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Finding Oscarland
By Laura Leon, Ann Morrow and Shawn Stone

Who will take flight? Who will take it on the chin? Who will sing hallelujah? Who will wake up feeling used? Our annual look at the Academy Awards up, down and sideways

‘Two hours of sparkling entertainment spread over four hours.”

So quipped longtime Academy Awards host Johnny Carson about Hollywood’s big show in 1979, and the joke is still funny. Every year they try to find some gimmick to speed things along; every year the stars find a way to drag things out. And why not: Whether you’re Julia Roberts or James Coburn, when you’re on that stage with your little bald, golden statuette, it’s the moment of your life.

This year, most of the awards-related drama is in the contest between Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Will Marty finally get his due, or will wily old Clint take home another armful of Oscars?

All of the telecast-related drama is in the debut of Chris Rock as the Oscar host. Who will he insult most? (We’re hoping it will be the insufferable Russell Crowe.) How many times will Rock have to be “bleeped out”? (The broadcast will be on a short delay, just in case.)

Tune in Sunday night (Feb. 27) and find out.

Best Picture

Two likely winners: (l-r) Swank and Freeman in Million Dollar Baby.

Here we’ve got one zeitgeisty film (the talky, raunchy Sideways) that might not have made it in a stronger field; one film that had no business being nominated (Finding Neverland, the melancholy and thinly whimsical retelling of the creation of Peter Pan); and three near-great films, The Aviator, Million Dollar Baby and Ray. Ray is just marvelous: a loving, lyrical and joyously musical biopic that captures both Ray Charles, the man, and his life and times (from sharecropper shack to the top of the charts). Yet Ray is bound by the conventions of biography, and owes much of its heartbreak and effervescence to Jamie Foxx’s dazzling incarnation. Million Dollar Baby, definitely the candidate most reliant on heartbreak (and therefore a likely winner), is ever so slightly marred by its down-at-heels familiarity. The characters, though immensely appealing, are so pure-of-heart as to be nearly one-dimensional. And there are visual stretches, such as the climactic boxing championship, that are more underdone than subtle. That leaves The Aviator, Martin Scorsese’s dashing portrait of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), as Best Picture. Not so much a biography as an homage to a particular era in America, The Aviator presents its vision of a daring yet damaged innovator with visual panache, narrative exhilaration, and sensitivity toward its hubristic subject that doesn’t gloss over the human failings that fueled Hughes’ iconic accomplishments.


Best Director

Try not to be so tall next to Leo: Blanchett (l) is directed by Scorsese (r) in The Aviator.

This is not where the action is this year (the heat is in the acting categories), since the two front-runners, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, have greater works in their past (Unforgiven and Raging Bull, respectively). So let’s knock Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby out of the ring straight off. The power of this story—the late-in-life, father-daughter relationship between a woman boxer (Hilary Swank) and her flinty old trainer (Eastwood)—comes from the F. X. Toole story it was adapted from. Though Eastwood is to be commended for the film’s beautiful performances and pervading atmosphere of Irish fatalism, there’s little to distinguish the direction aside from emotional honesty. Whereas in Ray, Taylor Hackford gives us such quietly bravura scenes as young Ray’s transition from the world of sight to the world of hearing, and the watery hallucinations that represent the adult Ray’s guilt about his younger brother. But overall, Hackford riffs on Charles’ life without great originality or insight (again, the heartbeat of the film is Jamie Foxx). For Sideways, a road-trip comedy about two losers who hook up, Alexander Payne’s knack for realistic dialogue disguises a bouquet of shortfalls, such as puerile humor and a condescending attitude toward the characters (are we laughing with them, or at them?). And geez, did anybody really want Paul Giamatti’s alcoholic underdog to get Virginia Madsen’s beautiful-in-every-way girl?

Since gritty Brit director Mike Leigh doesn’t stand a chance for Vera Drake, a film about a woman, and an unglamorous one at that, The Aviator is left again as the year’s best; this time for Martin Scorsese’s direction, which soars above the other nominees on its visual élan (the Coconut Grove, the crash, the crack-up), incomparable soundtracking, historical relevance (from Hollywood to the halls of Washington) and smashing storytelling.



Best Actress

Plotting her revenge—and her Oscar strategy: Bening (l) in Being Julia.

As the Academy is not known for being especially adventurous, it was a surprise when nominations went to Annette Bening and Kate Winslet for Best Actress this year. The surprise isn’t in who they are—both are Oscar also-rans—but in the roles they’re being recognized for. In the comic farce Being Julia, Bening is an aging actress who pulls off a hilarious revenge on both her playwright-husband and selfish boy-toy lover. In the dark comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Winslet is amazing as a selfish, neurotic Long Island bitch from hell. And, rare as nominations for performances in comedy are, it’s even stranger in a year with so many unrecognized performers, including previous nominee Uma Thurman (Kill Bill Vol. 2), and Oscar winners Meryl Streep (The Manchurian Candidate) and Nicole Kidman (Dogville). Nominees Catalina Sandino Moreno (for Maria Full of Grace) and Imelda Staunton (for Vera Drake) are more in the traditional mode. The former is an attractive newcomer who made a powerful impression; the latter is British. Citizenship aside, it’s particularly satisfying that Staunton was recognized for her quietly powerful work in Mike Leigh’s film.

It’s Hilary Swank, however, as the boxer with a heart of gold in the out-of-nowhere smash Million Dollar Baby, who will win. Swank is excellent as the dirt-poor young woman determined to become a boxer. Plus, the character suffers a great tragedy, which is always a plus for Oscar voters. Whether she should win is, of course, another matter—my preference would be a comedienne, either Bening or Winslet.


Best Actor

Startlingly real: Foxx in Ray.

What a talented field this year’s Best Actor contenders represent, and yet, what a travesty, in at least one choice. While this writer is a longtime admirer (21 Jump Street anybody?) of Johnny Depp, whose talent has often been underestimated in light of his “cute” factor, his tap as the playwright James Barry in the hopelessly fluffy Finding Neverland is a testament to superior marketing. Clearly, Depp’s place should have been occupied by the now-twice-ignored Paul Giamatti, whose deeply nuanced performance in Sideways was laced with realism and emotion. As for the other contenders, the real race will come between Jamie Foxx, almost a shoo-in for his uncanny, fully realized depiction of the late Ray Charles, and longtime fave Clint Eastwood, who at the ripe old age of 74 is still showing the whippersnappers—and those who have long sniffed at his thespian abilities—how it is done. In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood gives the performance of a lifetime, one which is almost painful in its recognition of human frailty, and yet deeply complex. Tough, and worthy, competition, then, is Foxx’s intuitive, brilliant portrayal of the late artist who recently swept the Grammy Awards.



Best Supporting Actress

While bettors are guessing that Virginia Madsen, perennial star of indie and B-grade movies of the last 20 years, will take home the gold, even her longtime admirers are cringing at the prospect. Why? Madsen’s role in Sideways, while a welcome return, is not so much supporting as propping up the Paul Giamatti character. Heaven knows why Natalie Portman was nominated, since at times, in Closer, she seems dreadfully adrift, and not because that’s the way her character is written. Newcomer Sophie Okonedo is surprisingly strong playing Don Cheadle’s supportive wife in the emotionally gripping Hotel Rwanda, but it’s not likely, given the presence of powerhouses Cate Blanchett and Laura Linney, that she’ll win. That said, who should win? Blanchett is eerie, yet effective, as Kate Hepburn in The Aviator (opposite an equally eerie Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes). Linney has the decidedly more difficult role, in Kinsey, that of wife, lover and helpmate (participating in numerous sexual relationships to help her husband’s pursuit of science), and, with characteristic aplomb, she delivers an astonishingly honest, delicate portrayal. Ultimately, however, the Academy will honor Madsen, if only to make up, in some way, for its omission of Giamatti in the Best Actor category, and to acknowledge its appreciation of those cinematic Davids that slew that big-budget Goliaths.


Best Supporting Actor

As usual, this category sizzles. It’s impossible to opine on the best in a field that runs from Morgan Freeman’s low-key genius as a washed-up but wise ex-boxer in Million Dollar Baby (a performance that’s all in that molasses-and-whiskey voice and a knowing tilt of the head) to Clive Owen’s brutish confidence and ice-cold articulation as a ruthless competitor in sexual one-upmanship in Closer. Then there’s Alan Alda, who uses his down-to-earth charm as a weapon of mass spin-doctoring for the corrupt and wily senator he plays in The Aviator (and notice the reptilian intensity with which he observes his prey during a lunch with the struggling Hughes). But this is a very small role. And Jamie Foxx, who conveys a palpable sense of morality (way beyond the range of most action-thriller roles) as the cabdriver who is menaced by Tom Cruise’s hit man in Collateral, is in a very large role—in fact, since he’s on screen even more than Cruise, it should’ve been placed in the lead actor slot, where Foxx could’ve competed against himself (and which would’ve made room for Alfred Molina’s entertaining turn as the distorted but inherently decent scientist in Spider-Man 2, or for William Hurt as the benevolent patriarch in The Village, a performance that rivals Freeman’s for subtle and masterly phrasing).

Still, for technique combined with originality, the best in show goes to Thomas Haden Church as a fading actor in Sideways. With ease and naturalism, Church manages the difficult feat of making a dimwitted sleazebag not just comic, but pathetic and endearing and somehow less dishonorable than his pretentious buddy.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Other categories may be wide open, but these are pretty much a done deal. Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth will win the original screenplay Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, while Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor will nab the adapted screenplay golden whatsis for Sideways. The former is deserved, on originality and meanness alone, though some of the competition—particularly Mike Leigh (Vera Drake) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles)—is first-rate. I’m conflicted about Hotel Rwanda (Keir Pearson and Terry George) and The Aviator (John Logan); both scripts are significant narrative achievements riddled with historical goofs and painful, though perhaps necessary, simplifications.

The adapted-from-other-material award should not go to Sideways. Yes, it’s keenly observed and well-crafted, blah blah blah, but the ending is dishonest. Better that the award go to Paul Haggis for his razor-sharp screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, or (my favorite) Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke and Kim Krizan for the slyly constructed, emotionally powerful Before Sunset.


And the Rest . . .

Ah, “the rest.” You know, like Best Foreign Language Film. Because of the arcane nominating rules, this category is light on films people have seen and loved—like House of Flying Daggers, Bad Education and A Very Long Engagement—and heavy on films no one has seen at all. None of the five nominees has opened in the Capital Region. Best Documentary, however, is a positively audience-friendly category, featuring the crowd-pleasing, binge-eating Super Size Me and Paramount’s widely shown Tupac: Resurrection, a doc on the life of the world’s most famous dead hiphop artist. The smart money is on The Story of the Weeping Camel, which played for a couple of days last month at Saratoga Film Forum. No Michael Moore, though. He bet on a Best Picture nod for Fahrenheit 9/11, and lost.

“The rest” is also where worthy, notorious or too-commercially-successful pictures are allotted their shot at any number of technical prizes. This is where we find Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Passed over (sorry) for Best Picture and Best Director, POTC earned nods for Best Original Score, Best Cinematography and Best Makeup. I saw the film, but the music made no impression at all. The cinematography, by Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff), was superb. Deschanel is up against some tough competition, including John Mathieson for his widely praised anamorphic cinematography in The Phantom of the Opera; Bruno Delbonnel for re-creating the horrors of World War I in A Very Long Engagement; Zhao Xiaoding for the dazzling action and visual bric-a-brac of House of Flying Daggers; and the likely winner, Robert Richardson, nominated for his evocative, show-stopping use of color in The Aviator.

Whither Best Makeup? The Passion should win hands down. OK, so the folks behind Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events worked wonders with Jim Carrey, and the crew on The Sea Inside transformed handsome Javier Bardem into an aged quadriplegic. Big deal. Keith Vanderlaan and Christien Tinsley made us believe that poor Jim Caviezel was having the living skin flayed from his body.

Finally, this brings us to Best Original Song. Five songs are nominated. None is Oscar-worthy, because the Academy saw fit to ignore the songcraft of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and collaborators in Team America: World Police. If there were more compelling ditties than “America, F@#k Yeah,” “Freedom Isn’t Free” and “Everyone Has AIDS” this year, I didn’t hear ’em. Besides, it appears that Beyoncé is singing most of the nominated tunes on the Oscarcast; hearing her tear into lines like “Coming again, to save the motherfuckin’ day, yeah!” while Jay-Z shouts out “Wal-Mart, fuck yeah” would be priceless.



The 77th Annual Academy Awards will be televised this Sunday, Feb. 27 at 8 PM on WTEN-TV, Channel 10.


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