Who Can Derail The Brokeback Express?

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"The only way I can lose the election," Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards notoriously said in 1983, "is if I'm caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy." Brokeback Mountain would have to go further to lose this year's Academy Awards race for best picture, since the live boys is what set the movie apart at first and helped position it as the Oscar film to beat.

In the Oscar nominations list announced this morning (complete list available) Brokeback shared the Best Picture category with Capote, Crash, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck. But the gay cabellero movie led the pack with eight nominations, including six in major categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay. No surprise here. This sere, soulful adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story had already snagged the Golden Globe for best drama, the Directors Guild Award for best director (Ang Lee) ,the Producers' Guild Award for best motion picture and the top laurels from nine critics groups and the Venice Film Festival (where it premiered last September).

But don't take the word of a mere professional movie-watcher. Pinnacle Sports.com, the largest sports betting site on the Internet, has already posted its Oscar odds. Brokeback is favored for Best Picture at a prohibitive 1 to 13, and director Lee at 1 to 19! In other categories, the Vegas sharpies like Philip Seymour Hoffman for best actor, Reese Witherspoon for best actress, and Paul Giaamatti and Rachel Weisz in the supporting actor slots.

No film hit double figures in the nominations tally, because none of the front-runners was the sort of megaproduction or David Lean-style period piece that can run up a half-dozen citations in the categories devoted to technical expertise (sound editing) or frou-frou artistry (art direction, costumes). These are all "people" movies and "issue" movies.

With four of the five top nominees (all but Munich) claiming the tag "indie productions," this is an Oscar year more dominated by non-blockbusters than any since 1997, when four "indie" nominees were The English Patient (the ultimate winner), Fargo, Secrets & Lies and Shine. (The fifth film was the Tom Cruise comedy Jerry Maguire.)

Then as now, an "independent" company was a subsidiary of a big studio. The division, though, remains clear: studios make their regular movies to earn money, and their indie movies to earn prestige which, as Oscar time nears, can mean the same thing. Look for Brokeback, between now and March 5, to double the $51 million it has cadged so far at the domestic box office. Munich may get a little bump, and the others will see their big business at the video store.

Indeed, an argument could be made that all five nominated films are independent; for what Hollywood filmmaker is more his own man than Steven Spielberg? He gets to do what he wants, whether it's a budget-busting remake of War of the Worlds or a medium-budget documentary-style thriller about the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes and its revenge aftermath.

The big box office pictures more or less eliminated themselves. Sure, Revenge of the Sith was the best Star Wars movie since the 80s, but that's not saying too much, and even then, only the original film got a Best Picture nomination; and George Lucas is seen as the remote figure up in Marin Country. Narnia: too twee, and maybe too Christian. King Kong did not burn up the box office at Lord of the Rings temperature, and at three hours it played like the first "director's cut DVD" shown in theaters. Harry Potter movies just keep getting better, but their target demographic misses the Academy's by about 80 years.

Let's take a glance at the big categories:


Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman, TransAmerica
Keira Knightley, Pride and Prejudice
Charlize Theron, North Country
Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Never underestimate the power of the Weinsteins. After selling their interest in Miramax to Disney, Bob and Harvey had only four films to release through their own new company in late 2005 and two of them, Mrs. Henderson Presents and TransAmerica, picked up Best Actress nominations. Dench, taking her fifth acting nomination in nine years, can get nods even for walk-through performances, displays of the Dench hauteur, which is what her role here is. Huffman has a distinct shot: beloved in three strong acting communities (Chicago, New York and L.A.), blending mainstream work (in TV's Desperate Housewives) with indie stuff (TransAmerica), plus she plays a sympathetic, slightly freakish outsider, in a role requiring lots of makeup. Oscar loves that: see recent awards for Nicole Kidman in The Hours and Theron in Monster. In fact, I've just talked myself into saying she'll snatch the prize from till-now front-runner Reese Witherspoon, whose turn as June Carter Cash is lovely but clearly a secondary role in Walk the Line. Oh, and one other thing: Keira Knightley???

CORLISS FAVORITE: Reese Witherspoon
LIKELY WINNER: Felicity Huffman


Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote
Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line
David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

How swell that Terrence Howard got a nomination in the super-indie Hustle & Flow! I'm also pleased that Joaquin Phoenix emerged from Witherspoon's shadow to get a nod. A win for either of them would be fine by me, but the race seems to be between Hoffman and Ledger. Hoffman's Capote is a stunt, a caricature, the kind Oscar often rewards, but it's also a great performance. Ledger, his character's emotions so internalized he's nearly made mute by his passion and guilt, would dominate any other year. But in the leading actor categories, I have to go with the Huffman-Hoffman ticket.

LIKELY WINNER: Philip Seymour Hofffman


Amy Adams, Junebug
Catherine Keener, Capote
Frances McDormand, North Country
Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

In a very "guy" year, there's more action in the Supporting Actress category than the lead one. Weisz is smart, sexy, spiky in a movie where she'd dead in the first five minutes. Keener lends humanity to Capote, and is the earth mother (or big sister) of all indies. McDormand's role was obvious and shrill, but she tempered it with her usual intelligence. Williams plays arguably the one unequivocally sympathetic character in Brokeback, and does so with quiet yearning beauty. And Adams redefines "adorable" as the star-struck yokel in Junebug. I like all these actresses, and most of their roles, but I like most that Adams came from practically nowhere to beguile and break my heart. Ergo...

LIKELY WINNER: Michelle Williams


George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Matt Dillon, Crash
Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt, A History of Violence

Clooney is here, I suspect, more as a thank you to a big star for using his wattage in honorable ways. Giamatti now carries Cinderella Man (since Russell Crowe wasn't nominated), and Dillon carries all the hopes of all the supporting actors in Crash. Hurt makes an indelible impression in his few minutes onscreen, and it's instructive to see that the most self-serious of actors can have menacing fun. But Gyllenhaal, the one important Brokeback actor who's been almost overlooked, should win.

LIKELY WINNER: Jake Gyllenhaal


Ang Lee, Brokeback
Bennett Miller, Capote
Paul Haggis, Crash
George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck
Steven Spielberg, Munich

For sheer directing virtuosity, Spielberg was at the top of his game. But this category is not worth a full paragraph. The Angster has it.

CORLISS FAVORITE: Steven Spielberg


"Don't Tell," Italy
"Joyeux Noel," France
"Paradise Now," the Palestinian Authority
"Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," Germany
"Tsotsi," South Africa

Politics will make this category faascinating. Sophie Scholl, a very good film on a safe subject (the German student who defied Hitler's Reich and died for her bravery), is up against Paradise Now, a very good film on an incendiary subject (a Palestinian suicide bomber). Three years ago, the exemplary satire Divine Intervention was denied a Foreign Film nomination because Palestine, whence the film originated, was deemed "not a country." That rule was changed, and there's a distinct possibility that on Oscar night the winner will be "from the Palestinian Authority." Can Hamas' election victory scuttle a movie's chance at Oscar?

LIKELY WINNER: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days


"Howl's Moving Castle"
"Corpse Bride"
"Wallace & Grommit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit"

Funny that, in the year when old-fashioned animation was declared dead, there's not a single CGI film in this category: one traditional cartoon from Japan (Howl's Moving Castle) and two stop-motion film epics. What did Disney just pay $7 billion for?

CORLISS FAVORITE: Wallace & Grommit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
LIKELY WINNER: Wallace & Grommit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit


"Brokeback Mountain"
"Good Night, and Good Luck"

Munich's nomination for Best Picture was no sure thing, because the film had managed to cause a rumpus on the left and the right. The main blasts came from Israelophiles who found the movie's anguished semi-evenhandedness a slur on the memory of a modern min-Holocaust. After Schindler's List, the gag went around town, "I knew Steven Spielberg before he was Jewish." Now, much of Hollywood was saying mournfully, "I knew Spielberg when he was Jewish." The ascendancy of Hamas (which Spielberg can't be blamed for) won't help. Neither will the film's middling box office. Three reasons why Munich can be the first film eliminated in the Best Picture countdown.

Capote will make do with Hoffman's Oscar. Good Night, and Good Luck is the kind of movie you invite to the Oscar party but don't ask to make a speech. That leaves Crash. It's the most Hollyuwood kind of indie picture: amazingly low-budgeted (about $5 million), serious to the point of solemnity, and with a cast of top stars doing charity work: smallish roles in a film with big, social ambitions. The actors' branch of the Acaademy is the largest, and they may have an itch to reward the kind of film that makes actors look good.

It's a long long time from January to March. Preferences and prejudices can change over the next few weeks. Academy members could conceivably be anesthetized by the roll call of Brokeback victories. But our guess is that Brokeback will proceed, at a pace as measured as the movie itself, toward the happy ending the film denied its main characters. If the consensus holds, the one challenge left will be for the film's makers, who already have given more than a dozen acceptance speeches, to find new phrases of gratitude on March 5... and to feign surprise when their names are called.

CORLISS FAVORITE: Brokeback Mountain
LIKELY WINNER: Brokeback Mountain