Hobbits, fish, horses, Asians, pirates and civil wars. This year, the Academy threatens to get all political and metaphorical on our asses. The race for Oscar gold is on and, as usual, it pits the big against the small. For the last three years, pundits and members of the press have done all the work for the publicity machine at New Line. Even if the Academy doesn’t think Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was the best film of the year, it’s been drilled into everyone’s mind that AMPAS would reward Mr. Jackson and his fantasy extravaganza with the release of the final film. After Anthony Minghella’s DGA snub and Return of the King’s PGA and BFCA wins, this year’s Best Picture race is New Line’s to lose. But it’s anyone’s guess which studio will score an upset. Cultures clash in Warner’s pompous The Last Samurai and DreamWorks’s morose social melodrama House of Sand and Fog but the Academy is more likely to embrace Sofia Coppola’s pastel, disaffected-whites-go-to-Japan anthem Lost in Translation and Jim Sheridan’s more honest and less heavy-handed In America. Miramax will buy a vote for Cold Mountain but will Sony be able to do the same thing in light of their fishy Big Fish box office stunt? Not in a year with two gangbuster sea-faring films (Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), a Clint Eastwood drama with a dozen great performances, and a metaphorical horse film (Seabiscuit) so popular it had audiences hankering for the days before Orange Alert.
PICTURE: The brief screener ban period led many to speculate that Oscar nominations would reveal an almost unmistakable bias toward mainstream studio hits. As if the Academy Awards ever played it any other way. So, screener ban or not, the inclusion of Return of the King was a foregone conclusion as early as 2001. Seabiscuit has played right into the hands of Oscar prognosticators with a fondness for horse-racing metaphors (lush, vomity Kentucky Derby perverts, all of them!), and though every columnist managed to turn a blind eye to the non-stop barrage of trade ads in support of the film, the unabated string of guild nominations has made this year’s epochal “tradition of quality” pander-fest into something of a frontrunner. Y’know, like Funny Cide? Actually, the way things have been going, don’t be surprised if Seabiscuit’s nomination tally rivals or even surpasses Return of the King’s (though everyone’s ready to give it the Best Picture trophy, some of the techies are no doubt weary of awarding the series a second and third time in the same categories). It now seems like forever ago, thanks to a less-than-stellar critics award performance, but initially Mystic River worked the critics into a tizzy not seen since the likes of L.A. Confidential. In a weak year, Oscar is usually willing to listen to the critics, so Mystic River is in. The other two slots are up for grabs, but only four films seem to have a legitimate shot: Cold Mountain, Master and Commander, Lost in Translation and In America. Miramax has put all of its chips on Cold Mountain, and who are we to ignore the hypnotic spell Harvey’s jowls seem to have the Academy under. In America was going like gangbusters a few months ago, but when the screener ban put a damper on Fox Searchlight’s Oscar campaign, the studio’s smart publicity machine kicked things into high gear by offering free screenings and promotional items to potential voters. Though Jim Sheridan’s deeply personal film has scored a number of critics’ mentions for its screenplay, it hasn’t exactly lit up the box office and doesn’t look like it’s going to appeal to the techie branches of the Academy. Master and Commander has the more impressive guild showings, but some say that the film’s actors play second fiddle to the sea-faring spectacle. Also, it might be one epic too much to ask the sizable actors’ wing to sit through. Call us crazy, but even high-profile detractors like John Hurt and William Goldman don’t deter us from suspecting that Lost in Translation will be the compromise. Besides that, grumblings about the film’s damn-near transitory plot and latent racism will give the controversy hounds something to talk about. Sounds like Gangs of New York all over again.
ACTOR: Since 1995, only Edward Norton, Nigel Hawthorne and Ed Harris have received Academy Award nominations without receiving either SAG or Golden Globe nods. On average, four SAG nominees go on to score Oscar nominations, which means that even though Paddy Considine (In America) isn’t out of the running yet, he’s fighting an uphill battle. But in the interest of getting the locks out of the way, one expects that Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog) and Sean Penn (Mystic River) are feeling pretty secure about their positions (that is, if the latter gives a shit about the Oscar race, and his appearance at a recent award show indicates he might be letting the whiff of frontrunner status lead him by the nose). With countless critics’ awards and citations for his performance in Lost in Translation, Bill Murray should be a sure bet, but he’s been in this position before. Famously unpopular in Hollywood’s backscratching circles, the actor failed to get a nomination in 1998 for his performance in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Still, this is probably the least crowded category of the lot, and Lost in Translation is primed for multiple nods. As for the other two SAG nominees, political correctness is on Peter Dinklage’s side, but even though The Station Agent has more respect than Pirates of the Caribbean, the pirate film has more money and Depp has a Golden Globe to go with his SAG nod. The Last Samurai’s Tom Cruise and Master and Commander’s Russell Crowe (who has yet to get an Oscar nomination without SAG’s permission), were both outperformed by their co-stars, Ken Watanabe and Paul Bettany, respectively. While Paddy Considine’s performance is arguably more actor-friendly and far more central to his film, an Oscar category without a Miramax contender is like a night without stars, so despite the discernible buzz of indifference surrounding Cold Mountain, Jude Law and his trump card are looking mighty pretty.
Will Be Nominated: Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Jude Law (Cold Mountain), Bill Murray (Lost in Translation), and Sean Penn (Mystic River).
ACTRESS: Something’s Gotta Give for pointing out the obvious (you know: men and women over 50 still like to have sex), and though not everyone warmed up to Nancy Meyers’s mid-life comedy, Diane Keaton got her best reviews since Annie Hall. Critics darling Charlize Theron (Monster) may be the woman to beat in this category, but it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be sweating alongside her and Keaton come Oscar night. No one liked The Missing and no one saw Veronica Guerin, so Cate Blanchett may end up on the sidelines with sister vote-splitters Scarlett Johansson (Girl with a Pearl Earring and Lost in Translation) and Patricia Clarkson (The Station Agent and Pieces of April). Dark horse Samantha Morton is a previous Oscar nominee and though her performance as a grieving mother in In America merits recognition, academy members may not know what category to place her in. The culture war at the heart of House of Sand and Fog will make liberals in the academy feel all fuzzy wuzzy inside, but Jennifer Connelly has received virtually no precursor attention (only a BFCA nomination) and her performance has been overshadowed by both Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo. Uma Thurman kicks ass in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and her high-profile divorce from Ethan Hawke has everyone’s sympathy, but will older academy members be able to stomach Tarantino’s ultra-violent, divisive concoction? Evan Rachel Wood surprised pundits by scoring well-deserved Golden Globe and SAG nominations, and though some think she’s too young and Thirteen too bleak, only once in the last ten years has an actress been nominated for a Golden Globe in the drama category and a SAG award and not been nominated for an Oscar. Of course, that person was Meryl Streep, but the film was the inconsequential The River Wild. The odds are on the young actress’s side, as is Fox Searchlight’s aggressive campaigning and the film’s timely DVD release. Naomi Watts received a much-needed SAG nomination after being snubbed by the Golden Globes. Some voters may find 21 Grams too nihilistic, but others may want to reward her after snubbing her for her work in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Four out of the five female SAG nominees have gone on to score Academy Award nominations since 1995. This year, Patricia Clarkson received a SAG award for The Station Agent but she’ll likely give her spot up to Nicole Kidman. Kidman’s performance in Minghella’s harlequin romance Cold Mountain has received very little love from the film community and her fellow actors, but Miramax will make sure that she makes the final cut. Even if the academy is tired of Miramax’s aggressive campaigning, they’re certainly not tired of Ms. Kidman, who didn’t get a SAG nomination for Moulin Rouge but went on to score an Oscar nod.