2003 Oscar Preview
Any Washingtonian or political junkie knows that "coattails"
means more than just a clothing appendage. Coattails can also mean a
popular candidate at the top of a political party's ticket pulling in
affiliated candidates for other offices. We approach the 75th Annual
Academy Awards on March 23rd with Chicago as the overwhelming
favorite for Best Picture. But many other categories still feature very
competitive races. Will Chicago's coattails be enough
to make the difference? That's the looming question that will hang over
Interspersed among the big picture are several interesting subplots.
Will this finally be Martin Scorsese's year? Will Jack Nicholson snag
his fourth Oscar? Will the Nia Vardalos fairy tale continue? If Catherine
Zeta-Jones wins will she use her acceptance speech to plug T-Mobile?
But to me the real question is about me. I've called seven of nine Oscar
races correctly each of the past two years -- nearly 78 percent. Will
my keen, shrewd insights (or luck, if you'd prefer) continue? As noted,
many of these contests remain close. So acknowledging the dangerous
terrain, I bravely (or foolishly) offer my picks for who deserves to
win and who probably will take home the golden statuette:
Michael Ballhaus - Gangs of New York
Dion Beebe - Chicago
Pawel Edelman - The Pianist
Conrad L. Hall - Road to Perdition
Edward Lachman - Far From Heaven
Should win: Ballhaus
Chicago, Far From Heaven and Road
to Perdition may have dazzled the eyes more, but no nominee
has a greater sense of place than Gangs of New York. Much
credit must go to the design and art direction but Ballhaus's camerawork
was able to use the brilliant sets to evoke 1860's New York City. Ballhaus
frames the shots in ways to feature the little details without losing
sight of the main story. He makes you feel the dirt, grime, and blood.
More importantly, he helps establish the atmosphere of desperation,
anger and dread that are so essential to the film.
Will win: Beebe
People remember the look of Chicago almost as much as
the music. Beebe's flashy and provocative use of light and color helped
make the stage musical work on film. Longtime veteran Conrad L. Hall,
who had already won for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
and American Beauty died last January and would be the
sentimental choice. His colleagues posthumously gave him the American
Society of Cinematographers award, and an Oscar would serve as a fitting
culmination to his legendary career. But Road to Perdition
played in the summer and has faded from memory, while the Chicago
campaign rages on. If Hall had never won before, this last chance to
honor him might be enough. As it stands, he does not have the momentum
to overcome Chicago.
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Pedro Almodóvar -- Talk to Her
Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan - Gangs of New
Alfonso Cuarón and Carlos Cuarón -- Y tu mamá
Todd Haynes - Far From Heaven
Nia Vardalos - My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Should win: Alfonso and Carlos Cuarón
The Cuarón brothers seamlessly combine elements of a road movie
and coming-of-age film in this nostalgic, heartfelt, sweet, poignant
and funny story of two high school buddies and an older woman. The Cuaróns
also make a daring choice by using a third-person all-knowing narrator.
The choice works by giving the audience more information and a different
perspective on both the lead and supporting characters. The rich, layered
screenplay blends the personal story of the three main characters with
the changing social, political, and cultural climate in Mexico.
Will win: Vardalos
The Writers Guild of America (WGA) awards often serve as a strong bellwether
for Oscar night, but not this time. The WGA selected Bowling for
Columbine, which did not receive an Oscar nomination in this
category. Most of the heavy hitters -- Chicago, The
Hours and The Pianist, are on the Adapted Screenplay
list. So this field is wide open. Normally, I'd be inclined to go with
the one Best Picture nominee in this category -- Gangs of New
York. But many critics and filmgoers considered the Gangs story
it's weakest link. There's a chance the Academy could honor Far
From Heaven as a consolation for its losing out in the Picture
and Director categories, but I don't think that film is on Oscar radar
screens anymore. Pedro Almodóvar is an Academy darling, as evidenced
by his Best Director nomination this year (in place of Peter Jackson).
However, history does not favor him -- no non-English screenplay has
won this Oscar since A Man and a Woman in 1967. So that
leaves Vardalos. In a normal year I would not bet on a film that only
snagged one nomination. But My Big Fat Greek Wedding was
the feel-good film story of 2002. Vardalos will win less for her film's
story than for her struggle to get the movie made in the first place.
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Bill Condon - Chicago
David Hare - The Hours
Ronald Harwood - The Pianist
Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz - About a Boy
Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman - Adaptation
Should win: Charlie and Donald Kaufman
The Kaufmans (yes, I know Donald Kaufman does not exist, but why should
that disqualify him?) redefine the whole idea of adapting a story for
the big screen. They include elements from Susan Orlean's The
Orchid Thief, but wrap them around Charlie Kaufman's struggle
to write the screenplay. The story takes many twists and turns in on
itself. In some ways it's a reflection on the struggles of the creative
process. In some ways it's a story of friendship and love. In other
ways it's a satire of the whole idea of writing a Hollywood screenplay.
It's all these things, but in the end it's really about human beings'
attempts to connect with themselves and with each other. The Adaptation
screenplay was the most clever and innovative of the year, but through
all it's many quirks, never loses sight of the humanity at its core.
Will win: Hare
Chicago and The Hours are the big players
here, and Chicago is not known for it's story. The
Hours also feels literate; the fact that it's about Virginia
Woolf doesn't hurt. Hare gets credit for successfully adapting Michael
Cunningham's book, which many considered unfilmmable. Hare received
the WGA's Adapted Screenplay award and the Academy will follow suit.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Kathy Bates - About Schmidt
Julianne Moore - The Hours
Queen Latifah - Chicago
Meryl Streep - Adaptation
Catherine Zeta-Jones - Chicago
Should win: Bates
In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson plays a sad withdrawn
and emotionally stunted man. The film needed someone to be the wildfire
-- the standard Jack Nicholson role. Boy, does Kathy Bates fill that
to a tee. Bates grabs you from the moment she appears as Roberta, Schmidt's
brassy, bohemian future in-law. She brazenly and un-self consciously
inhabits the role. Both her forceful voice and her force-of-nature physicality
contrast perfectly with Nicholson's measured performance. The pair's
chemistry make their scenes together priceless. Nicholson is the center
of About Schmidt, but Bates gives the film the sparks
it needs to really work.
Will win: Zeta-Jones
My original thoughts upon viewing the nominations were that Zeta-Jones
and Latifah would split the Chicago vote and allow someone
else to step in. That hasn't happened so far. Latifah has not won any
of the pre-Oscar awards, while Zeta-Jones snagged a BAFTA (British Academy
Award) honors and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) award. Streep won the Golden
Globe, but remember that for her many nominations, she hasn't won an
Oscar in 20 years. Moore's performance in The Hours was
overshadowed not just by Nicole Kidman, but by Moore's own role in Far
From Heaven. Catherine Zeta-Jones has reportedly taken full
advantage of Chicago's momentum and Miramax's savvy marketing efforts
through her own campaign to woo Academy voters. She's beautiful, charming
and, lest we forget, Hollywood royalty. The Academy will not pass up
the chance to make her and Michael Douglas the first husband-and-wife
acting Oscar winners since Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Chris Cooper - Adaptation
Ed Harris - The Hours
Paul Newman - Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly - Chicago
Christopher Walken - Catch Me if You Can
Should win: Walken
Any of the five nominees would be worthy winners. Reilly and Cooper
are earning long overdue recognition. Harris is so versatile and dependable
it's easy to take him for granted. Paul Newman -- hey, he's Paul Newman.
But I'm going with Walken, because even with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom
Hanks, Walken is the heart and soul of Catch Me if You Can.
He gives his most tender and touching performance in years as Frank
Abagnale, Sr. Frank's wit and charm attract Frank Jr. (DiCaprio) to
the con man's life and his failure gives his son the drive to excel.
It's because Walken is so convincing that the film works. He makes the
scenes between father and son warm, moving and tragic. Walken is always
entertaining just by being Walken, but Catch Me if You Can
is a reminder of his true talent.
Will win: Walken
It's between Walken and Cooper, who was the early favorite. Harris is
lost among the actresses of The Hours and Newman's performance
came and went too long ago. Reilly would seem to have the Chicago
edge and the distinction of having appeared in two other Best Picture
nominees -- The Hours and Gangs of New York.
But he has not won any of the pre-Oscar awards. Both Walken and Cooper
earn points for going against type, an Academy favorite. Walken shines
in a sympathetic role after years of playing oddballs and villains.
Cooper made the most of his chance to play a larger-than-life character
after predominantly grim and stoic parts. Cooper won the Golden Globe,
while Walken won the BAFTA and SAG awards. This one really could go
either way. I'm going with Walken because Adaptation has somewhat faded
from view recently and Walken appears to have the late momentum.
Salma Hayek - Frida
Nicole Kidman - The Hours
Diane Lane - Unfaithful
Julianne Moore - Far from Heaven
Renée Zellweger - Chicago
Should win: Kidman
Difficult choice over Hayek. Both turned historical creative figures
into full-bodied three-dimensional characters. Hayek also struggled
for seven years to get Frida made. She imbued Frida Kahlo
with the spirit and drive that made you understand why she and her art
are so admired. I'm picking Kidman only because she had to do more by
herself. Virginia Woolf is alone for much of her scenes and deep in
thought. Kidman holds our interest throughout. She has to set the tone
not only for her section of The Hours, but also for the
other two, since Woolf's ideas are the prevailing force of the whole
film. Many have focused on her makeup, but that's only one part of Kidman's
amazing transformation. Her speech and body language are just as important.
You quickly forget that it's Kidman up there at all. The Hours
abounded with standout performances, but Kidman's is the one to remember.
Will win: Kidman
This is the toughest of the tough calls. Kidman appeared set as the
front-runner when the nominations were announced. She had already won
a Golden Globe and she was going against type, submerging her movie
star glamour as she immersed herself into the dowdy Virginia Woolf.
If anything, her primary competition appeared to come from Moore, the
critical favorite for Far From Heaven. But then came Chicago.
Miramax used the Oscar nominations to market the film as they gradually
expanded it's distribution. The popularity and media coverage grew.
Much of the coverage focused on Renée Zellweger's learning to
sing and dance for the film and her own 180 degree turn from her usual
girl-next-door to the scheming floozy Roxie Hart. Suddenly Zellweger
upset Kidman at the SAG awards, throwing the Oscar race wide open. Zellweger
clearly has the momentum and may very well ride a Chicago
tidal wave to victory. But I'm sticking with Kidman. She has justifiably
earned plaudits for emerging from Tom Cruise's shadow into one of Hollywood's
premier actresses. Many in the industry believe she should have won
last year for Moulin Rouge. Oscar has a history of rewarding
those initially passed over in the acting categories and my gut tells
me that's what will happen this time.
Adrien Brody - The Pianist
Nicolas Cage - Adaptation
Michael Caine - The Quiet American
Daniel Day-Lewis - Gangs of New York
Jack Nicholson - About Schmidt
Should win: Cage
Cage, Brody and Nicholson all deserve it. All three create compelling
characters largely by themselves. For good chunks of their films they
had to act alone, which I believe is the most difficult type of acting.
Brody had to bring the audience with him on Wladyslaw Szpilman's agonizing
journey through the Holocaust in Warsaw. Often with just glances and
pauses, he draws you into Szpilman's internal struggles as life crumbles
around him. Nicholson showed new sides of his talents, building Warren
Schmidt from small strokes rather than his usual grand gestures. He
has never been more vulnerable, restrained or captivating on screen.
I'll take Cage though, because he developed two complete characters
who had to spend most of their screen time with each other. This was
not like a good twin and an evil twin. Both Charlie and Donald Kaufman
have infinite complexities. Charlie struggles with his goals and limitations,
while Donald embraces who he is. Yet they are more alike than we realize
at first. Cage draws these two distinct personalities so well that if
it had been two different actors I would marvel at their chemistry.
If Cage played either Charlie or Donald he would merit a nomination.
For both he merits the win.
Will win: Day-Lewis
Jack Nicholson initially appeared the favorite for his record-setting
(for a male) fourth acting Oscar. He had already snagged a Golden Globe,
Hollywood loves him, and he won plaudits for excelling in a role far
different from his trademark hellraiser parts. But About Schmidt,
even more than Adaptation, underwhelmed the Academy. Nicholson
and Kathy Bates's nods were its only nominations. As such, it's receded
from view somewhat. Daniel Day-Lewis is the standout of the most nominated
film on this list. While not a commercial hit and drawing some knocks
for it's story, Gangs of New York is well-respected and
highly promoted by Miramax. Remember that we have no actors from Chicago
or The Hours in this category. That means all of the Miramax
Best Actor push went to Day-Lewis. He's gotten wonderful media coverage
of his comeback from a five-year hiatus and for his throwing himself
into his role as gang-leader Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (staying
in character the whole shoot, making people address him as "Bill,"
etc.). Like Best Actress, this race could break either way, but the
Miramax pull will give Day-Lewis the edge.
Pedro Almodóvar - Talk to Her
Stephen Daldry - The Hours
Rob Marshall - Chicago
Roman Polanski - The Pianist
Martin Scorsese - Gangs of New York
Should win: Polanski
Roman Polanski long ago became the master of showing fear and dread
slowly lurking in from under the surface (Repulsion, Rosemary's
Baby, Chinatown, Frantic, etc.).
With The Pianist, Polanski tackles a subject more massive
and terrifying than even he had attempted before. In the throes of the
Holocaust death does not need to be evoked; it's right there. Polanski
somehow tells an immense story by scaling things down. He recognized
that he was not trying to depict the whole Holocaust, but the story
of one man's journey. He wisely keeps the story through Wladyslaw Szpilman's
point-of view and uses Adrien Brody's magnificent performance as his
primary instrument. Of all the nominees, Polanski does the most complete
job of storytelling.
Will win: Marshall
To say that Martin Scorsese is the sentimental choice is an understatement.
He's universally admired and considered by many in and out of the film
industry as America's greatest living director. Oscar passed him over
many times before while Scorsese waited patiently. This time he's got
the Miramax marketing muscle behind him. Miramax co-chair Harvey Weinstein
reportedly promised Scorsese the Oscar, and he has made every effort
to follow through. But Gangs of New York never really
took off with filmgoers; certainly nowhere near the way Chicago
did. Even it's critical reviews were mixed. Chicago grabbed
the limelight and the focus as it's popularity grew. It's only logical
that Rob Marshall's candidacy would strengthen. Miramax may have pushed
Scorsese more than Marshall, but overall Chicago was their
flagship film this year and Marshall had to benefit. Contrary to popular
opinion, Oscar does not always go for the heartwarming choice. Hollywood
legend Lauren Bacall was considered a shoo-in six years ago for Best
Supporting Actress but lost to Juliette Binoche. Rob Marshall just won
the Directors Guild of America award -- a reliable Oscar bellwether.
That win was the latest sign that popularity will triumph over sentiment.
Who I really, really want to win: Scorsese
For every category in all my Oscar Previews, I always pulled for the
nominee I wrote "should win." Not this time. Martin Scorsese
is the most daring and distinctive director of my lifetime. His signature
films have a life and energy you don't find anywhere else. Gangs
of New York is nowhere near his best film or the most worthy
of the five nominees. Guess what? I don't care. Somehow the Academy
didn't even nominate him for Taxi Driver. Scorsese's Raging
Bull, named by many critics groups as the finest film of the
80's, lost to Robert Redford's moving but unexceptional Ordinary
People. His brilliant Goodfellas, which redefined
and reinvigorated the whole gangster genre, lost to Dances With
Wolves, Kevin Costner's revisionist PC Western. If there was
ever a case of "We owe him," this is it. Normally I disapprove
of "Sorry about that" Oscars, but the pull here's too great.
Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. I can live with that if Scorsese gets
his overdue reward on Oscar night.
Gangs of New York
The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
Should win: The Pianist
The Pianist succeeds because it's inspiring and moving
without overtly trying to be. Unlike other films set during the Holocaust,
The Pianist is unflinching but also completely unsentimental.
The Pianist does not have the grand epic scope of Schindler's
List, but such a take would have been wrong for this film. Ronald
Harwood's script at first illustrates how the Nazis slowly stripped
the vestiges of life from Wladyslaw and his family. Later, the film
becomes a sheer struggle for survival. Roman Polanski's minimalist direction
keeps the focus on Brody's fearless performance as Szpilman. Because
of the script, direction and Brody's authenticity, the film succeeds
in placing you in Szpilman's shoes. You go with him on a journey more
harrowing and fascinating than any on film in recent years.
Will win: Chicago
Easiest call of the night. The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers
may have made more money, but it's Oscar nomination total paled next
to The Fellowship of the Ring last year and the Academy
ignored director Peter Jackson. Gangs of New York never
really caught on and The Pianist does not have the exposure
of the other nominees. For all of The Hours acting raves,
it's appeal was limited. That leaves Chicago. It's the
true crowd pleaser, filling the screen with sex, wit, color, song and
dance. In some ways it appeals to Academy voters for the same reasons
Gladiator resonated two years ago -- the rediscovery
of a once-popular genre. Chicago reminds older Academy
voters of the musicals they loved many years ago. That's why it's chances
are so much better now than those for the much more creative Moulin
Rouge last year. The signs are all there -- Chicago
has the most total Oscar nominations, won the Golden Globe best comedy/musical
and the Producers Guild of America best picture award. Like most Chicago
elections, this one's preordained.
March 19, 2003
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