2002 Oscar Preview

This year the real "March Madness" begins March 24 at the 74th Annual Academy Awards. In so many other years most of the winners seemed preordained. Not now. Never in recent memory have the Oscars had so many open and competitive categories. No film has dominated the landscape the way Titanic or American Beauty have in years past. Some of the presumed front-runners seem to have lost their luster. Many of the pre-Oscar awards, such as the Golden Globes, the various guild awards, and critics groups honorees have been all over the place. Add to the mix the increased focus on African-American actors, who landed an unprecedented three lead acting nominations.

In such an environment, guessing the winners is a fool's errand. But since when has that stopped me? I realize that I probably won't match last year's success, when I called seven out of nine races correctly. This year I might be lucky to get five. With that in mind, let me share my thoughts as to who deserved to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Roger Deakins - The Man Who Wasn't There
Bruno Delbonnel - Amélie
Slawomir Idziak - Black Hawk Down
Andrew Lesnie - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Donald M. McAlpine - Moulin Rouge

Should win: Deakins
For me it's between the vibrant colors of Amélie or Moulin Rouge and the rich black-and-white photography in The Man Who Wasn't There. I'm going with the latter because Deakins gave his film the heavy atmosphere needed to tell the dark and sinister story. Deakins evoked the look of the great noir films such as Double Indemnity. The story did not quite measure up to Indemnity or other noir classics, but that's not Deakins fault. He should win just for the way he shot the cigarette smoke, which never looked more beautiful or more menacing.

Will win: Lesnie
Deakins did win the American Society of Cinematographers award, but The Man Who Wasn't There likely did not stay in theaters long enough to register with most Academy voters. It will come down to the two Best Picture nominees, and Moulin Rouge is viewed as more a triumph of editing and design than camerawork. That leaves Lesnie. Now normally films heavy with visual effects do not win cinematography awards. But Lesnie's work will be recognized regardless. Audiences will remember his shots of the lush New Zealand countryside, which, as much as any special effect, helped convince audiences that they were seeing Tolkien's Middle Earth.

Milo Addica, Will Rokos - Monster's Ball
Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson - The Royal Tenenbaums
Julian Fellowes - Gosford Park
Guillaume Laurant, Jean-Pierre Jeunet - Amélie
Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan - Memento

Should win: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Memento was the most inventive screenplay of the year. The Nolans took audiences in new directions, shaking traditional narrative as they told their story backwards. The result could have easily been a mess, but Memento is not only coherent, it is also tight and compelling. The script wisely limits the number of characters so that audiences have time to probe the protagonist's psyche as he hunts for his wife's killer. In both plot and character, Memento is a writing triumph.

Will win: Fellowes
Screenplay Oscars have long served as consolation prizes for films denied in other categories, and that will happen again with Gosford Park, the only Best Picture nominee in this category. Fellowes recently won the Writers Guild of America (WGA) Original Screenplay award, a strong predictor of Oscar winners. To many Academy voters, the British setting of Gosford Park makes the story automatically feel more "literate." Gosford Park won't land much else on Oscar night, but will win this one.

Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Daniel Clowes, Terry Zwigoff - Ghost World
Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman, Roger S.H. Schulman - Shrek
Rob Festinger, Todd Field - In the Bedroom
Akiva Goldsman - A Beautiful Mind

Should win: Festinger and Field
Festinger and Field could have easily made In the Bedroom a conventional thriller, but instead chose a much more rewarding route. The crux of the plot is the brutal murder of a young college student, but the story does not dwell on the crime. Instead, it focuses on the ramifications of the killing, especially the way it impacts the victim's parents. The story gradually draws out how their loss brings up feelings and issues that the couple repressed over many years. Many view In the Bedroom as an "actors showcase," and they're right. But a film can only be an "actors showcase" if it provides actors with interesting three-dimensional characters to play, and no film did that more than In the Bedroom.

Will win: Goldsman
I have a hard time seeing the Academy honoring an animated film or a comic book adaptation in this category. In the Bedroom may be too dark for Academy tastes. And writing is not what first comes to mind when discussing The Lord of the Rings. That leaves Goldsman. A Beautiful Mind has taken some shots for historical inaccuracies, but has also garnered praise for its depiction of mental illness. While Goldsman is a Hollywood veteran, A Beautiful Mind is a coming out for him as he was previously best known for the last two Batman movies. He won the WGA Original Screenplay award and will repeat his triumph on Oscar night.

Jennifer Connelly - A Beautiful Mind
Helen Mirren - Gosford Park
Maggie Smith - Gosford Park
Marisa Tomei - In the Bedroom
Kate Winslet - Iris

Should win: Winslet
Any one of the five nominees would be worthy winners, but Winslet stands out. She played the young, emerging Iris Murdoch while Judi Dench played the older Alzheimer's afflicted Murdoch. Winslet's energy and drive helped illustrate Murdoch's passion and creativity. She let you see how Murdoch not only loved life, but was also completely comfortable with who she was and her effect on people. Her spirited portrayal made the older Murdoch's descent that much more tragic and heartbreaking.

Will win: Connelly
The safest bet of all the categories. Smith and Mirren each won plaudits for their Gosford Park roles, but they will likely cancel each other out. Out of the five nominees, Connelly won the bulk of the pre-Oscar honors. She lost out on the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award, but that's primarily because a technical mix-up pushed her into the lead category. Her role as the steadfast and supportive wife of John Nash is the kind the Academy loves. Supporting Actress has been the best category for upsets in the past decade (Tomei, Mira Sorvino, Juliette Binoche) but not this year.

Jim Broadbent - Iris
Ethan Hawke - Training Day
Ben Kingsley - Sexy Beast
Ian McKellen - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Jon Voight - Ali

Should win: Broadbent
Broadbent had the toughest job of all the nominees, and he pulled it off masterfully. Not only was the 52-year-old convincing as a seventy-something professor, but he was the one who had to react to Dench's portrayal of a brilliant author deteriorating from Alzheimers. Through Broadbent's eyes you can see John Bayley's love and admiration for his wife but also his despair for her worsening condition. Broadbent gives a full-bodied, layered performance, slowly building Bayley's pockets of anger and frustration that spill over towards the end. Now in all honesty I admit that picking Broadbent is also partly due to his outrageous turn in Moulin Rouge as Harold Zidler, the master of ceremonies. Zidler is as gregarious and forceful as Bayley is shy and mild-mannered. Hey, how many men could sing Madonna's "Like a Virgin?" Between these two roles Broadbent has had one of the best years of any actor in recent memory.

Will win: McKellen
Broadbent did win some critics awards and a Golden Globe, but I'm not convinced that enough Academy voters saw Iris to give him the win. Ben Kingsley is an Oscar favorite, and the Academy will often reward an actor for going against type as Kingsley did with his turn as a vicious gangster. But Sexy Beast played early last summer, and has probably faded from voters minds. When the nominations were announced, I doubted McKellen's chances. The Lord of the Rings is hardly considered an "actor's film" and the Academy has been loathe to honor performers in science fiction or fantasy films. But McKellen, for all of his critical acclaim, has never won the Oscar. Many feel he should have won Best Actor three years ago for Gods and Monsters (which would have spared us from Roberto Benigni). The veteran McKellen is widely respected and admired in the acting community, as evidenced by his recent SAG award. He will win for his whole career.

Halle Berry - Monster's Ball
Judi Dench - Iris
Nicole Kidman - Moulin Rouge
Sissy Spacek - In the Bedroom
Renée Zellweger - Bridget Jones's Diary

Should win: Berry
Tough call, as all five are deserving. I'm going with Berry because she had to take her character through the longest journey, from sorrow to anger to tragedy to romance. Berry was completely authentic throughout. She threw herself into her grief scenes, making them truly heart-wrenching, and she clicked with Billy Bob Thornton as two lonely souls shut off from the world who somehow see each other. At the end of Monster's Ball, Berry's Leticia has a realization that could be shattering but instead becomes an epiphany. Berry wisely underplays these scenes, letting you see so much just through her eyes. Those scenes alone were enough for me.

Will win: Berry
This year you must have an upset pick, and this is mine. Sissy Spacek until recently was the overwhelming favorite, winning most of the pre-Oscar awards. But In the Bedroom seems to have faded just a bit from the spotlight. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox has stumped hard for Kidman. While you can't rule her out, it's been ages since the Academy has given an acting award for a musical performance. Berry has been benefitting from very positive media play lately, especially with her SAG award. And yes, the fact she is African-American makes a difference, especially this year. No African-American has ever won this category. Spacek still has to be considered the favorite, and Kidman is a factor, but I'm betting that the Academy will choose to make history.

Russell Crowe - A Beautiful Mind
Sean Penn - I Am Sam
Will Smith - Ali
Denzel Washington - Training Day
Tom Wilkinson - In the Bedroom

Should win: Wilkinson
Like Berry, Wilkinson accomplished more by doing less. Like Berry, Wilkinson told audiences so much with just his eyes. With small looks and gestures, Wilkinson gives you a window into his character's sorrow and anger over his son's tragic death. As such, the one time he grows loud the impact is simply chilling. Wilkinson draws you in without displaying any overt "acting" at all and creates one of the most compelling characters of the year.

Will win: Crowe
Russell Crowe was established as the front-runner for good reason. His role combines a mental illness with overcoming obstacles, two Academy favorites. It didn't hurt that his portrayal of mathematician John Nash was miles away from his Oscar-winning role in Gladiator. But even though Crowe recently won the SAG award, the money seems to be shifting toward Denzel Washington. The line now is that Crowe will lose because of his recent unruly behavior. Come on already! If the Academy only honored Boy Scouts, how come Jack Nicholson has three Oscars? George C. Scott won Best Actor shortly after he told the Academy to take a flying leap. Now there are good reasons Washington might win. He's universally respected in the acting community and many feel he should have won two years ago for The Hurricane. Washington also gets props for playing an evil, brutal cop after many years of noble roles. The aforementioned focus on African-American nominees doesn't hurt either. This one could truly go either way. But A Beautiful Mind played later and was much better received than Training Day and that will tip the balance to Crowe.

Robert Altman - Gosford Park
Peter Jackson - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Ron Howard - A Beautiful Mind
David Lynch - Mulholland Drive
Ridley Scott - Black Hawk Down

Should win: Jackson
Out of the five nominees, Jackson overcame the most challenges to deliver a truly entertaining film. He had to weave New Zealand location shoots with massive visual effects. He had to fool audiences into believing that certain characters were tiny, while others were seven feet tall. Even more daunting, he had to tell a story that would satisfy the many fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien novel, while also bringing in the uninitiated. Guess what? He did it, creating an epic filled with action and spectacle, while not shortchanging the story or the characters.

Will win: Howard
Opie Cunningham!!! . . .Opie Cunningham!!! Altman would be the sentimental favorite if he would just play that role. But he seems to alienate as many people as he wins over. Jackson is the X factor, as many in Hollywood had never heard of him a year ago. He won many well-deserved plaudits, but not many pre-Oscar awards. The Academy might want to wait until he's a known quantity before giving him the top prize. Howard is certainly a known quantity, having directed in Hollywood for more than 20 years. When the Academy snubbed him before, most notably for Apollo 13, Howard did not complain. He waited patiently and paid his dues. Few directors are more well-liked or work the media more gracefully. The Directors Guild of America recently gave him their top prize. It's Howard's year; you can feel it.

A Beautiful Mind
Gosford Park
In the Bedroom
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge

Should win: Moulin Rouge
Next to Memento, Moulin Rouge was the most daring and innovative film of the year. Baz Luhrmann reinvigorated and reinvented the modern film musical by blending old-fashioned Hollywood musicals with Jerome Robbins 1960s productions and modern music videos. The frenetic pace and energy are simply intoxicating, and the love story, while melodramatic, works on a basic level. Moulin Rouge overwhelms you with color, music and passion. Out of the five nominees Moulin Rouge is the film I'll most remember ten years from now.

Will win: A Beautiful Mind
The 2000 Presidential contest was a picnic compared to this. Not only is there no overwhelming favorite, there's barely a favorite at all. In the Bedroom is probably too bleak for the Academy. Gosford Park, while highly praised, is not very accessible and does not draw audiences in emotionally. You can make a strong case for the other three films, and each has won its share of pre-Oscar awards. Moulin Rouge, having won the Producers Guild of America Best Picture award, has to be considered a contender. But no film has won Best Picture without receiving a Best Director nomination since Driving Miss Daisy, and no musical has won the top prize since Oliver!. The Lord of the Rings garnered the most total Oscar nominations, normally a solid harbinger. In many ways, it's already transcended its genre, but can it overcome completely? No science fiction or fantasy film has ever won Best Picture, not even Star Wars. A Beautiful Mind was the early front-runner, but has endured harsh accusations that the story glossed over less attractive elements of John Nash's life. So we're left with a mess, and the only way out is focusing on the Academy itself. Go through past Best Picture winners; what are some common elements? Many are history-based. Many have some element of romance. Many have a hero overcoming seemingly impossible odds to reach his goals. A Beautiful Mind has more of the standard Best Picture elements; it's a better fit with the other winners. More than any other, Best Picture is the category where the Academy prefers to play it safe. Think Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, Titanic over L.A. Confidential, Gladiator over Traffic. In a wild year, A Beautiful Mind is the safe choice.

Adam Spector
March 21, 2002

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