2006 Oscar Preview

Imagine that ten years ago I told you that in 2005 the leading contender for the Best Picture Oscar would be a Clint Eastwood film and that the following year it would be a “gay cowboy movie.” Imagine that I told you that one of them would be really controversial. Which one would you have picked? If you answered “the Clint Eastwood film” you’re lying.

Remember that a year ago right wing groups attacked Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby for supposedly promoting euthanasia. A year later we have Brokeback Mountain, which takes the traditional cinematic ode to American masculinity, the Western, and uses it to tell a story of two gay men. And that has sparked . . . very little besides jokes. Other than one theater in Utah that pulled the film, Brokeback Mountain has played freely. Even the most conservative pundits and organizations have largely stayed silent. Maybe that’s a good sign. Maybe people realize that if a film offends you, just don’t see it. Or maybe social conservatives finally realized that protests usually backfire and just give their targets free publicity.

Anyway, while Brokeback Mountain will likely be the big winner at the 78th Annual Academy Awards, many categories, especially the acting ones, are more competitive than they’ve been in years. With that in mind, I bravely offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Dion Beebe - Memoirs of a Geisha
Robert Elswit - Good Night, and Good Luck
Emmanuel Lubezki - The New World
Wally Pfister - Batman Begins
Rodrigo Prieto - Brokeback Mountain

Should win: Elswit
Usually you associate this Oscar with vast landscapes and vibrant colors. Elswit’s work is just the opposite. It’s black-and-white and usually indoors. But Elswit’s cinematography is critical in creating the 1950s mood and atmosphere co central to Good Night, and Good Luck. His shots of the CBS offices and the smoke coming from the endless cigarette use put you in the insular world of Edward R. Murrow and his staff. Smoky black-and-white hasn’t looked this good since the heyday of film noir.

Will win: Beebe
This might seem strange given that Memoirs of a Geisha bombed so thoroughly. But Geisha did receive six Oscar nominations, mostly in the visual and sound categories. The look of the film is really all that stood out in such a bloated, ponderous effort. Beebe has already been recognized by his peers, recently winning the American Society of Cinematographers award. He also won the BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscar). Remember, he was the favorite three years ago for Chicago but lost to the great Conrad Hall for Road to Perdition. Hall, who had died a few months earlier, was the sentimental choice for his long and distinguished career. An Oscar this year for Beebe would be a classic Academy “making up for an earlier snub” award.

Jeffrey Caine - The Constant Gardener
Dan Futterman - Capote
Tony Kushner and Eric Roth - Munich
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana - Brokeback Mountain
Josh Olson - A History of Violence

Should win: Futterman
A very tough call over Caine, who beautifully blended a thriller, a polemic, and a romance. I’m going with Futterman because he took what could have been a simple “making of” story and turned it into a fascinating character study. He also bravely explored tough questions about honor, truth, and journalistic integrity. Two people could watch Capote without any preconceived notions and arrive at vastly different conclusions. That, to me, is a telling sign of a brilliant script.

Will win: McMurtry and Ossana
Pretty easy call, and not just because they won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) award. Many thought that E. Annie Proulx’s short story was unfilmable, so McMurtry and Ossana get credit for adapting it into a full screenplay in the first place. That the film is also the Best Picture favorite should be more than enough to get McMurtry and Ossana the win.

Woody Allen - Match Point
Noah Baumbach - The Squid and the Whale
George Clooney and Grant Heslov - Good Night, And Good Luck
Stephen Gaghan - Syriana
Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco - Crash

Should win: Clooney and Heslov
Ironically, it’s the contrast with the other George Clooney-related nominee, Syriana, that illustrates why he and Heslov did so well with Good Night, And Good Luck. Gaghan tried to do just about everything with his script, touching on all aspects of the Middle East oil problem. While that made for an interesting story, it did not always make for a comprehensible one. Clooney and Heslov, by contrast, wisely kept matters simple, focusing on Edward R. Murrow and his colleagues as they took on Joseph McCarthy. By limiting the action to the newsroom, they gave the actors freedom to tell the story. They allowed the audience to gradually learn what was at risk. The lessons of the story register more because they are not rammed down your throat. The script followed the pattern of Murrow’s newscasts: focused, informed, precise, succinct, and, most of all, effective. There could be no more fitting tribute to the legendary newsman.

Will win: Haggis and Moresco
There will be plenty of support for Clooney and Heslov, but not quite enough. Crash has become the biggest rival to Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture. Haggis, in particular, has earned well-deserved praise for his complex take on anger and prejudice. The fact that his story is set in Los Angeles, where many Academy members live and vote, also helps. Screenplay has often served as a consolation prize for contenders that don’t win Best Picture (Pulp Fiction, L.A. Confidential, Traffic). Since Brokeback Mountain is not in this category, this Oscar would be the easy way to honor Haggis for both his writing and directing. Haggis and Moresco won the WGA Original Screenplay award and they will repeat their victory Oscar night.

Amy Adams - Junebug
Catherine Keener - Capote
Frances McDormand - North Country
Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain

Should win: Adams
All five nominees are deserving. I’m picking Adams because, even though technically she was in a supporting role, she carried her film. Her energy and charm entranced you from the moment she appeared. She invested great humor in her force-of-nature character but did so in a way that was never condescending. Then, at the right moment, Adams dialed down things just enough. She tenderly illustrated the sadness and loneliness just beneath the surface. In some ways even though her performance was the most forceful, it was also the most well-rounded.

Will win: Weisz
Adams has earned tremendous critical acclaim, but I’m not sure enough Academy voters saw Junebug to give her the win. Williams has also earned plaudits, and she’s with the leading Best Picture contender. But so far in the pre-Oscar awards the momentum for Brokeback Mountain hasn’t carried over to its cast. Weisz appears to be the consensus choice. After being considered just a pretty face, she has the “See, I can really act” factor going for her. In some ways she was the heart of The Constant Gardener and an Oscar for her would be a way to honor the whole film. She recently won the Screen Actors Guild award, usually a good indicator for Oscar success. Also, a victory for her would be sweet for my kid brother, who’s had a major crush on Weisz for the past seven years.

George Clooney - Syriana
Matt Dillon - Crash
Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt - A History of Violence

Should win: Giamatti
I could really go back-and-forth between Giamatti and Dillon. Both fleshed out what could have been tired old stereotypes - the plucky, determined boxing trainer and the racist cop. They each imbued their characters with a humanity that allowed audiences to connect. So, with all things being equal between the two of them, I’m picking Giamatti because he is one of my favorites, and because he should have won Best Actor the past two years for American Splendor and Sideways. OK, this is not a balanced, objective call. Guess what, I don’t care.

Will win: Clooney
This is the most wide-open of all the categories. You can only rule out Hurt, who is lucky to be here with a ten minute performance. A Brokeback landslide could sweep in Gyllenhaal, who just won the BAFTA. But Ledger has won most of the acting praise for that film. Giamatti is the sentimental favorite due to his prior snubs. He won the SAG award. Remember though, that Crash won the SAG Best Ensemble Award and that there’s no equivalent Oscar. Dillon is the only Crash actor nominated and he could win as a way of honoring the whole cast. Now Clooney’s performance was not, in and of itself, on the level of Giamatti or Dillon. But this is George Clooney we’re talking about. He is handsome, bright, charming, humble, and well-liked. More importantly, he has earned the respect of Hollywood for taking on both Syriana and Good Night, And Good Luck. Since he is not likely to win either Screenplay or Director for the latter film, an Oscar for Syriana would be a way to honor him for his overall year. In a close race, that might be enough.

Judi Dench - Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman - Transamerica
Keira Knightley - Pride and Prejudice
Charlize Theron - North Country
Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line

Should win: Huffman
Huffman had by far the most difficult task, playing Bree, a man who wants to be a woman. She not only pulled it off but was totally convincing very step of the way. Huffman mastered Bree through both small gestures and grand. Transamerica placed Bree with many different people and situations, and Huffman found the right note for each. She understood that, at heart, Bree was just someone trying to find her place in this world. It would be easy for audiences to sympathize with Bree, but Huffman made you empathize with her too.

Will win: Witherspoon
This is a race between Witherspoon and Huffman that spans the gulf. Big studio vs. indie, hot young actress vs. seasoned veteran, playing an All-American country singer vs. playing a wannabe transsexual. Huffman has a real shot for two reasons. She had a physical transformation that always plays well to the Academy (Nicole Kidman for The Hours, Charlize Theron for Monster). Also, she has Harvey Weinstein in full throttle campaign mode. Weinstein doesn’t have any Best Picture, Best Director, or Best Actor nominees for his new company. He has Huffman and Dench in this race, but Huffman is his best shot. Can he still work his Academy magic? I don’t know, but you can’t count him out. Still, the Best Actress race has skewed younger lately. Also, Witherspoon, while not yet 30, has acted in Hollywood for a while, so there would be no question about paying her dues. The Academy awarded an Oscar to Sissy Spacek for playing Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter. It’s easy to see them doing the same for Witherspoon playing June Carter. Witherspoon won the SAG Best Actress award. Finally, in a year when most of the major Oscars will go to complex, downbeat films, you’d have to believe that the Academy will give one to a more traditional, uplifting movie.

Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix - Walk the Line
David Strathairn - Good Night, And Good Luck

Should win: Hoffman
This was my toughest “Should win” because all five actors are worthy. All of them faced daunting challenges and all gave performances that stayed with you long after you left the theater. Since I have to pick one I’m going with Hoffman, for some of the same reasons I gave for Felicity Huffman. Truman Capote’s high voice, fey manner, and diminutive stature could not be more different from Philip Seymour Hoffman. But Hoffman pulled off the transformation beautifully. For many actors that alone would be a huge feat. For Hoffman it was just the beginning. He brought together the many sides of Capote so seamlessly that you almost didn’t notice. He drew you into Capote’s mind even as you increasingly question what the character is doing. Then, towards the end, Hoffman raised his game as Capote’s personal and professional conflict deepened. What started as more of an outward performance became some of the deepest internalized acting I’ve seen in years. It was the most compelling, riveting work of any actor in any category.

Will win: Hoffman
This one’s pretty easy. Hoffman has won just about every pre-Oscar Best Actor award, including the SAG. There’s no reason his success wouldn’t continue. Strathairn’s work is probably too understated to get enough votes. Phoenix might have more momentum were it not for the fact that Jamie Foxx already won last year for playing a music icon. Howard has the fact that he had two critically-acclaimed performances in 2005 (Crash and Hustle & Flow) going for him. But Hustle & Flow as a film does not play as well to the older Academy voters. Ledger is Hoffman’s only main threat. He won lavish praise for Brokeback and, like Rachel Weisz, breaks free from being known just for good looks. It’s again a question of whether Brokeback Mountain will have strong coattails. Nothing I’ve seen so far indicates that it will. This should leave the door open for Hoffman.

George Clooney - Good Night, And Good Luck
Paul Haggis - Crash
Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller - Capote
Steven Spielberg - Munich

Should win: Miller
All but Spielberg did an impeccable job with challenging material (Spielberg’s material was challenging too, but his film was much more uneven). Now let’s look at the remaining four. Haggis and Lee both had vast canvases to work with and stories punctuated with some action (be it violence or sex). Clooney and Miller both had to confine most of their stories to rooms and most of the action was just people talking to each other. Yet both, through craft and performances, produced powerful, gripping work. Between the two Miller had the most complex task. He wove text and subtext together beautifully. For instance, there’s the culture clash when Truman Capote arrives in Kansas. Since that’s not the focus of the story Miller did not spend much time addressing it. But he gave you just enough to see it for yourself while the primary action continues. Watch the ways he built Capote’s different relationships throughout the film. Then he gradually shifted to Capote’s internal conflict. Miller had enough confidence not to try too much, and he often let his actors carry the story. Sometimes if you don’t notice the direction that means the director has done some excellent work. That’s certainly true in this case.

Will win: Lee
A strong a lock as you’re ever going to find. Lee has mastered filmmaking in several different countries, several different languages and several different genres. He’s beloved by film people both in Hollywood and in the indie world. Many also felt he should have won five years ago for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when he was upset by Steven Soderbergh for Traffic. Spielberg, of course, has already won this award twice. The other nominees are first-timers. Lee won the Directors Guild of America award, an almost foolproof predictor for the Best Director Oscar. It’s clearly his time this year.

Brokeback Mountain
Good Night, and Good Luck

Should win: Capote
Well, what did you think I was going to pick? I already wrote that it had the best screenplay, best actor and best direction. So I’ll try to avoid rehashing my arguments. Let’s just say that Capote succeeded on very level. It’s intelligent and thought provoking while also very entertaining. Capote asked real questions about journalistic integrity and what responsibilities we have to other human beings. But it asked these questions subtly through its story and its characters. And the questions worked on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. Capote engaged both the heart and the mind in a way that few films have.

Will win: Brokeback Mountain
Crash has been coming on lately. As noted, it won the SAG Best Ensemble Award. The media has also been playing it up, trying to create a race with Brokeback Mountain. I suppose you can’t rule out the upset, but I just don’t see it. Remember that Traffic, another contemporary film with many characters and storylines couldn’t beat out favorite Gladiator for Best Picture. Brokeback has the most total nominations and won the Producers Guild of America award, two solid Best Picture bellwethers. And once more I’ll go back to my favorite Best Picture game. Most winners have two of the following three elements 1) A historical/period piece, 2) an epic scope, and 3) a romance. Crash has none of these. Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck have the historical part, but not the other two. Munich is historical and epic, while Brokeback is historical with a romance. If Munich had more staying power and a stronger marketing campaign it might have had a shot. As it is, Brokeback Mountain, while admittedly unconventional in some respects, would best fit as a Best Picture winner. In some ways it would not be that different than Midnight Cowboy winning in 1970. So Jay, Dave and Conan can keep the jokes coming, but it will be the Brokeback Mountain team that will be laughing on Oscar night.

Adam Spector
March 1, 2006

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