Oscar Preview

One of my fondest Oscar memories has always been the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. It's always gratifying to see filmmakers who have given so much to cinema receive the recognition they deserve. Some past winners include Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman, Cecil B. DeMille and Billy Wilder. This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present the Thalberg Award to Dino De Laurentis, who has given us such gems as Barbarella, the King Kong remake, Assassins, U-571, and Amityville II: The Possession. Wow. In Chinatown, the evil Noah Cross said "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough." I guess the same rule applies for mediocre film producers.

No, this has not been a banner year for the Academy. Many of the nominations smelled more of marketing than merit. Even more worthy films were shunned than usual. But enough of my laments. While the Oscar show celebrates fantasy, the nominations are the hard reality. We need to deal with what we have. With that in mind, let me share my thoughts as to who deserved to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

John Matheison (Gladiator)
Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Caleb Deschanel (The Patriot)
Roger Deakins (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)
Lajos Koltai (Malena)

Should win: Pau
Pau produced some of the most breathtaking and dazzling moments of the year in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The stunning duel on the treetops alone should give him the Oscar. Pau helped create what George Lucas calls an "immaculate reality"-- a separate world with different rules that you accept on its own terms. The film's story had its peaks and valleys, but it was always a treat visually.

Will win: Pau
The lasting memory of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is its visuals. Gladiator also had some thrilling fight scenes, but they were not as inventive as Crouching Tiger. Also, much of the credit for the Gladiator look will justifiably go to the visual effects team for their recreation of the Roman Coliseum. But second only to director Ang Lee, Pau will get the laurels for Crouching Tiger's success.

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)

Should win: Crowe
Tough call over Lonergan's funny and touching screenplay for You Can Count on Me. Crowe meticulously recreates the rock scene of the early 70's but at the same time tells a timeless story of a conflict between fandom and journalistic obligations. Crowe tells this story though small strokes, setting a personal coming-of-age against rock's evolution. Characters such as a charismatic rock star, a life-affirming groupie and an overprotective mother, which could have been cliches, are instead full-bodied human beings with uncommon depth. Crowe's screenplay is poignant without being sappy or overly nostalgic.

Will win: Crowe
Gladiator is not known for its story, and Erin Brockovich is the only other nominee that is up for Best Picture. It's the type of inspirational tale that Hollywood loves, and it's given a little more credence because it's "based on a true story." But the script, along with everything else, may be overshadowed by Julia Roberts. The Academy did not nominate Almost Famous for Best Picture or Best Directors and received more criticism for this omission than any other. There could be a guilt vote for Crowe to honor his work as both a writer and director. It doesn't hurt that Crowe is better known as a writer, and that his film describes a writer's struggles.

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)

Should win: Gaghan
Gaghan adapted a four-hour miniseries into a 147 minute film without it feeling abrupt or choppy. The script blends together three different stories, and while each would work on their own, together they are much more powerful because they show the varied, but destructive impact of drugs on people's lives. Gaghan makes his points about the "War on Drugs" without preaching. He gives his characters more depth in less than 50 minutes of screen time apiece than most scripts do with a full two hours worth.

Will win: Gaghan
Like Gladiator, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is better remembered for it's direction, visuals and technical achievements than it is for its story. Chocolat has lost some of its pre-nomination momentum. Wonder Boys and O Brother, Where Art Thou? did not fare well with total nominations. A Screenplay win would be a way to honor Traffic, which, with the exception of Best Supporting Actor, will likely be shut out in the major categories.

Judi Dench (Chocolat)
Marcia Gay Harden (Pollack)
Kate Hudson (Almost Famous)
Frances McDormand (Almost Famous)
Julie Walters (Billy Elliot)

Should win: Walters
Truth is that this is a uniformly strong field. Every one of these actresses gave fine performances, and would be a deserving winner. I'll go with Walters though. Mrs. Wilkinson, Billy Eliot's dancing teacher, could have just been a functional character. But Walters made her vibrant, and gave her an inner life. She made you believe how Mrs. Wilkinson had her own failed dreams and aspirations. You can see how her spark has been gradually snuffed out of her by an oafish husband and a dull life. Through her expressions and her eyes, she shows Wilkinson rediscovering her own dreams and her love of dancing through Billy. Walters is so good that you almost wish a movie could be made just about her character.

Will win: Hudson
Hudson is the "hot" young actress and also comes from Hollywood royalty (her mother is Goldie Hawn). She will win the same way Gwyneth Paltrow won two years ago and Angelina Jolie won last year. Besides, who would not want to see her magnetic smile while she gives her acceptance speech.

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

Should win: Del Toro
Tough call over Dafoe, who was brilliant as actor/vampire Max Shreck. I'm picking Del Toro because he did not have the extensive makeup that Dafoe had to help build his character. Del Toro had to do it all himself. As Mexican cop Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, Del Toro lets you see determination clashing with the weariness of a thankless job. His is acting through understatement, accomplishing much through small glances and by endowing Rodriguez with a streetwise intelligence. Del Toro often pauses before talking, showing how Rodriguez carefully chooses his words before he speaks them because he is always on dangerous ground. Del Toro is completely convincing as a man who balances noble aspirations with a crushing reality.

Will win: Del Toro
Del Toro has received the most media coverage of all the Traffic cast and of all the Best Supporting Actor nominees. I guess that's what's called "buzz." He is the standout from a terrific ensemble cast, much like Kevin Spacey when he won Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects. Finney is the only other nominee with a real hope. The Academy often uses this category as a lifetime achievement award (Sean Connery, Jack Palance, Martin Landau, James Coburn) and Finney would be the perfect candidate. The Screen Actors Guild awards are often an accurate barometer, but they're no help this year. Del Toro won Best Actor, while Finney won Best Supporting Actor. So don't be surprised if either wins, but my money is on Del Toro.

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

Should win: Linney
I wish there was a way both Linney and Burstyn could be honored. Burstyn's heart-wrenching portrayal of an elderly drug addict was one of the most daring and electrifying performances of 2000 or any other year. But Linney was just as compelling in a role that demanded restraint. She could not go full throttle like Burstyn. Linney creates a complex character bound by responsibility, but whose desires are gradually seeping out. As single mother Sammy Prescott, Linney is smart, dedicated, sexy, funny and also somewhat repressed. Linney is so believable that you don't see any acting. She just completely embodies the character.

Will win: Roberts
This is a lock. The Academy has been waiting to honor golden girl Roberts for the longest time, but wasn't going to do it for her usual romantic comedy. Erin Brockovich gave her the perfect role and she made the most of it. Who can resist a role that combines looks, smarts, and chutzpah? The Academy also has a soft spot for portrayals of real-life figures. They recognized Hilary Swank last year for just such a performance, and will follow suit this year.

Tom Hanks (Cast Away)
Ed Harris (Pollack)
Javier Bardem (Before Night Falls)
Russell Crowe (Gladiator)
Geoffrey Rush (Quills)

Should win: Hanks
Everyone focused on Hanks' remarkable physical transformation in Cast Away, but even more extraordinary was how convincingly he showed the mental and spiritual changes in Chuck Noland. For a minute forget about his island scenes. Just compare Noland before he is stranded on the desert island and after his rescue. They are completely different people. OK, now think about the island scenes again. For this sizable chunk of the film, Hanks has to tell the story by himself. As riveting as Harris and Bardem were, they had other actors to work with. For much of Cast Away Hanks only had Wilson the volleyball. Hanks' takes you along on Noland's journey and metamorphosis as he constantly reshapes Noland's psyche. This may have been the best performance in Hanks' storied career.

Will win: Crowe
While Harris, Bardem and Rush all earned accolades for their work, their films were not seen as widely as Cast Away or Gladiator. That leaves Hanks and Crowe. Hanks may be hurt by the fact that he has won Best Actor twice before. Also, Academy voters are much higher on Gladiator, which received 12 nominations while Cast Away got only two. Crowe's strength and charisma have been justly credited for much of Gladiator's success. There are also those who believed he should have won last year for The Insider. Even more than Del Toro or Hudson, Crowe is the big new star and Oscar night will be his coronation.

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

Should Win: Sodebergh for Traffic
In both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, Sodebergh was able to tell personal stories offset against larger issues. Traffic in particular showcased his skills. Telling three distinct stories, all of which he photographed himself, Sodebergh gives each a unique visual look. But he does not let his style overwhelm and gives freedom to his actors. He does not intercut too quickly and gives each story time to develop and gain momentum.

Will win: Lee
If Soderbergh had directed only one film in 2000, he would be one of the favorites. Unfortunately, his double nomination will likely split the vote. Daldry has little hope because Billy Elliot did not get a Best Picture nomination. In the end, it will be between Scott and Lee. A couple of weeks ago, I would have picked Scott, given the overall momentum toward Gladiator. But Lee just won top honors from the Directors Guild of America, which has been a nearly infallible predictor of the Best Director winner. Even though Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a foreign language film, Lee is well-known in Hollywood through directing English language pictures such as Sense and Sensibility. I'll take Lee in an upset.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Erin Brockovich

Should win: Traffic
Traffic is the most ambitious and visionary film out of the five nominees. It deftly weaves three interlocking stories together without losing focus on any one of them. Through Sodebergh's documentary-style camerawork and powerful performances, it illustrates the danger of drugs on a personal and societal level. Many films have explored drug addiction, and many others have delved into the world of drug trafficking, but few have done both, and certainly not as well as Traffic.

Will win: Gladiator
It's a battle between Chinese and Roman warriors. For Best Picture, you can always look at the overall nomination totals: Gladiator led with 12, with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon close behind at 10. No other film has a shot. Traffic received critical acclaim, but, with the exception of The Silence of the Lambs, no film with crime at the center of its story has won the big prize since 1974. The Academy is more receptive to "Stick up for the little guy" pictures, which would seem to bode well for Erin Brockovich. But to many that's a Julia Roberts film, and it's pairing with Traffic could hurt here just as it will in the Best Director category. What the Academy really loves is epic period films. The visual spectacle of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has impressed filmgoers nationwide, and it will not leave Oscar night empty-handed. But remember that not one of the film's nominations was in the acting categories, and actors are the Academy's largest voting bloc. Like Life is Beautiful two years ago, it may need to settle for Best Foreign Language Film. The Academy may also split the difference by giving Ang Lee Best Director. So lets face it -- the Academy has convinced itself that Gladiator was the best film of 2000. It won top honors from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, the Producers Guild of America, and the British Academy Awards. There's no use complaining anymore (I've done enough of that). We need to accept the inevitable.

Adam Spector
March 19, 2001

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