Our Watercooler Guide to the Oscars

  • Share
  • Read Later

A scene from 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'

The first thing to think about is: None of this matters. The Academy Awards are simply presents 5,500 people — most of them actors, almost all of them working in Hollywood — give themselves. If the prizes go to good movies (like "Shakespeare in Love"), that's nice. If they go to terrific ones (like "Platoon"), that's a coincidence. If they go to great ones, that's a mistake. Like "Citizen Kane" in 1942. Oops, that film lost in 1942 to "How Green Was My Valley."

So even to get annoyed by the choices for Oscar nominations is to grant the Academy a legitimacy it doesn't deserve, any more than any other list of favorites, whether by the New York Film Critics Circle or the New York Kennel Club. It's only a game. OK? Let's start playing. The awards will be handed out March 25. And there's one irresistible reason to watch: Steve Martin will be the host.

(Note: Because the author knows and cares little about the game, he is not accountable for his guesses, even to himself. At his Oscar-night party, he may well vote for other nominees.)

Javier Bardem, "Before Night Falls"
Russell Crowe, "Gladiator"
Tom Hanks, "Cast Away"
Ed Harris, "Pollock"
Geoffrey Rush, "Quills"

Dismiss Bardem, Harris and Rush, because they're in movies almost nobody's seen. That leaves Crowe and Hanks. Crowe has movie-star swagger (though "Gladiator" is his only hit) to go with his movie-actor talent. But can his gifts overcome his nonpareil rep as a hard case? Let the tabloids count his ways: steals Meg Ryan from her husband; dumps Ryan when she says she wants to have a baby with him; spends the evening with Courtney Love; puts a move on 18-year-old Leelee Sobieski. He also pisses off most of the people who have worked with him and written about him. The Aussies have a word for Crowe: lout.

Hanks — genial, hard-working, good ol' Joe Oscar — is the anti-Crowe. He carried "Cast Away" alone on his sunburnt shoulders. And he would win... if he didn't always win. This guy must be running out of mantelpiece. Maybe Oscar will take a year's vacation from Tom, and take a walk with the Wild Man of Oz.

HOPE: Crowe.
THINK: Crowe.

Joan Allen, "The Contender"
Juliette Binoche, "Chocolat"
Ellen Burstyn, "Requiem for a Dream"
Laura Linney, "You Can Count On Me"
Julia Roberts, "Erin Brockovich"

The Academy has a pre-Oscar party, a week or so in advance of the big do, at which certain technical citations are handed out. But hasn't this prize already been given? Julia Roberts IS the winner. Which is a shame for Joan Allen (flinty and feminine), Ellen Burstyn (gave her all to a harridan role) and Laura Linney (a hearty, delicate turn). It's a shame for the Academy too, since Roberts' character and performance are smugly down-putting. (For my minority but cogent review of "Erin Brockovich," click here.) If you ask me, there were actresses nominated for worst-of-the-year Razzies, like Melanie Griffith in "Cecil B. Demented," who did a prettier job than Roberts did here. But nobody's asking; and there's no suspense here. So enough whining.

HOPE: Linney.
THINK: Roberts.

Jeff Bridges, "The Contender"
Willem Dafoe, "Shadow of the Vampire"
Benicio Del Toro, "Traffic"
Albert Finney, "Erin Brockovich"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Gladiator"

Bridges, charming and expansive as a nattier Bill Clinton, has three previous nominations and no wins; he makes good acting look too easy, and won't get Oscar's attention till he plays King Lear in La Jolla or gets arrested on Sunset Boulevard. Dafoe was a funny, poignant vampire; he's worth a long-shot bet. Phoenix gave a handsomely menacing calling-card performance that will get him bigger roles but not an Oscar; not yet. Finney — did Roberts let him get a scene in edgewise?

Del Toro will win, for two reasons (three, if you count that he was excellent in "Traffic"): because he's the hottie du jour, muy macho Method, and because he is the standard bearer and stand-in for a dozen or so superb actors in the movie. Fine reasons both, or all.

HOPE: Dafoe
THINK: Del Toro

Judi Dench, "Chocolat"
Marcia Gay Harden, "Pollock"
Kate Hudson, "Almost Famous"
Frances McDormand, "Almost Famous"
Julie Walters, "Billy Elliot"

They call her Judi Drench, the Duchess of Drab, and she's been nominated three of the past four years. In "Chocolat" Dench is probably the fifth most entrancing actress, after Juliette Binoche (who was more severely tested in last year's "The Widow of St. Pierre," and passed the test splendidly), Lena Olin (every emotion etched and ennobled on her beautiful, actorsy face), Carrie- Anne Moss (for her posture and longing) and Leslie Caron (for reminding us of her faraway gamine glamour). Dench, though, was nominated, in part for her pedigree, in part because in the film she gets to do what many aging Academy members would like to do: die happily.

Walters is here because the Academy loves British actors (they know how to do it, or at least they've been doing it forever), and because the members didn't think to nominate 14-year-old Jamie Bell, the one incandescent reason to see "Billy Elliot." Hardin (she's all right) and McDormand (she's sensaysh) both travel the suffering-domestic route; their roles, as wife and mother respectively, are variations on Hattie McDaniel's exasperated-mammy character in "Gone With the Wind." Would you like a mom like McDormand in "Almost Famous"? You might prefer a first love like the one Kate Hudson assays nicely in the same film. So...

HOPE: McDormand
THINK: Hudson

"Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport"
"Long Night's Journey Into Day"
"Scottsboro: An American Tragedy"
"Sound and Fury"

Oscar pools are won or lost on categories like these. The trick is not to see the films, or even scan the winners of the critics groups' voting, because the Academy screening committee doesn't use traditional standards of excellence. It picks movies that fit certain narrow definitions of liberal concern and sympathy.

So here are the subjects, in order:
Abandoned children of the Holocaust
A heroic black family in a housing project
South Africa after Mandela
Nine black lads unfairly convicted of murder in the 1930s South
Deaf children

Now just pick the topic you think most likely to appeal to Academy members' pieties. This procedure applies to other specialized categories, like documentary short and, sometimes, live-action short. For help on the subject matter of these films, check out the Academy web site.

HOPE: For a more cogent selection process
THINK: "Into the Arms of Strangers

"Amores Perros," Mexico
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Taiwan
"Divided We Fall," Czech Republic
"Everybody Famous," Belgium
"The Taste of Others," France

A walk in the park: whatever success "Crouching Tiger" has in the stratospheric categories, it's a dead cinch here. The foreign-film screening committee made it even easier by ignoring some excellent films submitted by their home countries — Hong Kong's "In the Mood for Love," Iran's "A Time for Drunken Horses," Korea's "Chunhyang," Sweden's "Songs from the Second Floor," Thailand's "6ixtynin9" — in favor of the Czech Republic's "Divided We Fall" (a barren couple named Mary and Joseph take in a Jewish refugee during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia) and Mexico's "Amores Parros" / "Life's a Bitch" (a car crash brings together five people from radically different backgrounds; sounds as if it should be called "Traffic"). But life will be a bitch only for the four runners-up. The "Crouch"er will stand tall here.

Stephen Daldry, "Billy Elliot"
Ang Lee, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
Steven Soderbergh, "Erin Brockovich"
Ridley Scott, "Gladiator"
Steven Soderbergh, "Traffic"

Here's where you play hunches: that "Gladiator" could win Best Picture but not Best Director, giving Ang Lee a chance; and that one Soderbergh film will either cancel out the other — or reinforce it.

Soderbergh is the first person to receive two best director nominations for films that were nominated for best picture. It should help that one movie, "Traffic," is excellent and the other meretricious, and that with "Traffic" he has discarded those visual mannerisms that had cramped the style of his last few movies and kept only those that serve the synoptic plot. (We didn't even mind the different colored filters he imposes on each main story.) It also helps that "Traffic" was released six weeks ago, while "Erin" is almost a year old; that should focus voters on the newer, improved Soderbergh.

THINK: Soderbergh

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
"Erin Brockovich"

Haven't seen "Chocolat" yet? Then here's a synopsis: It's the story of a smug, sleepy town invaded by a charismatic outsider who feeds the villagers sweets and makes them do crazy things. The town is Los Angeles; the outsider is Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein; and what could be nuttier than voting "Chocolat" a nomination for the year's best film. "Chocolat" is at best a trifle, and at most a tribute to a man who can feed the Academy anything and have them say "mmmm, good." If commercial movies are the art of the sell, and they are, then Weinstein is "The Music Man"'s Professor Harold Hill, and Hollywood is River City.

Miramax, the "indie" outfit owned by Disney since 1994, has now won a best picture nomination an amazing nine years in a row; the runner-up studio for consecutive years is DreamWorks, with three. Sometimes the films are exemplary ("Pulp Fiction," "The Piano," "The English Patient"), sometimes medium-level entertainment with sentimental uplift ("The Crying Game," "Il Postino," "Life Is Beautiful," "Good Will Hunting," "Shakespeare in Love," "The Cider House Rules"). They have nothing in common but their logo — and their nominations for Best Picture.

But now a curiosity has become a habit. "Chocolat" is maybe the most negligible of all Miramax nominees. This long, little fable is not mainly about dying or Nazis or anything else the Academy consistently sees as a subject of importance, nor is it distinguished for anything but an unrelenting sunniness. Maybe the movie touched the soft center of Oscar's heart; and who are we to dismiss any movie with the heartthrob of two millennia, Johnny Depp? Still, we suspect that inclusion of the film testifies only to the Academy members' belief that each year attention must be paid to a Miramax film, of whatever quality. It's like tithing.

Soderbergh's parlay is competing against two strong epics — and each other. We figure (fingers crossed) that the excellent "Traffic" will obliterate "Erin Brockovich." It could even win: it's brisk, complex and humungously entertaining, and takes a skeptical insider's look at the drug world. If the ending seems both pat and unfocused (confession: The only way we knew the film had concluded was that the credits appeared), the preceding two-plus hours gives audiences and Academy members something to cheer about.

"Gladiator" will win, says awards exegete Tom O'Neil, because it got the most nominations (12) — and the film with the most nominations has won the top prize 16 of the past 17 years. It's also a familiar kind of Oscar (and critical) favorite: a movie that reminds us of the better movies they don't make any more. Thus "The English Patient" was a more neurotic spectacle of the David Lean variety; "L.A. Confidential" was nouveau noir. "Gladiator" is a throwback to the old sword-and-toga epics; except that this one is better than "Ben-Hur"; it has the fights and the manhood without all that sanctimoniousness. And DreamWorks, the film's distributor, knows how to market a movie to the Academy. Anyway, it's a smart freshening of an old-fashioned movie and has a strong performance by a facsimile of an old-fashioned star — that naughty Russell Crowe.

My personal passion is "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It also received no nominations in the acting categories, but that omission didn't stop "Braveheart" or "The Last Emperor" from winning Best Picture. More important, for handicapping purposes, "Crouching Tiger" beautifully fulfills all the Academy requirements for epic entertainment: a big story, beautiful stars, sweeping vistas (it's got as much desert as "Lawrence of Arabia" and more forests than "Gump") and strong roles for women in a time when those are both a rarity and a plus. It also has some of the most enthralling scenes of motion and emotion ever put on film.

Yes, it is in Mandarin, with English subtitles; but I'd like to think that once every 73 years the Academy could acknowledge that the year's best film happened to be in a foreign language. Convincing the hardheads may be another matter. The morning the Oscars were announced, a caller to WFAN, the sports talk radio station in New York, told host Jody McDonald that he'd vote for "Crouching Tiger." Jody Mac, whose favorite baseball team must be the Philistines, exploded: he would NEVER see that movie because it had subtitles. He doesn't go to a movie to READ. If he wants to READ, he will sit at home under a nice bright lamp so as to prevent EYE STRAIN.

Dear Jody: What do you mostly do while watching a football game? You READ —stats on third-down conversion percentage, info on the colleges the players went to, the time on the clock. A typical sports event has more subtitles than the chattiest foreign film. So give your eyes a rest, Jody: Go see "Crouching Tiger." It's got more action than the XFL, and better looking women. (End of rant.)

Alas for its fans, most of the assets of "Crouching Tiger" are also possessed by "Gladiator," which has the added advantage of being in a heroic form of English. The arguments for Ang Lee's Chinese film reinforce the ones for Ridley Scott's Anglo-American one. In other words, if the winner CAN be "Crouching Tiger," it WILL be "Gladiator."

HOPE: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
THINK: "Gladiator"