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Our annual examination of the Academy Award nominations, controversies and likely outcomes

Russellmania II

Crowe’s latest nomination sets the pace for a tepid Oscar race, but controversy and racial issues spice up the contest

This year’s Oscar sweepstakes is peculiar for several reasons, mostly having to do with the opportunities that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has to write new chapters in movie history. A Beautiful Mind’s Russell Crowe is a Best Actor nominee for the second year in a row, after winning in 2001 for Gladiator, so he’s poised to join an elite group of movie icons with consecutive Oscar wins.

More significantly, the presence of both Ali’s Will Smith and Training Day’s Denzel Washington alongside Crowe in the Best Actor race means there’s a chance that a black man will top that category for the first time since 1963, when Sidney Poitier grabbed a statuette for Lilies of the Field. (Were Smith or Washington to win, the moment would be especially sweet for Poitier, as he’ll be on hand to receive one of two honorary Oscars. Robert Redford will be given the other prize for lifetime achievement.) Add in Halle Berry’s Best Actress nomination for Monster’s Ball, and you’ve got the makings of inspiring victories—or bitter disappointments.

Interestingly, the movie that goes into the Oscars with the largest number of nominations doesn’t feature a contender in either of the leading-actor races: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring won its heady 13-nomination berth by scoring loads of technical nods. Should the adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel win Best Picture, it will create intense speculation about whether the next installment of director Peter Jackson’s acclaimed trilogy, the forthcoming The Two Towers, will join The Godfather, Part II among the rare sequels to enjoy academy attention commensurate to that bestowed upon their predecessors.

Yet another notable aspect of this year’s Oscar contest is that Shrek, Monsters, Inc. and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius are in contention for the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar—never mind that Richard Linklater’s mind bender Waking Life, probably the only feature-length cartoon that pushed the animation medium forward this year, wasn’t nominated.

But enough about history—let’s move on to what you really want to read, our highly subjective screeds about who should make room on their mantle, who should brace for a crushing loss, and who doesn’t deserve to be let into the brand-new Kodak Theatre on Sunday night.


Best Picture

A Beautiful Mind seems a lock for Best Picture this year, what with its can’t-miss elements of a brilliant, if demented, genius redeemed by love; a substantial cash prize; and a complete whitewashing of the truth. We know—it’s just a movie, poetic license, all that stuff—but really, isn’t it a shame that Oscar can’t contain its jones for such pap? Much more compelling and deliciously subversive is Robert Altman’s best work to date, Gosford Park, and all filmmakers should take adaptation and editing notes from the makers of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In the Bedroom and Moulin Rouge! share the dubious distinction of having been deemed worthy of nomination while their respective directors, who presumably had a big deal to do with making these films so worthy, were snubbed. But hey, David Lynch and Ridley Scott got tapped for director honors even though their films got lost in the nominating shuffle. Maybe there’s really something to Hollywood’s penchant for madness.


Best Director

Let’s get this out of the way: Long shot Ridley Scott’s maligned Black Hawk Down is a riveting, bravely conceived battle (not war) movie that didn’t deserve its namby-pamby drubbing by critics who need a hit of fake “human element” to get involved—even though they complain about contrived relationships all year long (re: Titanic, Pearl Harbor). Unfortunately, Scott marred the film’s heart of greatness—the way it scaldingly boils down to an elemental struggle for survival—with another Hollywood crutch: slick impressionism created by monochromatic cinematography and hip soundtracking.

This year’s Oscar bait has a similar problem: slick screenwriting. Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is a little too beautiful, especially in its portrayal of John Forbes Nash Jr. as saintly schizo. More deserving of consideration is the direction of a large-scale drama from the distant past, requiring the marshalling of dozens of colorful characters, subterranean intrigues, and meaningfully grandiose dialogue. In short, Robert Altman’s Gosford Park and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Both films are keepers. But the honor of Best Director, pure and simple, belongs to the neglected Todd Field, for the astonishing depth and complexity of his big-screen debut, In the Bedroom. That leaves out David Lynch. But he’s probably still lost on Mulholland Drive.


Best Actress

Sissy Spacek is among the best actresses in the country, but her narrowly defined boudoir role is neither a career highlight nor as demanding as her best work, including her Oscar-nominated performance in Carrie. She will win, however, riding on the sheets of the overrated In the Bedroom. As Iris Murdoch, Judi Dench has a far more interesting role. While her work in Iris is solid, the role probably would have to have been played by Russell Crowe to stand a chance of winning. I wasn’t aware of any performances in Moulin Rouge!, and while Nicole Kidman looked fetching, she really deserved a nomination for her riveting, tightly wound work in The Others.

Renée Zellweger was faultless and charming in Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which she gave one of the best comic performances of the year, but comedy doesn’t usually win over serious drama—which points up the idiocy of comparing apples and oranges and declaring a winner. In any case, the part is not as complex as Halle Berry’s role in Monster’s Ball. Superb in every frame, Berry was like a kettle of water on a fitful fire. She simmered, steamed and boiled with fiercely engaging spontaneity, and when she cooled, one was helplessly conquered.

Overlooked were the great performances of Audrey Tautou in Amélie, Kidman in The Others, Tilda Swinton in The Deep End, Cate Blanchett in The Gift, Jennifer Lopez in Angel Eyes, Emily Perkins in Ginger Snaps, and the incredible ensemble of Darryl Hannah, Jennifer Tilly, Sheila Kelley, Charlotte Ayanna and Sandra Oh in Dancing at the Blue Iguana. (If forced to choose one, Oh would be my choice for the best.)


Best Actor

A Beautiful Mind’s Russell Crowe is the favorite to win this category, which would mark his second such statuette in two years. Tom Hanks scored this honor in 1993 and 1994, and look what it’s done to his Oscar chances since. Far more tactful to wait a discreet number of years between wins, like Fredric March (’32 and ’46), Jack Nicholson (’75 and ’97) or Marlon Brando (’54 and ’72). But Crowe could be upset by Hollywood’s need to show that it is colorblind, in which case the Academy might give the honor to Training Day’s Denzel Washington—who has bolstered his bid with a press blitz featuring no less than Julia Roberts touting his cause—or, less likely, Ali’s Will Smith. Poor Sean Penn—in I Am Sam, he did just as good a job playing a retarded parent as Crowe did playing a math-whiz schizo, but we’re used to him playing disparate characters. The biggest shame of all is that Tom Wilkinson, whose stoic grief grounded In the Bedroom, doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning.


Best Supporting Actor

The sun has set on the British Empire everywhere in the world, except Hollywood. Every year at Oscar time, it can be expected that the fawning American regard for British acting will be reflected in a few nominations, but this year the lists are littered with Dames and Sirs. This is particularly true in the Best Supporting Actor category, where a couple of knights, Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley, would seem to be the front-runners.

Best known to Academy voters for his saintly portrayals of Gandhi and Oscar Schindler’s accountant, Kingsley gave an electric performance as a vicious gangster in Sexy Beast. The geezers who predominate in the academy membership like this kind of role reversal. Kingsley’s work was dynamic and edgy, resulting in a character whose slightest whisper seemed like an act of violence. In contrast, Ian McKellen lent a magisterial air to his portrayal of Gandalf, the wizard in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. In a sprawling, three-hour epic of tall people with funny ears and little folks with hairy feet, McKellen was first among equals in a large ensemble of actors. Plus, the fact that the picture has earned almost $300 million domestically can’t hurt his chances.

The third nominee from Merry Old England is Jim Broadbent, as an aging professor dealing with his brilliant wife’s Alzheimer’s-induced decline in Iris. It is a fully realized performance, suggesting the conflicting feelings of love and rage in such a situation, but the film itself is negligible. Also, Broadbent was equally entertaining as the sleazy impresario in Moulin Rouge! Usually, good work in two noted films improves the chances of an award, but Broadbent looks so different in these roles, one wonders if the aging, myopic academy voters will notice that it’s the same actor.

Two Americans did manage to make the list, but they are clearly the weakest links. Jon Voight’s uncanny re-creation of sportscaster Howard Cosell in Ali was impressive, but his performance was missing the supreme arrogance of the real Cosell. As for Ethan Hawke, nominated for playing an ambitious young cop in Training Day, there’s little to say. Every year there is one jaw-droppingly inappropriate nominee; this year it’s Hawke. To suggest that he was more interesting that Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, Gene Hackman or Owen Wilson in The Royal Tenenbaums, Robert Forster in Lakeboat, or even Carl Reiner in Ocean’s Eleven is absurd. The academy voters had to pick one handsome young actor, and Hawke was it. Which really doesn’t matter, because some Brit’s gonna take the little bald guy home.


Best Supporting Actress

Maggie Smith’s royally droll delivery of snobbish zingers in Gosford Park was the most fun I had at the movies all year. But is it a great performance? Arguably not. For one thing, Smith can play a snooty old trout in her sleep. For another, she would have to share her award with the screenwriter who came up with those condescending bon mots. The opposite is true for Kate Winslet in Iris. The always- luminous Winslet seems lit by a very personal inner fire while playing the free-spirited novelist Iris Murdoch, transcending the writerly sound bites of the script. But she’s not onscreen enough to be considered for top honors. And neither is Helen Mirren (Smith’s competition in the Gosford Park sweepstakes), who plays a career housekeeper with steely precision and a chink in her armor (especially when connecting to costar Clive Owen).

Both Marisa Tomei (In the Bedroom) and Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) play major characters with a major impact, but Tomei, who has the more difficult role of bringing about a tragedy, is more believable, more involving and more crucial to the film’s complicated emotional tangles. As for Connelly’s beleaguered wife, I never for a second believed that Mrs. John Nash was deeply in love with her deranged husband, although I did admire Connelly’s technique of understated modulation. But no matter: Tomei’s heartrending naturalism is not going to earn her an Academy Award, because she’s already got one. And Connelly is owed one for her scarifying portrayal in last year’s Requiem for a Dream—a role that was far too edgy for Oscar.


Best Original Screenplay

Memento’s Christopher Nolan more likely than not will get the Pulp Fiction honorary award in this category, because the academy has a tradition of throwing screenplay awards at pictures it deems too freaky for recognition in the Best Picture race. Nolan’s win would be well-earned, because the clarity and wit with which he juggled the parts of his revenge tale—which is told backward—were dazzling. The script has more than just flash, though, as Nolan also poses provocative questions about trust, duplicity, delusion and bestial instincts. In short, Nolan deserves this Oscar more than any other contender.

That said, the other contenders are, for the most part, not slouches. Amélie, the sole foreign-film entry in the writing categories, is a bit too whimsical and a bit too long-winded, but screenwriters Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet deserve all sorts of props for seeing their vision through to its logical conclusion. The tale of an imaginative waif who becomes a guardian angel to the people around her, while also seeking a love of her own, is inventive, fun and romantic—qualities that might make it more appealing than the darker stories in this category.

In addition to Memento, those dark stories are Monster’s Ball and The Royal Tenenbaums. Written by Milo Addica and Will Rocos, Monster’s Ball is an exhausting love story involving the death penalty, miscegenation, hatred among family members and other bright topics. The genuineness of individual moments is undercut by the excess of the narrative. And The Royal Tenenbaums, despite its sedate tone, is nothing but excess—Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson string together strangeness with the same abandon that the writers of Monster’s Ball compile misery.

So Nolan’s fiercest competition probably is Julian Fellowes, the writer of Gosford Park. While many have raved about the story’s blending of clichéd whodunit devices with insightful comments on class divisions, I found the picture tedious, overstuffed and cloudy.

Reflecting that it was a weak year for innovative films, there aren’t any criminal shutouts in this category, but two original screenplays that didn’t get nominations are worth mentioning: Phil Hay’s and Matt Manfredi’s script for crazy/beautiful made a story about teenage love feel fresh by etching believable characters and situations, and Daniel Minahan’s script for Series 7 skewered reality TV by depicting a fictional show in which contestants win points by killing each other.


Best Adapted Screenplay

Prior to penning the script of A Beautiful Mind, which is based on Sylvia Nasar’s biography of troubled mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., Akiva Goldsman was known as the hack behind Lost in Space and Batman and Robin. His impressive leap from crap to creativity deserves recognition, and his script condenses a convoluted series of real-life events into an exciting cinematic narrative. However, the backlash against how the real Nash’s rough edges were smoothed out for the screenplay may cripple Goldsman’s shot at taking home a trophy.

Ghost World, adapted by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff from Clowes’ underground comic about a group of disenfranchised eccentrics, was a beautifully unsentimentalized character study, but its low profile probably dooms its chances. In the Bedroom, written by Rob Festinger and Todd Field from an Andres Dubus story, also was an arthouse fave, but it got enough mainstream attention that it’s a serious contender. Even though the pseudo-thriller elements of the story are clichéd, the force and clarity of the character details are impressive; it’s possible, however, that the film will be perceived as an acting showcase, not a great achievement in writing.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine voters giving a screenplay Oscar to Shrek—not because the megapopular cartoon, written by Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman (from William Steig’s children’s book) was geared toward kids, but because the film is a slight pastiche made memorable by dazzling animation and stellar voice performances.

That leaves The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien’s tome by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Peter Jackson. If you set aside the script’s fantasy aspects, it’s tailor-made for Oscar attention: It’s a three-hour epic in which a cast of varied characters rise or fall, based on their strength of character, when faced with life-or-death adversity. The screenplay has sweep, grandeur and deep intelligence, all of which weigh heavily in its favor. The number of nominations with which the film was showered suggests that academy voters were willing to tolerate the fantastical nature of the picture and acknowledge what a Herculean task director Jackson and his collaborators undertook.

While it would have been enjoyable to see a nod thrown to The Tailor of Panama, a smart and twisty thriller adapted by John Le Carré, John Boorman and Andrew Davies from Le Carré’s novel, the only glaring omission in the adapted-screenplay race is The Pledge. In adapting Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s book about a cop obsessed with solving a little girl’s murder, screenwriters Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson crafted a harrowing, truthful portrait of madness that’s as visceral and painful as A Beautiful Mind is slick and comforting.


Best Picture
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann A Beautiful Mind The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Dancing at the Blue Iguana A Beautiful Mind
Hanson Gosford Park The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring The Pledge Moulin Rouge!
Leon A Beautiful Mind Gosford Park Mulholland Drive A Beautiful Mind
Morrow The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In the Bedroom Memento Moulin Rouge!
Stone Moulin Rouge! In the Bedroom Ghost World A Beautiful Mind

Best Director
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings Michael Radford, Dancing at the Blue Iguana Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
Hanson Robert Altman, Gosford Park Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings Terry Zwigoff, Ghost World Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
Leon Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind Robert Altman, Gosford Park Todd Field, In the Bedroom Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind
Morrow Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind Robert Altman, Gosford Park Todd Field, In the Bedroom David Lynch, Mulholland Drive
Stone Robert Altman, Gosford Park David Lynch, Mulholland Drive Todd Field, In the Bedroom Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down

Best Actress
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball Sandra Oh, Dancing at the Blue Iguana Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Hanson Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball Thora Birch, Ghost World Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Leon Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Diary
Morrow Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge! Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Tilda Swinton, The Deep End Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge!
Stone Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroomd Drive Naomi Watts, Mulholland Drive Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Diary

Best Actor
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom Jack Nicholson, The Pledge Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind
Hanson Denzel Washington, Training Day Will Smith, Ali Jack Nicholson, The Pledge none
Leon Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom Anthony LaPaglia, Lantana none
Morrow Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom Jack Nicholson, The Pledge none
Stone Denzel Washington, Training Day Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums none

Best Supporting Actor
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums Ethan Hawke, Training Day
Hanson Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings Jim Broadbent, Iris Billy Bob Thornton, Bandits Jon Voight, Ali
Leon Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings Jim Broadbent, Iris Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast
Morrow Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast Jim Broadbent, Iris Steve Buscemi, Ghost World Jon Voight, Ali
Stone Ian McKellen, The Lord of the Rings Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast Owen Wilson, The Royal Tenenbaums Ethan Hawke, Training Day

Best Supporting Actress
Critic Will Win Should Win Overlooked Overrated
Hammann Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind none Cameron Diaz, Vanilla Sky Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Hanson Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind Robin Wright-Penn, The Pledge Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Leon Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind Helen Mirren, Gosford Park Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Morrow Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind Marisa Tomei, In the Bedroom Robin Wright-Penn, The Pledge Maggie Smith, Gosford Park
Stone Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind Helen Mirren, Gosford Park Illeana Douglas, Ghost World

Maggie Smith, Gosford Park

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