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2003 Michael Sragow chat

Michael Sragow has been a film critic for publications in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and Seattle. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, and has had articles in several top publications. He came to the Sun in 2001 from, where he wrote movie reviews and articles starting in 1999.

SunSpot: Welcome, Michael. Thanks for joining us.

Michael Sragow: Back at ya!

Elaine, Ellicott City: Do you ever feel like you were wrong about a movie after you've reviewed it? Any examples?

Michael Sragow: I never feel I was wrong about a movie after I've reviewed it, but years later I will sometimes feel my feelings about it change. For example, decades ago I found EASY RIDER a torture to sit through, but now every time I glance at it on television I keep watching, because it's such a rich reflection of its period. Similarly, sometimes I feel my affection growing stronger for a film over time. When I first saw the Bill Murray movie STRIPES, I enjoyed it, but now it works on me like St. John's Wort -- I still drive my wife crazy saying, "That's the fact, Jack."

Stephanie, Baltimore: What makes you feel like you are qualified to criticize films?

Michael Sragow: There's no qualification for any kind of writing except brains and literary talent, and that's for your editors and readers to judge. It's not a matter of formal education or advanced degrees. My old friend Pauline Kael, the best movie critic who ever lived, used to say, "If you don't think film school can kill movies, you underestimate the power of education." Actually, I did go to NYU film school for a year, because at the time, 1969, it had an undergraduate film program that didn't require a high school diploma. But the core course was called "Perception" and the semester project was taking a blindfold trip down St. Marks Place and creating something based on the experience! (You can see why I hated EASY RIDER.) I began writing about movies in a serious way because I got in an argument with a friend over the greatest film ever made, THE WILD BUNCH, and wrote a 5000 word essay defending it. I sent it to a small film magazine in the basement of the Bleecker Street Cinema and was on my way. I transferred to Harvard and studied History and Lit but kept writing for that now-defunct film mag and for the Harvard Crimson. If I have one bias, it's that critics have a passion for the form they're hired to criticize.

Liz, Manassas, Va.: Who do you think SHOULD (not WILL) win the "best actress" award?

Michael Sragow: Diane Lane for UNFAITHFUL. The movie was not the greatest, but the scene of her recalling a tryst while she rides back to home and family on a commuter train is tumultuous, sensual, transporting -- people have been trying for half-a-century to update BRIEF ENCOUNTER for sexually liberated times, and she managed to do it all by herself in five minutes!

R.B.B., Baltimore: What's the deal with "Chicago?" Why do you think it's being so overwhelmingly embraced?

Michael Sragow: I loved CHICAGO -- it's not my favorite among the nominees (I prefer THE TWO TOWERS and THE PIANIST), but it is a dazzling accomplishment for the director, Rob Marshall, the writer, Bill Condon, and the two female stars, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones. I really think it is the sharpest and most exhilarating musical since CABARET, and that people who don't respond to it may not respond to musicals in general. The rap on it is that the characters are thin and the ideas general -- but the whole point of musicals is to make pop-poetic ideas soar through singing and dancing and (in this case stylized) visuals, and there hasn't been a more unsentimental view of the American celebrity-and-success machine since the non-singing version of the story, ROXIE HART. I think people in Hollywood adore the craft involved (the editing that actually projects the dancing lines into the action rather than obliterate them a la MOULIN ROUGE), the cinematography that wrings multiple shadings out of limited sets, and the sheer courage of Marshall and Condon coining a new take on a classic and both making it work as vaudeville for the screen AND humanizing it just the slightest bit. *I* say, Bravo!

Mandy, Roland Park: Of the five best picture nominees, which do you feel really is the best film?

Michael Sragow: I REALLY DO think THE TWO TOWERS is best, followed closely by THE PIANIST. I am just floored that Peter Jackson was not nominated for best director -- I wonder whether it's because when he was pushing THE TWO TOWERS he told interviewers quite frankly that he found Oscar campaigning exhausting and not as important as returning to New Zealand to finish THE RETURN OF THE KING. I don't think there has been a fantasy film IN MOVIE HISTORY as faultlessly acted, as magnificent in its scope and invention, and as enthralling in its narrative drive as I'm sure the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy will turn out to be. Friends of mine who've worked on films in New Zealand tell me that RETURN OF THE KING will make the first two films look like warm-ups. If that's true it's hard to think that next year Jackson and his movie and the legions of actors and craftspeople who worked on it will be denied....That said, let's not forget that Polanski in THE PIANIST brought a combination of sensitivity and intellectual rigor to the Holocaust never before seen in a feature film, not even SCHINDLER'S LIST. The final hour of THE PIANIST is a transcendent experience.

SunSpot: Did anything in Adrien Brody's career prepare you for his performance in THE PIANIST?

Michael Sragow: I've liked Brody a lot over the years -- he was deft in a much lighter way in Barry Levinson's LIBERTY HEIGHTS -- but I don't think he ever had a chance to show his stature until THE PIANIST. What's remarkable about his performance is the way he works the hero's musicality into his very spine; even his profile brings to mind not only pop icons like Gershwin but classical-music heroes like Vladimir Horowitz. The movie wouldn't work unless you felt the connection between the actor's hands and the hunger in his mind as he's running his hands over a keyboard without hitting the keys (because he can't let anyone hear him play); it's a fabulously satisfying instance of an actor fleshing out a brilliant directorial conception. It's a tribute both to Brody and Polanski that no one leaves that movie until the hero plays his very last note.

Cheryl, Baltimore: What do you think about the stars who are boycotting the Oscars because of the war? Do you even think that there will be enough of them to be missed?

Michael Sragow: I don't see the logic of protesting the war by boycotting the Oscars. For one thing, you won't find a more lib-rad industry than the movie industry anywhere in America -- a very independent-minded director friend of mine, who is socially radical but supports the war, was amused when the studio head he was working for threatened to cancel a crucial post-production meeting so she could attend a peace march! There's been a long tradition of performers sneaking in political messages -- or hitting viewers over the head with them -- during the broadcast. Why certain of the talents thinking of boycotting wouldn't take the opportunity to do that -- especially those who have already spoken their minds at overseas awards ceremonies -- is beyond me.

Joe, Timonium: Do you get to vote for the Oscars? Do you know anyone who does?

Michael Sragow: Critics don't get to vote for the Oscars -- the voting is limited to the Academy membership, which is by invitation only (that's why the results are often different from the various guild awards). Each branch nominates the talent in its branch (editors for editors, cinematographers for cinematographers, actors for actors, and so on), all nominate the best pictures, and there are special committees for foreign films and documentaries. I've known a lot of Academy members and a few who've served on those committees, and they take the nomination and voting quite seriously. One of the best publicists I've ever known, Susan Pile, who used to work for Andy Warhol's dream factory and now runs special Oscar campaigns, told me a hilarious story once about what she found under her floorboards when she moved into her Hollywood home. It was a notebook she called DIARY OF AN ACADEMY MEMBER and it dated back to the early 60s. It listed every screening this Academy member -- he was a film-score arranger, I believe -- saw in 1963. When it came to November 22, 1963, the only notation was "VICTORS screening cancelled." (Of course, that was the day Kennedy was shot....)

Ben, Glen Burnie: Is there any way the voting process could be changed in coming years so it's not so political?

Michael Sragow: The voting is actually LESS political these days than it was in the years when the major studios controlled huge voting blocs. The Academy is always registering new complaints about producers using unfair largesse and lobbying techniques to sway votes, but by and large these techniques tend to backfire. If I were a filmmaker, I'd want Harvey Weinstein of Miramax pushing me, but the reigning wisdom right now is that his obvious slighting of one of his directors (Marshall for CHICAGO) for another (Scorsese for GANGS OF NEW YORK) is going to backfire and help win the ignored one (Marshall) the award.

Mary, Arbutus: Is it just a coincidence that some of the most-nominated movies this year star women as the protagonists, or is Hollywood getting more comfortable having women in lead roles in something other than romantic comedies?

Michael Sragow: Just a coincidence. But if it helps a lot of these stars get the power to generate their own projects -- and they use that power wisely -- then this coincidence will have real impact.

Alexa, Baltimore: Why does Michael Moore always seem to get screwed by the Academy? Has he done something to make them mad?

Michael Sragow: Well, if you'll notice, BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE has been nominated for Best Documentary this year. And far from making the Academy mad, he's been one of the forces that's made the Academy change its rules, so that the documentary committee has been split in two, with half in LA and half in New York, to offset any possible cliqueishness or cronyism. (You didn't ask, but I think Moore does his best work on television and that he exposes the thinness of his humor and the superficiality of his analysis at feature-length.)

Pat, Columbia: Which best actor and actress nominees are most likely to make horrible decisions about their careers like Hilary Swank, Gwyneth Paltrow and Cuba Gooding Jr. have done?

Michael Sragow: This is a pretty smart group of actors this year -- and most of the time when we blame actors for bad movies, because their faces are front and center, we should be blaming the paucity of GOOD opportunities that are given to them anyway. Probably no acting award-winner sank lower quicker in general esteem than Marisa Tomei because of the urban legend that her win was a mistake. But she's hung in and established herself as one of the most reliable and entertaining character actors in movies today. I often see Mira Sorvino written about as if she's a has-been, when she was delicious in TRIUMPH OF LOVE this year -- a film that was booked into Baltimore for a weekend and ended up playing three or four weeks. I think we should applaud the unconventionality of some of these actresses' choices rather than push them into big box-office fodder.

Joe, Severna Park: What do you think of Steve Martin as a host? How do you think he will handle the war issue?

Michael Sragow: I'm a big fan of Steve Martin as a writer and performer and SOMETIMES as a movie actor, but I think his last Oscar host performance (despite its rave reviews from TV critics) was a bit too cool and conceptual. Even when Billy Crystal bombs, there's something more authentic about his connection to the show-biz milieu -- a lot of genuine affection seeps through the wisecracks. But on this occasion, Martin's coolness may keep the event on an even keel, politically. I doubt that he'll confront the war issue directly, but he has any number of clever feints he can pull off to cap a statement or deflect a rant.

Heather, Owings Mills: This isn't really Oscar-related, but now that "Ladder 49" is being shot in Baltimore, do we have a good chance of getting more movies to film here?

Michael Sragow: Actually, it *is* a good sign, because it shows the director, Jay Russell, liked working in Maryland when he shot TUCK EVERLASTING here. The best hope for the city and state to increase film and TV production is to forge good, ONGOING relations with producers and directors; everything I know about the film office and film festivals here suggest that our local film authorities realize the importance of these personal connections and are constantly working on them, here or at gathering-places like Sundance.

SunSpot: What do you really want to see happen Sunday night?

Michael Sragow: Read the SUN on Sunday! But if THE TWO TOWERS can't win Best Picture, I'd at least like to see it sweep the five lesser awards it's been nominated for; I'd like Michael Caine to obliterate the Jack Nicholson juggernaut for the wildly overrated ABOUT SCHMIDT; I hope the faux-sensitivity of THE HOURS will go down in flames before the sizzle of CHICAGO; and I trust Peter O'Toole will appear, be daffy or eloquent or both, and that the man entrusted to putting together his tribute montage will give us a choice sampling of some of the most audacious and entertaining acting feats ever committed to celluloid.

SunSpot: Thanks for coming Michael. Don't be a stranger.

Michael Sragow: I enjoyed the chat -- and hospitality!Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun