The Bologna Has a First Name, It's O-S-C-A-R

The Oscars can improve, really they can. Just remember the musical numbers. Rob Lowe signing with Snow White. A musical troika of Dom DeLuise, Pat Morita, and Telly Savalas. I'm not making this up -- these things happened on Oscar night. Thankfully, the Oscar producers eliminated these seizure inducing segments of the show, resulting in telecasts that were actually entertaining. But if the show can change for the better, why not the nominations?

Reviewing the Oscar nominations reminds me of a song from the Mel Brooks film The Twelve Chairs -- "Hope for the best, expect the worst." I always hope the Academy voters will break from their traditional narrow-minded thinking, but I know they won't. With the nominations for the 73rd Oscars, the Academy has again gone with the tried-and-true and, with the notable exception of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, largely ignored the daring and innovative. More importantly, the nominations reek from the influence of overwhelming marketing campaigns that could threaten what credibility the Oscars have left. There are some pleasant surprises, but not enough. Let's examine the nominees:

Best Picture:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich

Chocolat is this year's The Cider House Rules. Once again, you have a Miramax picture that was neither a critical nor popular favorite. Once again, Miramax chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein launched massive PR efforts, with special screenings to convince Academy voters that this was an Oscar caliber film. This time the campaign also included endorsements from political leaders. Chocolat is a pleasant, warm and fuzzy film with the healthy (but hardly courageous) "Tolerance is Good" message. But it was nothing more. The story was not particularly involving, and the direction, while capable, was hardly exceptional. This is a film you enjoy while you watch but quickly forget once you leave the theater.

That Gladiator received 12 nominations, and is the presumed Best Picture front-runner, is disappointing, but not surprising (I'll have more on Gladiator in a separate column). The disappointing part is that Gladiator and Chocolat received their nominations at the expense of Cast Away, Requiem for a Dream and Almost Famous, all much more compelling, challenging, and inventive films.

Best Director:
Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot)
Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brockovich)
Ridley Scott (Gladiator)
Steven Soderbergh (Traffic)

No, that's not a typo -- Soderbergh was nominated twice. While that's certainly an accomplishment, it does not make sense if the Academy truly wanted to honor him. His two films are likely to split the Soderbergh vote and he'll go home empty. Also, by honoring him twice, the Academy used a slot that could have gone to Robert Zemeckis for Cast Away, Darren Aronofsky for Requiem for a Dream, Cameron Crowe for Almost Famous, Stephen Frears for High Fidelity, or Kenneth Lonergan for You Can Count on Me. Zemeckis's skills shone particularly on the Cast Away island scenes, a triumph of silence and pure visual storytelling. Aronofsky's brilliant camerawork and crisp editing took you inside his characters' descent to hell. The Academy's Directors branch at least proved smarter than the Academy as a whole by including Daldry over Chocolat director Lasse Hallstrom.

Best Actor:
Tom Hanks (Cast Away)
Ed Harris (Pollock)
Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls)
Russell Crowe (Gladiator)
Geoffrey Rush (Quills)

Credit the Academy for including Javier Bardem although he is hardly a household name and Before Night Falls was not widely distributed. Bardem's portrayal of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas gave warmth, depth and humanity to a man that could have been played only as a martyr. I know everyone loves Russell Crowe. But was his performance superior to Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, or Mark Rufalo in You Can Count on Me? Crowe gave a solid, workmanlike effort, but I think he was just swept up in the Gladiator tidal wave.

Best Actress:
Joan Allen (The Contender)
Juliette Binoche (Chocolat)
Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream)
Laura Linney (You Can Count on Me)
Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich)

As my friend Brian Niemiec notes, Best Actress is often a weak category, a reflection of the dearth of quality film roles for women. Four of the five deserve to be there, particularly Burstyn and Linney. Binoche does not belong. She was elegant and luminous but her role was not very challenging. While recognizing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with 10 nominations, the Academy ignored Michelle Yeoh. All Yeoh had to do was speak Mandarin Chinese fluently (which she learned just for the picture), show convincing martial arts moves, and convey both the strength and longing of her character. Not only did she accomplish these feats, but she made them look easy.

Best Supporting Actor:
Jeff Bridges (The Contender)
Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire)
Benicio Del Toro (Traffic)
Albert Finney (Erin Brockovich)
Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator)

This category is a complete mess, with Del Toro and Dafoe providing the only redemption. Finney's nomination is more for his whole career than his Erin Brockovich role. Joaquin Phoenix gave a more well-rounded performance in Quills than in his overrated Gladiator turn. And what about Jeff Bridges, who was not even the best supporting actor in The Contender? The Academy may have snubbed Gary Oldman's turn as a malicious Congressman simply because he later trashed the film in interviews. Bridges' effort was also not the best portrayal of a President. That would be Bruce Greenwood, who completely embodied John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days. The Academy had much more to choose from -- Jack Black, who almost stole High Fidelity, Rob Brown's brilliant debut in Finding Forrester, Marlon Wayans' understated turn as a drug addict in Requiem for A Dream. Meanwhile, Michael Douglas is snubbed twice in one year, as his gutty performance in Traffic is ignored along with his lead role in Wonder Boys.

Best Supporting Actress:
Judi Dench (Chocolat)
Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock)
Kate Hudson (Almost Famous)
Frances McDormand (Almost Famous)
Julie Walters (Billy Elliot)

Can't complain too much about this one, although other strong candidates were Erika Christensen in Traffic and Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream. As of this writing, Pollock has not found its way to D.C., but the four other nominees all excelled, particularly Walters. Hudson provided the spark to Almost Famous, while McDormand was unyielding as the moral center. Glad to see some recognition for such an underappreciated film.

Best Original Screenplay:
Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous)
Lee Hall (Billy Elliot)
Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
David Franzoni, John Logan and William Nicholson (Gladiator)
Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me)

Roger Ebert always awards a prize for the worst nomination. Let's save him the trouble and give the dishonor to the Gladiator screenplay. One can at least make a case (albeit not a very strong one) for the direction and the acting, but the screenplay is the film's blatant weak link. The Roman army murders Maximus' wife and son for no reason except as a plot device. The ending is preposterous, ill-conceived, and anticlimactic. That the Academy could honor Gladiator and ignore William Broyles' truly unique and original work on Cast Away is mind-boggling. To be fair, the other nominations are well-deserved. Crowe and Lonergan provided some of the most interesting characters and poignant scenes of 2000. They were each snubbed for Best Director but get this nomination as a consolation prize.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Robert Nelson Jacobs (Chocolat)
Wang Hui Ling, James Schamus, and Tsai Kuo Jung (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
Stephen Gaghan (Traffic)
Steve Kloves (Wonder Boys)

As noted earlier, the screenplay nominations give the Academy an opportunity to honor otherwise snubbed films. Thankfully, Oscar voters did so with Wonder Boys, one of the best films about writing ever made. Otherwise, the voters struck out. John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink and Scott Rosenberg adapted Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity, successfully converting it from a London to a Chicago setting. Darren Aronofsky turned Hubert Selby's famed novel Requiem for A Dream into a stunning film. But these films were ignored yet again.

Meanwhile, Chocolat should win the Miller Lite "Tastes Great, Less Filling" award. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was visually striking with some strong acting and breathtaking fight scenes, but the screenplay does not measure up. The young princess/warrior is inconsistent in her feelings toward Shu Lien, showing unflagging admiration one minute, and trying to kill her the next. More importantly, the story includes a flashback sequence that's so long that when it's over you have to try to remember the original plot. Finally, there's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which is in the wrong category. The film is credited as an adaptation of "The Odyssey" but it really has little to do with Homer's epic work. The lead character, Ulysses Everett McGill is not a warrior but an escaped convict. His wife is named Penelope, some women resemble the Sirens, there's a man with only one good eye (the Cyclops, get it?). That's about it. The Coen bothers, after they wrote the screenplay, admitted that they had never even read "The Odyssey." This was all a joke in the same way that the Coen bothers claimed that they had based Fargo on a true story, when it was pure fiction, and when they claimed that they had "cut the boring parts" out of Blood Simple for the re-release when the film was virtually unchanged. How fitting that the Academy fell for it. What a perfect way to cap off the nominations. We would laugh if we could only stop crying.

Adam Spector
February 15, 2001

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