Crouching Traffic, Hidden Winner

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Director Ang Lee hugs Jasmine Chow, wife of actor Chow Yun-Fat

For a lot of us, the suspense on Sunday night had an almost sadomasochistic tingle: Would Dr. Melfi ask Tony Soprano to whack the creep who raped her? Alas, duty precedes pleasure, so we had to sit through the Academy Award ceremony — it's mandatory, even for "Sopranos" fans — before watching the episode that aired last evening. (And having seen it, right after shooing our Oscar Night guests home, I can confidently predict that Burt Young will nab an Emmy for Best Phlegm.)

Oscar had a few surprises in store, and some rare suspense. In the moments before Michael Douglas announced the winner for Best Picture, some people who thought "Gladiator" a lock had second and third thoughts. The Roman rasslin' epic had already copped four Oscars (for Actor, Costume, Sound and Visual Effects), but so had "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (for Foreign Film, Art Direction, Cinematography and Score) and "Traffic" (for Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Editing). When Douglas finally said, "And the Oscar goes to... 'Gladiator,'" even those of us rooting for "Crouching Tiger" were grateful that our dark horse had run neck-and-neck with the winner all the way to the finish line.

An evening with three strong competitors would be even more fun if we knew just how close each race was. Alas, the Motion Picture Academy does not release its tabulations, even those a half-century old. So we cannot know, for example, how close the vote was two years ago between "Saving Private Ryan" and "Shakespeare in Love"; or whether the count was exactly tied in 1969 when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand were both declared winners in the Best Actress category. This smells of cronyism and corruption! By petitioning, Americans are allowed access to incriminating documents in government lockboxes. It's time we had a Freedom of Information Act ruling for Oscar ballots.

How many of the 6,000 members, we wonder, voted for Marcia Gay Harden as Best Supporting Actress? In "Pollock," a film that has earned all of $3 million at the box office, she played Jackson Pollock's nattering, long-suffering wife Lee Krasner. In retrospect, and by the curious logic pertaining to Oscar, the award made sense. The Academy loves actresses whose roles demand they abase themselves in obscure accents. An underdog role can guarantee a victory in an election when most of the voters are actors, and in a time when serious acting is considered a mix of attitude and volume.

To the extent that "Crouching Tiger" (distributed by tiny Sony Pictures Classics) and "Traffic" (USA Films) made things interesting before "Gladiator" (young but powerful DreamWorks) took home the top prize, the Oscars represented a victory for the little guy — sometimes a victory for the little little guy over the big little guy. Sony Pictures Classics has long toiled in the shadow of savvy Miramax Films, the ingenuity of whose Oscar campaigns is notorious. But last night SPC copped five awards (four for "Crouching Tiger" and Harden's statuette), while Miramax went Oscarless for the first time in 13 years. So no big Miramax party on Oscar night. No Harvey Weinstein gags. Miramax had to be content with laughing all the way to the bank: its giddily sleazy low-budget horror farce "Scary Movie" earned nearly $160 million. Weinstein may not mind being Samuel Goldwyn on Oscar night, so long as he can be Sam Arkoff at the domestic box office.

The Academy also has a tradition of honoring significant artists long past their prime. So the nominees as composers in the Song category included Bob Dylan ('60s), Randy Newman ('70s), Sting ('80s) and Bjork (summer of '93). Even the kids who loved Dylan in his first festering bloom are nearing forced-retirement age, so his win had the attic odor of a Life Achievement Award for still being alive. In his via-satellite performance of "Things Have Changed," Dylan, who turns 60 in May, looked like a desiccated Snideley Whiplash, slim mustache and all. But it was worth it to hear the geezer hipster enunciate that grand cliché, "I want to thank the members of the Academy," and then congratulate them of "for being so bold" in giving an Oscar to a song whose lyrics most of them could not decipher.

The Academy tries to balance old and young in its guest list of presenters. This year it discarded its recent truckling tradition of having TV-show teens hand out awards; the youngest folks on stage were either new stars (Julia Stiles, 19), nominees (Kate Hudson, 21), recent winners (Angelina Jolie, 25) or 15-year movie veterans (Winona Ryder, still luminous at a grizzled 29). Goldie Hawn, a perky 55, could have taken poise lessons from her daughter Kate; while botching a TelePrompter speech she devolved into her "Laugh-In" ditz of aeons past. But Julie Andrews radiated queenly glam at 65. And the alter kockers — well, why shouldn't screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the recipient of a special and not entirely plausible honorary Academy Award, look old at 85? But then the Oscar experience can age a man. As host Steve Martin said, "It is interesting to note that, at the beginning of this evening, Mr. Lehman was 24."

The Oscar host's job is to make inside jokes — about the industry, its most prominent employees and the stately ludicrousness of the event itself — that nearly a billion viewers around the world can pretend to understand. This year, that task fell to Martin, the first WASP to chair the event since David Letterman in 1995 (bad omen) and the first white-haired guy since Johnny Carson (1979-82 and 1984). Indeed, Martin's persona is a gloss on the old "Tonight Show" star; for 30 years he's played a doofus Carson, a smug buffoon. "Please," he said during his nine-minute opening monologue, "hold your applause until it's for me." Now, we know that the real Steve Martin, whoever that may be, is an art collector and New Yorker humorist. So after Billy Crystal's wisenheimer tumling and Whoopi Goldberg's japes à la Belle Barth, Martin was meant to class the proceedings up a bit. And so he did. He turned Oscar Night into a party he might not mind attending. We give him a B plus for the monologue and an A for apparent effortlessness.

In between cunning idiocies about the title "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (he said it "sounds like something Siegfried and Roy do on vacation"), Martin addressed a generic suspicion about Hollywood. "Eight hundred million people," he said, "are thinking the same thought: that we're all gay." If so, it's because the publicity on the stars' gowns has turned much of the Oscar Night audience into Mr. Blackwells: What are these beautiful people wearing and how awful do they look? And, this year: How can they go to so much trouble finding chic clothes but forget to apply a little mousse to tame those loose curls (Penelope Cruz) and split ends (Annette Bening)? It was a Bad Hair Night all around.

The Joan Riverzation of the Oscars assures that Juliette Binoche's flapper togs and Bjork's swan outfit — beneath which, according to one ABC reporter, she was concealing an egg — will be remembered long after "Chocolat" and "Dancer in the Dark" are forgotten. Oh, sorry, they already are. But we were happy to see a handsome Asian contingent, including presenters Michelle Yeoh (come on, Hollywood, find a juicy role for this accomplished ravisher) and her "Crouching Tiger" co-star, the suavely unintelligible Chow Yun-fat. And to hear Peter Pau, Cinematography winner, zip through 37 names, most of them Chinese, in a 50- second acceptance speech.

Martin did risk a punch-up in the parking lot by telling a few Russell Crowe jokes, including an indelicate one about the Crowe kidnap story. (When it comes to tabloids, I read only the headlines. So help me: just whom was Crowe accused of kidnaping?) The famous bad boy from Down Under did his usual Oscar act, glowering and chewing gum. But as the Best Actor winner, he gave a gracious, charming and articulate thank-you.

My gifted colleague Poniewozik would no doubt have preferred Crowe to be pissedand logorrheic. But I'm grateful that Oscar Night 2001 was not a three-hour-27-minute edition of "Jackass." And though I'm not a Julia Roberts fan, I was beguiled by her acceptance speech. She put a lot of zest into thanking "everyone I've ever met in my life," and aspirating, "Ah ha ha, I love it up here!" By the end of her inevitable victory speech, she had achieved TV's first G-rated orgasm.

In my spare time, I'm a TIME movie reviewer. So you want to know how I did in the Oscar pool. Not so hot. Our neighbor Jeffrey Silver won with correct votes in 15 of the 23 categories; I had, well, fewer — though I did predict seven of the top eight winners in my Oscar-nominations story on this site last month. And since you have access to a professional critic, you'll want me to answer the burning question of Academty Awards Night: Just what is the difference between Sound and Sound Editing? I haven't a clue. Some Oscar mysteries are not meant to be solved.