In case you don’t remember the Brooke Shields cameo in “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” let me set the scene. Kermit is working at a diner while he’s trying to break into show business. The waiters and cooks are all played by rats. At one point, the famous actress and model comes in for lunch, and when she looks up from her menu, she sees a rodent staring at her, lovestruck. Miss Shields inquires if he’s okay.
The waiter summons his courage and asks, “Do you believes in inter-species dating?” To which she replies, “I’ve gone out with some rats before, if that’s what you mean.”
It was typical Muppets humor. No one would ever have taken it literally.
Thirty-five years later, the world has changed. Last week the Best Picture Academy Award went to a movie about a woman who falls in love with a lizard. For real.
“The Shape of Water” received 13 nominations and four Oscars for its fantasy tale of a lonely janitor in a government lab who finds romance with a mysterious sea monster brought in for observation. The janitor is mute and cannot speak, and neither can the Creature from the Black Lagoon. So, they bond over boiled eggs and Benny Goodman records while KGB double-agents plot to steal him.
Yes, the film has fine acting and production design, and one can hardly quibble with its message that we should be nice to unusual creatures instead of vivisecting them. If memory serves, that was the main point of “E.T.” in the 80s. We all loved the little wrinkled spaceman back then, but I don’t recall Drew Barrymore asking him to the prom. Guillermo del Toro, who directed “The Shape of Water,” has said he wanted to remake “Beauty and the Beast” where the Beast didn’t have to turn into a human at the end. After all, lizards are people, too.
I saw this soggy film during a six-hour marathon in Little Rock, part of my annual effort to brush up on the critics’ picks in advance of the Oscars. Every year I put myself through this costly ritual, which once involved a trip to Pine Bluff to see the last film on my list. And every year I ask myself why. While some of the nominated films are incredible — “Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk” come to mind — many Academy contenders just aren’t my cup of seawater.
I ended my marathon this year with the dreary “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Frances McDormand won a Best Actress Oscar as a grieving mother who rents the billboards to shame local police officers who have failed to catch her daughter’s killer. As a rule, grieving mothers are beyond criticism, and McDormand starts the film with our complete sympathy, but for me, her hate-filled pursuit of justice was miserable to watch. As she curses, assaults and lobs Molotov cocktails at half the people in town — even those trying to help her — she manages to squander quite a bit of good will. I could be wrong, of course, but you’d have to watch the movie for yourself to decide, and I can’t have that on my conscience.
That’s why it was a relief to take a break from the movies and go to the circus. When the Garden Brothers played the White County Fairgrounds last month, the conditions were hardly ideal. It was 40 degrees, raining heavily, and the parking lot was a swamp. As I stepped out of the car, I fully expected to see Aqua Man and his girlfriend swimming past, pursued by Russians.
Shivering on the frozen bleachers, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But when two guys on motorcycles rode into a “Globe of Death,” crisscrossing each other at breakneck speed, I warmed up. Then came the hair-hangers, flying above the arena like Peter Pan, suspended by nothing but their hair. The show also featured a woman who shot a crossbow with her feet and hit a target several yards away. It was even more impressive, because she was standing on her hands.
My favorite, though, was the stunt rider. As his horse circled the ring at full gallop, he swung his legs to one side, slid under the belly of the horse, and then climbed back on the other side, all without touching the ground. Not something you often see in Searcy on a Wednesday.
Sadly, the circus as a whole is struggling, with Ringling Brothers folding up their tents last year. But I was heartened to hear children laughing and ooh-ing during the show. Maybe “The Greatest Showman” — a wildly anachronistic but lively film tribute to P.T. Barnum — will inspire a new generation to seek out thrills under the big top. They sure could use a few smiles in Ebbing, Missouri.