Oscar, Bob, and Harvey

One of the funniest moments at last year's Oscars ceremony came after presenter Nathan Lane quipped that he thought that Monsters, Inc. was about Bob and Harvey Weinstein, co-chairmen of Miramax. After the audience hissed, Lane replied, "Come on, we make fun of the rich and powerful because we love them." How prophetic he was. With the 75th annual Oscar nominations, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences certainly showed Miramax the love. Miramax snared 40 total nominations, the most by any studio in 63 years. It financed or co-financed three of the five Best Picture nominees -- Chicago (13 total nominations), Gangs of New York (10), and the Hours (9). Just for good measure, the Weinsteins are also listed as executive producers for New Line's The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers, although they've admitted having little to do with the film. Miramax has at least one nominee in every major category, and at least two in most of them. The studio has always been competitive, but this is total domination.

So for the Weinsteins Oscar night will feel like Richard Williams watching Wimbledon to see which of his daughters will win. What's the other big story? Well, there isn't any, save for a strong showing by Hispanic films. Pretty ho-hum all around. We saw no glaring omissions like Steve Buscemi and Gene Hackman's snub last year. No clear "How the hell did they nominate him/her" nods like Ethan Hawke for Training Day a year ago. The Academy stayed with the safe, predictable films, as they are wont to do. I've decried this tendency before, and won't do so again. Every year I hope the Academy will honor the daring and innovative, but I might as well root for Gilligan to get off the island. Let's take a look:

Best Picture
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist

How predictable were these five? The USA Today devised an Oscar prediction formula (don't ask me to explain it, but it includes box-office, critics' awards and industry awards). The formula got all five nominees. At one point I was sure About Schmidt would be included, but Academy voters may have just focused on the outstanding acting and ignored the tender, touching, and hilarious story. The brilliant Adaptation scored in some other categories, but may have fallen into the "I just don't get it" file. Give the Academy some props for including The Pianist, which is not the most accessible film.

Best Director
Pedro Almodóvar - Talk to Her
Stephen Daldry - The Hours
Rob Marshall - Chicago
Roman Polanski - The Pianist
Martin Scorsese - Gangs of New York

Every year it seems that we have at least one disconnect between Best Picture and Best Director. This time it's Almodóvar instead of Peter Jackson for The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers. Last year I bemoaned the inconsistency, but not now. Almodóvar is a worthy addition, who told a compelling, challenging story. Just how challenging? Consider that two of the main characters were in a coma for the bulk of Talk to Her. Nonetheless, Almodóvar draws you into how two very different men relate to each other and their comatose loved ones. He draws out complex, layered performances and avoids conventional story dynamics. Even when a key character commits a heinous act, the film let's you see the love and kindness behind it.

No surprise at all was the Academy's snub of Adaptation's Spike Jonze. The same thing happened three years ago with Being John Malkovich. Jonze eschews traditional narrative for stories that go back-and-forth through time and people's minds. Maybe the Academy will catch up with him one day, but don't count on it.

Best Actor
Adrien Brody - The Pianist
Nicolas Cage - Adaptation
Michael Caine - The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis - Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson - About Schmidt

No complaints here; how I could I? Look at the talent on that list. All five gave sterling performances, especially Brody, Cage and Nicholson who had to do much of their acting alone. Brody and Nicholson had many solo scenes. Cage played twin brothers and frequently had to play two different parts of the same scene. I would have loved a nomination for Derek Luke's earnest and heartfelt debut portrayal of the title character in Antwone Fisher. Same for Sam Rockwell's riveting turn as game show impresario Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. But Luke and Rockwell are young and will hopefully have other opportunities.

Best Actress
Salma Hayek - Frida
Nicole Kidman - The Hours
Diane Lane - Unfaithful
Julianne Moore - Far from Heaven
Renée Zellweger - Chicago

Often the Best Actress category reflects a dearth of strong women's roles. Not this time. Even Meryl Streep couldn't get in for The Hours. Don't feel too bad for her, since she snared a supporting nod for Adaptation. Hayek's deserving inclusion may be in part for her struggle to get Frida made in the first place. My only problem is Diane Lane. Actually, it's not with her; she gave her character much more depth than the script did. It's just that regardless of the category, I'd prefer to see a strong film nominated, not a hackneyed mishmash like Unfaithful. Y tu mamá también boasted a standout performance from Maribel Verdú as a sheltered dying woman on a road trip with two high school boys. Verdú gave her role such emotional weight and tragedy while also being sexy and playful. She was the core of one of the best films of the year, and would have been a more worthwhile addition.

Best Supporting Actor
Chris Cooper - Adaptation
Ed Harris - The Hours
Paul Newman - Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly - Chicago
Christopher Walken - Catch Me if You Can

The Academy wisely included Walken, who, in some ways, was the emotional heart of Catch Me if You Can. The one surprise here is no Dennis Quaid for Far From Heaven, who I thought was a lock. Maybe it was because the film seemed to fade from the forefront once Oscar voting began. Or maybe it was the Chicago tidal wave that swept in Reilly at Quaid's expense. Reilly also appeared in Gangs of New York and The Hours, as well as the underappreciated The Good Girl, so the nod may be in part for his whole year. Both he and Cooper are terrific character actors who went largely unrecognized until now. Unfortunately, Alfred Molina might stay unrecognized, as he was passed over for his stellar portrayal of artist Diego Rivera in Frida. Molina brought an energy and vitality to the part, as well as sizzling chemistry with Salma Hayek. If there were a Best Acting Duo Oscar, I'd vote for them.

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates - About Schmidt
Julianne Moore - The Hours
Queen Latifah - Chicago
Meryl Streep - Adaptation
Catherine Zeta-Jones - Chicago

Another snub for Far From Heaven, this time for Patricia Clarkson. Again, it was likely the Chicago onslaught, as that film snagged two spots. Queen Latifah came out of nowhere to steal every scene she was in. Moore doesn't really belong in this category, as she was as much of a lead in The Hours as Kidman or Streep. But her Oscar campaign strategy was understandably not to go against herself for Far From Heaven. Still, given that she already has another nomination this year, it would have been gratifying to see the Academy make room for other standouts such as Clarkson, Rosario Flores in Talk to Her, or Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love.

Best Adapted Screenplay
Bill Condon - Chicago
David Hare - The Hours
Ronald Harwood - The Pianist
Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz - About a Boy
Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman - Adaptation

Tough crowd, as most of the Best Picture nomination contenders fell into this category. The clever witty, and heartwarming About a Boy was lost amid the summer blockbusters, but thankfully not overlooked by the Academy. I hope the nomination prompts people to give the film a second chance. About Schmidt should also be here, but may have been hurt in this category because it reportedly strayed very far from the book. Now that's probably not as far as Adaptation strayed from The Orchid Thief, but the latter film was in part about a screenwriter's struggles, which likely appealed to the screenwriter voters. So may have the idea of a nomination for the fictitious Donald Kaufman.

Best Original Screenplay
Pedro Almodóvar - Talk to Her
Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan - Gangs of New York
Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón - Y tu mamá también
Todd Haynes - Far From Heaven
Nia Vardalos - My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The real sign that Adapted Screenplay was tough is that two of the Original Screenplay nominations were actually adapted. Gangs of New York was loosely based on a 1927 book by Herbert Asbury. Vardalos created her script from her own one-woman play. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I'm guessing that both Gangs of New York and My Big Fat Greek Wedding were moved to avoid the fierce competition.

Once again, screenplay nods serve as consolation prizes for films left out of other categories, not only for Wedding but for Y tu mamá también. The Cuarón brothers created a rich story that is an intimate coming-of-age tale but also reflects the changing social and political times in Mexico. Would have also liked to see Punch-Drunk Love included, but that was probably a little too dark and off-kilter for Academy voters. Or maybe they just don't want to honor any film associated with Adam Sandler.

So it will be a Miramax-fest on Oscar night. Many have complained about the studios aggressive marketing in their hunt for Oscars. I've railed against it many times. But this is the world we live in, and other studios need to learn from Miramax in order to give their films a fair shot. Miramax expertly woos the Academy voters for the nominations, and then uses the nominations to woo filmgoers. Yes, this turns the Oscar voting into a political competition, but it didn't have that far to go. Oscars aren't everything but they do matter -- in money, prestige, and the historical record. You may knock they way they're done, and so will I. But if you're reading this you'll probably be watching the Oscars on Sunday, March 23rd. We'll all be having a good time. Just not as good a time as the Weinsteins.

Adam Spector
February 14, 2003

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