Why is Oscar silent on musicals?
BY Stephen Israel
January 14 2005 12:00 AM ET
I have to make a confession. I’ve never seen A Chorus Line. Actually, I haven’t seen a single Broadway musical. I hate Judy Garland too, for that matter. Does this mean I have to surrender my Gay Card?For the musicals, perhaps, but I get a free pass on the Judy thing: Deanna Durbin’s my cousin, and that bitch Judy pushed her out of MGM. Everyone knows Deanna had the better voice. Deep in your heart, you know it’s true. One Hundred Men and a Girl is a classic.But I digress. Back to musicals. Never liked ’em. Maybe it’s because I came out at 30. Maybe as a boy soprano at boarding school, I thought musicals were beneath me. Whatever. So, since I’m not crazy about musicals, why am I so mad at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—the folks who give out the Oscars—for dissing them?I don’t know if you heard, but for the first time in decades there are enough films to activate the Best Original Musical category—and the Academy, in its wisdom, has decided that the category is not worthy enough to bring back.“Best Original Musical?” I hear you ask. Well, let me explain. For about 20 years, the Academy has had this category on the books—but not enough movies to activate it. Here’s the rub: To be eligible, the movies must be original musicals for the screen, so Chicago, fabulous though it may be, doesn’t qualify because it’s from the stage. And in order to activate the category, there must be five qualifying musicals in a given year. And qualifying is tricky. The film must have five original songs integral to the story, written by the same songwriters. And then there’s the Oscar-qualifying run in a commercial theater. It can’t be on tape either: The Academy is very fussy about that. If it’s digital, it has to come from a server. Not that even a pro could tell, but the Academy really hates tape.And this year there were five qualifying movies. They’re back! Show-tune lovers were about to have their moment in the sun!Then the Academy killed the category anyway. Bastards! Write your congressman! The Academy is discriminatory!Discriminatory? Yes—but perhaps not in the way you might think. This is where I have to get into some history.Remember me not liking musicals? Well, I produced one. How I ended up producing Open House is still somewhat of a mystery to me. A musical about real estate, no less. It had to happen, I suppose—I mean, finding a home is something to sing about. And setting a Realtor’s patter to music, well, that was just a matter of time.Let me tell you a little about the film’s director. Dan Mirvish is the guy who, years ago, got mad at Sundance because they rejected his film. So he started his own festival: Slamdance. If you’re into indie film, you know that’s where the real discoveries show up. Anyway, the point is that Dan’s something of a force of nature: Lots of people end up doing him favors, and after a year or two of "volunteering" you wake up one morning asking how you got there. Like me, sitting in the Magic Johnson Theatre in Los Angeles at noon, watching our Oscar-qualifying run playing for an audience of one elderly retiree and a bored gangbanger. How, indeed, did I get here?About four years ago Dan showed me a script called Open House. It was a caper set in a real estate agent’s open house one Sunday morning, and all these whacky people show up. Nice, I thought, but not inspiring. “Not different enough,” I told Dan.A year later Dan told me he’d rewritten it. “It’s a musical now,” he said.“But I don’t like musicals,” I said.“But, Stephen, you’re gay!”As I paused to come up with a bitchy-enough response, he handed me a CD. “Just take a listen to the songs: Larry, Joe, and I recorded them in Joe’s basement. Get back to me.” Then he had to collect his daughter from school, or some other breedery thing those people do.That night I had to drive out to a shoot, so I played the CD on the way. What the heck. First up was the Realtor’s patter song, “Fantabulous!” Suffice to say that by the time I got on set, I couldn’t get it out of my head. That and the Realtor’s lament, “Sellin’ a Dream.” Days later I still had these bloody songs on the brain. I sang them to people at dinner parties. I was hooked. If I didn’t produce this movie, these songs would follow me to my grave.Six months later we had scraped together $50,000—and a cast too! Anthony Rapp (he was in the original Broadway run of Rent and in A Beautiful Mind—and if you don’t know that, you should surrender your Gay Card too) and Sally Kellerman (the original Hot Lips from the film MASH), some TV names like Kellie Martin (ER) and Jerry Doyle (Babylon 5), and a bunch of indie stalwarts like James Duval and Ann Magnuson. It’s amazing who you’ll get if you let ’em sing!I strong-armed my old roommate into lending us his house: He’d just recently married and moved into this rather lovely Spanish colonial in San Marino, Calif., that they were about to tear apart to remodel, so he was game.A quick side note about shooting in San Marino (a suburb of Los Angeles near Pasadena): Don’t. The city told us it would cost $800 to shoot there, then they sent the cops to shut us down until we came up with $9,000. It felt like a mob shakedown. One other piece of producerly advice: Never trust a New Yorker who says they can drive a truck. First morning, the camera truck sideswiped a parked car.But I’m digressing again. Between Andrew’s house, some real open houses, and a crew working for free, we shot for three weeks and recorded live singing on set. We got some real buyers in the film too: One couple wandered onto the set and wanted to know the asking price. Not “Why are there 30 people in the kitchen doing a Busby Berkeley number?” just “What’s the asking price?”After a year of editing and remixing and orchestration, we had an honest-to-God feature-length original musical. Now it’s clearly indie. The fact that the whole budget was less than Catherine Zeta-Jones’s cell-phone bill shows. But, dammit, it works! And people like it too. We’ve screened at festivals from the Hamptons in New York to the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, and audiences love it. Some of them have also cursed me for much the same reason I cursed Dan—the damned songs hang around in your head for weeks. But in short, it does what a musical should: It entertains.At this point, some publicist from Miramax calls: “Hey. Did you know about the Academy’s Best Original Musical category? If we can get five to qualify, three are automatically nominated.”OK—I’m an indie filmmaker, and I’m used to the odds of getting into Sundance. Three out of five? Now those are odds.We double-checked with the Academy. The rules were explicit: five films, category activated. A little more research revealed four other films that qualified: Miramax’s Les Choristes, Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America, Neil Young’s Greendale, and Disney’s Home on the Range. And we made sure everyone knew about the server thing, and the commercial run. Yes—we scrappy indie filmmakers coordinating with Paramount, Disney, and Miramax. Hell, we’re all in the same boat.When the Academy found out, they—for some reason—didn’t like it. Is it because Neil Young didn’t show up when he got nominated for Best Original Song for Philadelphia? Because Matt and Trey showed up in dresses? Because Home on the Range was a dud? Well, for whatever reason, they tried to disqualify a few films, and they homed in on Greendale. “Not an original musical,” they said. (I assume they thought this because it was Neil Young, and it had to have been a CD first.) But Neil got pretty stroppy about that, and eventually they had to concede the point.Then they said, “But there’s not going to be a category anyway.”“Why not?” we asked.“Because we don’t think the films are good enough.”“Now hold on there, guys,” we said. “That was never in the rules. Isn’t that for the voting members to decide?”“Well, they’re our rules and we’ll change them any time we please.” (These may not be direct quotes, but you get the idea.)That, pretty much, was that.The Academy has rules, and they’re real sticklers in making sure everyone follows them, but when real indie films—not made by the studios’ “indie” divisions—have a shot at the brass ring, the Academy moves the goalposts. That’s discrimination. And it really makes me cross.Well, at least the songs are still eligible. “Sellin’ a Dream,” sung by Sally Kellerman and Jerry Doyle, is still eligible for Best Original Song. And, by the way, that would be Academy Award–nominee Sally Kellerman. For your consideration, if you happen to be a voting member of the Academy.