Alex's Oscar Column #02

By ALEX FUNG
December 12, 1999


National Board Of Review Award Reactions

The National Board of Review are to other critics' organizations as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, are to AMPAS: they're first out of the gate to announce their prize-winners -- the NBR laurels are often deemed the New Hampshire of film awards -- and, more significantly, nobody really seems to know who they are. While the other major critics' groups feature recognizable and even prominent names in their respective rosters, the National Board of Review's membership is decidedly more mysterious and obscure -- I mean, have you ever heard of NBR director Lois Ballon? Aside from their awards, which are noteworthy almost entirely due to their positioning in the awards schedule, the NBR otherwise has a very low profile -- I recall a Movie Answer Man column by Roger Ebert back in 1998 where he stated that he'd never met anyone who belonged to the group; I've only run across one, myself.

Most of the details regarding the National Board of Review in the press are sketchy, at best -- all that most sources report are that they're a 90-year-old group that includes critics, film teachers and film students -- so allow me to fill in some gaps. This New York-based group was founded in 1909 as an anticensorship group after then-Gotham mayor George McClennan revoked moving-picture exhibition licenses for Christmas Eve 1908, arguing that the medium corrupted community morals. (Boy, nothing ever changes, huh?) They have been dishing out awards since 1929 -- at the time, the awards were named after D.W. Griffith but are now simply known as the National Board of Review awards. The group, which includes retired film professionals, retired educators and writers and editors, has been described in Variety as a Roman Catholic organization, and its members are "not out to be critics", according to Ballon. "We're out to appreciate film."

You might sense that I don't take the National Board of Review very seriously, and that's mostly true. While I don't quite share the disdain of David Poland, who recently ripped "When they speak of the National Board of Review ... as a 90-year-old group, they are also approximating the average age of their membership" and accused them of "kissing every butt in the room so they can be sure to get a bit of credit when the time for the real awards comes", I can't help but notice that they generally tend to gravitate towards the conservative and unadventurous; compared to the idiosyncratic track records of the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (the other three major groups whose awards have been closely watched), the NBR's picks have been positively generic. While I would trust the National Board of Review to point me towards respectable, well-liked pictures and performances, I'd rather go with any of the other three aforementioned groups to direct me to achievements which are, well, really good.

So when looking at the National Board of Review award winners from December 1999, what may be most instructive is not what was recognized, but what failed to grab attention from this group. Somewhat surprisingly, neither Frank Darabont's The Green Mile nor Norman Jewison's The Hurricane was listed in the National Board of Review's Top 10 films of the year. I didn't necessarily expect either of them to be critical darlings to the extent of, say, L.A. Confidential -- not only are many hardened critics especially resistant to the sort of uplifting stories in each of the two pictures, but some may find the wrongly-convicted elements in The Hurricane too familiar (one friend amusingly referred to the film as In The Name Of The Hurricane / Hurricane In the First), and there's a minor backlash brewing against Darabont in the wake of the ascension of The Shawshank Redemption to arguable modern classic status -- these are pictures which, I suspect, will win over audiences, not critics. (I see that The Green Mile is scoring strongly in CineScore surveys as of this writing.) Still, if any group were to buy into either of the two prison dramas, I would've expected it would be the National Board of Review.

They instead voted Sam Mendes' American Beauty as Best Film. Given that this is a no-brainer for an Academy Award nomination, it's a selection which is worthless in terms of prognosticative value. More interesting are a few of their other selections in their Top 10 list, particularly the strong faring of The Talented Mr. Ripley and Magnolia. New York-based film critic Mike D'Angelo, who contributes pieces to Entertainment Weekly and Time Out New York, cautions not to get overly optimistic over Ripley's Best Picture chances: "It's easily one of the year's five best remotely mainstream films, in my opinion, but it does feature a singularly unlikeable protagonist and a less than cheery ending. I wouldn't be surprised if Minghella gets the nod but the movie winds up shut out." On the Magnolia front, Chicago-based film critic Scott Tobias of The Onion is similarly wary, writing "Overall, the film is too arty and diffuse to appeal to the Academy."

The majority of the NBR selections yield little in the way of surprises. Russell Crowe turned in a fine performance in The Insider and will benefit in the tight actors' race with his prize here, while Tumbleweeds' Janet McTeer solidifies her chances for a Best Actress nomination with this corresponding National Board of Review victory. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Supporting Actor prize is presumably more for Magnolia than for The Talented Mr. Ripley -- D'Angelo cites Hoffman as turning in a nice performance in the Minghella picture, but notes that he has less than five minutes of screen time. Some have noted that the National Board glaringly neglected to cite Hoffman's work in Flawless, but I'm guessing this was more because he's being touted as a lead, not a supporting player, in that one. In any case, it's nice to see him get some recognition.

The National Board of Review really seems to have a predilection for citing supporting players for annual bodies of work. In 1996, Edward Norton was cited for three pictures; 1997 saw Anne Heche awarded for a miserly two films; last year, we had Ed Harris cited for two pictures and Christina Ricci for three; but this year they've outdone themselves with their recognition of the ever-busy Julianne Moore for four different pictures -- Cookie's Fortune, An Ideal Husband, A Map Of The World and Magnolia. As of this writing, I've only seen the first two and have mixed feelings about them. I actually liked Moore quite a bit in the Altman film, much more than either Glenn Close or Patricia Neal, the two actresses who were scoring most of the press at the time. One of my favourite scenes in the picture was one where the domineering Close character orders the simple-minded Moore character to zip it; acquiescing, she remains in the background for the rest of the sequence, lips dutifully pursed. On the other hand, I'm more ambivalent about her work in An Ideal Husband, where her faltering English accent was somewhat of a distraction (which I also felt to be the case in her leading role in The End Of The Affair). Still, I'm such an advocate of Moore's talents and, as in the case of Hoffman, this award seems to mostly be reflective of her performance in Magnolia (which I've yet to screen), that I can't be overly critical of this selection.

I do, however, raise an eyebrow at the Screenplay award to John Irving for his adaptation of his novel The Cider House Rules. Now, I liked this film, and I have no hesitation whatsoever in predicting that it will nab an Adapted Screenplay nomination come Oscar time -- it may even win. But this is not the best screenplay of the year by any stretch of the imagination.

The Director award assigned to Anthony Minghella for The Talented Mr. Ripley prompts attention and reconsideration of his standing in the Director race. While he's an Oscar-winner himself (for The English Patient), I was initially somewhat hesitant about his chances with this version of Patricia Highsmith's novel (already made as Purple Moon in 1960), but Mike D'Angelo is very enthusiastic about Minghella's prospects: "If Minghella doesn't get nominated by the directors' branch, I'll be flabbergasted. It's a truly stunning piece of work; his NBR win was richly deserved." These favorable assessments of Minghella's work has me thinking that this may be an unusual year in which the Best Director Oscar nominees may not share much in common with the Best Picture Oscar nominees.

The National Board of Review assigned the Foreign Film prize to Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother, which is probably a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination. Among the four runner-ups, only East-West, France's submission helmed by Régis Wargnier, is actually eligible for consideration by the AMPAS Foreign Language Film committee.

NBR's documentary award went to Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, which could be in line for an Oscar nomination, and they assigned their Special Achievement Award in Filmmaking trophy to Tim Robbins for Cradle Will Rock. "This is the same award that we have given for four or five years now and every one of those awards have gone straight to the Academy," Ballon said. "So Tim Robbins should be very blessed." While technically accurate, this is a bit of a crock -- it's rather misleading. What Ballon neglects to mention is that the Special Achievement Award has gone to multi-hyphenates -- people who fill more than a single capacity on a film project, and consequently are eligible in multiple categories so that they can go "straight to the Academy".

The Academy has no ensemble performance category (and I'm glad they don't; I can understand the rationale for such a category in the Screen Actors Guild awards, though), so the Magnolia NBR win is neither here nor there. Hilary Swank of Boys Don't Cry acclaim and Wes Bentley from American Beauty shared the Breakthrough Performance prize; this would seem to bode well for their respective Oscar prospects. I can't see the National Board of Review picks in the Outstanding Independent Films or Freedom Of Expression categories playing much of a factor in the awards race.

Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award Reactions

While the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's picks yielded little in the way of genuine surprises, they do help to clarify the list of bonafide Oscar contenders in most of the categories recognized. While some felt that The Insider's prospects had faltered due to its lack of box office success upon its initial theatrical release -- I'd seen some write it off, and Mike Wallace was certainly eager to gloat that "the film is getting what it deserves: a decent burial" -- I found it hard to see how this picture could fail to click with the Academy; its weighty, 'important' subject material and handling thereof literally screams Oscar-bait. It also is, Wallace's objections notwithstanding, a very good picture, and certainly one of the year's best studio efforts; for what it's worth, I liked it more than runner-up American Beauty (which it admittedly has no chance of beating for the Oscar). With its strong showing with the LAFC and Pat Kingsley heading up the film's Oscar campaign team, The Insider seems on track for a likely Best Picture Academy Award nomination. Whether or not Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Richard Cook's hopes that "... if we are fortunate to be recognized by many of the critical groups ... The Insider can re-emerge ... as a must-see" will prove to be accurate is more up in the air; my feeling is that there sadly is a rather low commercial ceiling on a film like this.

The Insider star Russell Crowe was recognized with his second Best Actor prize in four days from the LAFC for his performance as the tormented tobacco executive Jeffrey Wigand; at this point, he must be considered a near-lock for a corresponding Best Actor Oscar nomination, leaving only three spots available left in this year's tight competition. One of those slots might be filled by LAFC runner-up Richard Farnsworth, who gives a lovely, dignified and genuinely touching performance as the sweetly stubborn Alvin Straight in David Lynch's The Straight Story. I've recently seen this picture, and expect that Farnsworth will be short-listed -- with apologies to Lynch, who does a superb helming job, the film is unimaginable without Farnsworth.

In one of the most dramatic career reversals of the past decade, Hilary Swank continues on her road to an Academy Award nomination by snapping up the LAFC's Best Actress prize for her performance in Boys Don't Cry. Particularly interesting is the runner-up selection of Reese Witherspoon as the inimicably shrewish Tracy Flick in the underseen Election. I'm a big booster of Witherspoon -- putting aside her obvious physical beauty, I think she's a really good actress (and not in the sense of being merely a solid young talent; I mean genuinely award-calibre) -- and thought she fared nicely in the Alexander Payne picture, but I'm having a tough time envisioning her coming away with an Academy Award nomination. The film wasn't widely seen and, as a black comedy, will have a tough time finding its way to the top of Academy members' video piles. The perception that the picture is merely a teen comedy certainly won't help matters much, and, frankly, I can't see an MTV Films production getting sufficient Academy attention. This is not to dismiss Witherspoon's work in the film (although I did think she was even better in last year's Pleasantville) -- her Tracy Flick is certainly one of the most memorable characters of 1999 (it prompted me to fondly reminisce about my own high school Tracy Flick; through some research on the Internet, I've learned that she's married, moved to Ottawa, and clerks in a law firm -- is that perfect or what?) and moreover, it's a fine physical reconfiguration: the tightened face, the sharp, clipped voice, the vaguely threatening posture. I wouldn't mind seeing Witherspoon get an Oscar nomination, but I don't see it happening.

LAFC Supporting Actor winner Christopher Plummer of The Insider confirms his position as a top-flight Oscar candidate, as does runner-up John Malkovich from Being John Malkovich. This recognition will certainly help both of them with their respective Oscar campaigns. I was delighted to see Chloë Sevigny cited as the Los Angeles Film Critics' selection for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Lana Tisdel in Boys Don't Cry. When I first saw the picture at the Toronto film festival, I felt that hers was the top performance in the uniformly well-acted picture; after her co-star Hilary Swank drew all of the critical raves and following the film's only-moderately successful limited release (while many thought this might be a crossover hit, it was never destined to be -- I can still remember disapproving murmurs and juvenile one-liners shouted out at the theatrical trailer when the film's subject matter became evident [and I don't exactly live in some fundamentalist town, either]; on a pragmatic level, the crummy one-sheet also didn't help), I feared that Sevigny's stellar work would be forgotten. This recognition gives her Oscar prospects a huge boost: my assignment of her as a top contender in my last Oscar column may have been tinged with wishful thinking, but no more. LAFC Supporting Actress runner-up Samantha Morton also sees her hopes escalate after the recognition for her work in Sweet And Lowdown.

American Beauty's Sam Mendes seems like a sure thing for a Best Director Oscar nomination; his LAFC recognition doesn't hurt. Notoriously demanding The Insider director Michael Mann took the runner-up position, and seems like a fairly solid contender for recognition from the Academy. Many in the press were all but conceding the Best Original Screenplay Oscar to Alan Ball for his American Beauty script until the zany Being John Malkovich was unfurled, prompting universal pondering over how screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was able to convince anyone to greenlight such an offbeat picture. (Honestly, I can't imagine the expression the exec might've had upon hearing Kaufman's pitch.) Barring a major new entry, the Original Screenplay Academy Award is probably a race between these two scripts, and it's certainly possible that the result may mirror that of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Screenplay results and have Kaufman edge out Ball.

Regular Mann collaborator and ace cinematographer Dante Spinotti (who last received Academy recognition for L.A. Confidential and could've netted another nomination for Heat) was awarded the cinematography prize from the L.A. critics for The Insider -- he's a likely Oscar nominee, and the runner-up, highly-regarded veteran D.P. Conrad L. Hall of American Beauty is a sure-thing.

In terms of its visuals, I thought that Sleepy Hollow was definitely the most beautiful picture of the year; while much of this credit belongs to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski, art director Rick Heinrichs is equally deserving of accolades for creating such a ravishingly foreboding, gloomy, and unwelcoming place -- I fell in love with the opening shots of the town of Sleepy Hollow. Heinrichs' work was recognized by the LAFC as the year's Best Production Design, with Dante Ferretti's work in Titus playing second-fiddle. Given Julie Taymor's reputation as a visual stylist and the calibre of Ferretti's previous achievements in films such as Kundun, I can certainly buy this mention. Sleepy Hollow is certainly en route to Academy attention in this category; Titus seems also likely, although I'll reserve judgement for now.

Needless to say, LAFC runner-up The Dreamlife Of Angels is a much better film than Foreign-Language Film winner All About My Mother. But let's not open up that can of worms.

Following the National Board of Review recognition, Wim Wenders' doc Buena Vista Social Club captured its second recognition of the awards seasons, with Errol Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. trailing. The success of Wenders' film would prompt one to consider it a top candidate for an Oscar nomination; this may in fact be the case, but even with the revamped rules for the Documentary Committee, one can never be too sure.

While one may dismiss the LAFC's recognition of Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut as the year's top music score as merely a backlash reaction to the recent announcement that both South Park's and Tarzan's scores were disqualified for Academy Award attention, it also happens to be the case that the music score genuinely is very good. Aside from the irresistible songs themselves, the underscore is an accomplished one which, in its own right, would be deserving of serious consideration. (L.A. critics also appear to be fond of Trey Parker and Matt Stone; their short, The Spirit Of Christmas, which spawned the South Park television series and featured Jesus and Santa Claus in a full-out rumble, was recognized by the LAFC as the co-Best Animated Film of 1997.) As mentioned, the South Park score sadly won't be playing a factor in this year's Oscar race, but one should keep an eye (or ear, in this case) out for Gabriel Yared's The Talented Mr. Ripley.

It's nice to see that the LAFC recognized Brad Bird's The Iron Giant with their Best Animated Feature prize. While this picture was an unfortunate box office casualty, it's a superb film and well-liked in the industry -- The Iron Giant's dominance in this year's Annie awards (for animated films) over heavyweights like Disney's Tarzan, the Disney/Pixar collaboration A Bug's Life, DreamWorks' The Prince Of Egypt, and Paramount's South Park was widely reported, as were the cheers of delight upon each of its nine victories. The Iron Giant will not be a Best Picture Oscar nominee, but I would not rule it out scoring Oscar attention in another category ... more on that later.

Boston Society Of Film Critics Reactions

Only two days after the Los Angeles Film Critics Association came out with their list -- do these awards ever stop? -- the Boston Society of Film Critics released their winners, which features some previously-lauded accomplishments as well as a handful of interesting new names.

Most significant was the selection of Three Kings as their Best Picture, with director David O. Russell nabbing the Best Director accolade. The film is probably in the running for a Best Picture nomination, but despite the recognition here, I'm still having difficulty envisioning it as a top-flight Oscar candidate. Russell, however, would seem to have a stronger possibility of getting a direction nomination from AMPAS; the Boston award certainly helps garner attention for his work, although I think he still remains on the outside looking in.

Jim Carrey breaks up Russell Crowe's winning streak by winning the Best Actor prize for his work in Man On The Moon. While this certainly doesn't hurt his chances, I remain vaguely skeptical -- although there have been raves about his work from some parties, others have been cool. Scott Tobias writes that Carrey's work "is, as you predict, mimicry" and that he gives "an exacting but remote performance"; the cold shoulder received by the film from Variety's Todd McCarthy surely won't help. I'll probably bump him up a few notches, but I remain hesitant for the time being. (That being said, with my luck, it may now be a good time to place early bets on Carrey to win it all.)

Best Actress Hilary Swank and Supporting Actress Chloë Sevigny of Boys Don't Cry and Supporting Actor Christopher Plummer from The Insider were all previously recognized by the Los Angeles Film Critics, as were Screenplay winner Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) and Spain's Foreign-Language Film winner All About My Mother. At this point, it would probably be safe to ink Swank, Kaufman, and Almodóvar for Academy Award nominations, with Plummer in heavy-leaded pencil. Again, I'm delighted about Sevigny's prize -- she's certainly in the running for Academy attention and among the frontrunners in her category, but I wouldn't call her a near-lock just yet.

The Beantown critics named Emmanuel Lubezski's Sleepy Hollow camerawork as the Best Cinematography of 1999 -- my expectation is that he's en route to an Academy Award nomination. I don't believe that S.R. Bindler's Hands On A Hardbody, the selection for Best Documentary, is eligible for consideration -- it played Los Angeles in October 1998. I never did have the opportunity to see this one -- it made a number of film critics' Top 10 lists for last year, piquing my interest, but never seemed to make it to Toronto. Kimberly Peirce's award as Best New Filmmaker for her first feature, Boys Don't Cry, is rather prestigious given the so-called New Wave of first-time filmmakers in 1999, including Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, Julie Taymor, and others. I remain dubious that she'll get serious attention from the Directors' branch of the Academy, though.

Mailbag

I try to watch as many films as I possibly can, but unfortunately I don't always have access to all of the yet-to-be-released upcoming pictures when I pen these columns. Fortunately, many of my colleagues get to hit certain movies before I, and a few have generously provided their input on a few pictures. With their permission, I'm reproducing some of their perceptions and tips. (I'd normally handle this a bit more gracefully -- more of my reactions, less cut-n-paste -- but obviously their insights are such that they can easily stand alone; besides, I'm falling behind on this column and it's getting late.)

Film critic Mike D'Angelo (Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York) on the performances in The Talented Mr. Ripley (his assessments of the picture itself are cited up in the National Board Of Review Reactions segment):

"Same reservations about Damon for Actor: great performance, icky character. And he doesn't really have any Big Scenes that scream 'give me a statue!' I'd keep him 'in the hunt.' Jude Law has no shot in hell. Paltrow, who's fine in a not-very-challenging role, might sneak in thanks to name recognition. The best supporting perfs are actually by Blanchett and P.S. Hoffman, but both roles are too fleeting for awards recognition."

And on Angela's Ashes:

"Boring as hell, though it did receive scattered applause at the end. Pretty much a longshot for Pic and Director nods, and none of the actors have any chance at all. It's a very serious, very sensitive, entirely competent adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book. There's no movie in it, to be sure, but many people won't really notice that."

And on Miss Julie:

"Saw Miss Julie tonight; I think I can safely say that the total number of Oscar nominations it will receive will be: 0."
Yep -- I do believe MGM is beating a dead horse trying to mine this film for Oscar gold.

Film critic Scott Tobias (The Onion) on The Hurricane:

"I saw The Hurricane tonight and, indeed, Norman Jewison screwed up a great story. The film is an artless, didactic slog (with dubious racial politics uncomfortably reminiscent of The Green Mile), though I'll confess there was a smattering of applause at the courtroom climax. Critics groups won't have anything to do with it, I'm sure, and I wonder if that will weaken its Oscar chances (esp. in a such a good year). Nevertheless, Denzel Washington's solid performance -- which is neither as good nor as challenging as his turn in Malcolm X -- seems like a lock."

While this is disappointing -- at this point, The Hurricane is the picture I'm most looking forward to seeing -- I'm still fairly steadfast in my expectation for multiple Oscar nominations for The Hurricane, including a Denzel Washington nomination. As I mention above, I do expect this to be more of a crowdpleaser than a critics' darling (though it would've been nice if it were both).

Mr. Tobias on Girl, Interrupted:

"I would strike Winona Ryder for Actress consideration for Girl, Interrupted. The film is mediocre and Ryder's screen presence diminishes whenever Angelina Jolie enters."

I was crestfallen when I saw the theatrical trailers for Mangold's film back in October -- this certainly doesn't appear to be an Oscar-bait picture; indeed, it looks like something which could be very, very bad. Jolie continues to receive strong word for her feral performance (and she certainly has the more Oscar-friendly role), but point taken on Ryder.

Mr. Tobias on Magnolia:

"Magnolia doesn't stand to get much attention for anything major -- it will almost certainly earn a well-deserved nomination for Tom Cruise, but overall, the film is too arty and diffuse to appeal to the Academy. It is, in my view, PTA's most difficult film to like, though I have a certain amount of affection for it. Without a strong unifying entity like the porn industry, the film relies on coincidence and the vagaries of human emotion to tie its characters' stories together. This is a remarkable challenge for the viewer -- or at least this viewer -- because Anderson encourages your mind to constantly scramble to make those connections. It's a stimulating exercise (unlike The Green Mile, which does all its limited thinking for you), but not, I fear, one that many will feel up to performing."

And on Topsy-Turvy:

"I'm holding out hope that people will see Topsy-Turvy, which is absolutely delightful and certainly more accessible than Secrets & Lies. I think Jim Broadbent is a serious contender for actor regardless and I expect (hope?) that critics groups will rain prizes upon it."

Many thanks, gentlemen.

During the period known as 'awards season', I often receive comments, questions and suggestions, all of which are very much appreciated. This year, with the idea that this might make for interesting reading, I thought that I'd incorporate this into part of my Oscar columns. Hope this works out -- let me know what you think.

One person wrote inquiring about Fight Club's Brad Pitt and his category classification -- I'd had him in the Best Actor category, but the inquirer wondered if he'd have a better chance in the Supporting Actor category. Honestly, I think he'd have a slightly more difficult chance to get a nomination there, although he's a longshot wherever you put him. As of this writing, I've not seen anything definitive (I'm behind on my trades), but my gut impression tells me that Pitt's Tyler Durden is a lead role and will be campaigned accordingly. (It may also help matters that Pitt has already received a Supporting Actor nomination and may be hungry for a lead Oscar nom.)

It was suggested that Helena Bonham Carter be eliminated from consideration for Fight Club -- the character, it is reasoned, is a cypher and there wasn't really a lot for her to do. "I could see Tori Spelling (Trick) more than HBC." No real arguments about the strength of Helena Bonham Carter's chances -- I do think she's a rather big longshot, and that I'd even mentioned her is indicative of how weak the category appears. (She does have a few things in her favour -- well-respected previous Academy Award-nominee; playing against type; high-profile, non-frivolous picture -- but she's far from a frontrunner.) As for Tori Spelling, I can't really see it happening -- Fine Line doesn't appear to be running a campaign for either her or the film at all.

A question was posed regarding Julianne Moore's chances for a nomination in An Ideal Husband as opposed to The End Of The Affair. They're not really in conflict with each other -- Moore's role in Affair is inarguably a lead one, while I can't see her Husband turn as anything other than a supporting one. Sadly, I wasn't especially impressed with either of them, although I'd expect her chances for The End Of The Affair to be stronger than that for An Ideal Husband, given that Sony Pictures Classics is giving the Neil Jordan film a hefty push, while Miramax seems to be (rightly) ambivalent about An Ideal Husband's Oscar prospects.

[LATE NOTE: Okay, I'm wrong -- Miramax is actually campaigning Moore in the Best Actress category for An Ideal Husband. I disagree with this strategy, but perhaps they've deferred to her handlers, who may be fearing a Supporting Actress bid in Husband may siphon off votes for her Magnolia work. I can't imagine that Moore's performance in An Ideal Husband will cannibalize very much support from her The End Of The Affair Academy Award campaign.]

A question was posed about whether or not France was submitting The Dinner Game for foreign language film. Nope -- their candidate this year is East-West; The Dinner Game would've been eligible for consideration last year, but France submitted The Dreamlife Of Angels as their representative under the entirely reasonable assumption that it would nab a nomination and then beat the competition and win the Oscar. Sorry. Don't open up that can of worms ...

One person wrote in mentioning "I can't see Chris Cooper emerging with anything, as much as I like him in both movies. I think Being John Malkovich's "moment" has passed for Best Picture. I can see the women as strong supporting contenders, and an original screenplay nod, but not much else."

I can see your point regarding Chris Cooper, although I hope this doesn't turn out to be the case. It would certainly help his chances had October Sky been more widely-seen, and if the Supporting Actor category was less competitive. I still think he's great in American Beauty, though, and hope that he gets recognition there; his body language is heartbreaking in his final scene opposite Wes Bentley. Being John Malkovich is a bit of a longshot for the Best Picture category, I'd agree, although the actor's branch really does seem to love this movie. The screenplay nomination is inevitable, but John Malkovich himself appears to have been established as an Oscar threat.

A question was sent in (from two people) about Heather Donohue's chances for a Best Actress nomination for The Blair Witch Project. While a lot of people like her work -- indeed, I have a dreadful feeling that her camera confession will wind-up topping the Best Scene category for a certain annual survey in which I participate -- and it really is a bit of an acting showcase, I honestly can't see anything pertaining to this film getting Oscar nominations. (Although this doesn't make sense from a rational perspective, that her 'character' was seen by many as excruciatingly irritating won't help her chances, either.) A once-unknown actress in a no-budget indie film scoring a Best Actress nomination would certainly add to The Blair Witch Project's list of unprecedented achievements. Artisan is holding the obligatory Academy screenings for the film, but I can't imagine that they're really expecting nominations.

Another question was posed about Franka Potente of Run Lola Run, and her prospects for a Best Actress nomination. I can safely say: none. She is, I'm quite sure, ineligible for consideration. Run Lola Run was Germany's foreign-language film entry last year, and I believe there's a rule in which any achievements pertaining to a submitted film are only eligible in the year of submission. (On a trivial note, such was the success of Run Lola Run in its homeland that Potente's hair colour became known as "Lola Red".)

[LATE NOTE: I've been prompted to go back and double-check on this assertion; this is indeed the case -- Run Lola Run, its performances, and all other aspects of the picture are ineligible this year.]

Song suggestions were submitted -- Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, as well as R.E.M.'s new song from Man In The Moon. The eligibility of the Jewel track from Ride With The Devil that I had suggested was questioned -- "I think the Jewel track is too old for anyone to believe it was written for the film (I don't know how Janet Jackson finessed that with Poetic Justice)".

I concede the Madonna song -- if it was written expressly for Austin Powers, and I seem to recall it was, it would seem to be a near-lock. No idea about the R.E.M. song, although it's certainly a possibility. I may have been out to lunch with "What's Simple Is True" -- I had presumed it was new; this obviously demonstrates my avid Jewel fandom. (Incidentally, I had wondered about the gimmick casting of Jewel in Ride With The Devil -- which, in retrospect, couldn't have possibly hurt the film's apparent non-existent commercial appeal -- so my heart fell when one of her very first scenes had her exclaiming "Let's have a sing-along!")

P.T. writes "Reese Witherspoon in Election! I thought this was the best comedic performance all year. Her tearing down the posters scene alone should snare her a nomination. She definately be up for the Golden Globe in the comedy category."

For what it's worth, I do think Witherspoon has a great chance for a Golden Globe nomination -- as mentioned in the L.A. Critics reaction above, though, I'm still wary about her prospects for the Oscars, though. (And I liked her scene where she jumps up and down in the hallway in a fit of glee, and then ducks to avoid being seen by Matthew Broderick's character.)

P.T. continues: "A screenplay nod for Bowfinger, and Jean Smart's small but very good performance in Guinevere." (Alan Wong also commented: "Jean Smart had been praised highly for her work in Guinevere when the film first came out, but I have not heard anything about her since. Do you think the critics have forgotten her?)

While Steve Martin's writing is well-respected by his peers and, surprisingly enough, by audiences -- I recall reading a piece somewhere where the Bowfinger publicity team had done research and found that Martin as an author was an actual marketable selling point -- I'm doubtful that an essentially lightweight summer comedy could get Oscar attention, even if it does pertain to filmmaking. (That it often resembles Alexander & Karasewski's Ed Wood script in terms of story elements may also be problematic.) Jean Smart was very good indeed in her limited but vivid screentime in Guinevere. However, this film died in its theatrical release -- I was startled by how poorly it fared. Smart will probably get an Independent Spirit Award nomination, but her work wasn't (and won't be) seen enough for her to be a viable Supporting Actress candidate.

Michael Solomon writes: "What about Diane Lane for A Walk On The Moon? And Run Lola Run isn't even Germany's pick, but could it get some cinematography attention?"

As mentioned with regards to Franka Potente's chances, I don't believe that Frank Griebe's cinematography is even eligible for consideration. I've heard a lot of great things about Diane Lane's work in the film, but Miramax's attention seems to be mostly focused elsewhere, and the Tony Goldwyn film was released in the first third of the year where it failed to make a big splash -- I suspect she'll have been forgotten, and stands very little chance for a nomination.

Antonio Guerra writes: "South Park might have its best chance at a best song oscar nomination with "Eyes of a Child" written by Trey Parker. It's at the end of the credit sequence and is sung by Michael McDonald. The lyrics go something like:

"Yeah, life is kinda of gay,
but it doesn't seem that way,
in the eyes of a child..."
The Academy just loves guest singers in movies and is probably more likely to allow McDonald to sing over five minutes of precious telecast time instead of MPAA outlaws like Parker and Matt Stone."

Very good point, and I do remember this song well; I was in my theater seat, attempting to catch my breath from all the fits of laughter while a seemingly-generic adult contemporary song by Michael McDonald played over the credits, when I noticed that every odd verse featured some unexpectedly bizarre lyric. I agree with your reasoning, and it certainly would make a more plausible performance piece for the ceremony than any of the tunes in the film itself -- still, I'm hoping for one of the other South Park songs; other than the wacky lyrics, "Eyes Of A Child" doesn't have much going for it.

Mr. Guerra continues: "I'd prefer the songs used during the picture to be nominated. In my opinion, the best song category should only contain songs that add to the texture of the film."

No argument from me. They're clamping down a bit harder now -- at least the song has to be expressly written for the film -- but I'd like to see the case where the song has to be played within the body of the film itself, with rules dictating that the song must be fairly prominent within the picture (ie. not a perfunctory appearance as three-second background noise).

Mr. Guerra adds: "I have a feeling the South Park songs will be left out in the cold due to the conservative leanings of the Academy song wing. Last year the most popular songs from movies, (and in my opinion far better than the five nominated, both in adding to the movie and quality), "Iris" from The Goo Goo Dolls (City of Angels) and "Ghetto Superstar" by Mya and company (Bulworth) were left out of the running."

I fear you're right about South Park; hopefully enough members will give it ample consideration instead of writing it off.

Christopher Dimopoulos suggests Rupert Everett for Supporting Actor; I presume the performance in question is his An Ideal Husband turn and not his rendition of Sanford Scolex/Claw in Inspector Gadget. Miramax is actually pushing Everett with surprising vigor for Best Actor for his performance in the Oliver Parker picture; I don't think he'll get a nomination for this, although I could imagine that he might nab a Golden Globe nomination. Then again, my apathy over his prospects may be linked to my admittedly minority opinion -- I didn't really agree with the acclaim that Everett has received for his performance in this film; if nothing else, I was distracted by the perpetual dead look in his eyes. There was no life in his performance, nothing visibly churning inside his head as he recited his one-line witticisms.

MovieChic comments: "Don't you think Carrey has a better chance than Hanks [...] Favorite or not, I don't think Hanks will get nominated this year. They gave him an undeserved nomination last year and I have this feeling voters will want to award someone else with a nod this year. And, while the film's getting decent reviews, there is no one raving about Hanks' performance. [...] As for Carrey, the buzz is he's brilliant. And I think they'll want to make ammends for snubbing him last year for The Truman Show."

While I don't really subscribe to the philosophy that a performer passed over for work the previous year will necessarily be rewarded in the subsequent season -- nobody is 'owed' an Oscar nomination, especially when a bloc of thousands of voters are involved (I concede Jeremy Irons) -- my distaste at the attention-grabbing, desperation-reeking stunts from the Carrey camp over the duration of his project (not just the much-publicized allegedly "unplanned" press conference brawl in recent days between Carrey and Man On The Moon co-producer Bob Zmuda, clad as "Tony Clifton", but even the "coincidental" sprained neck Carrey received in September 1998 at the hands of pro wrestler Jerry Lawler ... just like Andy Kaufman! gasp!) may have coloured my perspective. While Hanks has indeed been getting strong assessments by many for his performance in The Green Mile -- the Boston Globe's Jay Carr calls his work "Oscar-nomination caliber", Time's Richard Corliss commends his "sharp acting", Desson Howe of The Washington Post finds him "very engaging", the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan praises Hanks as "an actor who effortlessly adds fairness, decency and humanity to any role he plays, Hanks makes even a character in a melodrama like this seem real, complex and convincing. His work elevates The Green Mile giving it a level of interest and integrity it wouldn't otherwise have [...] it's certainly the best reason to see it" -- Man On The Moon lives or dies by Carrey's performance, and it is clearly a terribly showy role; the film seems to be almost a performance piece centered exclusively around Carrey's reproduction of Andy Kaufman's mannerisms. I've probably been too pessimistic about Carrey, and will have to reconsider.

A question was sent in about the chances of nominations for Toy Story 2 in the Best Picture category and Sharon Stone's comic turn in The Muse for a Best Actress selection. (MuseMalade also wrote in, asking "Why isn't Toy Story 2 talked about as a serious Oscar contender?") For what it's worth, I don't see why Toy Story 2 shouldn't get ample consideration for the Best Picture category -- in my opinion, it's the flat-out most entertaining Hollywood picture of the year, with a really sharp screenplay to boot -- but to score a nomination, Disney really needs to heavily tout this as a genuine option; given the inherent bias against pictures perceived to be aimed at children, it's necessary that an aggressive Oscar campaign be mounted to remind voters that it's a legitimate contender. Toy Story 2 is one of the best-reviewed films of 1999; a Best Picture nomination can be had if enough voters can be convinced that yes, a light, well-made fun film can be deserving of their support over more portentous enterprises.

As for Sharon Stone, I'm really pretty skeptical about her chances for The Muse. The film was a financial disappointment for USA Films (who seem to be very low-key on the Oscar front these days -- where are you guys?), barely cracking $10 million domestic despite heavy publicity, and while many had positive comments about Stone's foray into comedy, I don't think she has any momentum going for her.

A general Oscar question was posed regarding the foreign language films under consideration this year. The list can be found on my Academy Awards page.

MuseMalade wrote in regarding my random musing about the strange pick by Jonathan Foreman and Lou Luminek of Ashley Judd as a Best Actress contender for Double Jeopardy, pointing out that Rolling Stone's Peter Travers did similarly. Honestly, I will be stunned if Judd is recognized for this film.

MuseMalade also suggests that Aimee Mann's "Save Me" may very well win Best Song, which New Line Cinema is promoting from Magnolia. I remain very confident that Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me" is far and away the frontrunner in the Best Song Oscar category -- it's one of those soft, accessible tunes which the Academy tends to go for, and is also actually integrated into the picture -- although my opinion may change when I hear Mann's song.

Alan Wong inquired "Do you think Sarah Polley has any chance at anything? I'm speaking as a patriotic Canadian, of course, but I know how much the critics love her and that innumerable actors want to work with her."

Polley is a great talent, to be sure, but she certainly won't be getting any Oscar attention for her supporting roles in Doug Liman's Go or David Cronenberg's eXistenZ or Don McKellar's Last Night. As for Guinevere, that was a star-making performance -- it was by no stretch her most accomplished work, though Polley was very solid, but hers was a very accessible character in a very mainstream picture; as the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan writes, "Polley has made a strong impression in other films [..] but Guinevere will be the one that makes her a full-blown star." The problem simply was that few went to see this picture -- I would've thought it would've skewed heavily towards young female audiences, but the film never caught on to breaking out of limited release, netting less than $1 million domestic. I'm not sure why -- it's not a great film, and it seems that nobody thinks the ending works, but I thought it was a nice, solid picture with some insightful writing and Polley's observant performance. She stands no chance for a nomination for this picture; I don't think Miramax is even considering a campaign for her, and given her distaste with Hollywood chicanery, she certainly won't be running one herself.

Alan Wong continues: "Returning to the Canadian thing: what do you think our chances are? This seems to have been a banner year for Canadian filmmakers and actors. Patricia Rozema is receiving a lot of praise for her work on Mansfield Park (another film, along with its stars Frances O'Connor and Embeth Davidtz, that you didn't mention in your column). There's Norman Jewison and Christopher Plummer, of course, and Polley who I mentioned earlier. Deborah Kara Unger in The Hurricane. Then there are our homegrown efforts, such as The Red Violin, Felicia's Journey, and Last Night. Do you think any of these have a chance? Last year, Lion's Gate pushed Affliction and Gods and Monsters into Oscardom--do you think they'll do the same for their countrymen?"

Speaking of the Canadian film scene, allow me to interject as an aside that I'm aghast that Emporte-Moi's Karine Vanasse wasn't nominated for a Best Actress Genie. (Emporte-Moi is Canada's foreign-language film Academy candidate, so this isn't completely unrelated to Oscars.)

Back to Mr. Wong's query. Regarding Mansfield Park, I was floored when I read Roger Ebert's assertion that the film "has a real shot at a Best Picture nomination" -- on the basis of the picture itself, the idea would've never crossed my mind. I didn't care for this sedated, meandering picture at all; while it's been getting divisive reviews, with the 'con' camp mostly consisting of Jane Austen purists aggravated by the liberties Rozema's screenplay freely takes with the source material, my exasperation was mostly with Rozema's helming itself, especially in terms of her shot selection and use of slow-mo. While Mansfield Park has been generally liked by critics, and it's a costume picture based on a Jane Austen novel being backed by the Miramax machine -- all positive factors in terms of Oscar prospects -- I'm still dubious about its chances, mostly because of its low star wattage. Unlike, say, Sense And Sensibility, which had actors with drawing power -- Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, then-emerging star Kate Winslet (post-Heavenly Creatures) -- Mansfield Park's cast consists of low-profile performers. This wouldn't be a factor were the film drawing outright raves, which would boost interest levels, but the polite reception it's received won't make this a must-see for most Academy members. (Mansfield Park at least features a theatrical trailer which nicely makes the picture appear more palatable than it actually is.)

As for the performances in Mansfield Park, I'm cool on all of them, save for Hannah Taylor Gordon's nice work as young Fanny; in retrospect, when she disappeared from the picture after the first fifteen minutes, I ought to have packed it in as well. I like Frances O'Connor: I disliked Love And Other Catastrophes, but thought she was quite engaging there, and was amused with her against-type performance in Australia's Badlands knock-off, Kiss Or Kill -- even as a lunatic murderess, it's hard to miss that impish twinkle in her eyes. She has a face preternaturally disposed to smiling winsomely, and that's essentially the extent of her entire performance in Mansfield Park, which otherwise lacks depth or sincerity. I wasn't engaged by her plight at all, and doubt that she'll be able to nab a Best Actress nomination.

Nor, I suspect, will Embeth Davidtz be successful in scoring a Supporting Actress pick, although she at least has a juicy character and provides some interesting moments. I've been following Davidtz since her smart, knowing turn in Army Of Darkness. After her key role in Schindler's List, I've waited for her career to take off, but the breakthrough seems to have eluded her. (She was excellent in The Gingerbread Man, which unfortunately few saw after Polygram buried the picture to spite Robert Altman.) Davidtz does lose points in my book for starring in that hideous Bicentennial Man, though. (What's with that, anyway? People are talking about what a great year it's been for movies and comparing it to 1939, and just when you're starting to feel good about the state of American cinema, you walk into a theater and get assaulted by a trailer of an idiotic dancing robot -- how demoralizing.)

Deborah Kara Unger's running for a Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in The Hurricane. While she has a pretty good role -- I believe she's playing the lead of the Toronto contingent set on helping Carter's bid for a writ of habeus corpus, which probably gives her a couple of emotional scenes laced with humanity and maternalism -- without having seen her work, I'm skeptical about her Oscar chances. I've seen about half-a-dozen of her films, and while she's an adequate performer and I enjoy watching her, I've never seen anything which would lead me to expect an award-caliber turn from her.

I don't expect that François Girard's The Red Violin or Don McKellar's Last Night, both Lions Gate films, will play any sort of role in the Oscar race. Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey will probably be Artisan's major Oscar candidate; other than Bob Hoskins in the Best Actor category and perhaps Egoyan's adapted screenplay, I suspect that its chances elsewhere -- Picture, Director -- are far too low to be considered viable. As it stands, I'm doubtful about Egoyan's chances for a screenplay nomination, and am not much more optimistic about Hoskins' creepily fastidious Hilditch making the final five, especially given the uncustomary lukewarm reception greeting Egoyan's follow-up to The Sweet Hereafter. Lions Gate is also handling Errol Morris' Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., which is a genuine possibility for the feature documentary category, and Kevin Smith's Dogma, which honestly can't be taken seriously as any sort of Oscar candidate.


Reactions to the New York Film Critics Circle and Toronto Film Critics Association awards in the next column, as well as more responses to feedback, questions and suggestions. Do you think this new "Mailbag" format is working? Any suggestions for future topics? Any additional feedback or inquiries are welcome -- e-mail me. (From here on, any Oscar-related correspondence received will be presumed to be approved for possible use in future columns, with the originator identified, unless explicitly requested otherwise.)


Alex Fung (aw220@freenet.carleton.ca)

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