Alex's Oscar Column #09: Academy Award Nominee Reactions

By ALEX FUNG
February 16, 2000

1999 results
"Big Six": 24 out of 30 (80%)
Overall: 67 out of 94 (71%)


At the ungodly time of 5:38 am Pacific Time (or 8:38 am over here, which is still pretty damned unreasonable in my book), the nominees for the 72nd annual Academy Awards were revealed on Tuesday by AMPAS president Robert Rehme and actor Dustin Hoffman. In what has been largely touted as the most unpredictable Oscar race in ages, there weren't many flat-out shockers, but the official list featured a number of unexpected inclusions and omissions.

Most pleasant "surprises":

  1. The Best Song nomination for South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut's anthemic "Blame Canada"
  2. ummm ...

Least pleasant "surprises":

  1. The poor showing of Being John Malkovich and The Talented Mr. Ripley, neither of which received Best Picture nominations
  2. The omission of yet another Errol Morris documentary (Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) in the Best Feature Documentary category

I'm actually mostly ambivalent about this year's set of surprises, the most notable of which must be considered the extremely strong showing of The Cider House Rules. The film tallied seven total nominations including a spot in the Best Picture category and extended Miramax's string of Picture nominees to nine over the past eight years. While many considered the Lasse Hallström film a non-factor in the Best Picture race (one regular Academy Awards prognosticator summed up its chances as "yeah, right") and even I'd downgraded my view of its standing in the race over the past six weeks (I listed it as a top contender in my Oscar Column #1 back in mid-December, and wound up ranking it as my top alternate prospect in my Academy Award nominee predictions), it should have been forseen that the film's modest, gentle sensibilities would register with older Academy members. I don't think that its Best Picture nomination is a big shock, but the fact that it finished in a tie for second-most cites behind only American Beauty is a real surprise.

The DreamWorks picture led the pack with eight Oscar nominations including the inevitable Best Picture mention, setting up a potential reprisal of last year's Academy Awards war between the Spielberg-Katzenberg-Geffen company and Team Weinstein. Although American Beauty's showing was the strongest this year, I was mildly surprised that it didn't receive more nominations; I predicted it for ten nominations, but such was the field this year that it could've feasibly received up to thirteen mentions, including a clean sweep of the so-called Big Six categories: Chris Cooper and Wes Bentley were possibilities in the Supporting Actor category, while Thora Birch or Mena Suvari might've snuck in with a Supporting Actress nomination to join Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Sam Mendes, and the picture itself with Oscar attention.

Instead, Academy recognition was spread out among a fairly large pool of films. Closely following American Beauty's eight bids were The Insider and the aforementioned The Cider House Rules with seven nominations each, and The Sixth Sense which picked up the numerically-appropriate six mentions. No films dominated the field as in past years, when Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love duked it out, or when Titanic or The English Patient routed the competition.

The slim lead in total nominations American Beauty holds over The Insider, The Cider House Rules and The Sixth Sense, all of which are fellow Best Picture nominees (the fifth candidate, Frank Darabont's The Green Mile, tallied only four nominations), has prompted some film writers to call the Oscar race a free-for-all. Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News suggested that American Beauty "is now one of four pictures with about an even chance", while Lou Lumenick of the New York Post (yeah, I know) mused that the film "is still the nominal front-runner, but just barely." With all due respect -- I generally enjoy Mathews' work -- I don't see this at all: despite holding only a slim lead in total nominations (which isn't that significant of a factor, although in the past handful of years the film which received the most nominations admittedly also went on to win the Best Picture Oscar), American Beauty still strikes me as a fairly clear choice for the eventual Academy Award win. Then again, it should be noted that continued suggestions that a frontrunner is vulnerable can actually induce such a scenario, so it will be interesting to see how the race shapes up in the next month.

(Incidentally -- and I don't mean to sound catty -- I've been amazed by some of the misguided and startlingly uninformed comments made in various pre- and post-Oscar-nomination articles by various critics whom I otherwise admire and regularly read; indeed, I dare say that several online prognosticators and many correspondents seem to have a firmer grasp and more insight on the Academy Awards race than a good number of respectable mainstream film critics, whom I suspect are mostly indifferent about the whole process -- and not without reason, I hastily add.)

As in 1999, only four films were represented with multiple acting nominations. Two of them are big studio Oscar juggernauts -- American Beauty's lead players Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening received nominations, while The Sixth Sense's supporting players Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette picked up mentions -- while the other two are tellingly small: Kimberly Peirce's harrowing film Boys Don't Cry saw its duo of Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny score nominations, while the annual Woody Allen entry, Sweet And Lowdown, was represented by Sean Penn and Samantha Morton. Many saw 1999 as the year where independent film hit it the big-time, while others took a different perspective and touted this as a key moment in American cinema where mainstream pictures embraced risk-taking in a way not witnessed since the 1970s (Leonard Maltin commented that "American Beauty is as dark a depiction of American life and family life as you could ever find on screen" -- you're kidding, right?); there might be some merit in both arguments.

On the other hand, the Academy didn't exactly embrace the quirky, highly-acclaimed Spike Jonze film Being John Malkovich, which nabbed the expected Original Screenplay nomination and added a mention for the director and one of its supporting actresses, but failed to make the final five in the Best Picture category despite strong showings in guild voting leading up to the ceremony. The respectable if overpraised unconventional Gulf War picture Three Kings failed to score any nominations at all. Given that it received five nominations in total, it may be difficult to argue that Academy voters overlooked the handsome Paramount / Miramax co-production of The Talented Mr. Ripley, yet the omission of lead actor Matt Damon, director Anthony Minghella, and the picture itself is unsettling.

But it's hardly only the more daring fare that received the metaphoric cold shoulder from the Academy. Norman Jewison's utterly conventional film on Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, The Hurricane, was thought to be a potential Oscar heavyweight; it instead ended up with but a single nomination for Denzel Washington in the lead role. Whether or not this was a direct result of the controversy surrounding the picture's historical inaccuracies and dramatic licensing or whether it's a reflection of the perception of the film itself ... well, I'll get into that in a Hurricane post-mortem analysis below.

The relatively-strong showing of Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (4 nominations) can probably be attributed to the visibility it gained as a result of its New York Film Critics' Circle and National Society of Film Critics awards. Regardless of its own merits, I suspect that the resultant attention drawn to the film after its high-profile recognition from these respected film critics groups was a crucial factor in getting the film onto the upper half of Academy members' to-watch lists.

The films which stand most likely to benefit domestically from the Oscar nominations this year are American Beauty, which is being reissued and may now crack the $100 million mark, and especially The Cider House Rules, which could potentially add another $20-30 million to its totals. (While the seven Oscar nominations will probably draw a larger audience to the Hallström picture, I also suspect that it'll result in a number of disgruntled younger viewers who'll be turned off by the film's benignity and dismiss it as representative of the Academy's propensity to acknowledge "safe" pictures.) The Sixth Sense and, to some degree, The Green Mile are already played out, and I suspect that The Insider won't be able to catch a second wind. Boys Don't Cry could see its totals rise significantly on the basis of the nominations for its two actresses, and should Sweet And Lowdown expand, it could also see a minor bump.

Conversely, a number of films will see its prospects dwindle in the wake of the Oscar nomination announcements. The Hurricane will likely fade following its solo nomination, as will hopefuls Angela's Ashes and Snow Falling On Cedars. Man On The Moon was completely shut out and will disappear from theaters quickly; likewise for Cradle Will Rock. Pictures which took the one-week qualifying route -- Agnes Browne and A Map Of The World chief among them -- may have their planned expansions scuttled or at least scaled-down considerably.

This year's set of nominations prompted some revisions in the Oscar trivia book:

As for my predictions, well, given that this year saw some of the most volatile Oscar races in a long while, I concluded on my selections with some hesitancy and was fully braced to fare very badly. Indeed, as the nominations were being announced on the morning of the 15th, my initial reaction was that I was getting killed -- Jude Law? Toni Collette? No Jim Carrey? Shortly thereafter when the full list of Academy Award nominees was released, my reaction turned to horror -- I was getting annihilated. What happened in the documentary feature category? I got creamed with the sound picks! However, after I'd finished updating my Oscar page with the results and begun to actually count my successful picks, much to my surprise I found that I hadn't done so badly after all -- not quite as strongly as last year, but startlingly close: 24 out of 30 in the "Big Six" categories and 67 out of 94 overall this time around, as opposed to 26 for 30 and 71 from 94 last year. Not a great year, but fairly mediocre -- business as usual. (In the six years I've been doing this online, I've consistently scored between 21 and 26 correct picks in the "Big Six" categories.)

(A sidebar: I received an astute e-mail which suggested that the "Big Six" should really be a "Big Eight", with the inclusion of the two screenplay categories. Out of all categories, the last thing in my mind is to dismiss the significance of the field of screenplay nominees; I genuinely consider all of the categories to be of interest and value -- I actually do care to find out who wins Best Sound and so forth, and absolutely do not feel that the foreign language film or documentary feature categories are negligible. [One of the comments which most infuriated me in 1999 was a local hack radio "entertainment" reporter derisively snickering "Stupidest move: the best Canadian First Feature Film award (for the Toronto film festival) went ... to a documentary!" Who gave this dolt precious airtime? Sorry, I'm getting sidetracked.] The "Big Six" categories -- Picture, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Director -- have simply been grouped together under this handy label because they are by far the most visible and most reported-upon of all Academy Award categories; they're the ones which seem to get the most attention in the press and, by default, the public.)

I was thinking of soliciting Oscar nominee predictions from others out there, along the lines of the late Gene Siskel's annual "Beat Siskel!" contest, but decided against it since (a) it wouldn't be much of a challenge to beat me, and (b) I feared being flooded by a barrage of Oscar nominee prediction e-mails, particularly as I was still working on commentary for my Academy Award Nominee Prediction Column and wouldn't be able to devote much time to it. (On that note, I feel obliged to apologize for the overall crappiness of the writing -- even moreso than usual -- in that piece; I'd gotten pretty much no sleep over the preceding two days and was near-delirious while putting together the comments there. I'm actually scared to try to revisit my incoherent ramblings in that one. Memo to self: next year, if you plan to get the Oscar prediction column done in a timely fashion over the final weekend, (1) don't watch 7½-hour B&W Hungarian movies, and (2) don't get saddled with pager duty.)

Although I hadn't actually called for nominee predictions, a number of people kindly fired off their guesses nevertheless, for which I thank them (and in many cases owe e-mail). Many of these were very well-argued and obviously had a great deal of thought put into them. Leafing through these picks, I note that three were prescient enough to have excluded Jim Carrey from their Best Actor guesses, a fortuitous choice that most (including myself) did not make. Virtually everybody stumbled on the Christopher Plummer omission, though. (Again, me too.) On the other hand, everyone picked American Beauty for a Best Picture nomination (wow, what a surprise). As it turns out -- and I don't doubt there are many out there who went a clean 30-for-30 in the "Big Six" with 85%+ overall prediction rates, etc. -- unless I've overlooked something, I didn't receive any lists which fared better than my own guesses in either the "Big Six" (although most scored in the low twenties) or overall (a couple finished in the mid-sixties). (Let me know if you had sent in a list which beat me -- honestly, I might have just lost track of it in this huge pile of e-mail.) What a fluke -- I'll bet everyone would crush me if I run a Beat Alex contest next year.

(Speaking of getting decimated, I'm still in dead last in my Oscar presenter contest. What's with this Schwarzenegger invite?)

I can't close this preamble without some comments on the Harry Knowles debacle. His claims of having obtained a preliminary list of the finalists for the Oscar nominees have proven to be false, and now that I've had a bit of time to review the list in depth, it's transparently inaccurate. In addition to the aforementioned blunders I previously mentioned (Any Given Sunday as an Adapted Screenplay, eleven films listed as Makeup possibilities when the field had already been reduced to five -- I concede that he did get the Being John Malkovich and Freddie Francis non-mentions), there are a few others: in the Original Song category, a few composers who scored films are credited with also writing the "nominated" songs in said pictures, which is patently wrong. There are also two songs listed as "finalists" which have never been touted in trade advertisements as contenders and hence would seem like awfully unlikely possibilities. And once again, there is absolutely nothing that I've read or learned over the years that suggests that PWC narrows the list down to eight or nine in each category before informing the Academy of the final five nominees. I mean, think about it -- why would they?

I was initially very sympathetic to Knowles given that his original comments suggested that he'd been fed with inaccurate information; I've been placed in the same situation myself. However, it turns out that he in fact dug up the list himself by reportedly pulling some files off an AMPAS server and assumed they were officially-sanctioned -- yikes. [1] Now, I'm not going to tell Knowles what to do -- it's his time and his money and his life -- but I would've never run with that information unless I was absolutely sure it was accurate. When the year-end film critics' awards are announced, I never run with advance word unless I can get corroboration; I still remember an ugly incident a few years ago when one film-awards web site broke with a list of award winners which turned out to be incorrect. Being honestly deceived is one thing, but when you have no reason to be certain about the validity of some information and run with it anyway, you're going to have to take your lumps.

What's especially unfortunate about this incident is that not only does Knowles take a significant hit on his credibility, but given that, for better or worse, he's the most well-known online film columnist in the industry and with the general public, the entire Internet movie critic movement gets sullied with the same brush of irresponsibility. "Que sera," Knowles wrote after-the-fact, but I wonder if the damage really is so inconsequential: in addition to detrimentally chilling relations between the online community and the film industry, I know that betting on the Academy Awards is permitted in the United Kingdom, but does that extend to betting on the AMPAS nominee list? As I write this, the Academy is even publically musing about possible legal action against Knowles ("We don't like the suggestion that our secrecy can be violated", a spokesman said), which I frankly suspect is mere hot air. In defense mode (understandably), Knowles and his AICN team have attempted to deflect barbs by pointing out that Ain't-It-Cool News is a gossip site. True enough; the problem is that the clear implication in his original posting of "preliminary" nominees was that it was based in fact, not rumour -- minor initial rewording would've covered him on that end.

The sad thing about this whole stir is that the supposed advance list of nominees wasn't even very accurate. Under matching conditions in each category (that is, eight or however many candidates per group that he listed), my predictions beat Knowles' alleged leaked list by a fairly good margin -- I missed ten of the eventual Academy Award nominees, while Knowles' list missed fifteen Oscar picks. "I guess I fucked up," Knowles wrote on Tuesday morning. Umm ... yup.

(For the record, I have nothing against Harry Knowles -- never corresponded with him, don't visit his web page, nada. I've liked his RE&TM appearances; seems like a good guy. Thumbs up on his Killer Klowns From Outer Space recommend -- what a movie! And my comments above are in no way a ploy to curry favour from the Online Motion Picture Academy, who have for some reason placed Knowles and I against each other for their year-end awards in their Best Amateur [um, thanks] Movie-Related Web Site category; I have no delusions that I'm going to come even remotely close. Ain't-It-Cool News will clean my clock. Incidentally, how does AICN qualify as "amateur" anymore? Granted, it was initially a DIY site -- I was around when MD'A indirectly prompted Knowles to create it -- but he now has a faithful team working on it with him and sells advertising ... I dunno, sounds pretty commercial to me. Whatever.)

([1]: The backstory behind this incident continues to evolve. Now it appears that Knowles had been tapping into what he believed was an AMPAS machine, but was in fact someone's home PC. David Poland wrote a comprehensive, detailed report on the Knowles Story in his February 19 Hot Button column.)

At the risk of seeming relentlessly self-absorbed, some brief comments on the nominees in each of the categories:

Best Picture Of The Year
My Predictions

American Beauty
Being John Malkovich
The Hurricane
The Insider
The Sixth Sense

AMPAS Nominees

American Beauty
The Cider House Rules
The Green Mile
The Insider
The Sixth Sense

[ 3 out of 5 ]

American Beauty and The Insider were the consensus locks, but the remaining three slots in the Best Picture category were considered to be very much up in the air with a number of titles bandied about as leading possibilities: Being John Malkovich, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Hurricane, The Sixth Sense and The Talented Mr. Ripley were the primary suspects.

The films which survived the purge to nail down the final three spots were The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile and The Sixth Sense. The nomination allocated to the M. Night Shyamalan film appears to have taken a number of film writers off-guard -- I've read a few articles which deem the recognition as a complete shocker, which makes me wonder how closely the authors have been following the Oscar race -- with some remarking about the film successfully overcoming the handicap of "making too much money".

I'd stand this argument on its head -- The Sixth Sense didn't make its $280 million domestic through a monster marketing blitz à la Godzilla or Wild Wild West or Batman & Robin or any of a number of films which cracked nine-digit domestic grosses despite disappointing audiences. It was a financial success because it captured the imagination of the public and generated remarkably positive word-of-mouth which sustained it for months; during its first four weeks, the week-to-week drop-off was virtually negligible. Moreover, many in the industry professed public admiration of the film during its successful theatrical run. I don't think it's accurate to employ the cliché that the Academy doesn't like films which make money -- what might be more suitable would be that the Academy doesn't like films which only make money; I mean, Titanic, Forrest Gump anyone? (Not, I must add, that the Academy is a single-minded Borg-esque monolithic entity.)

I'd listed The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile as my two top alternate prediction choices for the reasoning that, despite minor guild attention (The Cider House Rules picked up a promising Producers Guild of America nomination and both films were cited by the Screen Actors Guild), they were both films which play better to an older audience and hence would be more likely to score with the Academy, which demographically tends toward the senior. This appears to have been borne out with their successful respective nomination campaigns; The Cider House Rules, in particular, seems to have bowled over the most pundits with its appearance in the final five. Looking over the list of nominees, I'm surprised to find that among the five pictures under consideration for the Academy Award, I enjoyed The Cider House Rules the most. (The Insider was the film I admired the most, which isn't exactly the same thing.) By all rights, I should be delighted by its Best Picture nomination and be rooting for it to upset American Beauty and take the Oscar, but curiously I remain rather indifferent about the whole thing; it strangely doesn't strike me as the type of picture by which one would remember or represent the year in film (perhaps because it's so thoroughly generic in its basic tale). I haven't seen this film in five months; perhaps a revisiting would provide a fresh perspective.

Although the film's unconventionality was an obvious impediment, I had still expected that Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich would managed to prevail and come up with an Academy Award nomination in the Best Picture category; as expected, it was well-liked by actors, but its strong showing with the Directors Guild of America and Producers Guild of America (it picked up nominations in both) suggested a broader base of support which evidentally failed to materialize among the AMPAS body.

I wasn't as surprised with the exclusion of The Talented Mr. Ripley given its poor showing in various guild awards leading up to the announcement of the Oscar nominees, but I was equally (if not moreso) disappointed; not only is it an elegant production, visually sumptuous and finely acted, but it's a classic piece of Oscar-bait with its attractive young cast, exotic locales, and lauded director. While the dark subject material of the picture must be considered, I didn't think it would be sufficiently troubling to dissuade voters from embracing the film. Consequently, I've been bewildered by its failure to capture more recognition from the film community via the guild awards and here through an Oscar nomination. (Harvey Weinstein is magnanimously shouldering the blame for its relatively poor showing -- as has been widely reported, he's been out of action for the past six weeks due to illness when he would've otherwise been out campaigning on the picture's behalf; wasn't this Paramount's job, though?)

It's still early in the race to the Oscar, but it appears to me that American Beauty is easily the odds-on favourite to pick up the climactic Best Picture Academy Award next month. Some have vaulted The Cider House Rules all the way from "surprise nominee" status to "closing in on American Beauty" within a span of 48 hours, but I don't see it. However, there's still a month of campaigning ahead, and, as last year has demonstrated, the race can certainly turn around in a hurry with the Weinsteins on the ball, particularly if Miramax comes up with a brilliant The Cider House Rules strategy to steal DreamWorks' thunder yet again.


Best Performance By An Actor In A Leading Role
My Predictions

Jim Carrey, Man On The Moon
Russell Crowe, The Insider
Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

AMPAS Nominees

Russell Crowe, The Insider
Richard Farnsworth, The Straight Story
Sean Penn, Sweet And Lowdown
Kevin Spacey, American Beauty
Denzel Washington, The Hurricane

[ 4 out of 5 ]

The most widely-reported omission in this year's list of Academy Award nominees was that of Jim Carrey for his performance as Andy Kaufman in the Milos Forman film Man On The Moon. While the other four nominees -- Russell Crowe, Richard Farnsworth, Kevin Spacey, and Denzel Washington -- were more or less set, it was common belief that that Carrey would probably pick up his first nomination this time around; other names were bandied about (most notably Matt Damon for his turn as the duplicitous title character in The Talented Mr. Ripley), but Carrey was considered a favourite, particularly after he picked up his second Golden Globe award in as many years and reinforced it with a Screen Actors Guild nomination. Such was the perception of his solid standing that even AMPAS president Robert Rehme professed being startled by the exclusion. "The biggest surprise for me when I read the nomination list was that Jim Carrey was shut out again," he said.

I think that the non-nomination of Carrey for Man On The Moon is a far greater eye-opener than his perceived snub for last year's work in Peter Weir's The Truman Show; despite his Globe win, his performance as Truman Burbank isn't especially award-friendly -- it's essentially flat dramatic acting without the benefit of thundering histrionics or the obligatory emotional Oscar moments to push it to the forefront -- and primarily notable simply for Carrey attempting to handle a dramatic role. It's worth noting that although he sufficiently impressed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to pick up a Best Actor statuette, his peers in the Screen Actors Guild weren't particularly knocked out by his competent The Truman Show performance: he didn't receive a follow-up SAG nomination. On the other hand, Man On The Moon gave Carrey a real showy, Oscar-type role to play -- impersonating a known celebrity and adopting his mannerisms is inherently attention-grabbing -- which would've theoretically been more palatable for Academy attention.

What happened? Carrey did manage to score a Screen Actors Guild nomination, so indications are that his peers at large did seem to like his work. This is all speculation, of course, but a few factors might've come into play: the mimicry versus "acting" discussion touched upon in some of my previous Oscar columns by myself and a few correspondents; the fact that Man On The Moon disappointed financially and wasn't particularly well-liked by the public at large and critics; that the late Andy Kaufman may be iconic among comedians and has a cult-like following of twenty- and thirtysomethings, but is probably just too weird and insignificant to the older members which make up the majority of the Academy; the matter that Jim Carrey played a role that wasn't especially endearing or likable. (The Boston Phoenix's Peter Keough described Carrey's participation in the movie as playing "the self-absorbed asshole".) He may have taken hits from all of these. It's true that Carrey got to play an actor -- an artist, even -- which one would typically expect to be considered favourably by the AMPAS actors branch, but I do question how beloved Kaufman really is within the industry in general and the Academy specifically.

I don't really buy into syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith's explanation that Carrey's "complaints last year when he wasn't nominated" hurt him. "Oscar voters are a prickly bunch," she explained. "They expect good sportsmanship a stiff upper lip." All fine and well, but I certainly don't recall Carrey complaining about his The Truman Show omission at all, other than in an overexagerrated woe-is-me manner clearly intended for comic effect. I wouldn't have thought that anyone could take his depreciating routine at last year's Academy Awards ceremony seriously, but perhaps not. (Incidentally, I think Ms. Smith is out to lunch with her complaints about Haley Joel Osment's Oscar nomination being "[un]fair to adults who have worked years at their craft" -- firstly, the category is for the performance, not the actor; secondly, the adults who have "worked years at their craft" ought to have turned out a more accomplished performance that impressed more voters than the one by an 11-year-old boy. But I'm getting sidetracked.)

One conclusion which can be drawn from the Carrey omission is that the AMPAS actors branch appears to be far more conservative than the larger Screen Actors Guild body, which makes sense. I obviously don't have the figures to prove it, but I wouldn't be surprised if Carrey wound up a very close sixth in the balloting.

The actor who nabbed the final spot in the category was almost as much of a surprise as the Carrey exclusion: Sean Penn was recognized for his work in Sweet And Lowdown, thereby becoming the first lead in a Woody Allen film to receive an Oscar nomination in over twenty years. (By contrast, supporting players in Allen films have famously received much attention from the Academy over this duration.) Penn has always been on the outskirts of the Best Actor race, but Sweet And Lowdown stirred relatively small waves, save for Samantha Morton's performance, and few considered him to be a strong candidate to receive a nomination. (I had him behind Damon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Jim Broadbent.) Penn's unexpected second Oscar nomination attests to the respect he deservedly receives from his peers (although I doubt Nicolas Cage will vote for him); many consider Penn to be among the finest American actors currently working. (William Baldwin wrote a passionate public defense of Penn to the New York Times last year, arguing "Not only is Sean not 'Bruce, Julia, Harrison and the two Toms' but he is the anti-Tom. He is the poster child for those actors who fought corporate commercial studio interests to protect the creative process ... Sean is an actor, not a movie star ... What DeNiro, Pacino, Duvall and Hackman are to our generation, Sean is to the next generation of young aspiring actors. He is a role model and an inspiration. He is a shining example of someone who has always maintained his commitment to the quality of his work and has never wavered.")

What's rather interesting about the Sean Penn nomination is that his Sweet And Lowdown jazz guitarist character Emmet Ray is remarkably unlikeable, redeemed only by his musical aptitude, and the nature of the character isn't buoyed or softpedalled by the film -- Sweet And Lowdown's really more of a character study than an out-and-out comedy. It's actually a performance of one of the most thoroughly unpleasant characters to be nominated in the Best Actor category in a very long time. (One might mention Edward Norton's skinhead white supremacist Derek in American History X, but note that he ultimately found redemption. And of course Anthony Hopkins' murderous Hannibal Lecter was depicted with such panache that his "I'm having an old friend for dinner" line was received with cheers from the audience.)


Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role
My Predictions

Annette Bening, American Beauty
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Julianne Moore, The End Of The Affair
Meryl Streep, Music Of The Heart
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

AMPAS Nominees

Annette Bening, American Beauty
Janet McTeer, Tumbleweeds
Julianne Moore, The End Of The Affair
Meryl Streep, Music Of The Heart
Hilary Swank, Boys Don't Cry

[ 5 out of 5 ]

Like many of those who sent in their Oscar nomination predictions, I was fortunate enough to have nailed this category, although I rather wish I hadn't -- as a whole, it's a pretty uninspiring list. After building momentum with some high-profile critical honours, Reese Witherspoon's underdog campaign for a Best Actress nomination for Election was effectively derailed by her failure to nab the Golden Globe; I think that had she pulled off a surprise victory there, she would've had a much stronger chance of dethroning the fifth candidate (probably Meryl Streep) for the final Best Actress slot due to the increased attention to her work.

Instead, the candidates in the running for the Academy Award in this category are fairly lacklustre. As in most categories, it's essentially a two-way race (between Boys Don't Cry's Hilary Swank and American Beauty's Annette Bening, with Tumbleweeds' Janet McTeer in an unlikely sleeper position), but the filler material here is more noticeable than in other categories. Julianne Moore's a terrific actress, but she stands no chance of winning the Oscar for her work in The End Of The Affair, and in a year with a normal level of competition in this category probably wouldn't have been nominated; there was a real dearth of strong and viable lead actress candidates this year, and Moore's highly-respected status among peers and the fact that she held a lead role in a prestige period piece defaulted her into the forefront of a rather unremarkable lot of possibilities.

Similarly, with few other options presented to them, voters resorted to penning Meryl Streep's familiar name on their ballots yet again for her performance in the Wes Craven film Music Of The Heart. While she maintains Living Legend status amongst her peers (and has now equalled Katherine Hepburn for most Oscar nominations in history already -- Streep's far from ready to pack it in, and it seems inevitable that she'll not only break the record by the end of her career, but shatter it and bury the pieces), I haven't found many people who've been genuinely enthusiastic about her performance as hard-assed violin teacher Roberta Guaspari, and indeed she's been receiving an inordinate amount of heat from film writers lately over this nomination. (The prevailing opinion appears to be that it was an unwarranted cite; not to defend the Streep nomination -- I've been dismissive of her turn in Music Of The Heart myself -- but all of the other possible candidates have significant caveats attached while her chances weren't nearly as impeded.)


Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role
My Predictions

Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Tom Cruise, Magnolia
Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile
Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense
Christopher Plummer, The Insider

AMPAS Nominees

Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules
Tom Cruise, Magnolia
Michael Clarke Duncan, The Green Mile
Jude Law, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense

[ 4 out of 5 ]

Well, I was wrong about Jude Law. Back in Oscar Column #4, after he received a Golden Globe nomination, I wrote "I remain very dubious that, come Oscar time, he'll be able to score more votes than The Insider's Christopher Plummer, the most conspicuous of names missing from this list." I was clearly wrong; the AMPAS Supporting Actor nominee list matched that of Golden Globes perfectly.

I'm intrigued by Plummer's misfortune in this year's Supporting Actor race; it seemed like after making a good charge, he was stopped dead in his tracks. At the beginning of the new year, all indicators suggested that Plummer was a lock for a nomination and a reasonable contender for the eventual prize; here's a veteran actor who turned in a critically-lauded performance in a high-profile Oscar-bait picture and then racked up a series of year-end critics awards, only to get blanked with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, then the Screen Actors Guild, and finally with the Oscars themselves. What went wrong? I don't really buy claims that controversy surrounding The Insider did him in -- unhappiness with one's portrayal in a film is often par for the course, so I doubt that even Mike Wallace's public dismay over The Insider would've deflated Plummer's chances. So what happened?

One thing that can be said about the Supporting Actor race is that the competition was particularly fierce. In addition to Plummer's omission, another oft-mentioned candidate who failed to make the cut was John Malkovich for his performance of John Horatio Malkovich in the loopy Being John Malkovich. I'm not especially perturbed by his exclusion; although a number of people flat-out loved his work in the film, I was less impressed and also felt that countless media articles suggesting that voters would find the option of voting for an actor playing "himself" in a movie named (in part) after him utterly irresistable were needlessly optimistic; it's an unusual circumstance, to be sure, but not especially enticing and hardly grounds for a frivolous vote. USA Films' Oscar campaign for Being John Malkovich centered (understandably) around the visage of John Malkovich -- his face adorned all of their promotional material -- and I wonder if this contributed to his failure to crack the top 5; after being bombarded by pictures of him over the past six weeks, perhaps AMPAS voters were simply all Malkoviched out.

After Chris Cooper managed to snare a Screen Actors Guild nomination for his work in American Beauty, I was hopeful that this might bode promisingly for his Academy Award nominee prospects, but alas it was not to be. I continue to think that it was certainly deserving work -- he had some powerful moments, and his performance contained some subtle touches in the early goings-on (watch him closely in the drive to school with Ricky, for example) which made the payoff especially effective. It was certainly more deserving than, say, Michael Clarke Duncan's performance in The Green Mile.

While the popular view is that Tom Cruise is the favourite for his flamboyant supporting turn as a sleazy sex guru in Magnolia, I wouldn't count out Haley Joel Osment for The Sixth Sense. Not only was his work in the Shyamalan picture the most widely-acclaimed child performance in years (at least since Victoire Thivisol in Ponette, unless I forgot somebody), he's remarkably polished and self-effacing in interviews; also, the aw-isn't-he-cute factor may come into play. When your name has become synonymous with excellence -- Spielberg is reportedly looking for "the next Haley Joel Osment" -- it must be considered a promising sign. Additionally, Miramax appears to be gearing up for a hard push for The Cider House Rules' Michael Caine; given the warmth showered upon his film by the Academy and the relatively cool reception towards Magnolia (which received only three nominations in total), it would seem that Caine could potentially sneak in for the Oscar. At this point, I have trouble envisioning Duncan or Law winning the statuette; it's still early, but it would require an extraordinary campaign to vault them into viable contention.


Best Performance By An Actress In A Supporting Role
My Predictions

Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted
Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich
Julianne Moore, Magnolia
Samantha Morton, Sweet And Lowdown
Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry

AMPAS Nominees

Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense
Angelina Jolie, Girl, Interrupted
Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich
Samantha Morton, Sweet And Lowdown
Chloë Sevigny, Boys Don't Cry

[ 4 out of 5 ]

Despite my general admiration for Julianne Moore, I was rather pleased that her performance in Magnolia wasn't recognized with an Academy Award nomination -- I'd like to see her accolades come from more impressive work -- but the assignment of the fifth slot in the Supporting Actress category to Aussie actress Toni Collette of The Sixth Sense left me underwhelmed; I wasn't particularly impressed with her work in the picture, and feel that it's essentially a coattail nomination. (Incidentally, it's interesting to note that all of the non-American acting nominees this year either assume American accents [Russell Crowe, Janet McTeer, Jude Law, Toni Collette] or no accents [Samantha Morton].) I'm still waiting for Collette to fulfill on the promise demonstrated in her terrific break-out performance in Muriel's Wedding; none of her subsequent work has wowed me.

The Collette nomination also ensured the displacement of Being John Malkovich's Cameron Diaz from the final five, whose chances were also adversely affected by competiting for support against castmate Catherine Keener: voters are generally understandably hesitant to vote for multiple performances from the same film in a given category, instead choosing to "spread the wealth". It's not an impossible feat to have multiple nominees from the same picture in head-to-head competition -- the last occurence in the Supporting Actress category was Dianne Wiest fending off Jennifer Tilly from Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway -- but its rate of occurence is relatively infrequent; the Being John Malkovich actresses surely came closest to doing so since 1994.

In my opinion, this year's Supporting Actress race is the most uninspiring of the four acting contests. I don't think that Collette stands much of a shot for eventually winning the Oscar, and I similarly feel that Sweet And Lowdown's Samantha Morton is a longshot -- actresses in Woody Allen films have been disproportionately successful with the Academy, but I don't sense a groundswell of support building for the young Brit -- leaving the race for the statutette between three other first-time nominees: Angelina Jolie of Girl, Interrupted, Catherine Keener of Being John Malkovich, and Boys Don't Cry's Chloë Sevigny.

I'm personally rooting for Sevigny, but cases can be made for and against all three of the candidates. Jolie is probably considered the favourite, having already received a Golden Globe for her showy performance as the psychotic Lisa; among the trio, she's probably the most studio-friendly actress and is the one who's currently being molded into the next Big Star, sharing the lead for big-budget Hollywood thrillers like The Bone Collector. (She was also considered as a candidate for the female lead in Hannibal.) Jolie also benefits by having the most flamboyant character among the three, with several flashy Oscar-type moments to her advantage. However, Girl, Interrupted was a sub-par picture which failed to score any other Oscar attention other than Jolie's nomination, and it may prove to be difficult to sustain her standing in the race (let alone build momentum) as the film quickly fades from memory.

Sevigny's an admired young actress who turned in superb turn as Lana in Boys Don't Cry -- it's one of the most significant 'girlfriend-of-the-lead-character' performance in years, and her work was critical to the success of the picture; working against her may be her extensive indie cachet -- she's more of a critics' darling and Sundance favourite than a typical Hollywood starlet, and has fewer connections to the mainstream industry than her two primary competitors.

Catherine Keener, the oldest of the five nominees, teeters comfortably between independent and Hollywood film, having worked extensively in the former venue and smoothly transitioning into the latter during her career. An excellent character actress, she's probably the most well-respected of the candidates amongst her peers, but considering the apparent conservatism of the Academy at large, the strangeness of Being John Malkovich may be problematic. At this point, if forced at gunpoint to pick a winner, I'd lean towards Jolie, but this category appears to be very volatile and much can change over the next month.


Best Achievement In Directing
My Predictions

Frank Darabont, The Green Mile
Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich
Michael Mann, The Insider
Sam Mendes, American Beauty
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

AMPAS Nominees

Lasse Hallström, The Cider House Rules
Spike Jonze, Being John Malkovich
Michael Mann, The Insider
Sam Mendes, American Beauty
M. Night Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense

[ 4 out of 5 ]

The list of filmmakers nominated by the Academy's Directors branch matched the Directors Guild of America nominee listing save for one: The Green Mile's DGA-cited Frank Darabont was replaced by Lasse Hallström for his direction of The Cider House Rules. I'm pleased that Darabont failed to get nominated -- he really ought to have cut down his film for pacing purposes -- and was also pleased to see that Spike Jonze's understated direction of Being John Malkovich make the cut.

The nomination of Hallström was one which took virtually everyone off-guard, including reportedly the director himself. With such a strong field of contenders in play -- aside from the eventual nominees, a number of strong films this year bear the distinctive imprint of their respective directors (Minghella for The Talented Mr. Ripley, Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut, Mike Leigh for Eyes Wide Shut, Paul Thomas Anderson for Magnolia, David O. Russell for Three Kings) -- very few gave Hallström much thought (I ranked him way down at 12th in the race according to my Oscar Column #8 -- and yet hadn't ruled him out altogether), which in retrospect may not have been very prudent given the film's feasible prospects for a Best Picture nomination. It's easy to see why many hadn't considered him to be a leading contender -- his light touch on The Cider House Rules contrasted strongly from the auteurship demonstrated by many of the other candidates in their respective features -- and I remain rather surprised that he was able to elicit the requisite support from the tough AMPAS Directors branch to crack into the final five.

Lasse Hallström's nomination was arguably the biggest surprise among the nominees in the Big Six categories -- even the Harry Knowles list failed to consider him as a contender -- and I regretfully failed to make mention of him as a possibility in any of my recent Oscar columns over the past two months. However, I do note that I'd actually listed him as a possibility in my first Oscar Column of the year, #00: my annual September wrap-up article on the Toronto International Film Festival, where in my "Oscar Patrol" section I get a jump on the race by assessing the Academy Award potential of the various performances and films I'd seen during the ten-day fest. (I'd actually forgotten about my mention of Hallström here; to be more precise, while drawing up my final nominee prediction list, I'd forgotten that I'd actually written this early article.)

Looking at my preliminary list now, and taking into account that I wrote it back in September 1999 when the picture of the Academy Awards race was worse than murky (remember, not only had I no idea what these achievements would be competing against, but most of the major Oscar-type pictures hadn't even been unveiled at this point), I'm pleasantly surprised by the success rate of my early assessments: among the candidates I felt were strong Oscar possibilities, I accurately picked American Beauty for Picture, Kevin Spacey for Actor, Michael Caine for Supporting Actor, Sam Mendes for Director, Conrad L. Hall for Cinematography, the American Beauty editing team, Thomas Newman and Rachel Portman for Score, Alan Ball for Original Screenplay and John Irving for Adapted Screenplay -- I only missed The Jaundiced Eye for Documentary Feature and James Schamus in the Adapted Screenplay category.

I also listed several achievements as genuine possibilities which wound up nabbing Oscar nominations -- namely, The Cider House Rules for Picture, Annette Bening (I called all eight American Beauty nominations) and Hilary Swank for Actress, Chloë Sevigny for Supporting Actress, Hallström for Director, David Gropman's art direction, and even Lisa Zeno Churgin's editing of The Cider House Rules. Gosh, if only I knew what I was on when I wrote this prescient article ...

As for the Best Director Oscar race, it seems clear that Sam Mendes, first-time filmmaker of American Beauty, is the odds-on favourite to win the Academy Award. At this point, he appears to be a fairly safe bet, unless you know something about him that I don't.


Best Achievement In Art Direction
My Predictions

American Beauty
Anna And The King
The Matrix
Sleepy Hollow
Titus

AMPAS Nominees

Anna And The King
The Cider House Rules
Sleepy Hollow
The Talented Mr. Ripley
Topsy-Turvy

[ 2 out of 5 ]

A very poor showing on my part, but I'm actually more fond of the AMPAS nominees than my own predictions, particularly in their exclusion of Naomi Shohan's respectable but inexplicably-Art Directors Guild-nominated work in American Beauty. While the film was an artistic and commercial disappointment, it would be impossible to neglect Luciana Arrighi's work in Anna And The King, and Rick Heinrichs crafted the year's most rapturous landscapes for Sleepy Hollow. I'm not displeased to see The Talented Mr. Ripley's art direction receive a nomination over The Matrix's myriad of sets, and I have no real issue over the nomination assigned to The Cider House Rules (while writing my prediction column, for some reason I envisioned sketches of David Gropman's work being telecast during the ceremony which prompted me to list the work as a possibility), but the omission of Dante Ferretti's extravagant work in Titus is mind-boggling. I find it difficult to fathom that more members of AMPAS' Art Directors branch found the production design in Topsy-Turvy more successful in the context of the Mike Leigh film than Ferretti's stunning achievements in the Julie Taymor picture. (I'm also a little disappointed that the art direction in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace failed to get nominated; say what you will about the film, but Gavin Bocquet's work, particularly with Queen Amidala's palace, was top-notch. The George Lucas mega-picture appears to have been seen by the Academy as so mechanical that it only registered with Oscar nominations in the most technical of categories -- visual effects, sound, and sound effects editing.)


Best Achievement In Cinematography
My Predictions

American Beauty: Conrad L. Hall
The Insider: Dante Spinotti
Sleepy Hollow: Emmanuel Lubezki
Snow Falling On Cedars: Robert Richardson
The Straight Story: Freddie Francis

AMPAS Nominees

American Beauty: Conrad L. Hall
The End Of The Affair: Roger Pratt
The Insider: Dante Spinotti
Sleepy Hollow: Emmanuel Lubezki
Snow Falling On Cedars: Robert Richardson

[ 4 out of 5 ]

The Oscar nominee list for cinematography only differed by one with the quintet considered by the American Society of Cinematographers and also by one with my own predictions; they instead went with Roger Pratt's work on The End Of The Affair over Tak Fujimoto's helming on The Sixth Sense (ASC) or Freddie Francis for The Straight Story (my guess). I'm a little surprised that Francis was passed over, particularly given how his gorgeous work lent to the radiant tone of the film -- it would've also helped the well-liked picture score more than the single Academy Award nomination it ultimately tallied -- but I can live with Pratt's solid work. (It's a shame that his brother Anthony Pratt failed to get nominated for the art direction in The End Of The Affair; when's the last time brothers were nominated in different categories for the same film in the same year?)

The other four nominees were virtual certainties, and all of them have previous Academy Award nominations to their name. The revered Conrad L. Hall nabs his second nomination in as many years for his work on American Beauty (he was in the running last year for A Civil Action), Dante Spinotti was cited for L.A. Confidential two years ago and returns with The Insider, Emmanuel Lubezki was nominated for A Little Princess and now receives deserved kudos for his stunning Sleepy Hollow cinemtaography, and Robert Richardson, who's been nominated six times in 14 years by the ASC, chalks up more recognition via his camerawork on Scott Hicks' Snow Falling On Cedars. While I'd personally go with Lubezki, you can count on DreamWorks to push hard for Conrad L. Hall (a grateful Sam Mendes has been mentioning him by name during his acceptance speech tour, which certainly helps); the ASC also cited the veteran cinematographer.


Best Achievement In Costume Design
My Predictions

Anna And The King: Jenny Beavan
The End Of The Affair: Sandy Powell
Sleepy Hollow: Colleen Atwood
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace: Trisha Biggar
Titus: Milena Canonero

AMPAS Nominees

Anna And The King: Jenny Beavan
Sleepy Hollow: Colleen Atwood
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Ann Roth and Gary Jones
Titus: Milena Canonero
Topsy-Turvy: Lindy Hemming

[ 3 out of 5 ]

I fared fairly mediocre in this category, spotting only three of the five eventual nominees. While Jenny Beavan's work on Ever After: A Cinderella Story was passed over last year, it seemed unlikely that the work in her follow-up collaboration with Andy Tennant, Anna And The King would be also overlooked. The recognition for Colleen Atwood's designs on Sleepy Hollow were much deserved, and it'd be awfully difficult to ignore Milena Canonero's stylized work in Julie Taymor's bombastic Titus. I suppose that the Costume Design members in AMPAS were all Sandy Powell-ed out after citing her three times in the past two years, including twice last year alone; her work in The End Of The Affair was certainly of nomination calibre, although it's not an outrage that she failed to make the list this year. As previously mentioned, I'm a little surprised by the poor showing of the Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace teams in the visibly artistic technical categories; Trisha Biggar would be justified in feeling a tad miffed at her exclusion here.

I suspect that USA Films' print promotion for Topsy-Turvy was a boon for Lindy Hemming's chances; the various trade advertisements prominently featured the cast members onstage in eye-grabbing, colourful Japanese garb, which certainly had to draw attention to her costume design. I feel confident that had Topsy-Turvy been touted during Oscar season with more drab and conservative promotional layouts, it may not have scored a nomination in this category.


Best Achievement In Documentary Features
My Predictions

American Movie
Buena Vista Social Club
Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.
On The Ropes
The Source

AMPAS Nominees

Buena Vista Social Club
Genghis Blues
On The Ropes
One Day In September
Speaking In Strings

[ 2 out of 5 ]

While I fared very badly in this category, I'm not particularly distressed given that this was the category's first year operating under the revamped system, which essentially meant that all precedents and rules-of-thumb for making predictions could essentially be tossed; I consider this as a learning year.

What can be learned from this? It appears that light-hearted documentaries which have achieved a certain level of popular success may continue to be neglected (American Movie), and the tradition of ignoring Errol Morris' pictures (Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr.) lingers on. While it was never officially cited as a cause for this year's revision of the documentary feature films nomination process, it's generally accepted that the outcries over the omission of several of the decade's top documentaries in the category was one of the prime impetuses. As Morris has been one of the most victimized of documentarians during this era, I inaccurately believed that voters would subconsciously support his film this year in order to avoid the perception of improprieties.


Best Achievement In Film Editing
My Predictions

American Beauty: Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury
The Insider: William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom
The Matrix: Zach Staenberg
The Sixth Sense: Andrew Mondshein
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Walter Murch

AMPAS Nominees

American Beauty: Tariq Anwar and Christopher Greenbury
The Cider House Rules: Lisa Zeno Churgin
The Insider: William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell and David Rosenbloom
The Matrix: Zach Staenberg
The Sixth Sense: Andrew Mondshein

[ 4 out of 5 ]

I'd previously mused (back in Oscar Column #6) that the American Cinema Editors' slate of nominees for best edited dramatic feature film were clearly stronger than those competiting for best edited comedy or musical feature film, and apparently the AMPAS Film Editors branch felt similarly; while their nominees weren't a perfect match for the ACE list of dramatic feature film editing achievements as I'd predicted, they were quite close, with only Walter Murch's work on The Talented Mr. Ripley being dropped in favour of Lisa Zeno Churgin's editing of The Cider House Rules. (Although I listed her as a possible Oscar nominee last September, I'm now rather hardpressed to recall what left me with this impression.)

It should be interesting to see what develops in this category. The American Cinema Editors have since named Zach Staenberg's achievements on The Matrix as the best of the year, and undoubtedly many AMPAS voters will defer to their expertise when casting their ballots. Still, the American Beauty factor is sufficiently strong that Anwar and Greenbury have to be considered very strong candidates. I suspect that none of the nominees can be counted out at this point.


Best Foreign Language Film Of The Year
My Predictions

All About My Mother
The Cup
East-West
Three Seasons
Under The Sun

AMPAS Nominees

All About My Mother
Caravan
East-West
Solomon And Gaenor
Under The Sun

[ 3 out of 5 ]

The Foreign Language Film category continues to confound me; in the four years in which I've been doing online commentary on the Academy Awards, I've consistently gotten only three of my five annual predictions correct. (And I would've certainly scored even less than that this year had I not paid attention to Ken Rudolph's shrewd commentary in the film newsgroup.)

While none of the exclusions in this category's list of nominees for 1999 infuriated me as much as in previous years (I was betting that Ma Vie En Rose would win two years ago -- it didn't get nominated; The Dreamlife Of Angels and The Celebration were insanely passed over last year), all things considered, I am rather surprised that Khyentse Norbu's The Cup didn't make the cut. The foreign language film award committee has traditionally embraced warm and fuzzy pictures, so I'd rather expected that the crowdpleasing film about soccer-loving monks would've done well here.

As of the date of the announcements, neither Caravan, the Nepal picture in Tibetan and German, and the Swedish love-triangle picture Under The Sun had domestic distribution (although they might by now -- I haven't seen anything). Sony Pictures Classics represents all three of the remaining nominees, and although from a financial basis they might benefit strongest from pushing for an East-West victory, which would help that film open strongly upon its theatrical release, odds are that Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (which is mostly played out) will pick up the Academy Award.


Best Achievement In Makeup
My Predictions

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Bicentennial Man
Topsy-Turvy

AMPAS Nominees

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Bicentennial Man
Life
Topsy-Turvy

[ 3 out of 3 ]

Boy, I'd certainly like to know what happened here. I'm looking at the Academy Awards Rules -- Rule 13, Section 8b -- where it clearly states that "a maximum of three productions ... may be nominated for the Makeup Award". The fact that there are nevertheless four nominees in this year's contest suggests to me that there must have been a tie for third, but even so, given the rules, there must've been some way to drop one of the candidates. As it stands, it appears that the net effect of going through the semi-final screening process was to drop Blast From The Past, the only non-nominated semi-finalist this year. (Boy, the makeup team there must be feeling good.)


Best Achievement In Music (Original Score)
My Predictions

American Beauty: Thomas Newman
Angela's Ashes: John Williams
The End Of The Affair: Michael Nyman
The Legend Of 1900: Ennio Morricone
The Straight Story: Angelo Badalamenti

AMPAS Nominees

American Beauty: Thomas Newman
Angela's Ashes: John Williams
The Cider House Rules: Rachel Portman
The Red Violin: John Corigliano
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Gabriel Yared

[ 2 out of 5 ]

Another poor showing on my part here. I only picked Thomas Newman's score for American Beauty (the probable leader, hence leading to a possible Newman family sweep of this year's Oscar music categories) and John Williams' music for Angela's Ashes, which I frankly found a tad underwhelming. I was surprised that Angelo Badalamenti failed to nail down a nomination for The Straight Story -- his work struck me as being as good as any of the five which were cited -- and the failure of Ennio Morricone's The Legend Of 1900 score to receive a nomination underlines the dreadful correlation between the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's musical tastes and those of the Academy. (Morricone, if you recall, actually won the Globe in January.)

I'd originally picked Rachel Portman's The Cider House Rules score to receive a nomination back in September, but eventually downgraded her to my alternates list in my nomination prediction column after it appeared there was little support in the wings for her work. I should've stuck to my guns on that one.


Best Achievement In Music (Original Song)
My Predictions

"How Can I Not Love You", Anna And The King
"Music Of My Heart", Music Of The Heart
"Save Me", Magnolia
"When She Loved Me", Toy Story 2
"You'll Be In My Heart", Tarzan

AMPAS Nominees

"Blame Canada", South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
"Music Of My Heart", Music Of The Heart
"Save Me", Magnolia
"When She Loved Me", Toy Story 2
"You'll Be In My Heart", Tarzan

[ 4 out of 5 ]

I was so pleased that the AMPAS Music Branch chose to recognize South Park's "Blame Canada" with an Academy Award nomination: this instantly becomes my primary point of interest for this year's event. (I have no illusions that it'll win, of course, but I can still root for a miracle upset; I'm just delighted that it's been nominated.) It's not the best song in the film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's sufficiently catchy and, perhaps most importantly, reasonably suitable for broadcast. "Blame Canada" isn't free from profanity, though; the following lyrics are buried in the second verse:

And my boy Eric once
Had my picture on his shelf
But now when I see him he tells me to fuck myself

As is typical of Trey Parker's cleverness, there's actually an in-joke here on top of the gag. (Regular South Park watchers will recognize these lyrics as being sung by the Mrs. Cartman character.)

The big question surrounding the South Park song nomination is the handling of its performance for the Academy ceremony. I would urge the Zanucks to eschew a live performance of this ditty, and to instead run the musical passage from the film itself on the big screen; I can't imagine anyone but the original artists performing the song and doing it justice.

The three songs expected to make the cut -- Aimee Mann's "Save Me" from Magnolia, Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2, and Phil Collins' Golden Globe-winning "You'll Be In My Heart" from Tarzan -- were announced as Oscar nominees, and joined by "Music Of My Heart" from Music Of The Heart. It marks Diane Warren's fourth consecutive Oscar nomination (the longest running active streak, if I'm not mistaken), and her fifth in total: her other nominated songs have been pop songs "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now", "Because You Loved Me", "How Can I Live", and "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing".

Touted contenders which failed to register as Oscar nominees were the charting Madonna hit "Beautiful Stranger" from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and R.E.M.'s new contribution to the Man On The Moon soundtrack, "The Great Beyond". The music branch has traditionally been receptive to AC-friendly songs, which may perhaps explain why Garbage's title track for The World Is Not Enough never appeared to be pushed for consideration.

Despite the Phil Collins victory with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, I continue to believe that Randy Newman will pick up his long-awaited Academy Award for his Toy Story 2 ballad "When She Loved Me". My expectation is that it will wind up being a two-way race; I'm doubtful that the Aimee Mann song will challenge for the Oscar.


Best Achievement In Sound
My Predictions

American Beauty
Fight Club
The Matrix
The Sixth Sense
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

AMPAS Nominees

The Green Mile
The Insider
The Matrix
The Mummy
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

[ 2 out of 5 ]

Although I fared very poorly in this category, I was pleased to see that the wild enthusiasm over American Beauty didn't manifest itself in the Sound category (which would've been a little excessive). While The Insider's nomination is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, I have no real qualms about the AMPAS slate of nominees. The Matrix, The Mummy, and Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace are all big, noisy special-effects extravaganzas filled with explosions, while The Green Mile probably snared its nomination mostly on the basis of the surprisingly drawn-out Execution Scene. (Was anyone else surprised that an otherwise cuddly holiday picture appealing to a wide audience featuring Hollywood's Mr. Nice Guy, Tom Hanks, would include such a gruesome sequence and allow it to run for the extent that it did?)


Best Achievement In Sound Effects Editing
My Predictions

The Matrix
The Mummy
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

AMPAS Nominees

Fight Club
The Matrix
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

[ 2 out of 3 ]

I'm pleased that Fight Club's sound effects editing received a nomination instead of my prediction of The Mummy; given that Oscar ceremonies in recent years have featured a little sidebit demonstrating the background behind sound effects editing techniques, I sense some strong comic possibilities from Fight Club's nomination.


Best Achievement In Visual Effects
My Predictions

The Matrix
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Stuart Little

AMPAS Nominees

The Matrix
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Stuart Little

[ 3 out of 3 ]

The Visual Effects category was fairly easy to call -- honestly, I'd have been stunned if Wild Wild West or The World Is Not Enough made the cut, and Sleepy Hollow's effects works weren't overly spectacular -- with the shakiest of my three picks probably being The Matrix. I'd guess that Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace will pick up the Oscar here, although it's a good race: one can't think about The Matrix without recalling many of the visually spectacular scenes (I'm talking CGI here, not Keanu doing kung fu), and the seamless integration of the digitally animated title character of Stuart Little into the film is a noteworthy achievement. (It'll also be interesting to see John Dykstra, senior visual effects supervisor on the Columbia family film and previously instrumental in the creation of Industrial Light & Magic back in 1977 via Star Wars, now in direct competition with ILM's work on the latest installment of the sci-fi saga.)


Best Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen
My Predictions

American Beauty: Alan Ball
Being John Malkovich: Charlie Kaufman
Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson
The Sixth Sense: M. Night Shyamalan
Three Kings: David O. Russell & Jim Ridley

AMPAS Nominees

American Beauty: Alan Ball
Being John Malkovich: Charlie Kaufman
Magnolia: Paul Thomas Anderson
The Sixth Sense: M. Night Shyamalan
Topsy-Turvy: Mike Leigh

[ 4 out of 5 ]

Four of the five slots in the Original Screenplay category were essentially locked up -- Alan Ball's script for American Beauty, the Charlie Kaufman screenplay of Being John Malkovich, M. Night Shyamalan's script for The Sixth Sense, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia screenplay -- with the only remaining question being what would place in the fifth spot. I figured that the admired and respected David O. Russell and Jim Ridley collaboration on Three Kings would get attention and sided with the Writers Guild of America, who also cited this as a nominee for their prizes. The Writers Branch of AMPAS instead selected Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy script, marking his second Original Screenplay Oscar nomination following 1996's Secrets & Lies. While the British filmmaker is legendary for the improvisational technique he and his actors employ to 'find' the stories for their films, it nevertheless remains that a screenplay is generated as a result of their tribulations, and is hence eligible for consideration.

Leigh won't win the Oscar, of course, and neither will Paul Thomas Anderson. Although he was a lock for a nomination, I do wonder why the Magnolia screenplay was elevated to this position -- while there are sparks of originality, most of the subplots struck me as ultimately familiar and clichéd (who didn't see the outcome of the Melora Walters/Philip Baker Hall thread coming about three minutes into it?), and the strength of the film was certainly more in Anderson's direction than in his script. In any case, the race boils down to a heat between Ball and Kaufman, with Shyamalan trailing -- I don't think that he'll win, but the appeal of That Twist seems to be so strong (it's probably the most talked-about trick ending since Christopher McQuarrie's The Usual Suspects, which went on to win an Oscar) that I wouldn't count him out. My guess is that Ball holds the edge, especially given the popularity of American Beauty with the Academy membership at large compared to Being John Malkovich.


Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced Or Published
My Predictions

The Cider House Rules: John Irving
Election: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
The Green Mile: Frank Darabont
The Insider: Eric Roth & Michael Mann
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Anthony Minghella

AMPAS Nominees

The Cider House Rules: John Irving
Election: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
The Green Mile: Frank Darabont
The Insider: Eric Roth & Michael Mann
The Talented Mr. Ripley: Anthony Minghella

[ 5 out of 5 ]

Although the Writers Guild of America selected Lewis Colick's adaptation of Homer J. Hickam's memoir "Rocket Boys", October Sky, as one of their five nominees, I was cautious about its chances at succeeding similarly with the Academy's Writers Branch given the film's low-profile, and instead replaced it with Frank Darabont's screenplay adaptation for The Green Mile; the rest of my four selections lined up with the WGA's.

While conventional wisdom appears to have John Irving's adaptation of his own novel, The Cider House Rules, as the favourite to win this category (and this is bolstered by the evident strong support for the picture via its seven Oscar nominations in total), I wouldn't necessarily cede this category just yet; I think this category's a bit of a free-for-all, with the other four nominees very much in the running. (If forced, I'd place Darabont last among the quintet.) The admired The Insider has its best chance to win an Oscar here, and Anthony Minghella's script for The Talented Mr. Ripley is well-liked. As I write this, Election has just been named as the Writers Guild of America choice for Adapted Screenplay of the year; this will certainly inform AMPAS voters. At this point, this race is one of the toughest to call.


AMPAS Nominee Prediction Track Record

I recently received an e-mail which, in part, queried my past track record on predictions in a certain category (undoubtedly to determine whether or the writer should give credence to my perspective on the matter). I quickly realized that I had no idea what my track record was in terms of any of the categories, and thought it might be revealing to see where my predictions have been fairly accurate and others in which my picks have gone horribly awry (and hence where one should pay no attention to my random musings).

I can't find my 1995 predictions -- I know I went 23 for 30 in the "Big Six" there -- but, by category, here's my nominee prediction accuracy rate for the past four years:

Picture: 75%
Actor: 80%
Actress: 90%
Supporting Actor: 80%
Supporting Actress: 75%
Director: 85%
Art Direction: 55%
Cinematography: 75%
Costume Design: 70%
Documentary Feature: 40%
Editing: 75%
Foreign Language Film: 60%
Makeup: 75%
Music (Score): 60%
Music (Song): 70%
Sound: 60%
Sound Effects Editing: 50%
Visual Effects: 75%
Original Screenplay: 80%
Adapted Screenplay: 90%

Believe me, it comes as no surprise that I've done very badly with the Documentary Feature category -- who can tell what those guys are up to, anyway? -- and the Foreign Language Film category. The poor success rate at the Sound Effects Editing category can probably be attributed to my complete shutout in 1997. I was a little surprised that my success rate with Art Direction was so poor, though. My top categories are the Actress and Adapted Screenplay, where I've been running at a solid 90%. (I've got a streak of two five-for-five years in the Actress category.)


What happened to The Hurricane?

One of the most glaring aspects of this year's list of Academy Award nominees was the near-whitewashing of Universal Studios' major Oscar bait project, the Norman Jewison picture The Hurricane. Considered to loom as a formidable heavyweight (pardon the pun) for this awards season, the film managed to nab only a single nomination -- Denzel Washington in the Best Actor category -- despite heavy promotion and significant affirming recognition leading up to the Oscar nominee announcements: a trio of Golden Globe nominees, a Producers Guild nomination, and a Screen Actors Guild nomination.

During the climactic final weeks of Oscar nominee balloting, the filmmakers of The Hurricane were embroiled in a very public controversy over the dramatic liberties and outright fictionalization taken by the film in its retelling of the Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter story. The picture, its many detractors charged, exaggerated the role of the Canadians in the eventual freeing of the wrongly-imprisoned boxer by falsely crediting them with the unearthing of explosive information which resulted in his exoneration. It overemphasized Carter's prowess in the ring. It created a non-existent villain. Such untruths, they claimed, tarnished the quality of the picture and rendered it unworthy of Academy attention. The mass media, sparked first by the New York Post's Jack Newfield's charge that the film was a "horrible falsification of history" and then a detailed article in the New York Times by Selwyn Raab, and eager as ever to leap on a controversy, stirred the pot into a froth by reprinting these attacks on the picture to the point of saturation; commentary of the film's inaccuracies quickly exceeded those of the picture's content. The respected film critic Jack Mathews, who formerly served as the Los Angeles Times film editor and critic for Newsday, and who now writes for the New York Daily News, made headlines by taking the unusual step of striking The Hurricane from his Top 10 list after-the-fact because of the picture's "artful untruths". It's largely perceived that the controversy surrounding the picture effectively derailed its Oscar chances, much as Amistad, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, and Mississippi Burning were considered to be adversely affected by their respective imbroglios.

It's hard to dispute that The Hurricane has taken liberties with the Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter story. It's freely admitted that in reality the Canadian contingent didn't discover the information which led to Carter's freeing -- his lawyers did. (Nor were the troupe menaced and threatened by local police during their quest for justice, as depicted in the film. For that matter, there were nine Canucks, not three.) The Hurricane features a cartoonishly racist Javert-like detective named Della Pesca (played by the reliable Dan Hedaya) who hounded our protagonist since childhood and eventually tags Carter with the triple-homicide charge; in reality, no such person existed. The filmmakers claim the character is a composite, representative of the corrupt justice system, although the name alone suggests that he's also clearly loosely based on the case's actual chief investigator, Detective Vincent DeSimone. And the film's depiction of Rubin Carter's boxing prowess is so overstated as to be unintentionally comic; yes, in his time he was considered a top middleweight boxer, but if you watch The Hurricane, you'd think he's the next coming of Drago from Rocky IV -- I'm unsure if any of his opponents even got a single jab in. (One of Carter's real-life boxing opponents, Hall of Famer Joey Giardello, is distinctly unamused by the film's one-sided version of their boxing title match: he's suing the filmmakers for defamation.)

Nevertheless, I honestly don't see the cause for commotion here. Virtually all films which claim to be "based on a true story" are rife with fictionalization and creative consolidation; it always has been and always shall be par for the course. All The President's Men, Raging Bull, Gandhi, Ed Wood -- none of these are wholly faithful to their original stories, and it's unreasonable to expect that The Hurricane wouldn't do some fiddling with timelines, events, and so forth in order to streamline the story for mass consumption; after all, it's a dramatic motion picture, not a documentary. Does anyone actually believe that events depicted in films with a basis in reality are recreated with total accuracy? Oh, I'm sure that a few out there might actually believe that there really was a dashing young Jack Dawson on board the Titanic when it sunk, but really -- does anyone sit through, say, In The Name Of The Father or Schindler's List and think "Yes, this is how it really happened"? Don't we all take it with a grain of salt? Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but I think that today's audiences are savvy enough to realize that dramatic liberties (often substantial ones) are taken with every movie purported to be based on fact. (My own experience has been that the "based on a true story" title card that appears in the opening moments of such films is usually greeted by the audience with derisive snorts of bemusement and cynicism.) Certainly those in the industry and active film critics, who've seen more than their share of such films, recognize this -- and yet in the past few years, an inordinate number of fact-based films have been subjected to this sort of attack; this year saw The Hurricane, Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, and Michael Mann's The Insider criticized for 'inaccuracies'. Is this indicative of an increasingly-litiguous and unforgiving society, eager to take exception at the slightest provocation?

Moreover, with regards to the key point of contention -- the role of the Canadians -- I must ask: is the misrepresentation at all important in the framework of the story The Hurricane is attempting to tell? I don't think so. The film clearly isn't interested about who freed Rubin Carter as much as it is that he was cleared. The Norman Jewison picture's focus is mostly on Carter's wrongful conviction and imprisonment for a crime that he didn't commit, and his struggles to cope and survive in captivity -- the story is told from a human rather than clinical perspective; this isn't a sleuth movie, after all. In the grand scheme of things, the manner in which the Rubin Carter tale was addressed here makes it a minor detail which in no way affects the thematic spirit of the story being told; it simply assists to condense the timeline and reduce the number of peripheral characters.

In any case, I can hardly blame screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon for prominently using Lesra Martin and the Canadians in their script; it's one of the most singularly intriguing and distinguishing aspects of l'affaire Carter, and provides a potentially rich and rewarding human angle to the story. My criticism isn't with the dramatic liberties taken by the filmmakers so much as that they felt the need to take any; I'm all for streamlining a bulky and unwieldy true-life story that doesn't inherently lend itself well to drama, but the real Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter saga is even more compelling than the would-be taut, lean version which Bernstein and Gordon brought to the screen. The fascinating twists and turns of the second trial were excised in the film, and the galvanizing and crushing effect of Carter's fleeting celebrity support was only hinted at in the most superficial manner. Indeed, when told in a linear manner, the real story plays better as a movie than The Hurricane did itself -- beat-for-beat, the tale follows the conventional film arc in a way that screams for big-screen attention. The misguidedness of the screenplay is my chief disappointment with the picture; as I watched the film, I silently groaned as the script made one wrong turn after another. The Hurricane could've been one of the best wrongly-imprisoned films ever.

While I feel the controversy surrounding the film's inaccuracies was undeserved and overblown, I also think that The Hurricane team completely fumbled the ball when attempting to address and defuse the situation; it couldn't have been any more terribly mishandled. After the initial complaints were out in public, they failed to respond for a few weeks, which only allowed questions to snowball. When they finally began damage control, it was in a manner that was far too argumentative -- via a noticeably-angry full-page ad placed in trade papers (and on their The Hurricane web site) that refuted the claims brought by their attackers. While this was a highly-visible forum to confront the charges being laid, this also helped to ensure that the entire industry became aware of the controversy surrounding their picture and allowed people to examine and judge the claims being made against The Hurricane on a point-by-point basis. A turn for the worse occurred when the film's team they went on the offensive. Producer Armyan Bernstein responded to the criticism of Selwyn Raab and lawyer Lewis Steel, a member of Carter's legal team, by blasting "You have to look at the sources who are either being critical or attacking the film. Unlike the millions of people who go to the movies, there's only like two or three voices ... [they] don't underscore what is really upsetting them: the fact that they have not been mentioned or presented in our film. It gets people upset when they're not part of something that is getting a lot of praise and attention."

The smearing continued in a Los Angeles Times column. After Steel noted some of the inaccuracies in The Hurricane, the filmmakers irritably fired off a letter to the Times, calling Steel "biased", "self-serving" and "disgruntled because he was not mentioned in our film", adding that his letter was "a deliberate attempt to distort and misrepresent our film by a man who is seeking self-promotion". (I'm sort of reminded of producer Dean Devlin famously losing it on his Godzilla web site message board.)

While Lewis Steel wasn't represented in The Hurricane, lawyers Leon Friedman and Myron Beldock were (as played by Harris Yulin and David Paymer), and in the wake of the blistering attack by Bernstein, Jewison et al., they were forced to split ranks and come to the defense of their colleague. In a response to the L.A. Times, the lawyers wrote "some of his [Steel's] criticism of the film has considerable merit ... the racism was far more pervasive than depicted in the movie and was not limited to a single police officer", and noted "it is regrettable that the movie does not acknowledge many of the individuals who committed themselves to the long fight for justice for Rubin Carter and John Artis, including, among others, Mr. Steele ... and Selwyn Raab." They pointed commented "the film undervalues the contributions of so many others and the teamwork and team spirit that carried clients, lawyers and supporters through long years of adversity and enabled them to ultimately achieve the habeas corpus victory" and concluded that "the misguided personal attacks on Lewis Steel do not them [the filmmakers] credit."

While they were losing (or at least looking very badly -- I don't know about you, but I tend to have more sympathy with the guy who, err, actually helped free Rubin Carter than the guys who just made a movie about him) in this public war-of-words, Norman Jewison took a vacation to Utah during the Oscar nomination campaign stretch run and made himself unavailable for comment. However, his spokesperson indicated that the director was "deliberately not saying anything about the controversy because none of it was his call. Norman was given a script and he worked from that script with a few small changes. He's not trying to dodge anything, but the decisions about what elements went into that script had nothing to do with him." While this is technically true -- he didn't write the screenplay, after all -- Jewison's refusal to candidly address the situation certainly left the impression that he was doing an about-face after his vehement protests and was now absolving himself of responsibility for the film's fictional embellishments, or at least attempting to distance himself from the brouhaha, which only helps to make the arguments of the picture's critics seem meritorious. A lousy move.

As for Jack Mathews' decision to remove The Hurricane from his Top 10 list, well, it's his list so he's certainly free to do anything he wants with it. Still, his rationale for the revision seems questionable to me: he saw the picture, loved it, placed it on his year-end top 10 list, then learned that elements of the real saga differed from those depicted in the picture and was so appalled that he decided to excise the movie from his list -- is he judging the film for its accuracy in its representation of the real-life story, or is he judging the film as a film? It would seem to be the former; indeed, in his column, Mathews noted that his opinion of the movie remains constant: "No, the movie hasn't shrunk. It's still one of the best I saw last year."

I certainly didn't think The Hurricane was one of the best films of last year, but apparently Mathews did. Isn't that enough to put it on his list? I could see the case being made for the film's removal from his list if he felt the transgressions affected the quality or effectiveness of the picture, but he explicitly indicated that wasn't the case here. Besides, it seems ludicrous to take the position that "it was a great film, but now that I know more about the real story, the film isn't great anymore." Mathews' implicit stance of "I thought The Hurricane was one of the best films of the year, but I disapprove of some factors which don't adversely affect the quality of the film, so I'll make a political statement by striking him from my list" makes about as much sense to me as the Directors Guild of America's National Board position that "D.W. Griffith is one of the most important filmmakers of all time and the father of modern cinema, but we disapprove of some aspects of Birth Of A Nation that in no way diminish his prowess and pioneering inventiveness as a director, so we'll make a political statement by renaming our lifetime achievement award."


Spoilsports Of The Year

Once Harry Knowles made international headlines with his alleged list of Oscar nominees prior to the official announcement, it was inevitable that others would follow suit. In late February it was discovered that The Wall Street Journal had embarked upon a secret project to poll Academy members for their preferences in the Big Six categories in order to determine this year's set of Oscar winners prior to the ceremony; the results of the survey would be published in advance of the March 26th festivities. In a letter to AMPAS members, Academy president Robert Rehme called this "the most concerted attempt in history to predetermine the outcome of our awards in six categories".

While, as Knowles demonstrated, there is genuine public interest in getting a sneak advance peek into the Oscar process, I must join the chorus of voices chastising The Wall Street Journal for embarking on this wrong-headed quest. What's the point? They'll sell a lot of papers for that issue, to be sure, but they'll play spoilsport for the industry's biggest event of the year and diminish the viewing enjoyment of the millions worldwide who tune in to catch the winners. Even worse, they could be horribly wrong with their list of projected winners, which would make them look terribly foolish. It's a situation where the rewards are very slim -- a momentary blip in sales, tempered by a likely disgruntled public reaction -- and the potential downside is massive. I urge the WSJ to junk this project, and also urge Academy members in the future who are polled to lie about their voting selections. Either refuse to respond, or deliberately mislead, I say. If that gives inaccurate survey results, so be it.

While The Wall Street Journal is a well-respected publication steeped in a grand tradition of excellence, more unscrupulous types are also getting involved in Oscar-spoiling activities. (The Knowles incident clearly illustrated that a very easy way to get yourself in the news is to claim you have the scoop on the Academy Awards, and now people are coming out of the woodwork.) I received two e-mails (which contradict each other in certain minor details) about persons from some tabloid called Inside Hollywood who claim to be engaged in the same practice as the WSJ:

Q: "It has been reported that Janet Hurley and Richard Maltin of the now-defunct "Inside Hollywood" have been conducting a poll of Academy members with 20% polled. According to them
Picture: The Cider House Rules
Director: Sam Mendes.
Actor: Denzel Washington.
Actress: Hillary Swank.
Sup Actor: Michael Clarke Duncan.
Sup Actress: Angelina Jolie

Can this information be trusted? I certainly hope not. I can't stand yet another Miramax win over a more deserving Dreamworks movie. And Michael Clarke Duncan? Please not!"

- Jeff

Q: "I'm really concern with the Wall Street Journal poll about the Oscars. I bet you have heard about it. The problem is, in the Wesley Lovell Oscar Guy discussion board, there's this guy who claim himself from the "Inside Hollywood" tabloid, and he said that he is conducting the same poll as the WSJ people did, and that he had more than 20% of the Academy members already participate in it.

He said that the "Inside HOllywood" has become a great prediction for the Oscars (they rarely predicted wrong), and here are their this year's poll:

[poll results deleted for space -- they're saying Cider House, Hallström, Washington, Swank, Duncan, Jolie, Malkovich and Cider House for screenplays, Richardson's cinematography, Matrix editing, and Yared's score]

My question for you is, have you ever heard about the "Inside Hollywood" guys? and what do you think about their poll? If this poll is true, I'll just kill myself. I still cannot bear the fact that the Academy loves Angelina Jolie better than Chloe Sevigny (please agree w/me on this one, Alex...I know you are rooting for Cider House)."

- Lucky

Now, I've never heard of Inside Hollywood in my life, but then again I rarely pay attention to the entertainment tabloids. Nor have I heard of Janet Hurley or Richard Maltin prior to this. I haven't bothered to go poking around on the 'net, but I have no mention of them in my files. There's no way to confirm whether the results of their poll are genuine or fabricated at this point -- which is, of course, the best position for someone claiming to have exclusive knowledge to be in; there's nothing or nobody to refute any claims -- but some of their results strike me as so unexpected that I'm more than a little skeptical. My gut reaction is that this is baloney -- heck, anyone could claim to have polled AMPAS members and rattle off a list of guesses -- but we'll have to see.

(I'd be pretty amazed if Lasse Hallström wins the Director Oscar, and would be a little appalled if Michael Clarke Duncan, the poor man's Ving Rhames, won an Oscar for profuse weeping.)

In regards to Lucky, while I prefer Chloë Sevigny's lovely, observant performance in Boys Don't Cry over Angelina Jolie's one-note turn in the abysmal Girl, Interrupted by several football fields, I must confess that I can see the AMPAS membership voting Jolie to victory. And while, yes, I did like The Cider House Rules more than any of the other candidates, I don't think it's accurate to say that I'm rooting for it; actually, the idea of it potentially going down in history as 1999's Best Picture Oscar winner strikes me as really odd. (And I still think that in the future, people are going to look back at 1998 and wonder how in the world Shakespeare In Love beat Saving Private Ryan.) I honestly haven't avidly rooted for an eventual Best Picture Academy Award winner since the 1992 masterpiece Unforgiven.)


Oscar Presenter Contest Update

I'm pleased to report that I'm back in the thick of things with that Oscar Presenter contest I'm involved with. Well, okay, as I write this I'm stuck in second-last place, but I'm within striking distance of the lead -- only four picks off. (And if any of my picks actually manage to serve as presenters in the categories I originally guessed, I can score bonus points!) Among others, thanks to Cameron Diaz, Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves for agreeing to appear. And I'm rooting for Annette Bening to hold off on giving birth until after she appears onstage.


Mailbag

My apologies for the amount of time it's taken for me to wrap up this column. In addition to being a little burned out from churning out the last handful of Oscar columns, I've been tied up with other activities, including pesky, exasperating daytime obligations and attending the Cinematheque Ontario Best Of The Nineties programme (my faves were Bruno Dumont's La Vie De Jesus and Olivier Assayas' L'eau Froide).

I've also been kept busy churning out the results pages for the 5th annual r.a.m.*+ Critics Circle awards. To my knowledge, these are the oldest active set of annual online film awards, and I take my voting responsibilities here quite seriously; I usually spend hours every year agonizing over which names to whittle from my ballot the evening prior to the voting deadline. I consider the list of invited participants to be rather illustrious -- all of them are extremely knowledgeable about cinema: many of them have emerged in the past handful of years as leaders in the online film criticism game, others are notable print film critics and entertainment writers on a local and national scale (participants have written in such publications as Entertainment Weekly, Us Magazine, Time Out New York, The Onion, Yahoo! Internet Life, the Village Voice, and others; we also have NYFCC and CFCA representation), while others are film historians and others are active in the industry itself -- screenwriters, etc. (one participant is a full-fledged Academy member). Needless to say, I consider myself easily the most unqualified to participate this survey (what the hell am I doing in this company?) and honored to be invited to participate. (I'm still expecting to eventually get kicked out one year when they come to their senses). I've had the great privilege to correspond with many of those involved over the eight-odd years I've been online, and while I don't always agree with the group's tastes -- come on, guys and gals, The Blair Witch Project? Heather Donohue? -- I have the utmost respect for every single member of the group and am always interested in their informed opinions on the state of cinema. Anyway, check out this year's results if you have the inclination; let me know if you have any reactions, pro or con.

Anyway, back to the Mailbag. As will be evident by their content, some of the following messages were sent prior to the announcement of the Oscar nominees. (Yes, I've been working on this column for quite a while.) I debated whether or not I should include them in this column, and finally decided to run with them; although they may be now dated, I don't think that any of the conjecture now looks silly or misguided, and some of them still continue valuable insights and provocative observations which some may find interesting. Before continuing, I should also note that some of the messages are more notes than questions -- take that bold initial Q with a grain of salt. And if you've sent an Oscar-related correspondence recently which isn't listed here, let me know; my e-mail situation is in a bit of shambles, and I may have simply lost track of it.


Q: "Much has been made of Jocelyn Pook's score for Eyes Wide Shut. Do you think this is an issue of people not truly knowing what they are hearing. By this, I mean that there are only three or four compositions on the entire soundtrack that were composed by Pook. The rest are standards or classics (Chris Isaak, Dominic Harlan, Oscar Peterson Trio, et al). Another such score was the one for The Truman Show. While one of my all-time favorite film scores, again, there were at least five or six compositions that were not composed for the film, but rather, a previous work.

Were these films truly recognized only for their composers original compositions, or are they judged as a whole, regardless of the fact that some were not composed specifically for that film."

- Rick Curnutte

A: I couldn't really comment on the perceptions of others who touted Jocelyn Pook as a worthy Best Score nominee candidate, but I was judging her sparing piano compositions when I espoused the view that Eyes Wide Shut's score deserves consideration; I fully realized that the Chris Isaak et al. was not to be considered. While a few have wrote in commenting that Pook's work struck them as silly -- a piano key here, a few note there -- I found it eerily effective and often creepy and unnerving; I felt that it enhanced the disorienting tone of Dr. Bill's odyssey.

([LATE NOTE]: Open mouth, insert foot -- Jeremy Doherty notes that Pook's score chiefly appeared only in the orgy sequence and during Kidman's monologues. If such is the case, I'm clearly in error; many thanks for the correction.

As for the Academy itself, I would presume that the Music Branch of AMPAS, whose voting determines the nominee list, should be able to distinguish between Pooke's work and the other contributions to the soundtrack. However, it's perceived by many that the Academy at large do have difficulty in distinguishing between a film's original musical score and songs contained within. Indeed, this was one of the arguments used to justify the segregation of musical scores in pictures with heavy use of original songs into a Best Song Score category, apart from other scores which were considered in the Best Score. (The Best Song Score category was removed from consideration for this year as only Tarzan and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut were submitted for consideration.)


Q: "Terrific peformances/films that don't seem to have a shot:

Performances I devoutly hope will be recognized but could fall by the wayside:

Final thoughts: Various people have been bandying about comparisons between The Boxer and The Hurricane, I suppose because both of them are about boxers? This is just plain silly. The much more ovbious parallel for The Boxer - a movie with top dramatic talent which went no where at the box office and in the year end awards - is with Angela's Ashes. People expected so much from Angela's Ashes, and it's about the same for The Boxer (minus the best selling comic book aspect). Dark, drizzly Irish dramas - a protagonist with tremendous odds to overcome - and Emily Watson in the more understated performances she doesn't get rewarded for. Despite the fact that critics seemed to like both movies, no one mentions them in award contention. (Although I think Premier is touting it as a best picture lock, as amusing as it's insistence on NicoleKidman in the acting catagories.)

Good luck finishing your columns - and if it makes you feel any better I was just as shocked that Alan Ball beat Charles Kaufman, and Phil Collins beat out Randy Newman. Your hindsight reasoning on Ball is sound, but I agree that Kaufman still has a great shot at what's traditionally the 'toss 'em a bone' catagory, and Newman penned a far better and hopefully more Academy acceptible song. Rememebr las year's treacely Globe winning song, "The Prayer"? (I wonder how many other people do)."

- Ellen Salah

A: I liked Rebecca Pidgeon in The Winslow Boy -- she's often maligned by many online, especially given her relationship with Mamet, but I typically find her performances inordinately entertaining -- but I'm afraid that I can't join in the praise for Nigel Hawthorne; I thought that Jeremy Northam was far more effective in the film.

I agree with your comment over art direction and costumes -- I thought that both aspects were very good indeed in An Ideal Husband and certainly worth of consideration, but given that the film was never positioned as a serious Oscar contender by Miramax, they didn't stand much of a chance for nominations.

I've been championing Chris Cooper's performance in American Beauty since Day One, and was sorry to see that he didn't make the cut. He's a terrific actor, and more often than not the best thing in any movie he appears in -- in addition to Lone Star, he was great in October Sky and the only redeeming factor in the otherwise-execrable A Time To Kill.

Gee, I thought that Stephen Rea looked pretty much as he always does in The End Of The Affair. The supporting performance in that film I liked was that of Ian Hart of the unreasonably polite private investigator; it was positively Max Perlich-esque. And I must join in on your praise of Cherry Jones, who stood out in Cradle Will Rock's illustrious, star-powered ensemble cast.

I like your parallel of Angela's Ashes to The Boxer. (Comic book?) And what was with Premiere considering Nicole Kidman as a lock? As for "The Prayer", I'm still trying to put it and "When You Believe" out of my mind. Too bad South Park wasn't released last year.


Q: "1) Re: Angelina Jolie -- definitely underwhelming in Girl, Interrupted, for all the reasons you cite. I mean, I'd happily watch her stock grocery shelves, but her performance in GI only sticks out for its relative showiness. On the other hand, I'm giving her more than a token number of points in Mike's survey for her performance in Playing By Heart. The movie was similarly underwhelming (charming enough for a video rental, but...), but she took a character who could have been an annoying litany of tics and turned her into a believable woman. I'd love to see Jolie in a Jonathan Demme or John Sayles picture, rather than used as a Wacky Oddball or Free Spirit; I think she could do delicately human quite well, if given the opportunity.

2) I have to admit that, sappy as it might have been, the "When She Loved Me" scene in TS2 carved my heart out, cubed it, added toothpicks, and served it as an appetizer. Yeah, I'm a softy.

3) Re: Courtney Love: embarrassing. I saw her talking to someone on the red carpet while arriving at the awards, and she even said ahead of time that she might sing the song. It sounded stupid when she talked about it then, and her delivery was, well, pathetic.

4) re: Meryl Streep, acting God: "You are my acting god" would imply that Meryl is the most inspiring actor of either sex that Swank knows. "Acting goddess" would imply that there are male actors she might hold more dear. "God" can be, and probably was in this instance, gender-neutral, like "waiter" or "actor" or "pilot." That's my read on it, anyway."

- James Callan

A: 1) I missed Playing By Heart (my interest in the film dropped after they dropped the original unwieldy-but-intriguing Dancing About Architecture title), but I've heard nothing but praise for her work there. I find it interesting how many have declared 1999 to be the Year of Julianne Moore given the number of her films which have been theatrically released; I think the case could be made that Angelina Jolie made a bigger impact this year, especially given the quality of her output. Granted, I wasn't crazy at all about her Girl, Interrupted work as Lisa, but she was very good as the trampy Mary in Pushing Tin and a strong presence in the crummy The Bone Collector. Tack on Playing By Heart, and that's quite a formidable year for Ms. Jolie. (And nobody's considered 1999 to be the Year of Cate Blanchett, but I loved all three of her performances -- Pushing Tin, An Ideal Husband, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.) I suspect Jolie keeps getting cast in these Wacky Oddball/Free Spirit roles because of the high energy level she exhudes; it was refreshing to see her with a more restrained character in The Bone Collector.

3) Now that you mention it, I also caught Love's Golden Globes red carpet declaration/warning. Cripes, that was awful.

4) I cede to your deitic interpretation. (Gee, I have to watch these asides I insert in my commentary; I didn't expect that they'd be analyzed. Heck, I'm surprised that anyone reads these columns.)


Q: "It has come to my attention that "Malkovich Malkovich," the song sung by the [spoiler] in the [spoiler] scene in Being John Malkovich, isn't eligible for a nomination. However, that song sung by Bjork is eligible. "Malkovich Malkovich" was a much better song!"

- M12

A: At least the performer wouldn't have to memorize the lyrics. It would've been great if "Malkovich Malkovich" was nominated and had to be performed during the ceremony, though.


Q: "I loved Being John Malkovich, but am I the only one who noticed the boom mic that kept intruding into the frame near the beginning of the film, particularly the initial flirting scene between John Cusack and Catherine Keener?

And is it just me, or is there a trend against nominating Canadian actors? Oscar snubs in the past few years have included viable candidates such as Jim Carrey (Truman Show), Sarah Polley (The Sweet Hereafter), and Donald Sutherland (Without Limits). I also noticed that Christopher Plummer did not receive a nomination by either the Golden Globes or the Actors Guild. I'm speaking as a bit of a patriot, but they nominate British and Australian actors--why not the Canadians?

As for my sentiments on Memo to the Academy, I just saw Snow Falling On Cedars and aside from the obvious cinematography nomination it will receive, I thought the film had so many other things going for it. I thought it was brilliantly edited, was directed with a deft hand, and had a solid script, decent score and sound costuming. Plus, in addition to Max von Sydow's noble performance, I felt that Yuoki Kudoh gave a star-making performance. Given all that, I think it deserves a best picture nomination. I know a lot of critics have criticized it for being pretty but empty, but I didn't get that at all. I found it very emotionally involving and moving."

- Alan Wong

A: Boom mikes which appear in frame are typically the fault of your theater's projectionist, not the filmmakers. To quote Roger Ebert, "It's the projectionist's job to "frame" [the 35mm film] in the projector so that the correct part of the picture area is seen and the rest is not."

I honestly hadn't noticed this trend against nominating Canadian actors prior to this year -- while Jim Carrey's The Truman Show omission was a surprise, Donald Sutherland's supporting work in Without Limits was unlikely to receive a nomination last year, and a supporting actress nomination bid for Sarah Polley's performance in The Sweet Hereafter was a genuine longshot (she was great, though) -- and I didn't even really notice it this year until I noted Peter Howell's post-nomination column on the phenomenon in The Toronto Star. To be honest, I don't think there's any merit to the argument -- sorry, Peter -- that Canadian actors are being deliberately kept out of the loop and there's a concerted effort to penalize them for their nationality; it all seems a little too paranoid to me. There's certainly some resentment over the runaway production trend, with film shoots fleeing the United States to set up shop in more inexpensive territories -- Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, etc. -- with top-notch local crews on hand, but I really have trouble envision AMPAS voters scrawling Jim Carrey's name on a ballot and then thinking, "Wait, he's one of them!" and angrily scratching Carrey's name from the dotted line.

Nevertheless, the belief that Canadians are being persecuted in Hollywood seems to be picking up steam in some circles, undoubtedly (and nonsensically) egged on by the "Blame Canada" South Park nomination. Brenda Bouw wrote a late February piece in the National Post which reported that Atom Egoyan stated "Some Canadians ... were clearly snubbed." (For sake of a good story, the fact that he also qualified his remarks by stating "I don't think it was designed, or calculated or engineered by the Academy" was buried in the article; Egoyan was making an observation, not an accusation.)

Glad to hear that you liked Snow Falling On Cedars. You're not alone in your praise for the picture, of course, but in general the reaction was so overwhelmingly cool towards it that the film was extremely unlikely to receive a Best Picture nomination, and ultimately racked up only the Robert Richardson pick for cinematography.


Q: "I would like to know what you think of woody allen's chances of receiving a best original screenplay nom. Sweet And Lowdown was well received and in the past it seems that all he needs is a little praise from the right people. I am not a rapid fan, but i did enjoy 'Sweet'. this would make 14 and, if i am not mistaken, would put him ahead of Wilder in the screenplay cat. I am fan of film, therefore i can't deny his talent, but it seems to me that the academy nominates him every year for somthing. As a film fan i make a point to see his annual film, but most people don't. And after they open i don't here much about them until, bang, he gets an academy award nom. Why do you think the academy gives him a nom, when most of the other major shows leave him out."

- Gus Sanchez

A: After I got burned by failing to anticipate Woody Allen's Original Screenplay nomination for Deconstructing Harry, I've made it a policy to never count him out of any Oscar race in this category. You're correct on Allen's screenplay nomination count -- had he received a nomination for his Sweet And Lowdown script, it would've been his 14th. However, he's already holds the title of most nominated writer in Academy history -- he toppled Billy Wilder with the aforementioned Deconstructing Harry; Wilder has 12 nominations.

I hadn't picked Allen to receive a nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Sweet And Lowdown -- he didn't make my top 5 guesses nor my secondary picks -- but I did keep him in mind; my opinion was that although the film was generally well-received, it hadn't made much of a splash in the awards race (Sony Pictures Classics could've pushed it harder) and wouldn't place as the fifth candidate. (The other four slots were all but locked up.)

Like you, I make a point to catch his annual film, and you're right that most people don't -- his domestic audience has been consistently shrinking since the timeframe of Hannah And Her Sisters, and Allen's become increasingly dependent on European grosses to help him break even; in recent years, cost-cutting on his productions has been so strict that the Mighty Aphrodite shoot saw the elimination of free coffee for the crew. As for his Academy Award nominations, one can only conclude that he's extremely well-respected and admired by the highest-echelon filmmakers and actors; after all, his ability to net A-list talent like DiCaprio, Ryder, Penn, Moore, Griffith, Cusack, Branagh, Norton, Barrymore, Roberts, Portman and the like for his films and only pay them $5000 a week indicates the amount of respect he commands. (As many actors have decalred, if Woody Allen wants you for his film, you go -- it's a honour.) Many of the top filmmakers in the industry have professed not only admiration of Allen, but outright envy that he's able to command complete control over his projects and maintain a prolific rate of output working outside of the studio system. Despite his refusal to campaign for Academy Awards on a personal level -- you won't find a single trade advertisement touting Allen for director or screenwriter consideration for Sweet And Lowdown (while improbable junk like The Story Of Us is flogged as a candidate) -- he's clearly been popular with the Academy due to the respect and admiration he commands. The question, in my mind, is why hasn't he been as popular with the guilds as with the Academy? (I suspect it's because the pool of voters is diluted; my guess is that his base of support is stronger with the top filmmakers than it is with the neophytes.)


Q: "Here's a theory on why Disney has been continuing to promote the Tarzan score in its "For Your Consideration" ads even though its been ruled ineligible for months: they want to remind people of the unjust rejection of the score, hoping to prevent a similar ruling in the future (against Marc Shaiman and Sting's work in 2000's Kingdom in the Sun). What better way to keep people talking about the score and the ruling than by continuing the "FYC" ads? I believe your timeline is correct, by the way: first the score was submitted as a song score, then that category was removed for lack of entries. Then it was submitted as an Original Score, and rejected.

As for the Blair Witch Project and its accompanying "soundtrack". I have to say it IS indeed a kick-ass album, if you like gothic/industrial. And it's not quite as free of connection to the film as you suggest; a snippett of the Afghan Whigs song IS heard playing in Josh's car toward the beginning of the film, and my favorite track is actually Antonio Cora's "the Cellar", which is the collage of creepy sound effects that played at the end of the film & over the credits. Also included between songs are a few bits of dialogue from the film, and its also worth noting that at least two other tracks ("Don't Go To Sleep With Me" and "God Is God") on the album were recorded AFTER the events in the film were supposed to have taken place. All of this leads me, at least, to conclude that we're not to take the claim of the tape being "found in Josh's car" at all seriously. Rather than feeble or inane, it's just a way of having a little more fun with the story. And I find it a lot less disingeuous than the common claim of songs INSPIRED BY a film, when its obvious the songs were merely B-sides lying around from various musicians on the record label owned by the same parent company as the film production company."

- Brian Darr

A: Great letter. I think that you're dead on with your Tarzan hypothesis; they may have been thumbing their noses at the ruling of Mancina's score as ineligible in a pointed and interesting manner of protest. This hypothetical sort of strategy sounds more than reasonable to me. (It'd be interesting to know how many music branch members voted for Tarzan in spite of its ineligibility as a pseudo-protest.)

Thanks for the information about the Afghan Whigs song -- I didn't catch that when I watched the picture, and humbly withdraw my inaccurate claim that none of the "soundtrack" was featured in The Blair Witch Project. I must say that although I was terribly disappointed with the picture, I did like its use of sound, particularly that featured over the end credits, and only wished that they had pushed the envelope even further in that regard. (Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is an example of a film that made terrific use of sound and demonstrated that this could be equally unnerving as visual stimuli.)

I couldn't agree more with your chastisement of the proliferation of soundtracks ridiculously made up of songs "inspired" by a given film; it's the epitome of lameness. I'm awaiting the downward spiral to continue until we see soundtracks consisting of songs "related to the film, sorta kinda" and "well, these songs have nothing to do with the movie, but they're cool anyway".


Q: "You probably don't listen to NPR, what with being in a different N and all. I happened to first hear about the Oscar noms while listening this morning on my way to work. Bob Edwards was talking to a commentator; I don't remember her name, unfortunately. I must say I was appalled at how lackluster their discussion/analysis was.

Sure, it's a five-minute segment in the morning, not incisive criticism. However, they discussed for at least 45 seconds the "unusual" fact that the best picture noms don't perfectly match the best director noms. Now, while it's uncommon for the Best Picture *winner* not to be directed by the Best Director, it seems to me that there's almost always at least one mismatch in the Picture/Director nominees. In fact, I'm curious -- do you know the last year the two categories matched perfectly?

The analyst also quoted Billy Crystal, of all possible experts, mentioning his quip about the "best picture that directed itself." I know you know this, but I'm getting a bit tired of the old canard that the Best Picture *must* have had the Best Director. What a crock! Do people grumble if the Best Picture nominees aren't all represented in the Best Screenplay categories? Or Best Editing? (How frequently does it happen that the Best Picture nominees aren't all represented in the Best Screenplay categories, anyway?)

I seem to recall figuring out last year, when Ryan and Shakespeare split the director/picture wins, that such splits occur about 1/4 or 1/5 of the time. Hardly as rare or unprecedented as people like to mention. Granted, it's far less frequent that a Best Picture's director wasn't even nominated, but I'm sure it's happened."

- James Callan

A: I don't listen to NPR, being in a different N and all, but I'm not surprised to hear that the level of discussion was lackluster. I think it's virtually a necessity that when you're aiming to reach a very wide audience, as I presume National Public Radio does, you have to make the level of discourse as accessible as possible, and consequently are inhibited from anything other than a superficial discussion of the Academy Awards. To quote Bill James, "Journalism, by its nature, must appeal to the lowest common denominator, the lowest level of the pyramid. It must not assume any knowledge. The rule is that if you refer to Babe Ruth, you have to explain who Babe Ruth was; otherwise, some portion of the potential audience will be lost. To reach the largest possible audience, you must write to the lowest common denominator." It's very rare to find a serious, comprehensive discussion of the Oscars in a forum that's also aimed at a wide audience; such commentary is inevitably diluted to include comments about what Gwyneth might wear or what happened to that nice Tom Hanks fellow, or left intact but found in media sources targetted specifically at those with an interest in the movie scene.

As for when the Director and Best Picture categories last lined up perfectly, well, I went through the last 31 Oscar ceremony results before I got bored, and unless I missed something, I didn't see a match (although I certainly don't doubt that this has occured). Suffice it to say that it's been a while.

That "picture that directed itself" line is little more than a pleasant little sound bite devoid of actual basis in reality; it merely gives audiences a chance to nod approvingly and cluck their tongues at the silly notion that the director of a Best Picture nominee could somehow fail to get nominated -- I don't think even Billy Crystal believes in it when he utters the quip. It's comforting to the unnominated director and allows the audience to give him a round of applause, but I don't think anybody in attendance at the ceremony can fail to see that the best directing achievements are not necessarily those associated with the best films -- one can make a strong film in spite of mediocre or undistinguished direction, or conversely a visionary director can salvage an otherwise nondescript production.

I didn't do a study to determine the percentage of Best Picture nominees that weren't all represented in the Screenplay categories, but off the top of my head in recent years I suspect that more films nominated for Best Picture had their scripts nominated than their directors; I'm going strictly off-the-cuff here, so I could be wrong. One obvious reason for this would be that there are ten screenplay nominations available for the five nominated pictures, as opposed to only five vacant Director slots, allowing for much better chances for the film to be represented with a script nomination in either the Original or Adapted Screenplay categories.


Q: "I watched the Oscar nominations on GoodMorningAmerica Tuesday. Before the announcements, Joel Siegel made his obligatory nomination picks, for which he listed - not five - but six predictions for the five slots in each major category. I nearly vomited afterwards, when he smugly praised himself for getting 19 picks of 25 correct in the "major categories."

Has this man no shame?"

- Brad Slavens

A: This is why I watch Sydney Lauren and Jim Moret's Oscar coverage on CNN on Academy Award Nomination Day. I tried Good Morning America once a few years ago -- well, okay, I taped it -- but I couldn't stand watching Joel Siegel discussing the Oscars for more than a few minutes per sitting.


Q: "I don't have much to say that hasn't already been said. But it does seem to me that M. Night Shyamalan is the first Asian American to be nominated for a directing Oscar.

As for The Cider House Rules, who would have thought that a film about abortion and incest (albeit a "feel good" one) would have such an impact at Oscar time? Hollywood can be a strange place sometime.

I'm not really that surprised--or upset, for that matter--that Mr. Ripley fared so poorly. I think that Jude Law's nod is deserved, as is the film's Art Direction nomination (I think it deserves a cinematography nomination, too). But Matt Damon's characterization of Ripley left me cold - I didn't feel any creepiness from his performance (all I could think was, "God, he's got a big mouth). Same with Philip Seymour Hoffman. I did like Cate Blanchett, though. I also thought some of the directorial decisions were flawed (the ending, to put it bluntly, was just plain stupid). I found much of the story structure predictably laid out, with too many convenient encounters between characters which made the whole movie seem like one big contrivance and left little to the imagination. Ultimately, I thought it was a beautiful film to watch, but I certainly left the theatre disappointed and unfulfilled.

I wish more of the Academy like Magnolia. That was my pick for film of the year."

- Alan Wong

A: I think you're right about Shyamalan being the first Asian-American director to be nominated for an Oscar. He was born in India and then raised in a suburb of Philadelphia. At 29, he's the youngest of the director nominees.

As for Hoffman in The Talented Mr. Ripley, I thought he marvellously captured his character's snobbery, especially with the condescending tone he used with Damon's character. Did you see René Clément's 1960 film Purple Noon, which, as Ripley was based on the same Patricia Highsmith source material?


Q: "Surprises (from major to minor):

- Bill Goldsbury

A: Sean Penn definitely isn't one who would court Oscar attention; I imagine that it'd be like pulling teeth for him. The ad campaign on his behalf was rather modest -- Sony Pictures Classics certainly didn't paper the trades with For Your Consideration advertisements. The Penn nomination was fairly unexpected, and I interpret it as mostly driven by his performance in the film and indicative of the respect he has among peers; although he often claims to hate acting and expresses his desire to focus on directing, he's an extremely talented actor -- one of the finest of his generation.

My guess is that the initial reaction over at DreamWorks was "Here we go again". DreamWorks' marketing chief Terry Press recently commented on Miramax's success with The Cider House Rules in a most offhanded manner, stating "Cider House represents a masterful job of doing what Miramax does best, which is media manipualtion."

I honestly don't really see American Beauty as being particularly dark or remotely edgy, but perhaps that's indicative of my own tastes in films; it's all relative. (Edgy? American Beauty? Nah.)


Q: "If it's not too early to start handicapping the race, I don't see anything beating American Beauty (there's a surprise). It's a film that appeals to all major branches (actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, etc.). I suppose older voters could be turned off by it's darker tone, but not real likely. The film will probably take the ensemble award at the SAGS, as well as director's and producer's guild awards.

As for acting, the races look a bit closer. Hilary Swank certainly is no shoo-in. I'd say Anette Bening can certainly steal her thunder.

Best Actor is totally up in the air for me. Penn's a longshot, but Washington and Spacey seem like front runners. Problem is, they all ready have Oscars, allowing Crowe and Farnsworth a chance. Farnsworth is a sentimental favorite, but that doesn't seem to be as much of a factor as it was in years past. As for Crowe, he's the critical darling. Close race.

Tom Cruise seems hard to vote against for Magnolia. I suppose older voters may be turned off by the vulgarity of the performance, but he's extremely respected, and a completely different kind of role usually merits a lot of respect from the Academy. His competition includes three younger stars who'll have more chances down the road, and Michael Caine's role hardly feels as showy as Cruise.

Supporting Actress? No idea. I'll have to do some debating. I'd say Collette is out, but this category . . . well, who knows.

P.S. And hoorah for the South Park nomination! At least the Academy got one thing right. Now, who's gonna' perform it?"

- Derek

A: Note that Derek successfully predicted American Beauty's success at the Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild of America, and Producers Guild of America well before their respective ceremonies were held. Good work.

It appears that you're right about Hilary Swank not being a lock for the win; I initially thought that she was all but certain, but the Screen Actors Guild award for Bening and her status in the community give her two advantages over Swank.

As for the Actor race, I have a hard time seeing Penn, Farnsworth or Crowe winning. (Crowe has already publically declared "I'm not going to win the Oscar.") I think it's a race between Kevin Spacey and Denzel Washington, and the quick demise of The Hurricane in theaters can't help the latter's chances.

Similarly, I don't think Cruise is a lock for Magnolia given the picture's failure to show legs; although Cruise has kept in the spotlight (has he ever stepped out of it?) and shrewdly adorns the cover of the latest GQ magazine in order to maintain a high visibility, I think his momentum has slipped quick a bit since mid-February.


Q: "I've just recently caught up with all of your recent columns and wanted to add my two-cents' worth on two questions that you raised:

A.The absolute nadir of Best Pic nominees in this decade was A Few Good Men. It looked, felt and sounded as if it had been assembled by a bunch of amateur tele-film makers at NBC. Acting was unnecessarily over-the-top; writing amounted to nothing more than cliche-ridden drivel. Even the cinematography was obvious and derivative. And let's not forget that Robert Altman's The Player was pushed out of the top five for this garbage.

B. I really like Julianne Moore a great deal (although, I do agree with you that her Magnolia work was good,but unremarkable), but she should in no way play Clarice Starling. My first choice would be Cate Blanchett; my second would be Mira Sorvino. Moore is too tough and worldly, too sophisticated. If it's possible, she's even too mature. Blanchett, however, would understand the character's tough facade and overriding vulnerability. Hell, she'd even get that layered accent down perfectly, I bet. After seeing Summer Of Sam (and why didn't anyone champion Adrien Brody for an Oscar nod here?), I'm convinced (finally) that Sorvino does possess the talent that everyone touted so much a few years back (culminating, of course, in her Mighty Aphrodite Oscar win and Norma Jean And Marilyn Emmy bid). She seems smart enough to handle the Hannibal role. If you think about it, she's got the right look, too. I'm interested in what you and your other readers have to say."

- Michael T. Schuyler

A: A. Gee, while I agree that it's a shame that Altman's The Player didn't get a Best Picture Oscar nomination that year -- while I'm in the minority, 1992 was my favourite year of the last decade for American movies -- I rather enjoyed A Few Good Men, particularly for Jack Nicholson's highly-entertaining scenery-chewing (his litany of scowls during the picture's climax were hilarious). I also appreciated the fact that Aaron Sorkin didn't engineer a clichéd romance between the Tom Cruise and Demi Moore characters. I would've preferred The Player to get a nomination, but A Few Good Men's Oscar bid didn't really raise my ire.

B. (Not Oscar-related, but I opened the door, so ...) Cate Blanchett was reportedly actually offered the role in Hannibal (as indicated in the reliable The Hollywood Reporter, but shrewdly turned it down. I don't doubt that Moore (or Blanchett, for that matter) has the acting chops to play the role, but she's in a bit of a no-win situation in that Jodie Foster's shadow looms heavy over this role; Foster has been so closely associated with the Clarice Starling character that many have all but deemed hers as the definitive interpretation -- it seems inevitable that any actress, no matter how talented, will be considered inferior to Foster in the role: it's a heck of an act to follow. In the words of Dr. Lecter, Clarice is "a well-scrubbed rube ... not one generation from poor white trash ... [with an] accent that [she's] desperately trying to shed"; I'm struggling to see Moore capture this. (I haven't really bought her attempts at a British accent; I'm hoping her West Virginian will be more effective.) On the other hand, I do think that her hard exterior can be used to good effective when playing Clarice, though.

Your Mira Sorvino selection is an interesting one; I think she's a legitimately talented actress, but I suspect she wasn't strongly considered as she's not an especially hot commodity at this point -- her relationship with Quentin Tarantino led her into a handful of undistinguished genre films which effectively stalled the momentum from her Mighty Aphrodite Oscar and her strong Norma Jean & Marilyn performance. (Both she and Ashley Judd were good in that, although the movie itself wasn't.) While she's returned to more conventional fare as of late -- her payday for At First Sight was apparently a solid $3 million -- I wonder if her career ascension has been affected by her temperment: her The Replacement Killers director Antoine Fuqua candidly commented "She let me know this was my first feature film and that she'd won an Oscar", and in a headline-making incident she publically castigated New York Daily News film critic Jami Bernard at a 1998 Cannes Film Festival party over a piece written about Tarantino. (One-time co-star and Whit Stillman regular Chris Eigeman wryly remarked "It's been a meteoric rise for her. I saw her once in an airport. She was dashing to make a plane. She refused to recognize me when I tried to say hello.")

I think that Sorvino excels at projecting intelligence -- I was cool on her work in Romy & Michele's High School Reunion because of this, and of course she's famously Harvard-educated -- and extremely good with accents (see Barcelona and Quiz Show). Curiously enough, she's also already played an FBI agent (in Yves Simoneau's Marlon Brando vehicle, Free Money). I'm not sure about her possessing the right look, though; while Jodie Foster's Clarice was small and lithe, Mira Sorvino's tall, buxom and leggy. (I remember a friend amusingly described her as being "smart and talented, with a body that could kill small animals at thirty feet.") It's not necessarily a wrong look for the character, but it'd be a jarring change.


Q: "She [Aimee Mann] seems to be enjoying the attention, but has already said she knows she will lose. In that vein, she has promised to boo when she loses. Could be fun."

- SRCPutt

A: Good on Aimee -- sounds like she has the right spirit. This could be the most entertaining non-winner reaction -- let's face it, folks; she's not going to win -- since Samuel L. Jackson visibly scowled and cursed after Ed Wood's Martin Landau was announced as the Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner in March 1995. I can only hope Mann stands on her seat and makes huge thumbs-down gestures, too. (My fear is that since she's made her intent public, ABC may choose to not train a camera on her reaction.)


Q: "My question is regarding Chloe Sevigny and what you think her chances are of walking away with the Oscar. In my humble opinion she's given the best performance of the year, not to take anything away from Hilary Swank of course who was equally brilliant. But I am blown away by Sevigny's sense of truth and realism everytime I watch her. There is never any " acting " with her. She just IS!

I however am afraid that she might be overshadowed by Swank. Not to mention the popularity of Jolie, and Collette being in the big hit of the year.

The others in her category don't even come near to her performance. Who do you think is gonna get it. Does the gifted Ms. Sevigny have a chance? I certainly hope so.

P.S How good are you usually at predicting the best supporting actress category. It is always the most suprising.

I just know that if that scene chewer Jolie gets it, I will be greatly dissapointed. How can someone receive an Oscar for just being plain loud?!"

- Nazanine

A: I would love to see Chloë Sevigny win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but I frankly suspect that her chances are not great. She's not exactly a Hollywood insider, having spent most of her brief career in smaller, independent pictures, and isn't being prepped for coronation as the Next Big Star à la Angelina Jolie. Sevigny also hasn't been courting voters, and has been extremely reserved about her nomination; as Dana Kennedy wrote in the Los Angeles Times, she "may be the most reluctant Oscar nominee this year -- or ever".

(Incidentally, Boys Don't Cry director Kimberly Peirce had words of praise for Sevigny which eerily echo yours: "Chloë just surrendered to the part. She watched videos of Lana. She just became her very naturally. She's not one of those actresses who diets and gets plastic surgery. You can never catch her acting." Kimberly, is that you? :)

I think that Sevigny is very much in the running for the Oscar, but I'd be lying if I said I thought her chances were strong. (On the other hand, I've missed the Supporting Actress category for three straight years now -- wow, I hadn't realized I was on such a bad run here -- so perhaps [hopefully?] I'm off the mark again.) For what it's worth, I'd vote for her.

As for winning an Oscar for just being loud -- heck, look at Al Pacino's ridiculous Scent Of A Woman win. Hoo-ah!


Q: "In your most recent Oscar column, you refer to The Cider House Rules as a "safe" movie. You do realize that this movie is little more than a two-hour argument defending the necessity of maintaining a woman's right to choose. Perhaps in the famously/notoriously (it depends on your POV) liberal environs of "Hollywood", a movie that takes such a determined ideological position on what is such a divisive political/moral issue could expect a warm reception, but it is definitely NOT a safe position, and I think this accounts for what I considered to be an excellent film receiving ambivalent critical reception. I was as surprised as anyone at The Cider House Rules receiving such accolades from the AMPAS, but I applaud their courage."

- Phil Riley

A: I certainly see what you're saying and all of your comments are completely valid (and while I'm at it, I also applaud any studio film which dares to takes a firm, unwavering stance on any politically-sensitive subject, whether or not their take matches my own).

I suppose my comment about The Cider House Rules being a "safe" film was because I felt, in terms of its literal storytelling, I felt that it presented the abortion issue in such incontrovertible, even blasé fashion and surrounded it with all sorts of sweet and fuzzy material; I never felt like it was addressing the matter in a way that acknowledged it was a hot potato. While I certainly wasn't expecting a head-on, Citizen Ruth-type approach to the subject of a woman's right to choose, the muted manner in which this controversial topic was depicted in The Cider House Rules -- I think that Homer and Dr. Larch have a few discussions about it, but it's been awhile -- was so gently handled that the film didn't seem to have any teeth on the subject. (Indeed, the film has surprisingly failed to drum up much in the way of controversy or protests via the pro-life groups, which may be indicative of how unostentatious the picture's abortion theme is perceived; one would've thought that a high profile Best Picture nominee which deals with a woman's right-to-choose would've been picked up on radar screens by now.)

Incidentally, in John Irving's book "My Movie Business", he touches upon this subject: "I hope that Miramax will confront the abortion issue head-on, meaning that the marketing mavens won't try to put some sugar-coated spin on what the principal story is. To see The Cider House Rules advertised as a love story would be disappointing to me, and to anyone who read the book." In another prescient passage, he comments "I am fond of teasing Richard [Gladstein, the film's producer] by telling him that if Candy and Homer (or just Candy) end up on the movie poster of The Cider House Rules, we have failed. The film is not about that romance -- that nonromance, as I refer to it when I'm talking to Richard." (The one-sheet for the film, of course, does feature Candy affectionately clinging to Homer as she rides on his back.)


Q: "I was poking around to see if anyone thought of Isaac Hayes introducing "Blame Canada." He is, after all, an Oscar winner himself, and a member of the cast."

- RJ

A: This is a great idea, and other than broadcasting the musical excerpt from the film itself, would've been the best way to go as it would've at least been a means to tie the song with the film. I would've preferred to see the bit from the South Park movie, since it would've at least served as a tribute to the late Mary Kay Bergman (who by all rights ought to be featured in this year's In Memoriam Clip), but using Chef wouldn't be a half-bad alternative. (Mr. Joshua Kreitzer also suggests Isaac Hayes below.)

As I write this, it's been announced that Robin Williams would perform the song at the ceremony (making "Blame Canada" the sole Best Song nominee not to be performed by the original artist). I have mixed feelings about this -- while he's a great stand-up comedian and, when he tries, a good dramatic actor (ie. Awakenings), I've developed an aversion for Williams over the past couple of years due to the treacly films he's affiliated himself with. You may have heard of Quentin Tarantino's litmus test -- when he's growing interested in a woman, he shows her Rio Bravo and "she better like it". My litmus test: if someone watches the trailer for Patch Adams and afterwards exclaims "Ooh, I want to see that!", I don't even want to know them.


Q: "My choice to sing "Blame Canada" at the Oscars is ... Isaac Hayes. True, his vocal range is quite different from that of the late Mary Kay Bergman, but he (1) was in the movie, (2) is a longtime South Park cast member, (3) is a well-known singer, (4) won an Oscar as the writer of the "Theme from Shaft," and (5) gave a memorable performance of that song at the Oscars (excerpted on the videocassette "Oscar's Greatest Moments), and (6) reminiscent of the Cartman v-chip subplot in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the song he won his Oscar for *includes himself being prevented from using a strong profanity.* ("They say that cat Shaft's one bad mother--/Shut your mouth!")"

Joshua also responds to my "have brothers been individually nominated in different categories for work in the same film?" musing from earlier in this column:

Q: "If you're looking for technical categories, it's going to be a lot tougher -- lots of people know about the Coens, but I had never heard of the Pratts before at all, much less as having one of them being nominated for an Oscar. I looked through the _A&E Entertainment Almanac_, but the following are just examples of brothers nominated in different categories, not necessarily the only ones or the most recent ones.

The Sherman brothers (Richard M. and Robert B.) got both Song and Song Score nominations for The Slipper And The Rose (could this movie be more obscure? -- without the Oscar nominations, I would never have heard of it) in the Oscars for 1977. They also received Song and Adaptation/Song Score nominations for Bedknobs And Broomsticks (1971) and won the Song and Original Score awards for Mary Poppins (1964).

But in each case, both brothers shared the nomination in both categories, so I suspect that's not what you were looking for, either ... but look at the 1938 nominations. Lionel Newman was nominated in that year for the title song to The Cowboy And The Lady (music by Lionel Newman, lyrics by Arthur Quenzer), and his brother Alfred was nominated for Original Score for that film. So "brothers nominated separately, in different technical categories, for the same film" has happened at least once before, if you count the music categories as technical."

- Joshua Kreitzer

A: Thanks for researching that, Joshua -- I should've guessed that the legendary Newman clan would somehow be involved in the answer to this question. (Among the current generation of Newmans, David, Randy and Thomas have all been nominated for Oscars -- Randy and Thomas have even faced-off against each other -- but none of them have collaborated on the same film . None of them have won, either ... yet.)

Since in my original musing I failed to specify that I was interested in whether brothers had been nominated in different technical categories for the same film, I should also note that Mr. Kreitzer first accurately pointed out Fargo, where Joel Coen was nominated as director and producer Ethan Coen received a nomination via the Best Picture cite. (Both brothers actually direct and produce their films together.)


Next Column: Okay, this was pretty late and long. I'd, err, really like to get to work on my obviously-belated year-end Top 10 article, but I guess we'll see. The next Oscar column, obviously, will contain my predictions for the Academy Award winners. Feedback? -- e-mail me. (Oscar-related correspondence received may be used in future columns with the originator cited, unless preferred and indicated otherwise.)


Alex Fung (aw220@freenet.carleton.ca)

Back to film page.