Mugger: Knocking On Oscar's Door

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Usually, I’m impervious to the first scents of “Oscar buzz” that waft throughout the celebrity-devoted media world at this time of year. I can’t remember watching the televised Academy Award ceremonies since the early 1970s, when Marlon Brando was upset over the treatment of Native Americans. Like millions of Americans who see a number of movies each year, I root for favorites and then quickly forget about the whole thing. This fall, however, is different since, according to a number of critics, the Australian actress Cate Blanchett is a near-lock to be nominated for her horrendous part in Todd Haynes’ snoozy I’m Not There.

Although the enormous portfolio of reviews about Haynes’ self-indulgent and overlong “postmodern” examination of the “music & many lives of Bob Dylan” has been mixed, with a tilt to the positive, Blanchett’s portrayal of the mid-’60s Dylan has been singled out as extraordinary. Armond White, writing in these pages two weeks ago, was almost alone in his decimation of Blanchett, accurately writing: “[I]t’s sheer hell watching another Cate Blanchett character assassination. Her idea of Dylan is to dither, pivot and flutter her fingers while wearing a Harpo Marx wig.” Haynes’ notion of featuring six separate actors to play interpretations of discrete phases of Dylan’s career wasn’t a bad one, I guess, but not one of the actors pulls it off, even with granting the filmmaker his suspension of disbelief.

The choice of a woman to represent the weary, amphetamine-fueled singer-performer during his most artistically fertile period—the trilogy of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde—wasn’t especially bold since some rock historians say this was Dylan’s “androgynous” turn, with some even suggesting that he was in drag for the cover shot of Bringing It All Back Home. Moreover, anyone who’s seen Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, a fine documentary from a couple of years ago, can see from the footage of that time that Dylan, although exhausted and ornery, wasn’t in the least bit feminine. Unless you still consider an unruly bird’s nest of hair, polka-dot shirts, pointy boots and a slight build as gender-bending.

Blanchett, as Jude Quinn (“Jude” from the catcalls of “Judas” from folkies who were pissed Dylan moved on from acoustic to electric guitars, and “Quinn” from a “Basement Tape” song), is a flop in depicting Dylan’s mood changes from surly and self-pitying to exhilaration as he contemplated not only the songs and sound he was creating but all the controversy that ensued. A far better choice than the prissy Blanchett would’ve been Ryan Gosling—outfitted in an Afro—to better visualize Dylan’s nastiness and verbal violence directed at whoever happened to look at him the wrong way.

Another missed opportunity, incidentally, was the failure to cast Harvey Weinstein as the Albert Grossman (Dylan’s manager during those years, a bombastic impresario with whom the artist often quarreled) character in I’m Not There. As reported in the Times’ David Carr’s way-too-early Oscars blog, “The Carpetbagger,” Weinstein, whose company produced the film, said “I’ll shoot myself” if Blanchett doesn’t receive a nomination.

Unlike White, I happened to like Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine and Far From Heaven, but with this latest film his ego took over, and maybe all the critical acclaim he’s received sent him into a hallucinatory trance imagining he’s the early 21st century equivalent of Dylan. That’s speculation, of course, since I’m no expert on Haynes; but I do know a lot about Dylan, got all the obvious and very obscure jokes and references in I’m Not There and still was unmoved.

A lot’s been made of the fact that Dylan, selectively private, at least minimally cooperated with Haynes, granting the filmmaker the use of his songs and, in the best part of the film, allowing his own visage from a show in ’66 to take over the screen at the conclusion. This isn’t really surprising, however, since No Direction Home has already been released; it’s inconceivable that before a reverent documentary was made, say in the early ’90s, that Dylan would ever consented to a whimsical film like I’m Not There.

What so many critics, at least the crummy ones (like the Times’ A.O. Scott, who gushed over Haynes’ film) don’t understand is that, far from being inscrutable, Dylan’s always been very grounded and calculating. It wasn’t only that he was bored with “protest” music and adulation of folkies by 1964, but it was smart career move. Likewise, unlike so many rock comets like Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones, Dylan saw in ’66 that he on the verge of a nervous breakdown or even death, and was smart enough to trump up a motorcycle accident to re-group and further his mysterious aura by going underground. Had Dylan really been so damaged by his accident, there’s no way that in a matter of months he’d be composing and recording over 100 songs with The Band in upstate New York, only a few of which made into Columbia’s official ’75 release of The Basement Tapes.

Anyway, once Dylan had successfully worked with Scorsese on No Direction Home, which gave him the opportunity to have control over his legacy while still living, what did he care if someone like Haynes wanted to use his life and work for an audacious experiment? Maybe Dylan likes the film, maybe he’ll never see it, but more than Blanchett, who probably will pick up some hardware at one of this year’s awards shows, the 66-year-old singer is the real winner.

I took my sons to I’m Not There and, while both were disappointed by the film, complaining that its appeal was strictly for hardcore Dylan fans, it wasn’t an hour later that both of them were rummaging through my CD collection for the Dylan recordings they weren’t already familiar with. And I’ll bet that something similar is happening across the country in a minor way: The sales (or downloading) of Dylan records will spike and the old geezer will be clipping more royalty coupons, guaranteeing a most pleasant inheritance for his many children.

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