"The Oscars? They're bulls--t!" laughed an éminence grise of the Screen Actors Guild and long-time Academy member. We were sitting opposite each other after a long, hard day of watching and judging movies at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. This white haired, white-grinned, white man north of 70 with the mischievous smirk was kidding, of course.
But not entirely.
Speaking anonymously, Actor X went on to ask (and I paraphrase because there's nothing more gauche than pulling out your tape recorder at dinner after the red wine has been poured): How can you compare Cate Blanchett's part in Woody Allen's updated "Streetcar Named Desire," "Blue Jasmine," with Meryl Streep in "August: Osage County"?
What that question told me, in part, was that this actor of television, stage and screen knew his craft and had an independent turn of mind. He'd lived and seen a lot more Hollywood than I ever will. And following his time at Santa Barbara, he will be flying to New York to teach classes at one of Manhattan's world-renown acting studios.
So, if this charming septuagenarian with the long listing on IMDB hadn't bought the press machine's denial that "Blue Jasmine" was a chip off one of Tennessee Williams' greatest plays – and Blanche Dubois a character that Blanchett had recently played to raves at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York – maybe he was skeptical enough to make his own decisions about what makes an actor good, or great – or even best.
Actor X had an opinion on that, too. The Oscars are another example of how Americans have an obsession with quantifying the best, whether it's the Super Bowl or hamburgers or performances.
Nor was Actor X checked out or out of touch. As a member of the SBIFF jury watching 17 films from Latin American and Eastern Europe, he was jazzed by the movie that he and his wife (and fellow juror) had watched that day. He commented that foreign filmmakers were still making movies to realize their individual vision, not succumbing to the commercialism of Hollywood.
One takeaway: Never underestimate the "aging" Academy. There's a lot of wisdom and experience there, something that I repeatedly come across as I make my way down the red carpet toward Oscar. This idea of senior, or simply experienced, Academy members having an independent turn of mind contradicts the common misconception that the Academy skews old and irrelevant. Is there a possibility that they skew old and wise, even as they invite newer and more diverse members into the elite fold of 6,000-odd strong?
Following the jury dinner, the members meandered down State Street to the Arlington Theatre, one of a string of vintage movie houses. The night's Outstanding Director Award honoring David O. Russell was about to begin.
Later, as SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling interviewed Russell, Durling observed: "David's style is controlled chaos."
I looked over my shoulder and saw Actor X nodding and laughing. As an Academy member who has worked with Russell, he knows that chaos. And he's familiar with the unpredictability that defines the members of the Academy as they pick their best in that most American of obsessions.
Cue: Mischievous laugh of experience.