Oscar Review 2001
by Jon Bastian
…don’t get me started!
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The year is 1953. It’s March 19th to be exact, and you’re sitting down to watch the first-ever live telecast of the Oscars, hosted by Bob Hope. At the end of the evening, you hold your breath, waiting, as the best picture nominees are reeled off. High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Greatest Show On Earth and The Quiet Man. It’s a toss-up between The Quiet Man and High Noon in your mind, although westerns are getting a little passé. It could be Ivanhoe — fancy costumes, famous book. Maybe even Moulin Rouge, with the exotic French locale.
They announce the winner and you scratch your head. The Greatest Show On Earth? What the heck…
Forty-eight years later, history is repeating itself, except my reaction to a certain film getting twelve nominations, including Best Picture, is “What the fuck?” If you read my review and my last year’s bottom ten list, you know I only have one thing to say about Gladiator. It’s a complete, unmitigated, over-rated, puerile, pointless, dull piece of crap. The only category it even vaguely comes near belonging in is Best Supporting Actor, for which Joaquin Phoenix got the nod. But even there, it’s just all wrong. Phoenix’s performance in Quills ran rings around his turn as a snotty Roman emperor. That was the film for which he deserved to be nominated. He is a good actor. But, because he’s been swept along in this whirlpool of sword and sandal fever, even if he wins (a long shot) it won’t add to his credibility.
Credibility is an appropriate word to bring up here, because it feels to me like the Academy has lost theirs. Here’s another example of “things that make you go, ‘Huh?’” Benicio del Toro is Best Supporting Actor nominee. Not Best Actor. Yet, he had as much if not more screen time than Michael Douglas in Traffic, his story-line intersected with almost every other one, his character is the heart and center of that film. Oh, but, that’s right, I forgot. He only speaks maybe five words of English, but since the rest of the time he’s only speaking Spanish and not feigning some speech-impediment or birth defect, he’s only “supporting.” Consider also that Geoffrey Rush, Best Actor Nominee for Quills, appears in that film for far less time than the other leads, but he’s not nominated for a supporting role. Then again, he speaks the Queen’s English (well, King’s) and he’s played the Oscar game before, so he’s family.
But, if you really want proof that the Academy is made up of mostly old, white people, consider the best song category. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gets the free ride here, with its closing credit song part of their whole ten-nomination package. There’s no other reason this tune, an anonymous, bland Asian-Pop ditty is in there. If that’s not to your taste, we have Sting, Bob Dylan and Randy Newman — three more traditional, safe, antiquated choices. (I guess Phil Collins didn’t write any movie songs this year.) The exception proving the rule is the now-traditional “South Park Memorial ‘They Ought to Win’” nominee, Bjork, for her contribution to Dancer in the Dark, “I’ve Seen It All.” Unfortunately, she’s in last place on the likely-to-win list. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon may win on the strength of an Oscar sweep. If not that, then we have the Sting plus Disney double-whammy, which could make The Emperor’s New Groove the winner in this category. If neither of those pan out, the “perennial favorite” factor will kick in, giving it to Randy Newman for “A Fool in Love” from Meet the Parents. Bjork has a double disadvantage: unknown to older members, unknown film.
And, one more thing about this category, my regular annual tirade. When is the Academy going to fix the rules, so that only a song that actually appears in the film and has something to do with the plot is eligible? Just because the recording division of a studio has an artist they want to exploit and the producer shoves a tune into the closing credits doesn’t mean that the song is actually “in” the film. Hell, they might as well start giving Oscars for “Best Bus Bench Ad.”
Getting back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — it highlights another rules flaw, the same thing that happened when La Vita é Bella was nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture. Now, I thought that, unless otherwise indicated, most Oscar categories were reserved for American films. The “otherwise indicated” applies just to best Foreign Language Film. And vice versa — Traffic could have been nominated for both categories on exactly the same logic that got Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in. The Academy has got to change this to a one or the other situation, since it can split or skew other results. If you don’t think this is ridiculous, consider the problem of nominating the same person for the same role for both Best and Supporting Actor or Actress. It wouldn’t be fair to any of the nominees, least of all the double-tapped one.
The Best Actor category is a fine mess this year. As mentioned before, Geoffrey Rush belongs in the supporting column. Tom Hanks has become the male Meryl Streep, getting nominated just for breathing onscreen. (Personally, I think the volleyball Wilson gave a better performance in Cast Away.) Russell Crowe is there because he was in you-know-what (where his considerable talents were squandered in a one-note role) and Javier Bardem may be a very fine actor, but he’s this year’s fluky wildcard, an unknown (to Americans) actor in a foreign film (Before Night Falls) that was barely released in time for the Oscar deadline. The only nominee who deserves to win in this category is Ed Harris, for his turn in the title role of Pollock (and for his career), but if Bardem takes it, he’d better stay off the furniture.
Once again, the Academy makes a heinous omission by almost completely ignoring the Brothers Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which only got two nominations, for Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay. Underscoring the cluelessness of the Academy, they nominated an adapted screenplay that was not. Despite the film’s credits, it bears no resemblance to Homer’s Odyssey at all, a not atypical in-joke for the Coens, and one the voters would have gotten had they ever read the alleged source. To be fair, maybe the rules say that if there’s an “adapted from” credit, the nomination has got to be in this category. Still, O Brother should have been nominated for original screenplay, along with a hell of a lot of other things. More cluelessness, from the flipside — though I liked the movie, why is Erin Brockovich, (based on a true story, hence, adapted) in the category of Original Screenplay? It’s the del Toro/Rush problem all over again. The two films should swap nominations. And del Toro’s misplaced nomination is also bad news for Albert Finney, who deserves to win for Brockovich but most likely won’t.
Julia Roberts probably will snag Best Actress this year (though I think that Ellen Burstyn (Requiem For A Dream) should), but Best Supporting Actress is a real toss-up. We have past winners Judi Dench (Chocolat) and Frances McDormand (Almost Famous) up against nominated but never won Julie Walters (Billy Elliot), and never before nominated Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock) and Kate Hudson (Almost Famous). Oscar could go a lot of ways here. Members might vote for their favorite less-seen film, advantage to Walters and Harden. They could also go for the second generation Hollywood sentiment and give it to Hudson, who’s only four years younger than mother Goldie Hawn was when she snagged the supporting Oscar for Cactus Flower in 1970. If they go the reigning Oscar royalty route, it’s hard to pick between McDormand and Dench, performances aside, strictly on past voting factors. Dench seems like she’s been nominated a billion times, although it’s only three, and her single win, for Shakespeare In Love, may have been part of the Oscar sweep factor for that film that year. On the other hand, she’s British, which always seems to be a huge advantage in this category. Still, McDormand, who has exactly the same nominated and won record as Dench, in almost the same years, is one of those homegrown actresses everybody likes, and she might win strictly on the perception that it’s been a lot longer since she’s won than Dench has.
Most of the behind-the-scenes technical awards are a two-way race between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Gladiator. They could go either way, and the way they go will indicate which of these two films, if either, is ahead in the overall Oscar battle. If they split, then Best Picture is anybody’s ballgame. Unfortunately (as far as I’m concerned) Gladiator seems to be the front-runner to snag that award. On the other hand, Saving Private Ryan was a sure thing when it lost out to Shakespeare In Love. My personal pick is Traffic. Not that that film didn’t have its problems, but out of all the nominees, it’s the only one about something that pertains to our real world right now, the only truly Big Picture out of the bunch.
All those other categories are just tiebreakers in the office pool. Although I’d prefer Shadow Of The Vampire to win best make-up, How the Grinch Stole Christmas had every character covered in latex and greasepaint, and every Academy member with kids has probably seen it at least once. Likewise, visual effects should go to the otherwise not very good Hollow Man, but it will probably be steamrolled by Gladiator for all those gray, flat, dull and not very convincing digital models of the glory that was Rome.
In the documentary category, a brief mention of the subjects should be enough to help you figure out who wins. We have Into the Arms Of Strangers: Stories Of The Kindertransport, about the rescue of children from the Holocaust. There’s Legacy, the story of a family after one of their children is shot and killed. Long Night’s Journey Into Day deals with South Africa’s post-Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy covers the now well-known syphilis experiments perpetrated on African-American soldiers without their knowledge. Finally, Sound and Fury illustrates the possible elimination of American deaf culture by improved technology to restore hearing, something the hearing-imparied are not necessarily awaiting breathlessly.
But — back to that credibility thing. The Oscars used to be the big one, the emperor of Awards shows, the only one that really mattered. The Grammys? Hell, everybody’s got one of those. The Tonys? Great, if you saw everything on Broadway or were in something on Broadway. The Emmys? Somehow “award” and “television” seem totally incompatible. And anything with “choice” or “MTV” in the title is just a joke. No, the Oscars were the only credible, important, exciting awards show in town, the only one that used to mean anything. But even Oscar can sell-out or pander or both, so this year’s race is one of the most ho-hum in a long time. There’s really nobody to root for, and the campaigning and vote buying involved was particularly transparent this time around.
It’s like the Academy voters have no minds of their own, so they have to wait until those glossy ads show up in January to figure out what films they’re supposed to pick. Yep. The Oscars are for sale, and they have nothing to do with quality anymore. Don’t believe me? Well, my biggest personal disappointment in the nominations was that Chuck & Buck didn’t get any, but I had predicted that in my review. Even though it should have been up for at least Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Song That Was Actually in the Movie, the producers of this small film didn’t bother to spend ten times their original budget to stuff the trade papers with ads paying obeisance to the Academy. No ass-kissing, no awards — which does explain one thing. The producers of Gladiator have got to be the biggest ass-kissers since… well, since The Greatest Show On Earth.
If you don’t think it works that way, just remember who’s getting the Thalberg Award this year. Dino De Laurentiis, for his long string of acclaimed, quality pictures.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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