Several members of my family were watching the Oscars last night, and occasionally I’d step into the room, taking a break from re-reading The Far Side of the World for about the sixth time, which is something I’d rather do than watch the Oscars. (I’m still mad about the “Shakespeare In Love”-as-Best-Picture fiasco of 1998.)
So I heard a couple of references to the movie “Gravity” — which stands out among the films of this past year in that I actually went to see it in a theater. I had heard that a) it was good, and b) the 3D was actually worth seeing. So several weeks ago, I went to see it while I could still catch it in that format.
It was good, and the 3D, while not being mind-blowing, was at least watchable. It didn’t get in the way. But I wouldn’t call it indispensable. I think the film would have been visually impressive without it.
But that’s not what I wanted to write about. This morning, skimming through my email, I saw a link to a Slate piece about the Oscars, and I followed it because I was curious what they could possibly mean by the headline, “Ellen Was the Stephen Colbert of Oscars Hosts.” Turns out, not much. But on the way to finding that out, I ran across this sentence fragment (believe me, you don’t want to read the whole sentence; it’s unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe celebrity news): “… another montage about heroes, featuring almost no women.”
No, I don’t know what that referred to, and don’t care. But it got me thinking about George Clooney in “Gravity,” who I thought was impressive as an old-fashioned, early ’60s-or-earlier kind of hero, the kind you don’t see all that often in movies anymore.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, I’m about to give away the whole movie, so if you care about that, stop reading now.
Yes, the movie centers around Sandra Bullock’s character, who spends most of the screen time alone. The film is mainly about her grit and determination to survive. You would in fact call her character heroic if she were saving anyone other than herself, but whether you call it that or not, her struggle is pretty gripping.
But the reason she spends all that screen time alone is that at the beginning, George Clooney’s character gives his life so that she’ll have a chance.
And in his few minutes on screen, he exhibits enough Traditional Manly Virtues to fill up the whole film and more. He seems to personify all the courage we ascribed to the original seven Mercury astronauts, as described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. And as befits a hero, he wears it lightly, hid in a constant stream of wisecracks, maintaining an even strain.
There’s a dynamic between him and the Bullock character that I’ve seen in real workplaces. She is the no-nonsense woman who has a task to perform and is doing it not because she enjoys it, but because it needs doing and she knows how to do it, and she just wants to get it done and go home and maybe put her feet up, but while she’s working she has to put up with this lollygaggin’, wisecracking guy who doesn’t seem to have enough to do and who is maybe flirting with her or something, which is something she doesn’t need.
Although it turns out that the good-time Charlie thing is just part of his leadership style. He’s just trying to get a smile out of someone having a bad day (because if you can do that, the unit functions more smoothly). But that’s not all there is to him. When things go bad and somebody needs to give orders, he does so with a crisp, commanding confidence. No question at that point that he is the mission commander, and there’s a reason for that. Because as much as you might need scientists and techies to make the gadgets work, there’s a time when you need a pilot, a guy who routinely hangs his hide out over the edge in a hurtling piece of machinery and hauls it back in again without breaking a sweat — someone schooled in emergency, someone at home with danger. You need someone in charge who knows exactly what he’s doing, even when everything’s gone all to hell.
His persona makes such an impression on Sandra Bullock’s character that even well after he is certainly dead, at a point when she has decided to just give up and let herself pass out from lack of oxygen, he returns to her in a hallucination — still the same lollygaggin’, keeping-it-light guy, but gently goading her into waking up and doing what it takes to survive, in spite of the odds.
And the thing is, he does all of this without seeming like a caricature, or a stereotype, or a throwback to movies gone by. In fact, he does all this more artfully and smoothly than most Traditional Heroes in old movies.
Anyway, I was impressed by that. And I wonder whether any actor other than Clooney could have pulled it off….