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Gloom in Warsaw when Katyn failed to bring home Oscar

The Academy awards brought a certain "freudenschade" (Joy over other people's misery) to Western Europe and an air of gloom to Warsaw. The German newspapers were practically gloating over the fact that all four acting Oscars went to European rather than American performers (UK, France and Spain), whereas the Poles, placing high hopes on Andrzej Wajda's WW II Massacre epic "Katyn", received a painful letdown when the Best Foreign film award went to a relatively minor Austrian concentration camp story, "The Counterfeiters".

So sure were the Poles of a victory for their famous 80 year old director that a crowd of a hundred Polish well-wishers, among them three lead actors from the Katyn film and a clutch of Warsaw film bigwigs, had assembled atop the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard to celebrate directly on Hollywood turf. With the announcement that the Austrian contender had taken the foreign cake, the Polish celebration turned into a wake of second guessing and sour grapes. Polish actor Anrzej Chyra said said he "had a strong hunch" that Katyn would win, and "this is the first time my intuition has ever betrayed me".

The leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcha, showed a large photo of Kazakhstan director Sergei Bodrow of the film "Mongol", also in contention for the foreign film prize, on the front page bowing down before a smiling Wajda, obviously convinced that he didn't have a chance against the Polish Grand Master -- this, incidentally, above a much smaller pic of Helen Mirren conferring the best actor Award on fellow countryman, Daniel Day-Lewis ...

Back in 1980 when Kurosawa shared a Golden Palm at Cannes for "Kage Musha" (with "All That Jazz") one veteran critic observed that "You don"t invite a famous seventy year old director to come half way around the world and then send him home empty-handed". No such scruples were in evidence this year in Hollywood, although Wajda is now a decade older than Kurosawa was then. Wajda himself said that he was skeptical from the start about his chances because the subject matter is a bit too obscure for American taste, but his disappointment was clear to all at the Hyatt.
Some Poles, grasping at straws, took slight consolation in the fact that a prize for the best short animation film went to "Peter and the Wolf", officially listed as a British entry but a piece of work with majority Polish participation.

The bottom line on Katyn's failure to bring the bacon back home to Warsaw is probably, more than anything else, a matter of very bad PR and handling of the film in the six month interval since its Polish release last September. No effort was apparently made to give the film a strong American release -- or any kind of release outside of a few college and cultural niche screenings. Consequently hardly any Academy members saw it, nor was any kind of advance word of mouth built up. The Polish sponsors of the film apparently thought that Wajda's name alone would be enough to sell the package. Unfortunately, that's not the way it works in Hollywood where intense publicity campaigns are regularly mounted to give contenders Oscar impetus.

This was a surprising year all around as a monster film dressed up as a neo-Western from the Coen Brothers of Minnesota took the top film prize, and four European actors swept all the acting prizes leaving the likes of Johnny Depp and George Clooney out in the cold. London born Daniel Day-Lewis (50) picked up his second Best-Actor Oscar, to no one's surprise for his work in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood", but Best Actress to Marion Cotillard for her portrayal of Edith Piaff in "La Vie en Rose" was a bit unexpected as the film came out in the States nearly a year ago and was semi-forgotten -- well-earned nevertheless. Unglamorous British actress Tilda Swinton (47) was a dark horse Best Supporting Actress in Clooney starrer "Michael Clayton", and another surprsise, but the big shocker was Spaniard Javier Bardem (38) for his deadpan delivery of an indestructible Frankenstein monster in the Coen Brothers successor to "The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre" entitled oddly, "No Country For Old Men". Good title, but "The West Texas Oxygen Tank Slaughters" might have been more to the point.

"No Country" is a top-flight piece of Horror-tainment but, by no means the profound philosophical indictment of the American Dream that some critics (for example in Poland) are making it out to be. For one thing there is absolutely nothing American about "Anton Chigurh" (Bardem) the hulking, central, straight-from-Hell villain of the piece -- the name in fact, suggests Central Europe or Mongolia. Nor does this beautifully barren stretch of West Texas where the film was shot, in any way, represent America as a whole. It's actually, come to think of it, more like Mongolia! The Coens obviously had one helluva time making this over-the-top monster-thriller but, let's face it -- these guys, while extremely skillful filmmakers, are not film philosophers and social critics on the level of, say, Bergman and Antonioni. If anything, they're highly competent horror comedians.

"No Country" nosed out "There Will Be Blood" for the Best Picture award but P. T. Anderson, still a tender 38, did cop Best Director, thus duplicating his award for the same honor at Berlin just weeks ago. The underlying moral, if there is one, is probably that classy entertainment like "No Country" will always win out over serious history ("Blood" is an historical study of American Oil Baronry in the last century) -- at least in Hollywood.

Alex, Warsaw, March 2, 2008

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