The 91st Academy Awards

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I’m not ashamed to admit that I absolutely love the Academy Awards and have watched every year since, I think 1993 when Schindlers List swept the board. As a Brit, we can be very dismissive of an event that amounts to little more than just an annual backslapping event where, highly decorated individuals award highly decorated individuals by claiming that for one year only, they are the best. However, to have this cynical view is to hugely miss the point. The Academy Awards are meant to be a celebration, yes they are cheesy and yes an inordinate amount of time is spent trying to figure out what people are wearing, but the glitz and the glamour are what makes it what it is. A chance to take stock of where my favourite art form currently is.

Lets get one thing clear, the Academy Awards rarely, in my opinion give awards to the Best Films of the year, or even the films that will last long in the memory, and 2019 was certainly no exception to the rule. Green Book, this years Best Picture winner, was a light, fluffy piece that barely scratched the surface on the subject matter that it was based upon. Compared with the other nominee that tackled race issues in America, Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, to me there is no comparison, not only in the quality of the filmmaking but also the handling of the subject matter at hand. My thoughts are that out of the two, Green Book was the safer choice for an Academy, who desperate to show they are moving with the times, couldn’t quite be persuaded to award their highest prize of the year to a film that could be considered a political hot potato in the current landscape. Likewise, moving with the times is one thing, but awarding a black and white, non American language, made not for Cinema film Best Picture also proved to be a step too far for the Academy to take on this occasion, as pre-tournament favourite, and Netflix produced, Roma also missed out on the biggest prizes I personally am ok with this, I admired the astounding beauty of the film but I needed a bit more to convince me that I would need to watch it again or root for it as the overall best film. The Director and Cinematography gongs that it took home were hugely justified.

Ok, before I go on, I have a confession to make, I haven’t seen The Favourite yet, and will hopefully catch up with it before the week is out but I have seen the rest of the Best Picture nominations. My vote would have gone to the previously mentioned Blackkklansman and I would have also picked Adam Driver in Best Supporting Actor over Mahershala Ali, who was great in Green Book, but Driver kept me guessing as to which way his character was going right up to the very end of that film and I found it a completely magnetic performance.

So onto the ceremony itself, dogged with controversy before a limousine even pulled up to the red carpet, with a host in Kevin Hart first being hired then fired, a decision to not let all the Best Original Song nominees perform on the night, which was partially rescinded (4 out of the 5 had a warble), the decision to not let last years winners announce this years winners in the acting categories, again rescinded, and the daddy of them all………….a decision to not present all 24 categories on air, with 4 being moved to advert breaks. This last one was beyond ridiculous and was a potential smack in the mouth of the nominees and winners of those categories. The Academy was coming across as quite Orwellian with its “all categories are equal, yet some are more equal than others”. Thankfully, once again common sense prevailed and all were to be given their moment and rightly so. These people may not get to sit on the front row but its because of them that certain people do get to sit in the VIP seats.

So I was a little nervous before the ceremony started with no host, I personally think Jimmy Kimmel had done a solid job in the last 2 years and would have had no qualms with him getting the hat-trick, alas it became the job nobody wanted or seemed fit to do. With memories of Snow White fuelled nightmares of when last time the Academy went hostless being shown relentlessly on YouTube, the biggest gamble the Academy had made in 30 years was about to be unleashed on the audience.

And what an unleashing. If you going to go big, then go in BIG. Queen, with Adam Lambert, roared onto the stage, blasting the ear wax out of a possibly unsuspecting crowd with renditions of stadium rock anthems We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions. The crowd in the auditorium and, I suspect watching at home, embraced this cacophony of rock as the complete antithesis of the comedic monologue, Javier Bardem, in particular, was not holding back headbanging away as if he was in the back seat of the Murph Mobile behind Wayne and Garth. So far so good for the new look Academy Awards.

Once everyone had found their breath and their seats again, we got on with the more traditional act of actually handing out awards. First on stage was the comedy SNL triumvirate of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph, who briefly raised the hope on the watching audience that the Academy had cunningly bluffed us all and had indeed secretly lined up a host or hosts. Oh and what a treat that would be, anyone who has watched Fey and Poehlers 3 opening monologues (or is a duologue if two are doing it) at the Golden Globes would know they would be outstanding hosts. Here they didn’t disappoint, firing off some zingers including a great gag about Netflix and how it was possible that their microwave would make a movie next year.

As soon as Ali was announced as Best Supporting Actor, they left the stage with him and that was that. However what followed was a host of mainly young, upcoming stars from a diverse range of backgrounds from the quite brilliant Awkafina and John Mulaney, who made my favorite joke of the night when he remarked at his first Oscars. “I want these people to like me to a degree I find embarrassing,”  to the strange choice of Serena Williams who didn’t look that happy to be there.

I did miss a few of the more traditional faces, I always like to see some of the legends being themselves and there wasn’t a lot of that this year. Michael Keaton turned up halfway through to present Best Editing and seemed almost like an imposter surrounded by all these young upstarts. Having said that the irrepressible Barbara Streisand almost stole the show and actually did steal Richard E Grant’s heart as she sassed onto the stage to deliver a speech on behalf of Blackkklansman. Further to this Bette Midler charmed audiences everywhere when she sang “Where the Lost Things Go” from Mary Poppins returns with enough Diva gesturing to ensure that the Old School charm of Oscar was simmering away nicely in the background.

The highlight of the night, however, was to come when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga sent the audience, literally Gaga with a spellbinding renditon of soon to be crowned Best Original Song winner, Shallows from A Star is Born. Its a big song at the best of times but to perform like that on the Biggest stage surrounded by peers was possibly the one moment that will be talked about for decades to come.

I always look forward to the In Memoriam section of the Oscars, not because I take any great pleasure in those lost, but usually because it is a quiet moment of reflection and is often the emotional heartbeat of the ceremony. This year was no different as the faces of those lost, some I knew, some I didn’t played across the huge screen accompanied this year by the conductor Gustavo Dudamel who guided the Los Angeles Philharmonic, through John Williams “Leaving Home” from Superman. This poignant moment, especially when Margot Kidder appeared really captured the solemnity of this section. As is the case most years, there is always omissions, and whilst I know the Academy can’t include everyone, Gary Kurtz should have been there. I’ll give the Academy the benefit of the doubt with Stanley Donan having only passed in the last couple of days.

Back to the awards, and finally some recognition for Spike Lee’s outstanding contribution to modern American Cinema with his Best Adapted Screenplay for Blackkklansman. Presented by Samuel L Jackson, who’s personal impartiality (rightly) went out of the window when his cheer echoed around the auditorium. Lee went on to make a speech about love, unity and ensuring the correct choice was made in 2020. He even dropped the F-Bomb for good measure which has largely gone unreported. Lee’s involvement in proceedings, however, wasn’t to end with this award.

The leading Actor awards, which were nailed on last year when Frances McDormand and Gary Oldman surprised no one with their wins last year really did provide the shocks this year. The often, unfairly, maligned Rami Malek won for Bohemian Rhapsody ahead of favourite Christian Bale and gave a quite wonderful speech, and Olivia Coleman brought the house down when triumphing over the perennial bridesmaid Glenn Close for her turn in The Favourite. Coleman could not have been more British in her speech, self-deprecating, witty, and the emotions just about kept hold of. She truly was a phenomenal winner on the night (I haven’t seen the film yet) but there was a little bit of heartbreak for Glenn, who I know will win one day.

Alfonso Cuaron took Best Director, as many predicted, which seemed to confirm the bookies number one pick of Roma to be crowned as Best Picture winner. But no, this most unusual of Oscar ceremonies had one more rabbit in the hat. And the Oscar went too……………..GREEN BOOK. Cue wild delirium by the Green Book posse, cue Spike Lee attempting to leave the auditorium before being ushered back into his seat. It is highly likely that the newly introduced preferential voting system, where members rank the films 1-8 as opposed to just picking their favoured film, will have seen Green Book over the line, but if that’s what it took, that’s what it took.

The lack of host only really showed we didn’t have a host at this point, with Julia Roberts having to lean into the microphone, whilst the Green Book party began to warm up, to tell everyone that “erm well that’s it everyone, go home now” or words to that effect.

Once again another year is over. I really enjoyed the show, I always do, I missed some of the magic, I love a good “lump in the throat” montage (see the YouTube clip below for an example from last year) but again I saw the celebration, I don’t think the Best Film of last year won, that was clearly A Quiet Place which wasn’t even nominated, but they rarely do win. All I know we now live in an age where Spike Lee is an Academy Award Winner and Olivia Colman has become the most unassuming Biggest Star on the Planet. Till next year folks.

A long time ago in a little old cinema in Bolton

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Cannon Cinema Bolton, circa 1996

I believe I had been to the Cinema before, possibly to see some Disney re-issues such as Snow White and Bambi, I have a vague recollection of seeing the long since forgotten Disney “classic” The Spaceman and King Arthur in about 1980, but despite growing up to truly appreciate the majesty of Snow White and Bambi, as a 3-year-old, they didn’t at the time leave much of an impression. Fast forward 2 years and my life was to be changed, forever thanks to a trip to the building captured in the above photo (albeit the photo is taken many years later).

There were 2 Cinemas in Bolton back in the early 1980s, the aforementioned Canon Cinema and the imposingly impressive Odeon seen below,

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The Odeon Cinema in Bolton circa 1962 before scandalously being turned into a Bingo Hall in 1983

The Odeon shut down in 1983, and the building became a Bingo Hall later that year. I’m sure I went to the Odeon as a kid, maybe to watch Superman 2 and I remember thinking this was the Cinema to be at. Behind the doors of this strong, obstinate stone edifice, adventures and high thrills were turned from imagination to actual moving images on a screen so big it surely could be seen from some of these distant galaxies that I would be exploring inside the walls.

I started infant School, as a 4 year old, in January 1982, in those days they always had 2 intakes into the School year so as not to frighten the kids with Summer birthdays like me into having to deal with the politics that came with being in infant school when you had only just turned 4. I had settled in quite well and had made a good friend who I will refer to as Cozi. I seem to recall Cozi would often go on about a film called Star Wars and how it was an adventure set in Space and had lots of creatures in it including a giant walking bear. I probably was more concerned at the time with which disguise Mr. Benn would pick on his next trip to the costume shop near to his home on Festive Lane.

Then one day I remember my dad coming home from work and announcing that the Cinema in Bolton was showing both Star Wars and something called The Empire Strikes Back as a double bill (whatever that is) and that we were going to watch it. Ok, that sounds fun I thought and went straight back to wondering whether Mr. Benn would ever pick that Wizard costume that he was seen wearing on the opening titles.

I had almost forgotten about the trip until it actually happened, I don’t recall the journey to town, I couldn’t tell you whether it was by car or train, I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like, I can’t even recall what time of day it was, but I can tell you the disappointment I felt as we approached the Cannon Cinema and not the Odeon. The Odeon looked like it would protect you from a Nuclear Blast, it looked like the sort of place that will comfortably shield you from an apocalypse whilst you were in there. There were steps leading up to its front door for crying out loud, only important buildings had those. No, we were at the tiny Cannon cinema, that looked like a row of shops on a busy main road. So naff did it look from outside that next door to its left was a wig shop, its there on the photo above, with its blue parasol covering its window. Hmm, yes it was fair to say I was slightly underwhelmed. However this was all about to change, the lack of curb appeal was going to be instantly forgotten.

Next to the wig shop was a rectangular perspex picture frame jutting out from the wall. It had little fairy lights around its perimeter, it looked all sparkly and twinkly, my 4-year-old eyes were drawn to it like a homing beacon from a mothership sending me a signal. As I stole a glance at it, I noticed a picture, of an imposing, monstrous man in black armour with a red sword literally reaching out of the picture frame to me. Flanked on either side of him, was a collection of otherworldly characters, including what looked like the giant Bear that Cozi had been going on about. There seemed to be a lot of action going on here, people with laser guns, a man who looked like a gold robot, spaceships and in the middle of it all, large white writing of the words STAR WARS on the left and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK on the right. I remember staring at this poster and my imagination ran wild, I can remember vividly taking a step back and turning my young head, skyward all the way to the top of this no longer, tiny looking building.

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Double bill poster similar to the one I remember from outside the Cannon Cinema in 1982.


Next to the poster was another silver frame with fairy lights around its edging. This one had the teasing words “Coming Soon” in gold lettering just above it. In this poster, less is given away as intriguingly there was a picture of a young boy’s arm reaching across a starry backdrop to touch fingers with a spindly, brown and bony finger, over two brilliant bright letters which simply read E.T.

So in we went. Into the foyer with its plush red carpets, that seemed strangely sticky, I remember having to queue whilst an usher checked tickets with my dad and then in front of them, there appeared to be a person selling sweets and OMG, Minstrels!!!!. Hey, this place is alright, they sold Minstrels. There was an odd smell in the air, one I’d never experienced before and in the corner, I could see a glass box with a bright light shining down into it. Within that box was a form of wizardry that I had never dared imagine. Hundreds of little yellow creatures were bouncing up and down at an incredible rate. It looked at first as if they were trying to escape their glass prison but on closer inspection, they appeared to be jumping on a giant trampoline.

It was at this point that the Cannon Cinema in Bolton revealed one of its wondrous, magical secrets. As stated earlier the non-descript, plain, almost boring front of the cinema, gave little to no indication of the magic that was on offer. The double bill was to be shown on Screen 2, the jewel in the Cannon Cinema’s darkened, velvet crown. To get to Screen 2 though was a journey in itself as the Cinema revealed it’s Tardis-like interior, with corridor after corridor, staircase after staircase, my four-year-old legs felt they had walked to this fabled Galaxy far far away. We had reached the bottom of the stairs that would turn out to be the final ascent.

The following 10 seconds were going to have a monumental effect on the rest of my life, I remember walking up the steps that opened out to what seemed like a landing with half a wall. On approach to this half wall I could peer over it, and there it was, bathed in warm red, a huge stage and a colossal red curtain, with furrowed pleats, being lit by uplighters that despite having the power of a 10 watt bulb managed to cast the right amount of light and shade to instantly set the heart racing. What was behind that curtain? Before this stage, but beyond this half wall there was row upon row of maroon seats all facing the red curtain, all bathed in this omnipresent red glow. As we reached the top of the stairs, my dad led us to the right and I saw that there was the same amount of seats again in the top half of this cavernous room. We headed up some more steps to the right of the main ones we had just come up and about 3 rows up found our seats.

The seats had to be pulled down to sit on, this was indeed very exciting. I did what all 4-year-old boys would do at this point and launched my bottom to the back of the seat forcing it to bow at its hinges forcing my knees up into the air, as I giddily swung back and forward, much to the chagrin no doubt of my parents and the other patrons in the row behind me. I remember seeing a short scorch mark in the armrest of the chair, probably from a cigarette from a previous showing, I glanced around and saw the dark walls capturing whatever glow they could from the red curtain, reaching into the heavens and then the ceiling filled with dozens of twinkly stars, which of course turned out to be fairy lights and not a privileged insight into the Universe that was about to start in about 10 minutes. The only other light in the room came from the soft glow green lettering of the EXIT signs at the front of the auditorium. I had been in this room for less than 2 minutes and I already wondered why anyone would want to EXIT.

Now bearing in mind this was double bill I was probably destined to sit here for the next 4/5 hours which for a 4-year-old is quite an ask, so I imagine that toilet breaks did occur, I’m sure there must have been some respite between the two films but I don’t remember that detail.

After a while, once everyone was settled into their seats, the lights started to dim, the room was already dark but now it was plunging us into a pitch black environment save for the red curtain and the green EXIT signs, it was the type of dark that when you look to the right to see your parents you can only make out the fact that they are there, but you can’t see them.

Then there was a sound I will never, ever forget. There was a whir and a distant squeak and right before my young impressionable eyes the giant red curtain started to part and the biggest TV screen I had ever laid eyes on was revealed. It was a brilliant white light that illuminated the room, I turned round to take in the whole room and saw that this brilliant light was coming in a straight line from a tiny square hole at the back of the room. Millions of tiny dust particles danced merrily in its beam as this powerful, Alien-type ray fired at the screen. Then the screen almost crackled into life with a large black circular cue mark firing into the top left-hand corner of the screen. I don’t recall exactly what happened next, but no doubt we were treated to 10 minutes of adverts for Butterkist Popcorn and a man riding a surfboard in order to sell us Old Spice aftershave.

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Old Spice…….for Old Men
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Butterkist, Butterkist Rah Rah Rah!!!!

There was possibly trailers but I don’t recall any, being 1982, there may have been one for that young boy who seemed to have a friend with a very bony, brown arm set against a backdrop of stars and forests. That be as it may, I do recall my mum nudging me to let me know that it was about to start. That briefest of moments of total silence as the adverts/trailers ends and the collective throng impatiently wonder, is this finally the film.

Now I don’t know if this is just me, and I sure as hell don’t wish to brag, but I have always had this uncanny ability to remember my thoughts and feelings on certain films from the first time I saw them, even if I have seen, as is the case with Star Wars, the same film hundreds of times since. I can remember even 35 years later my thoughts and imaginations of the first time I saw it. I remember clear as a bell the pale blue lettering that appeared on the black screen ” A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…..” and then……….. BANG!!!!!! As if every brass instrument in the known universe struck up in unison, I shot about 15 foot into the air as the Yellow Stenciled Star Wars logo flashed before my eyes for the very first time. For the second time in a little over 20 minutes, life changed forever.

Then followed the crawl that seemed to come from the basement and pass off into some unknown galactical heaven never to be returned. (I used to wonder as a child whether some random space probe, out for a probe, would wander past those words and nonchalantly nod and say good morning to them as they passed). I do remember my mum breaking every cinema code violation, but for good reason, by leaning over and reading the words of the crawl to me, I was only 4 so give me a break and besides what the hell was a custodian? I recall thinking that Princess Leia’s ship was called the Custodian for many a year.

Once the crawl had a bid a fond farewell to the audience, the camera scans down to reveal Tatooine in all its golden glory as John Williams swells to an imposing conclusion of his magnum opus theme tune. Then BOOM, the Tantive IV bursts across our screens, arriving without warning from behind our heads. Where are they heading? Are they being chased? Oh, you bet your ass they are being chased?

Of all the life-changing moments that I have described happening to me in this somewhat brief 20-25 minute window into my infant life, the next one is possibly the one moment in my life, if you take away all the truly important and memorable such as family, my wedding the birth of my children, that still fills me with a comforting warm glow that will stay with me forever. As the Tantive IV sets off on its doomed journey across our screen, it struck me, something was firing laser beams. If you remember earlier I talked about a square hole at the back of the room that was shooting this brilliant white beam across the auditorium, well from inside that square hole now emerged the most glorious of all sights. An Imperial Star Destroyer spread across the screen, like a giant mountain rising out of a darkened ocean. It was bigger than enormous, it was bigger than humongous, it was the size of heaven and it glided across the screen with such ominous grace that the whole cinema was caught in its tractor beam-like aura. When was it ever going to stop? Was it ever going to stop? I sure hoped not.

Now I don’t plan to go through the entire film scene by scene but as mentioned a moment earlier I will point out the distinct thoughts and feelings that I know I had when I watched Star Wars for the very first time. I remember being really nervous when Obi-Wan first scared off the Sand People as he seemed to be a Jawa and I wasn’t mad keen on them after what they had done to R2 and 3PO. I distinctly remember thinking that Dr. Evazan was going to be a nice guy the way he almost apologetically starts with “he doesn’t like you….”. I remember the whole cinema laughing when Han told Luke “that’s great kid, now don’t get cocky” and furthermore when he asked the Falcon “come on baby, hold together”. I remember feeling that Chewbacca (the big bear) was going to rip C3PO to shreds when R2 goes into a probably unassailable lead in a game of Dejarik. I remember being scared of the trash compactor monster when it popped its beady eye out from beneath the garbage for the briefest of cameos. I remember feeling sad when SPOILER ALERT Obi-Wan sacrificed himself against Vader, and strangely even sadder when SPOILER ALERT Biggs gets taken out by Vader whilst he was hanging back, just far enough, to cover Luke during their attack run on the Death Star.

What I remember the most however was a feeling of absolute euphoria as Han squealed YAHOO! as the Falcon blasts one of the two Tie-Fighters off Luke’s tale forcing the second Tie Fighter to knock Vader out of position leaving Luke all clear to blow that thing and go home. I remember distinctly Vader spinning out into Space and realising there and then that he wasn’t dead and would probably come back, that in itself was as enticing a prospect as a young usher stood at the front of the auditorium with her mobile ice cream stall suspended from her shoulders in preparation for the interval that was moments away.

Then Star Wars finished and I can only assume there was a period of say half an hour maybe between films. I do remember the ice cream seller and I do remember the similar, yet different yellow scrawl that started off the film. Here’s the thing, I was 4 and had already sat for 2 hours, was I going to make it through another 2+ hours. I still have memories of watching Empire on that occasion but they are not as vivid as Star Wars. Maybe I did fall asleep, which is unlikely, I was never a particularly good sleeper at the best of times and this was definitely the best of times. I put it down to familiarity. We were the last family on the street to own a video recorder and Star Wars was on the TV every year at Christmas, but not Empire, we had to wait until Christmas 1988 to see that one. We got a video player that year and I remember being incredibly frustrated that Empire was on ITV at the same time as BBC 1 were showing Back to the Future, you could only record one, and I was outvoted 4 to 1. Anyway, I digress.

So there was a 6-year gap between viewings of Empire Strikes Back which as a youngster obsessed with Star Wars was a lifetime. I recall the film being set on an ice planet but couldn’t tell you too much about that. I remember vividly the asteroid field I do remember being shocked that Yoda turned out to be well Yoda, I definitely remember the sequence in the cave where Luke battled Vader and Luke’s face appeared in the damaged Vader mask, probably down to the excellent design of that scene, there were times in the following years where I wondered whether I had dreamed that scene. I remember finding out that Darth Vader was bald, I remember Cloud City and meeting Lando, I remember Han being frozen in carbonite and the Luke versus Vader conflict, but in my head that all happened out on the platform where Vader cut off Luke’s hand and revealed the big twist that I shan’t spoil for anyone here who hasn’t seen the film yet.

When watching it again in 1988 I had no recollection of the space slug, the bounty hunters, the Ugnaughts or even that Obi-Wan was in the film.

The overriding memories of that day, however, were that I was sat in a truly magical place, a building so unassuming on the outside, but a purveyor of fascinating gifts on the inside. My love of Cinema was born that day and it has never left, I still get a tingle of excitement when I walk through the door into the room and see that giant screen in front of me. It is a privilege to live in a time when I am witness to such groundbreaking art that is designed primarily to entertain and make people happy. That trip to the cinema made me realise that whenever things are looking a little bit gloomy that the imaginations of the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to name just two are an invitation to relax and be thrilled in the various wonders that they put on the screen for our pleasure.

Dom

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Postscript, – as is the way of things, both the Cinemas mentioned above have long since gone, the Odeon building, which has ceased to be a cinema in 1983 and turned into a Bingo Hall until 2004 was demolished in February 2007. The Cannon Cinema survived until 1998 with a special screening of Casablanca marking its last ever show. The building laid empty for years before being demolished in 2006 to be replaced by a block of flats called Picture House.