Oscar preview: It’s time to spread the love around

BY LYNN LEE

Well, it’s that time of year again. No, I’m not talking about the NCAA, but about that other form of March madness: the Oscars, which are being awarded this Sunday, March 24. As usual, what’s in the envelopes isn’t so much about merit as it is a combination of politics and popularity contest. But, hey, that’s what makes the guessing game fun …

Best Picture

Nominees: A Beautiful Mind; Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; Gosford Park; In the Bedroom; Moulin Rouge.

Winner: A Beautiful Mind. Troubled hero struggles to overcome his inner demons: This is the Hollywood Best Picture par excellence, a genuinely moving “true story” that’s glamorized just enough, but not too much, for Academy tastes. True, there’s been a recent backlash against Mind for its factual omissions and the unsportsmanlike antics of its star, Russell Crowe, which could precipitate an upset by the hugely successful Lord of the Rings. However, I cleave to the conventional wisdom that the Academy avoids fantasy (along with sci fi, comedy, costume drama, musicals and independent films) when it’s time to deal out the top prize. Overlooked, meanwhile, is the film that really deserves to win: the taut, emotionally gripping, and superbly directed In the Bedroom.

Best Director

Nominees: Ron Howard, A Beautiful Mind; Ridley Scott, Black Hawk Down; Robert Altman, Gosford Park; Peter Jackson, Lord of the Rings; David Lynch, Mulholland Drive.

Winner: Altman. He’s a veteran, he’s a legend, he’s old, and he’s never won; they want to give him this award and they will, even though Gosford Park is too slight to take home Best Picture. Howard seems like Altman’s closest competitor, but if there’s an upset, it’s more likely to be by newcomer Jackson, who pulled off a near-impossible feat in bringing his own vision of Middle-Earth to life while still remaining irreproachably faithful to Tolkien’s.

Best Actor

Nominees: Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind; Sean Penn, I am Sam; Will Smith, Ali; Denzel Washington, Training Day; Tom Wilkinson, In the Bedroom.

Winner: Washington. The Crowe-Washington showdown has been getting a lot of press lately, but the smart money’s on Denzel. The anti-Mind backlash, after all, is partly fueled by Crowe’s notorious churlishness, and no one’s forgotten he won this award last year, or that there hasn’t been a black Best Actor since Sidney Poitier in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. I haven’t seen Training Day, but I don’t doubt that Washington deserves this award at least as much as Crowe. However, it strikes me that both Washington’s cop-gone-bad and Crowe’s schizophrenic genius are showboat roles, which play to their virtuosic skills, while a quieter performance like Wilkinson’s is in many ways the greater achievement. Just watch In the Bedroom a second time and you’ll see with what infinite subtlety he shows a father’s grief coming to a slow, bitter boil.

Best Actress

Nominees: Halle Berry, Monster’s Ball; Judi Dench, Iris; Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge; Sissy Spacek, In the Bedroom; Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Winner: Spacek. Her performance matches and in some ways overshadows Wilkinson’s as the more overt, nakedly etched portrait of pain and anger in the face of devastating loss. She’s won before, but there’s a sense it’s about time for her to be recognized anew. Berry and Kidman turned in impressive performances, but their careers are still on the rise, as is Zellweger’s; their time is yet to come.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Jim Broadbent, Iris; Ethan Hawke, Training Day; Ben Kingsley, Sexy Beast; Ian McKellen, Lord of the Rings; Jon Voight, Ali.

Winner: McKellen. Kingsley may tear up the screen in Sexy Beast, but McKellen fills it and pervades it as a near-deific presence in Lord of the Rings. He was born to play Gandalf, and plays him with dignity, force, and surprising restraint. Besides, I have a hunch that the voters who didn’t vote the movie for Best Picture or Director will be only too eager to give it easy recognition in this category.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Jennifer Connelly, A Beautiful Mind; Helen Mirren, Gosford Park; Maggie Smith, Gosford Park; Marisa Tomei, In the Bedroom; Kate Winslet, Iris.

Winner: Connelly. She’s a lock for this one; none of the recent flak about A Beautiful Mind has touched her, and this is her year to shine.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Amélie; Gosford Park; Memento; Monster’s Ball; The Royal Tenenbaums.

Winner: Memento, and boy, does it ever deserve it. One of the best riffs ever on the unreliability and uncertainty of human memory, its chief strength lies in its mind-bending narrative convolutions and the brilliant narrative device it uses to draw the audience into its protagonist’s crippling mental condition. If you haven’t seen it, see it, see it, see it!

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: A Beautiful Mind; Ghost World; In the Bedroom; Lord of the Rings; Shrek.

Winner: Lord of the Rings. This is where the anti-Mind campaign is likely to hit hard, especially since much of the controversy stems from the film’s excisions of the more sordid, less sympathetic aspects of Nash’s life. I’m not sure what the big deal is: The movie, in both its scripting and directing, is too glossy by half, and it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone that it smoothly elides Nash’s homosexual affairs, his illegitimate child, his divorce from his wife (whom he later remarried) or his alleged anti-Semitism. But the omissions have raised enough eyebrows that Peter Jackson’s loving adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring may creep in the door. After all, compressing Tolkien’s voluminous epic into the most watchable three-hour fantasy ever filmed is no mean accomplishment.

So there you have it: my predictions for this year’s Hollywood majors. Feel free to use it as a checklist if you plan to watch the Oscars. But don’t let it distract you from the really important things, like which stars are wearing the most hideous outfits. Any predictions on that one? Hmm … tune in again next year.

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