It’s only a couple days before the 84th Annual Academy Awards, which means another rush of last-minute speculation about who those iconic golden statues will go to.
Esteemed — and perhaps notorious — USC School of Cinematic Arts professor Drew Casper is no stranger to the awards, having followed it closely over the years.
Though he describes the 2011- early 2012 season as “one of the worst years for movies ever,” Casper was generous enough to share his thoughts on this year’s nominees over a leisurely lunch at Parkside. Here’s what he had to say.
Adapted from a novel by Hawaii native Kaui Hart Hemmings and written by director Alexander Payne as well as Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, The Descendants screenplay has garnered plenty of acclaim, even snagging USC’s Scripter Award.
Casper remains unimpressed.
“The Descendants was so soft, so mushy. Where’s the edge? Election, Citizen Ruth, Sideways — Payne’s other films had such black humor, such a sharpness,” he says, furrowing his brow. “But people want mush, I guess. Coming from Payne, and based on my expectations, it’s a step down.”
Though he believes that The Descendants will win the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, Casper doesn’t believe it’s the most deserving.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the best-written film of the year. It’s heart-pounding and interesting, and it’s so, so sensitive to [author John] le Carré’s vision,” Casper says.
He pauses and shakes his head.
“But no one went to see it, so it won’t win for best adapted screenplay,” Casper continues. “It’s a movie where you have to pay attention. It demands it. And audiences don’t really do that these days.”
As for best original writing, Casper is willing to bet on a true film veteran, even if others — including Bridesmaids, which Casper is quick to praise as “genuinely hilarious, as well as honest” — did catch his eye.
“[Woody] Allen will win with Midnight In Paris. He’s so well-known, and the movie made money. I’m a little underwhelmed by it compared to some of his other works, but money matters,” Casper says. “Take [Allen’s 1994] Bullets Over Broadway — it was a commercial flop, and didn’t get the recognition it deserves.”
On best picture and direction
“The Artist is very simple, but put together in a very sophisticated way,” Casper says. “You’ve seen it all before, in movies like Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard, but it’s completely charming, even if it’s referential. Is it a great movie? No. It’s not a classic. But I think it’ll win best picture.”
Aside from the direction of Michel Hazanavicius with The Artist, Casper also lauds the most recent work of film legend Martin Scorsese, Hugo, noting that it’s “one of the best uses of 3-D ever” and “stylistically amazing.”
But any student who’s taken a class with Casper knows that, though his praise of films can be glowing, his criticism is equally intense. As expected, he has some choice words for certain nominations.
“The Tree of Life,” Casper says, head craning forward for emphasis. “What masturbation! Just repeating the same point, the same feeling over and over again. It’s pretentious as all hell. The cinematography is terrific, admittedly, but I think the photography in The Artist is better. It really shows off the elegance of black and white.”
Though there are many standout female performances that have been nominated this year, for Casper, it’s all about Meryl Streep.
“You can’t touch Meryl. She is amazing. The way she’s able to transform from role to role, being a fashion b-tch in [The Devil Wears Prada] and now in The Iron Lady, it’s incredible,” he says.
“But I don’t think she’ll win,” he adds with a frown. “I think they’ll give it to [The Help’s Viola Davis]. Did you see that article in the Times on Sunday?” he asks, referencing a recent Los Angeles Times study. “Voters will [have gone] for that.”
The study found that 94 percent of Academy voters are white, and that 77 percent are male. Casper points out that voters could have reacted to that revelation by “going for” the African-American Davis.
As for the male performances, Casper dismisses the buzz around George Clooney, noting it as “the same thing he’s done in every film.” He was impressed by others, however.
“[Jean Dujardin] in The Artist: very fine performance. It was really strong, well-acted. Gary Oldman [in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy]: also a great performance, but he doesn’t stand a chance. No one watched the movie,” he says.
What is art? What should art do? These difficult questions are swiftly addressed by Casper, who says art — including movies — should “move you on a deep emotional level.”
“I like it when a movie disturbs me — not necessarily in a frightening way, but with feeling and emotion. Singin’ In the Rain is so joyful, and it makes me feel like I’m walking on air — it changes my entire perception of life,” Casper says with a grin.
A point often made in Casper’s lectures is that films are in decline, and here he doesn’t shy away from addressing modern audiences.
“Unfortunately, the Golden Age of films is over. People don’t want something to think about — they want sensation. People go to a movie for the same reason they go on a roller-coaster,” he says.
For Casper, the magic of movies lies not in special effects or crazy premises but in human emotion.
“What people don’t remember is that the most spectacular thing that can happen on-screen is a person talking to a person,” he says, eyes alight with excitement. “That’s what the movies are really about.”