2005 Oscar Preview

There's nothing like a good Oscar controversy. Usually the brouhaha is about the films themselves, such as the inaccuracy claims about The Hurricane and A Beautiful Mind a few years ago We've already had a minor uproar over Million Dollar Baby, which has been attacked by Rush Limbaugh, Michael Medved, and others in the right wing. I'll won't go into this one in detail because discussing it would give away a surprise in the movie. But I will echo two points that have been made much more eloquently by others: 1) Just because a character performs a certain action in a film does not mean the film advocates that action. 2) Can you believe that some conservatives are attacking Clint Eastwood? Are they going to go after Mom and apple pie next? The whole thing's ridiculous.

More recently some controversy erupted about the show itself. Host Chris Rock said that he generally didn't watch the Oscars because, among other things, it was a “fashion show” and that black actors were rarely honored. Even though Oscars producer Gil Cates defended Rock, the media outlets picked up this story and ran with it. Like the Million Dollar Baby issue, this was also much ado about nothing. Chris Rock is going to speak his mind. That's what he does. He is going to be loud, brash and opinionated. As the Hollywood Reporter concluded “You don't hire a pit bull and expect a poodle to show up.” Unlike Rock, I've been an avid Oscars watcher. While I do not agree with everything he said, I'll admit he has a point. Way to much attention is focused on what the stars are wearing, as if that means anything. (Disagree? Halle Berry won Best Actress three years ago, the first black actress to do so. Do you remember kind of dress was she wearing? I didn't think so.) Also, the Academy has had a problem honoring black artists. Even with Berry's and Denzel Washington's recent awards, only eight Oscars have gone to black actors. No African-American has won Best Director. How many black screenwriters have won? Cinematographers? Editors? Not many. Can anyone really blame a black person for saying that he didn't watch the Oscars because he didn't feel included? I can't.

Unfortunately, media focus on Rock's comments overshadowed discussion of a small, but significant change in the Oscars show. For some awards we will not see the winner walk up to the stage and give a speech. Some winners will receive their awards while still in their seats. Others will already be onstage with their fellow nominees when the awards are announced. Mind you the Cates will not make these changes for the actors. It will be for the sound editors, the visual effects people and those in other “technical” categories. I'll admit that I don't pay close attention when the sound people give their speeches. But the winners in these “technical” categories perform complicated work that is critical to their films. For 364 days a year they do this work quietly and out of the spotlight. Unlike the actors, the Oscars are their one chance for widespread public recognition. Let's not take that away from them.

Hope you enjoyed my preview of the 77 th Annual Academy Awards on February 27. Wait a minute, did I forget something? Oh yeah, the awards themselves. So once again, I bravely offer my picks for who deserves to win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:

Bruno Delbonnel – A Very Long Engagement
Caleb Deschanel – The Passion of the Christ
John Mathieson – The Phantom of the Opera
Robert Richardson – The Aviator
Xiaoding Zhao – House of Flying Daggers

Should win: Zhao
No film dazzled the eyes more than House of Flying Daggers . Zhao created mythical, fantastical landscapes and seamlessly blended them into the story and martial arts sequences. Each background was so skillfully set against the characters, in both tone and color, that you felt you could be watching a painting. To do that in a relatively sedate film is skillful enough. To do that in a film filled with movement is amazing.

Will win: Richardson
Richardson is a respected veteran. The same could be said of Deschanel, who also won much deserved plaudits. While Richardson has won for JFK, Deschanel has yet to win. But I have a hard time seeing the Academy honoring The Passion of the Christ. Delbonnel won the American Society of Cinematographers award, usually a reliable harbinger for Oscar night. This time I'm not convinced. I'm not confident that many Academy voters saw A Very Long Engagement, certainly not as many as saw The Aviator. Also, Richardson's work evoked the Technicolor era of Hollywood's Golden Age, which is sure to earn him points with the older Academy crowd. That will be enough to give him the win.

David Magee – Finding Neverland
Paul Haggis – Million Dollar Baby Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke – Before Sunset
Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – Sideways
José Rivera – The Motorcycle Diaries

Should win: Payne and Taylor
Payne and Taylor adapted Rex Pickett's novel beautifully, showcasing the humor while still maintaining a dramatic thread. They developed the characters so that the story flowed from them, rather than feeling artificially imposed. If that weren't enough, they also wove in the love of wine as an important element both for its own sake and as a window into the characters' souls. The balanced, nuanced and intricate script was the catalyst that made Sideways so funny, sad, and in the end, hopeful.

Will win: Payne and Taylor
Million Dollar Baby may be the safer bet, since it will likely garner more awards Oscar night. But I'm betting that the Screenplay Oscar will serve as a consolation prize, as it often has for critical favorites that did not win Best Picture (such as Pulp Fiction and Almost Famous ). Payne and Taylor juts won the Writers Guild of America adapted screenplay award, a solid predictor of Oscar success. Besides, when people talk about Million Dollar Baby, they focus of the acting or Clint Eastwood's direction, not the script. Sideways is the critical favorite this year, but it's clearly not an Academy type Best Director or Best Picture film. The Screenplay Oscar will give the Academy a chance to recognize Payne for his writing and directing.

Brad Bird – The Incredibles
Terry George and Keir Pearson – Hotel Rwanda
Mike Leigh – Vera Drake
John Logan – The Aviator
Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Should win: Kaufman, Gondry and Bismuth
Now technically this category is “Material Written Directly for the Screen,” but it is commonly and justifiably called “Original Screenplay.” No screenplay in 2004 was anywhere near as original as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It was innovative in that much of it took place inside the hero's mind. The narrative twisted and turned but never became too confusing for the audience. The script also asked some basic human questions. If you could erase memories of a bad relationship, would you? Are memories of the mind or of the heart? At the same time, the story never let the inventiveness overwhelm the characters. It was innovative and funny, while also heartfelt and touching.

Will win : Kaufman, Gondry and Bismuth
Very tough call. Much of the reasoning I used for Payne and Taylor, I could also use for George and Pearson. Hotel Rwanda is another well regarded film that will probably not win in many of the other categories. Since George also directed the film, the Academy could honor him for his overall contribution, along for his struggle to get the film made in the first place. Out of this category, The Aviator is the biggest Oscar heavyweight this year, but as with Million Dollar Baby, the attention has not been focused on the film's screenplay. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out nearly a year ago, another strike against it. So why am I picking it? It's not just because it won the WGA original screenplay award. It's also because Charlie Kaufman has become a household name among the film industry and film enthusiasts. The term “a Charlie Kaufman story” in and of itself has a meaning. His films have a singular identity as much as those of any director working today. And Eternal Sunshine is his best work, so I think the academy will not pass up this chance to honor him.

Cate Blanchett – The Aviator
Laura Linney – Kinsey
Virgnia Madsen – Sideways
Sophie Okenedo – Hotel Rwanda
Natalie Portman – Closer

Should win: Linney
Blanchett, Madsen, and Okenedo would also be worthy winners, and I'm only leaving out Portman because she doesn't belong in this category. I'm going with Linney not because she's one of my favorite actresses working today (which she is), but because she had the toughest challenge, She was playing the patient and supportive wife, a staple of many biopics. Linney gave her role so much depth, more than was written for her. She did this with limited screen time. In one powerful scene, Kinsey confesses to his wife that he cheated on her. The hurt and anger, but also understanding that Linney conveyed make the scene work. It's mainly through her that the audience can see the human consequences of Kinsey's behavior.

Will win : Blanchett
Close race with Madsen, who has won most of the critics awards. You also can't rule out Potman, who is the hot young actress in the race. Closer was a mean and nasty film, which I don't think will endear it to the Academy. Madsen's winning would be a wonderful comeback story. 10-15 years ago she was the hot young actress. She was on the verge of stardom but never quite got there. Then she seemed to disappear. Paul Giamatti's exclusion from the Best Actor race to me shows that the tide is going against Sideways. The Aviator received more than twice as many nominations. And acting awards aren't consolation prizes nearly as much as screenplay ones. Blanchett excelled while playing Katherine Hepburn, which should endear her to the many Academy voters who remember Hepburn fondly. She's also a talented actress who has been nominated before but has never won. Blanchett recently won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) supporting actress award and actors are the largest voting bloc of the Academy. All of that should be enough for Blanchett to edge out Madsen Sunday night.

Alan Alda – The Aviator
Thomas Haden Church – Sideways
Jamie Foxx – Collateral
Morgan Freeman – Million Dollar Baby
Clive Owen – Closer

Should win: Church
Church made what could have been a one-note character into a three-dimensional human being. He played a womanizing cad, but Church also showed some real sadness and pathos. His charisma and charm made you see why women would fall for him. His comic timing and perfect delivery helped make his scenes with Paul Giamatti work so well. Their chemistry, as much as anything, was the reason the film succeeded.

Will win: Freeman
In many ways, this race resembles Supporting Actress. A critical favorite from Sideways against a veteran presence from a bigger Oscar favorite. As with Madsen, Church's winning would be a remarkable comeback, maybe even more so. Madsen at least had a film career. Church did mostly inconsequential sitcom work But Freeman has been one of the most highly regarded actors of the past 15 years. He's considered by many the “actor's actor.” Who else could play both the President and God? He just won the SAG supporting actor award. This is his fourth nomination, he's 67 and he's never won. This category, perhaps more than any other, has served as a lifetime achievement award. Think George Burns, Sean Connery, Jack Palance and Martin Landau. In a few days we can add Freeman to that list.

Annette Bening – Being Julia
Catalina Sandino Moreno – Maria Full of Grace
Imelda Staunton – Vera Drake
Hilary Swank – Million Dollar Baby
Kate Winslet – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Should win: Moreno
More than any actress in this group, even Staunton, Moreno had to carry her film. First she had to make you understand why someone would possibly want to become a drug mule. Moreno did this through effectively showing Maria's determination and her naivete. Then she took us on a harrowing journey with her. If she didn't make identify with would could have been a very unsympathetic woman, the film would not have worked. She imbued Maria with both savvy and vulnerability, making us care what happened to this young woman. Making her feat all the more spectacular was that this was Moreno's first film role. You would never know it as she handled herself like a seasoned veteran, conveying much through small glances and gestures. Moreno was especially effective during long stretches without any dialogue, a real challenge for any performer. This was not only the breakthrough performance by an actress last year, it was the best.

Will win: Swank
Many critics have noted how five years ago Swank came out of nowhere to win the Best Actress Oscar for Boys Don't Cry. She beat the early favorite, Annette Bening for American Beauty. Now Swank is the overwhelming favorite. She's in the more nominated film, has won rave reviews, and just won the SAG best actress award. Can Bening turn the tables? Probably not. While Bening also earned much-deserved plaudits, it was for a comic performance, which are generally ignored for the lead acting Oscars. More importantly, Being Julia garnered no other Oscar nominations besides this one. If anyone were to pull the upset it would be Staunton, who has received many critics awards for her touching portrayal of a 1950s British abortionist. Many Academy voters are sympathetic to the film's message, and British actors have never had a problem winning Oscars. But Vera Drake does not have the distribution or the momentum of Million Dollar Baby. It will be Swank again.

Don Cheadle – Hotel Rwanda
Johnny Depp – Finding Neverland
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Aviator
Clint Eastwood – Million Dollar Baby
Jamie Foxx – Ray

Should win: Foxx
One last time – PAUL GIAMATTI SHOULD BE HERE!!! OK, I've got that out of my system (for now), so let's focus on the nominees. Cheadle, DiCaprio and Foxx would all be worthy winners. All three played real people. All three were gripping as they took their characters through their own version of hell, be it genocide, a severe psychological disorder, or drug addiction. I'm going with Foxx partly because he had the toughest task – not only playing a real-life person, but a singer who everyone has seen and heard. He had to measure up to the Ray Charles we all had in our minds. Foxx more than measured up. He became Ray Charles, so much that you forgot that you were watching an actor. Foxx got all the nuances, the movements, and the mannerisms down pat. But he didn't stop there as he explored Charles's joy and pain. He made a celebrity into a full-bodied character.

Will win: Foxx
Easiest call of the night by far. No one else has a chance. Foxx was preordained the winner before the nominations were even announced. He has won most of the pre-Oscar wards, including the SAG. Chris Rock has said that if Foxx doesn't win, he will steal an Oscars from another winner and give it to Foxx. Rock shouldn't worry.

Clint Eastwood – Million Dollar Baby
Taylor Hackford – Ray
Mike Leigh – Vera Drake
Alexander Payne – Sideways
Martin Scorsese – The Aviator

Should win: Scorsese
Normally I hold that the Best Director should be the one that directed the Best Picture. I liked Sideways a little better than The Aviator. But to me it was close enough that I'm pulling for Scorsese both for who he is and for what he has meant to films over the past 32 years. He has made some of the best, most vibrant, brave, and brilliant films. He lives and breathes film. He's mastered every part of filmmaking. But as we all know he has never won the Oscar. Will the Academy just wait until he's 75 and give him a “Sorry We Didn't Recognize You When We Had the Chance” lifetime achievement award? Quite possibly, but that's just wrong. They should recognize him now, and not just because of his past. His work on The Aviator, in and of itself, deserves recognition. Scorsese captured the thrill and danger of Howard Hughes' pioneering aviation work. The film's plane crash sequence is as exciting and harrowing as any in recent years. Scorsese evoked the glamour of old Hollywood, recreating classic locations to the last detail. But he never lost sight of the tragic human drama. With The Aviator, Scorsese showed the same talent for depicting a man consumed with his own demons as he did with Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Martin Scorsese is everything a director should be, and it's past time that the Academy gives him the honor he so richly deserves.

Will win: Eastwood
We've been through this before. Scorsese, and everyone who pulls for him are Charlie Brown, ready to kick the football. The Academy is Lucy, holding the ball. Every other time she's pulled the football away. “Maybe this time she won't” we tell ourselves, but inside we know better. Going in to Oscar season, Scorsese did look to be the favorite. But then the Million Dollar Baby train gathered steam. People started inexplicably saying that Million Dollar Baby was a more “personal” and “human” film than The Aviator. The warning signs started appearing. Clint Eastwood won the Golden Globe. That could be dismissed, because it is the Golden Globes, about as legitimate as an Internet poll. Then Eastwood won the Directors Guild of America award, which has predicted the Best Director winner 50 out of 56 times. Can't dismiss that one. You would think that Scorsese would be the sentimental favorite because he hasn't won while Eastwood has. It hasn't turned out that way. As some writers have opined recently, Martin Scorsese to many in Hollywood will always be an outsider, a New York director. Eastwood has become a living legend. Remember, Scorsese has lost twice to actor-directors (Robert Redford and Kevin Costner). So it may be close, but the bottom line is that Lucy will always take the football away.

The Aviator
Finding Neverland
Million Dollar Baby

Should win: Sideways
The Aviator would also be a very deserving winner, for the reasons I listed earlier. I suppose I'm going with Sideways because the film affected me a little more. Alexander Payne blended comedy and pathos with characters you could instantly grab on to. The interplay between Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church was hilarious, but their performances were so interesting that you go with them into the more dramatic moments without missing a beat. Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh also turned in fine work in what was probably the best acted film of the year. It's also one of the most insightful films, especially in the way it delved into the characters' love of wine. Payne explored what people's passions say about them. And I haven't even touched on the gorgeous scenery. Few films have combined wit, sadness, optimism, and an uncanny understanding of human nature like Sideways did.

Will win : The Aviator
The biggest prize may also be the closest race of the night. Sideways is the critical favorite so you can't completely rule it out. Then again, critical favorites rarely win Best Picture. It's between The Aviator and Million Dollar Baby and it could go either way. The Aviator has the most total nominations and won the Producers Guild of America best picture award, two reliable harbingers. Million Dollar Baby has momentum, and plenty of it. The buzz grew loudest for this film after the nominations were announced and during the voting for the winners. In fact, Million Dollar Baby has made more money than The Aviator this month. The Limbaugh-Medved scandal has likely helped the film rather than hurt it. It's given Million Dollar Baby more publicity, while the film's attackers don't have much credibility in most Hollywood circles. In a race this close, I ask myself which film better fits in with past Best Picture winners. Many of these films have at least two out of these three elements: some historical aspect, a romance (even if it is not the central theme), and an epic feel. Million Dollar Baby has none of these. The Aviator has all three. Since I have to pick one I'll use that system to so with Scorsese's film. Now you may say it would be cruel to deny Scorsese yet again while honoring his film. But the Academy has been cruel before, and it will be again on Sunday.

Adam Spector
February 21, 2005

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