Friday, May 28, 2010

Matt Damon Gets an Tribute from Who?

I have a terrible weakness for movie awards shows and tribute shows, no matter how bad they are. Last night, the American Cinematheque tribute to Matt Damon popped up on the ABC schedule, so I put off watching "The Road" for an hour (a full review is forthcoming) and had a look.

It's ridiculous for an actor still in the 30s to be getting any sort of lifetime achievement award, as host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out, but the American Cinematheque Award, presented by an independent cultural organization of questionable repute and relevancy, doesn't bill itself as such. The award seems to be more of an affirmation of cultural visibility. Eddie Murphy was presented the first one in 1986 during the height of his popularity, at the grand old age of twenty-five. Tom Cruise was tapped in 1996, during the "Jerry Maguire" era when he was in his thirties. In fact, there's a noticeable lack of older recipients. Only four directors have been singled out for the honor - Spielberg, Scorsese, Ron Howard, and Rob Reiner - over the last twenty-odd years they've been given out.

Within that context, Matt Damon is certainly worthy of the award, but the more pressing question is why a major network like ABC would take an hour out of its May sweeps schedule to broadcast the tribute. The last American Cinematheque Award ceremony for Samuel L. Jackson was broadcast on cable back in 2008, as most of these tribute shows are. AFI and other film organizations give out similar honors that rarely get this much exposure. There was some fuss when honorary Oscar-winners Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman were cut out of last year's main telecast, but nobody stepped up to broadcast their tributes, though the Oscars have far more prestige in the mind of the average American film-goers than any other motion picture organization.

The answer's obvious when you think about it from the broadcaster's point of view. The American Cinematheque special was probably aired for the same reason that the organization gave Matt Damon the award - Damon is a proven draw. He's one of the few film stars like Johnny Depp and Will Smith who can still open a studio picture ("The Green Zone" not withstanding). The stars that aligned to deliver their congratulations comprise a younger and more recognizable crowd than those who might turn out for Clint Eastwood. Young viewers pay less attention to the actual cachet that comes with a particular award than who's getting it, which is why dubious kudos like the MTV Movie Awards have risen in prominence. The jokes about Vanessa Hudgens being next in line for the honor sting a bit more when you realize how much of a popularity contest it all really is.

The broadcast reflected this. Only four of Damon's films were singled out for distinction: "Good Will Hunting" and the "Bourne" trilogy, which really only adds up to two roles. After thirteen years of major movie stardom, the implication was that his most significant work is still the film that initially brought him renown in 1997, "Good Will Hunting," which he co-wrote with Ben Affleck and nabbed an Oscar for. We got quick clips and lip service paid to his role in "Invictus," which also garnered an Oscar nomination, and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which put him in contention for a Golden Globe in 1999. However, there was nary a mention of his star turn in "The Informant!" which got him better notices from the critics last year than his supporting role in "Invictus." Instead, his work with Steven Soderbergh was represented by clips from the "Oceans 11" films.

No wonder, then, that the tribute turned into more of a roast. Sometimes the best parts of these programs are the clips packages, but this time the presenters were the main attraction. Nearly all of the of them, many from the Hollywood A-list set, indulged in good-natured razzing of the man of the hour. An entire video segment was dedicated to the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck "bromance," introduced by Affleck's wife Jennifer Garner. Naturally, Affleck was on hand to deliver his "hetero-lifemate" (see "Jay and Silent Bob") the plaque, and keep up the schtick about his career woes (though if he keeps making movies like "Gone Baby Gone," Affleck has nothing to worry about). Those who weren't there in person, like Ben Stiller and George Clooney, staged humorous pre-taped bits with their congratulations, and even Bill Clinton sent along a thinly disguised PSA.

The fact that no one was taking the event very seriously, though the organizational clearly went to considerable lengths to bring in the likes of Robin Williams, Charlize Theron, and Don Cheadle, resulted in a much more informal, collegial affair. And it was a lot of fun to watch. I've gotten so used to the Comedy Central style of roasting celebrities, which usually involves a slate of antagonistic comics making very vulgar jokes about a star they often have no relationship with, it was great to see a classier crowd give it a go. I especially appreciated the presence of the Afflecks, Ben and Casey, who had grown up with Damon and supplied some good personal anecdotes. All the ribbing served to humanize the mega-movie star, and the appreciation felt genuine - though with the caliber of the acting talent in the room, you can never tell.

I wish everyone involved had a better excuse to get together and perform like this, but making a very decent actor prom king for a day is a pretty harmless exercise. And "Good Will Hunting" really was a damn good movie.

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