Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Slight Rant On One Of The Biggest Snubs In Academy Award History


I've been thinking a lot about Michael Mann's The Insider lately. Part of it has to do with this excellent new blog I have discovered called Radiator Heaven, which is run by a really intelligent writer that everyone should check out. Another reason it keeps crossing my mind is that I have been thinking a lot about the state of modern American films and why my tastes seem to be falling further and further away from what other people value.
Truth be told, I don't think there are too many American films from the past decade that can hold a candle to The Insider. Whereas any number of directors (and I won't name any names here but you know who they are) might set out to make an 'important' film, I feel Mann actually achieved that with this film. I also don't think there has been a better acted film in the past ten years with Russell Crowe's performance as Jeffrey Wigand being among the best I have ever seen.

This all got me to thinking about the film's performance at the 1999 Academy Awards when it was shut out after being nominated for seven awards. I couldn't remember what was big that year so I looked it up and discovered with distaste that it was none other than American Beauty, a popular film I don't like that kind of sums up the division I feel with a lot of other modern film fans.
I didn't think American Beauty was a terrible film but I didn't think it was a good one either and even mentioning it in the same breath with something like The Insider baffles me. Nearly ten years later I don't understand why the public or critics responded to Mendes' film so strongly.
The best actor award that year went to Kevin Spacey, an actor I typically like but not in American Beauty and frankly comparing Spacey's rather limp turn to Crowe's monumental performance is unbelievably jarring to me. I think it was to a lot of folks as well as it was just a year later that Crowe did indeed win the award he should have taken home in 99 for Gladiator, a great film and performance but to my eyes not at the level of The Insider.
Michael Mann lost the directing prize to Sam Mendes, again for American Beauty and he also lost the best adapted screenplay award to John Irving for The Cider House Rules (you couldn't make this stuff up if you tried, it's like the academy voters all smoked cracked before submitting their ballots). Also on the losing end that night was the film's cinematographer Dante Spinotti and the editing and sound teams.
Pacino, who gives one of the best performances of his life here, wasn't even granted a nomination nor was Lisa Gerrard, whose breathtaking score is one of the most effective I have ever heard.
Add on insult to injury, the film's current DVD is one of the most botched I have ever seen with an non-existent audio commentary by Crowe and Pacino listed on the back and only a short featurette granted as an extra. In a world where we have special editions of Police Academy and Mallrats, can't we get a decent dvd release of The Insider?
There have been lots of other wince inducing years at the Oscars (don't even get me started on 1952, 1968, or pretty much the entire decade of the eighties) but the 1999 awards really bug me. Which all goes towards saying if you have never seen The Insider, or if it has been awhile, give it a look. I hope that a decent DVD hits stores eventually, as it is the current one can be found typically for under ten dollars at stores and online.

12 comments:

J.D. said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Jeremy. I couldn't agree more re: THE INSIDER being robbed at the Oscars that year. I watched AMERICAN BEAUTY a few weeks ago and it hasn't aged nearly as well as Mann's film.

Unfortunately, THE INSIDER didn't do well at the box office and its interesting because in the Charlie Rose interview Mann did at the time he alludes to the studio not knowing how to market it and that they dropped the ball in how they sold it to the public. It's commercial failure reminds me of how another excellent film about journalism ZODIAC was also snubbed the public at large.

As for THE INSIDER on DVD. My dream is that the folks at the Criterion Collection will somehow get to do a proper SE with a Mann commentary, one with Pacino and Crowe, and finally one with Bergman and Wigand together. As he has demonstrated with the excellent SE DVD for HEAT, Mann certainly has no problems revisiting past films.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks JD and no problem on the mention. I am really enjoying your blog and look forward to reading your book on Mann one day.

It would be amazing if Criterion could get a hold of this or any of Mann's other features. Thanks for the comments and keep up the great work.

Rogue Spy 007 said...

I'll be honest that I'm not a big fan of American Beauty. I didn't see what all the hype was about. It just didn't move me at all. I couldn't see why it won so many awards. I did enjoy The Insider. It was one of the first films I saw that proved to me that Russell Crowe could act. Up to that point, I had seen him in a lot of crappy movies. I also thought Pacino was excellent in this film. It's a shame that it didn't do so well at the box office or on the award circuit.

Guillaume said...

Great film.
Lisa Gerrard's soundtrack is awesome and Crowe's performance is top notch...a clever,haunting film,wonderfully shot.

Mann is still underrated in the US,it seems...

Guillaume said...

I hope that you'll write something on "The Insider" Jeremy!

And why not a special article about Mann's overall career?

I love "Manhunter","Thief,"The Insider","Collateral"...Mann is really one of the best living directors,i think,in fact he's my fav director with Dario Argento!

I even like very much some hotly debated Mann's films like "Ali","Miami Vice" or "The Keep" (i'd love a dvd of this latter film)!!

Crowe's breakdown scene in the hotel room of "the insider" is a moving scene,i love too the car night scene when Crowe is coming back at his home,only to find that his wife left him alone...

Spinotti's camerawork in "The insider" is stunning and even innovative.

J.D. said...

Guillaume:

I really dig Ali and Miami Vice as well. These weren't popular films but there's a lot going on in them and I think they are underrated in many respects.

Re: Crowe's breakdown scene in THE INSIDER. That is an incredible moment. You really feel for the guy. He's clearly at the end of his rope and it's incredible how Pacino manages to finally get through to him and bring him back from the brink, so to speak.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Keith,
For some great early Russell check out Romper Stomper or any number of other Australian films he made...lots of great stuff all through his career.

Thanks Guillaume,
Great to hear from you here. HOnestly I really admire all of Mann's work. I need to do something on him and plan on it in the future...thanks again for stopping by.

J.D.
In total agreement about that breakdown scene...and what a perfect marriage it is with Gerrard's incredible score. Chilling stuff...

Guillaume said...

J.D:

I also like in "The Insider" the end scene when Jeffrey Wigand's interview is finally shown uncut on tv...it is very moving when Wigand's little daughter is looking at him (in a subtle slow motion) and "understand" what it means to her father that this interview is finally shown uncut on tv...very,very moving.

It's probably Russell Crowe's best performance i think...Mann often gets from his actors some of their (if not their best!) best performances of their career:

Think about James Caan in THIEF,William Petersen and Tom Noonan in MANHUNTER,Will Smith and Jamie Foxx in ALI,Tom Cruise and Foxx in COLLATERAL,Gong Li in MIAMI VICE...

MIAMI VICE and ALI are impressive film making too...

i love the opening scene of ALI and its grandiose finale too...ALI is one of the less conventional "biopic" released in Hollywood i think...underrated (at least in the US)

And i liked the dark tone and use of HD cinematography in MIAMI VICE.
Gong Li in MV is also a gem...i loved her,the final scene with this great use of Mogwai's "Auto Rock" was especially wonderful.

If you like Mann,i warmly recommend to you the beautiful Taschen Book from F.X Feeney and also the interesting Steven Rybin book.


Jeremy: Keep up the good work Jeremy!

I can't wait to read you review about Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS,when you'll finally see it!!

Guillaume said...

Jeremy:

"and what a perfect marriage it is with Gerrard's incredible score. Chilling stuff..."

yes,the music on this scene is great,it's so haunting!

What always amazes me with Mann is how well he knows how to use music and sounds with his (beautiful)
images!!

For example:

The beach scene and violent climax of THIEF,the cross removal scene in THE KEEP,the tiger scene in MANHUNTER,the famous finale of MOHICANS,Moby in HEAT,THE INSIDER,Ali's running scene in the Kinshasa streets,the subway finale in COLLATERAL,the ending of MIAMI VICE,etc!

Great,great stuff.

J.D. said...

Jeremy: As for Russell's early Aussie stuff. I have always had a soft spot for PROOF, a film he did with Hugo Weaving. The interplay between the two of them, esp. the scene where they go to a drive-in and get into a fight with a bunch of rednecks is particularly memorable. Definitely worth tracking down if you haven't already seen it.

Guillaume: Yes! That end scene for THE INSIDER with Wigand watching his 60 Minutes segment with his kids is excellent. I also like the very last shot of Bergman leaving the CBS building in slow motion as the music swells. I appreciate this film the more times I see it.

I agree with you that it is probably Crowe's strongest performance to date... altho, I have a soft spot for his turn in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL but that is also because I really dig the source material -- James Ellroy's book is fantastic.

Re: Mann and getting the best out of actors in his films. The examples you cite are right on the money. I would also include Dennis Farina: from his small roles in THIEF to MANHUNTER to starring in CRIME STORY. I sure with they would do another film together and I was so bummed that they were supposed to do COLLATERAL together but Farina got injured and was unable to do it. Damn.

And Jamie Foxx should only make films with Mann. Everything else he does seems so minor in comparison. He's someone who needs a stronger director with a distinctive vision and seems to really rise to the occasion when he works with Mann.

Re: ALI. Yeah, the opening montage is incredible. The marriage of music with images and the brilliant editing... wow. I agree that people were probably turned off the film because it was a biopic almost told through Ali's eyes and so you got a more Expressionistic view of the man and most people were expecting a meat 'n' potatoes style film. Oh well.

Re: MIAMI VICE. Yeah, the HD camerawork was brilliant... esp. the depth of field that Mann captured, like the shots of the stormy, Katrina ravaged skies or that great shot of the small plane dwarfed by those HUGE white clouds. .. I also thought Gong Li was good in MV, she certainly looked the part and seemed born to be in one of his films.

And yes, I do have the Taschen book and Rybin's. Both are quite good, esp. the Taschen one for the rare photos. I hope to write a book about Mann's films some day. I've written quite a bit already. Just gotta finish the sucker.

Guillaume said...

"that great shot of the small plane dwarfed by those HUGE white clouds"

i like this shot,it's so impressive!
the fast boats scenes are so cool looking too!!!
I liked the boat scene between Farrell and Gong Li...the film is a slightly convoluted police procedural story and then suddenly this scene seems to come from nowhere...there's so much a sense of freedom and beauty in this scene...the images of the small boat on the huge sea are so incredible!!

I liked very much the abrupt opening scene (theatrical cut),the cleverly shot suicide on the highway and like i've said before,the great ending scene.


COLLATERAL was also an awesome looking film on the big screen!
L.A. at night was so beautiful and surreal in this film...

J.D. said...

Guillaume:

The fast boat scenes are very cool - esp. the one at the beginning of the "Director's Cut" but, like yourself, I think I prefer the theatrical cut where just begins abruptly in the night club with no explanation. I really felt like Mann was pushing action film envelope as far as it go into almost abstract areas.

Good call about the boat scene between Farrell and Gong. There scenes together, when they are alone, almost feel like another film and I mean that in a good way. But like many love affairs/relationships in Mann films, there's is doomed to fail. What I do like about the "Director's Cut" is that there is a bit more of them at the very end of the film.

And yes, COLLATERAL looks great on the big screen as do all of Mann's films. I'm still kicking myself for not seeing ALI on the big screen.

What I thought was interesting about COLLATERAL is that Mann was able to present it in a completely different way than he had in HEAT.