I’ve found it hard to get excited about much in the arts and media world these past couple of months — the onset of the winter doldrums, no doubt, combined with a pandemic that won’t go away. But let me ring out the old year with a few random questions:
Is This Really Oscar Season? The eligibility deadline for Academy Award consideration has been extended by two months, to the end of February; most of the big films are being watched on TV rather than in theaters; and the Oscar handicappers are going full steam, as if nothing were amiss. But this year’s Oscar race is increasingly looking like one of those World Series played during World War II, when many of the best baseball players were off fighting the war. The few Oscar contenders that I’ve caught up with so far seem like overachieving minor leaguers. Mank, David Fincher’s much-touted film about Herman Mankiewicz and the writing of Citizen Kane, struck me as stilted and cliched — Hollywood mythmaking at its most egregious. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t bad, but the film version has bent August Wilson’s 1982 play a little out of shape, in order to showcase Viola Davis’s scenery-chewing performance (and ensure her next Oscar nomination). As for Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland, I’ve read the great reviews — but tell me where you can see the darn thing.
Will Live Theater Ever Come Back? I do not envy the New York Times theater critics, who have had to hunt hard to find things to write about during the pandemic shutdown. Most of those Zoom theater pieces they rave about, I must admit, sound so dreary I can’t bring myself to even watch them. Meanwhile, there’s one theater story I’ve been waiting in vain to see: a survey of Broadway producers and theater owners to find out when they realistically expect to be up and running again. My guess is the reason we haven’t seen such an article is that it would be too disheartening. Broadway is officially projecting a reopening date of May 30, but few expect any shows to return before the fall. And even that is probably too optimistic. I cannot see nervous New Yorkers willing to sit in a crowded theater anytime soon, and if theater capacities are reduced to 50% or less, as they probably must be, no Broadway show will be able to survive financially. So this is going to take a long time.
Will Brian Williams Calm Down After January 20? The former NBC Nightly News anchor has resurrected his career nicely as host of MSNBC’s 11 o’clock hour, which offers a good wrap-up of the day’s political news, if you haven’t already overdosed on Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell. But Williams (who was fired, let’s not forget, for inflating his experiences as a war-zone reporter) continues to be addicted to rhetorical pomposity. There’s his tendentious fixation on the calendar (“Day one thousand, one hundred and fourteen of the Trump presidency…” ), and his pretentious habit of referring to the “souls” that have been lost to Covid. One night I even caught him referring to the souls who will be vaccinated. (Just wondering: which arm do souls use?) Maybe, with a new administration, Williams will tone down the rhetoric. But I doubt it.
Will the Late-Night Comedians Keep Trumpism Alive? Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, and the rest have flourished under the presidency of Donald Trump — the greatest satirical punching bag of modern times. Most of them profess to be exhausted by Trump, eager to move on. But I suspect it will be hard for them to settle for jokes about a boringly competent Biden administration. Trump will doubtless continue to be as disruptive a presence out of office — with tweets, rally speeches, Fox News interviews — as he was in the White House. The mainstream news media, one hopes, will ignore most of this self-aggrandizing sideshow. My fear is that the late-night comedians won’t be able to.
It will be an ironic turn of events, if the ironists who did so much to call out Trump’s idiocies, are the ones who help keep him in the public spotlight. But let’s see what 2021 brings. Better days, I hope.