there like it?

It’s dark, it’s relentless, it sure doesn’t head for a happy ending. It’s about life with a capital L, not life on a survivor television series.

Everyone is brutalized, everyone suffers. Who wants to see a movie like that?

Personally, I am thrilled that the brothers Warner made the flick, but I’ll bet the farm that their sales department sure didn’t want to. No sales department would. I don’t know what movies cost anymore, the honchos all lie so terribly, but I do know Eastwood is the fastest gun in the West and however he managed to bring this in, with acting of this phenomenal caliber, bless him.

A brief pause before I name my fifth nominee to rid us of one of the other great Oscar canards — that the best picture is the best directed picture. Total horseshit. Sure, sometimes if it’s “Lawrence” and Lean, no other way to go. But most of the time, ridiculous. I mean, “Ordinary People” was skillful as hell, but was the direction on a par with “Raging Bull”? (If you think so, I’m going to stick you with the Weinsteins for their “Pinocchio” fortnight.)

  • Peter Jackson for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

That’s my fifth choice, and I cannot come up with anyone who has ever been in quite this position. Because it’s the third of a trilogy. (The third “Godfather” was an embarrassment if you loved the first two, as I did.)

Jackson was nominated for director for the first Tolkien pic, ignored for the second, which I thought was even better, but I heard people saying, “We can’t give him the Oscar for this, what do we do when the last one comes out?”

Well, it’s out, and what do we do, folks? I know really bright movie-nut teenagers who know this is the greatest movie ever made. I mean, no doubt exists for them, and I’m not saying there’re wrong. I think if I was a really bright teenager, I might agree.

But them days are gone forever, so all I can say is that in this special-effects era, I have never seen epic filmmaking to compare with it. “Stupendous” makes it seem small.

So who wins? Over to you.

But what makes me sad is I will be stunned if more than two of my selections get into the race. They will be swamped, I fear, by that old devil of the Oscars: medicinal shit.

I don’t believe that movies are supposed to make us better moral people. They are supposed to provide memories, memories that thrill us and make us laugh — make us, if we’re skillful enough, cry legitimate tears. I believe it’s our parents’ job to make us better people; our teachers’, too. Also, if he’s still around, and I do hope he never leaves us, God’s…

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