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Predictions: Mind-boggling behavior creates tight Oscar races

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

With a month left to go in 2001, film buffs were hard pressed to come up with enough likely nominees to fill out the Best Picture field in the Academy Awards race.

By the time the Oscar nominees were announced in February, the probable winners in the major categories seemed reasonably obvious.

Now, as the stars get gussied up for tonight's walk down the red carpet, they may want to pack an extra handkerchief to dab away the nervous perspiration.

    Oscars on the air

For the truly Oscars-obsessed, cable network E! begins its coverage at 7 this morning with a walk down memory lane: "The 2001 Academy Awards Fashion Review."

The rest of the day, E! airs additional Academy Award-themed shows, including profiles of nominees Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Nicole Kidman and Halle Berry. Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers and Tom O'Neil host "Live from the Red Carpet: The 2002 Academy Awards" from 6 to 8 p.m. on E!

Barbara Walters interviews Tom Cruise, Halle Berry and Sarah Jessica Parker for one of her patented pre-Oscar specials at 7 p.m., then returns just after midnight to host an after party with the crew from daytime talk show "The View."

At 8, click over to ABC for "On the Red Carpet," the official Oscars pre-show, hosted by Chris Connelly, Leeza Gibbons and Ananda Lewis.

The "74th Annual Academy Awards" broadcast itself follows at 8:30 on ABC, with Whoopi Goldberg as host.

The telecast is scheduled to end at 11:30 (yeah, right), with E! returning to the beat with live post-show coverage at midnight.

-- Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor


Several of the major races have turned into tight contests in an Oscar campaign that has seen everything from milestones in racial diversity among the nominees to dirty tricks and apparent smear tactics against some of the front-runners.

Three black actors were nominated for lead performances for the first time in 30 years. Even the Best Picture nominees were a diverse lot: a musical, a mystery, an epic fantasy, a domestic drama, a biographical film.

Seven of the 20 acting nominees portray real people. The biggest controversies have swirled around the boorish behavior of one nominee and whether too many facets of the man he portrays were omitted from the film.

Skullduggery has even been intimated in the race for the foreign-language film award. Sacre bleu!

It all makes for an unusually interesting exercise in trying to predict the winners. Let's just give thanks that Arthur Andersen doesn't count the ballots. Here goes:

Best Picture: You can find an argument to bolster the chances of every film in the race. "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" has the most nominations, an almost sure-fire advantage. "Moulin Rouge" won the Producers Guild award. "A Beautiful Mind" won the Golden Globe for best drama. "Gosford Park" is the sentimental choice because of its director, Robert Altman. "In the Bedroom" got three acting nominations and great critical acclaim.

But "Fellowship of the Ring" is a fantasy adventure, a genre that doesn't win Oscars. ("Star Wars" didn't; neither did "E.T.") "Moulin Rouge" is a musical, a genre that hasn't scored the top Oscar since 1968 ("Oliver!"). "Gosford Park" stars mostly British actors, which won't endear it to the American thespians in the voting pool. "In the Bedroom" doesn't seem to be getting the usual Miramax Oscar push.

That leaves "A Beautiful Mind," which seemed like the logical choice all along except for the raging controversies about what it might have omitted from the life of its subject, schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash. The movie seems almost perfectly designed for Academy voters -- safely mainstream, with a sufficiently weighty subject matter that is intelligently presented and extremely well acted. The last-minute smear campaign against the movie was so blatant that it probably backfired. "A Beautiful Mind" figures to win, and it won't be a figment of anyone's imagination.

Best actor: Russell Crowe, nominated for "A Beautiful Mind," won last year for "Gladiator." Only two men -- Spencer Tracy and Tom Hanks -- have taken Best Actor back-to-back. But Crowe is one of only seven actors to be nominated in this category for three consecutive years.

Still, when Crowe manhandled the director of the British version of the Academy Awards for cutting part of his acceptance speech, it looked like he blew his chance of winning the Oscar again. Denzel Washington, one of the three African-American actors nominated for lead roles, became the favorite to take Best Actor (Sidney Poitier is the only black winner) for his role as a corrupt cop in "Training Day." And he still might. But Crowe's win at the Screen Actors Guild awards swung the momentum back his way. I'm guessing Russell Crowe will edge Washington.

Best actress: This is the tightest race of the night. Sissy Spacek was the early favorite for her intense portrayal of an angry, grieving mother in "In the Bedroom." Nicole Kidman won support for both her nominated role in "Moulin Rouge" (who knew she could sing?) and for her strong work in "The Others," plus the sympathy vote for being dumped by husband Tom Cruise.

But Halle Berry came on strong once her film, "Monster's Ball," went into wide release. She is stunning as a murderer's widow falling in love with a prison guard who was present at her husband's execution. It's the kind of "look at what I can do" role that gets the attention of award voters. It netted her the SAG prize, and suddenly Spacek, who won an Oscar for "Coal Miner's Daughter," is hanging on by her fingernails. But with younger actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Hilary Swank winning in recent years, I'm guessing the trend continues with an Oscar for Halle Berry.

Supporting actor: Three Brits and two Americans square off in this category, which usually goes to older actors. So scratch Ethan Hawke for "Training Day." Jim Broadbent was considered the early favorite for his performance in "Iris" (his more flamboyant turn as the club owner in "Moulin Rouge" doesn't hurt, either), but "Iris" wasn't a major release and too many voters may not have seen it. On the other hand, everyone has seen "Fellowship of the Ring," and the film with the most nominations figures to score at least one major award. This should be it, with veteran (and SAG winner) Ian McKellen getting the Oscar for his portrayal of a much beloved and suitably flamboyant character, the wizard Gandalf.

Supporting actress: This is the easiest pick in the major categories. "Gosford Park" nominees Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith cancel each other out. Kate Winslet was in "Iris" and, like Broadbent, may not have been seen by enough voters. Marisa Tomei was impressive in "In the Bedroom," but her 1992 Supporting Actress win for "My Cousin Vinny" has been scoffed at for so long that it's hard to imagine her name ever being spoken again after the words "the Oscar goes to ..." That leaves the candidate from the likely Best Picture winner, a first-time nominee (they almost always win this category) who made a splash last year in "Requiem for a Dream." Give the Oscar to Jennifer Connelly.

Director: Forget Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down") and David Lynch ("Mulholland Drive"), whose films were not nominated for Best Picture. Robert Altman is seen as the sentimental favorite for "Gosford Park," but there's nothing sentimental about this maverick director. There's no denying Peter Jackson's achievement in adapting the first chapter of J.R.R. Tolkien's monumental "Lord of the Rings" into an equally monumental movie, and he could win even if his movie doesn't take the top prize. But the more likely choice is Ron Howard, who finally got his first Oscar nomination and won his second Directors Guild award for helming the likely Best Picture winner, "A Beautiful Mind."

Animated film: This is a new category, and one I thought might develop into an all-out war between Disney, which produced "Monsters Inc.," and DreamWorks, which produced "Shrek," a movie that takes potshots at Disney, the former employer of DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg. "Jimmy Neutron" was the third nominee, but only one of these films received a screenplay nomination, which is remarkable for an animated film. That should cinch the win for "Shrek."

Foreign-language film: Now, about that previously mentioned skulduggery. Sony Pictures Classics, the distributor for nominees "Lagaan" and "Son of the Bride," has been accused of limiting the number of screenings it hosts for those films in order to cut down the voting pool. You have to see all five nominated films in order to get a ballot in this category. If you can keep supporters of other films from seeing your movie, the theory goes, you can pack the electorate with your own clique. If it's true, and if it works (the Academy also sponsors screenings, and the favorites are in theatrical release), anything could happen. I'm betting the French delight "Amelie" beats the Bosnian war satire "No Man's Land."

Adapted screenplay: For "Shrek" and "Ghost World," the recognition will be its own reward -- you seldom win without a Best Picture nomination. The race is between "In the Bedroom," "Fellowship of the Ring" and "A Beautiful Mind." While Akiva Goldsman has written some indefensible tripe ("Batman and Robin," "Lost in Space"), he figures to back up his Writers Guild award with an Oscar for "A Beautiful Mind."

Original screenplay: No film in the past 20 years has won this award without at least one acting nomination. That should torpedo "Amelie," "The Royal Tenenbaums" and the movie that most film buffs are rooting for, the strikingly original back-to-front mystery "Memento." As for "Monster's Ball," it has been recognized largely for its acting. That leaves the only Best Picture nominee in the group as well as the Writers Guild winner in this category, "Gosford Park," written by Julian Fellowes.

Art direction: Is it "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"? Is it "Moulin Rouge"? Is it "Fellowship of the Ring"? (It won't be "Amelie" -- contemporary films don't win this award.) "Fellowship of the Ring" is the favorite, but how much of that will be attributed to the computer? I'm going out on a limb for "Moulin Rouge."

Cinematography: The American Society of Cinematographers gave their award to Roger Deakins for "The Man Who Wasn't There," a beautifully filmed movie -- in black and white. The film was otherwise ignored completely by Oscar voters, which isn't a good sign. When in doubt, go for the big crowd scenes. That could be "Moulin Rouge." But I think it will be Andrew Lesnie for "The Fellowship of the Ring."

Sound: You can't go wrong picking a war film. The problem is there are two of them this year: "Pearl Harbor" and "Black Hawk Down." You could even count "Fellowship of the Ring," which has its share of battle scenes, but you probably shouldn't. Flipping a coin on the other two, it comes up "Black Hawk Down."

Sound editing: Only two nominees, only one war film: "Pearl Harbor."

Original score: Randy Newman has lost so often, I'm not about to start picking him now, so nix "Monsters Inc." John Williams figures to cancel himself out with two nominations. Is the music what you remember most from "Fellowship of the Rings"? I thought not. That leaves Oscar favorite James Horner for "A Beautiful Mind."

Original song: None of the nominees has gotten extensive radio play, which makes this tougher than usual. When in doubt, go with the celebrity composer who makes Oscar look cool. That would be either Sting, for the song "Until" from "Kate & Leopold," or Paul McCartney, for the title song from "Vanilla Sky." I'm guessing Sting, for "Until."

Costume: The whole movie was about costume: "Moulin Rouge."

Documentary feature: In the absence of a Holocaust documentary, the next best thing is a movie about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen through the eyes of children: "Promises."

Documentary short: I'm not voting against five-time nominee (and past documentary feature winner) Frieda Lee Mock. The award goes to "Sing!"

Film editing: You want to say it will be "Memento," but are the Oscar voters that hip, especially with a film produced and distributed by companies we've barely heard of? Again, when in doubt, pick the war film: "Black Hawk Down."

Makeup: Hobbits and wizards and orcs, oh my: "Fellowship of the Ring."

Animated short film: Remember the Pixar short about the birds on a wire that was screened with "Monsters Inc."? Of course you do. So do the Oscar voters. The winner is "For the Birds."

Live action short film: It's about actors, so I'll guess "Speed for Thespians."

Visual effects: "A.I." was spectacular in this regard, but it's got to be "Fellowship of the Ring."

Sunday, March 24, 2002

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