Along with the usual Hollywood preening, celebrity gossiping, and media gawking, this year’s Oscar ceremony on Sunday, February 22, promises a few moments of special interest to Princeton-area viewers.
First up is “Whiplash,” the no-holds-barred drama of a young musician taunted and challenged by a band director who makes Marine Corps drill sergeants look soft. The movie was written by Princeton High School graduate Damien Chazelle, who played drums in the school’s award-winning Studio Band and who says the character of the overbearing band director, played by best supporting actor nominee J.K. Simmons, was modeled after Chazelle’s Princeton High band director.
The guessing game in town after the movie was released was how much of the band director character — if any — was true. As Chazelle’s mother, Celia, a professor at the College of New Jersey, said in an interview with the Princeton Echo (a sister paper of U.S. 1), the late Anthony Biancosino “was very demanding. He would let a performer know if they were not meeting those standards. The movie comes out of Damien taking that fear and creating an imaginary nightmare scenario.”
Chazelle’s father, Bernard, who teaches computer science at Princeton University, recalled Biancosino as a tough taskmaster. “At the time, Damien probably felt that [Dr. B] was a monster. But then you think back on it and you realize that no, he was just using certain pedagogical methods, which probably are not to be condoned. I think they’re probably bad ways of doing things, but they were not the work of a psychopath.”
But, as Bernard Chazelle added, the Studio Band performed “very well and so people appreciated him — his drive and commitment was unquestioned. I think that’s the other side of the story.”
Another film of special interest is the Imitation Game, the story of the math genius Alan Turing, whose theories made possible Britain’s breaking of German military codes during World War II. What the movie did not depict was Turing’s work in Princeton as a brilliant graduate student in the late 1930s.
In a high-powered academic setting that included Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Kurt Godel, among others, the young Turing stood out. George Dyson titled his 2012 book on early computing at the Institute for Advanced Study “Turing’s Cathedral,” and referred to the groundbreaking computer there as “the physical realization” of Turing’s dreams. In 2008 a panel of professors named him Princeton’s second-most influential alumnus, after only James Madison of the Class of 1771.
Finally, there is Hun School alumnus Ethan Hawke, nominated for best supporting actor in his role as the father of the two children whose lives are followed for literally 13 years in “Boyhood.”
Hawke moved with his family to West Windsor when he was 10, acted in the seventh and eighth grade play there, and then was cast in a major motion picture, “Explorers,” and transferred to Hun. He enrolled as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon but left within a few months to film “Dead Poets Society,” his breakthrough role.
One critic of “Boyhood” noted that it’s not just the child’s character “who transforms over the course of the movie, Hawke’s does just as much. Watching him transform from a carefree single dad who’s still something of a boy himself, into a stable, happily married man entering middle age could be a metaphor for Hawke’s own career.”
And the winner is . . .