Crix say up-for-grabs race adds punch to awards show

Given the apparent lack of a picture that the Academy’s 5,000-plus membership can rally behind, there are two surefire reasons to tune in to this year’s Oscars – to see a venerable talent receive his/her due, or to experience something that’s both a surprise and a delight.

Of the former, there’s been plenty to fill the bill. In the past decade, such perennial bridesmaids and overlooked talents as Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Al Pacino and Susan Sarandon finally got to take golden statuettes home.

However, the latter element has been scarce. Some argue that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar for “My Left Foot” was a surprise; others prefer to think of his win as a well-deserved coup for the underdog. It’s a hairline difference.

Really, one has to reel back 15 years to find an undisputed surprise. That was in 1981, when the much-admired “Chariots of Fire” won over the more traditional favorites “Reds” and “On Golden Pond.”

“Chariots,” the tale of the 1924 British Olympic track team and its two unexpected gold medalists, premiered at Cannes to acclaim. Nonetheless, Fox, which held the rights internationally, sold off North American distribution to Warner Bros.

Joe Hyams, the Warner Bros. publicist who routinely handled films by stalwarts Eastwood and Barbra Streisand, was without a picture that year and elected to adopt this orphan feature.

“I worked very hard on the picture and just couldn’t bear what looked like a string of losses,” Hyams said. “So, I found an excuse to go to New York during the Oscar ceremonies. I passed up a party and watched the show in my hotel room. I was pleased when the music won and surprised when the picture took best screenplay. But when Loretta Young announced ‘Chariots’ as best picture, I was in shock. I jumped up and started to dance, I was just so happy.”

Surprise guaranteed

Surprise appears to be virtually inevitable this year. Whether it brings delight will be determined later. “Unpredictability is what makes the Oscars so superior to the Emmys,” said Howard Rosenberg, the Los Angeles Times’ Pulitzer prize-winning TV critic. “How many times can you get up to accept an Emmy award for a comedy that’s won for the sixth straight year? At least in terms of Oscars, you’re talking about awards that don’t go to the same people and commodities year after year after year.”

Some observers feel the lack of an event picture that has captured the world’s imagination like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Schindler’s List” can have a diminishing effect on Oscar.

“When you’ve got a year with a ‘Forrest Gump’ or a ‘Schindler’s List’ coming into it, there is a sense that history is being made in the film industry,” said Matt Roush, USA Today’s TV critic. “So the Oscar that year becomes the final canonization of this particular pop culture event.”

Traditionally, a best picture candidate will reveal itself early on in the process. “Platoon” was the movie to beat following its first industry screening in October 1986. The same was true of “Schindler’s List” and “Forrest Gump.” But that’s yet to happen this year – just as both “Silence of the Lambs” and “Braveheart” were films that seemed to attain an edge only in the weeks and days leading up to awards night.

One leading publicist who’s been devising Oscar campaigns for more than a decade feels that the majors are no longer in the business of making the ennobling message pictures or sweeping romances that were the studios’ Oscar stock in trade. “It’s tougher and tougher to land those really pithy, weighty stories at the studio level because they’d really rather do ‘Independence Day,’ and I don’t blame them, as long as they have stockholders. The problem is that the studios aren’t manned by people who love film anymore.”

Niche pics break out

The unique nature of Oscar’s preferential ballot has meant that more and more niche pics have been able to garner nominations. “The Crying Game,” “Pulp Fiction” and, last year, “Babe” and “The Postman” are examples of the organization’s increasingly diverse tastes and the American film industry’s waning ability to provide powerful, emotionally cathartic experiences.

“It’s an interesting year,” a senior studio publicist said. “It’s December and there’s not a single film or performance that’s emerged as a front-runner. There’s heat on a few films, but everyone’s going to have to work hard at building momentum for their top product. Perhaps more than ever, critics’ prizes and the Golden Globes will determine the list of nominees.”

There’s no question that the Academy’s traditionalists find the prospect of an up-for-grabs year disturbing. However, Rosenberg and Roush agree that the event itself still stands as the granddaddy of awards shows. “The mystique of the Oscars has not been dimmed by the sometimes mediocre production of the show,” Roush said. “I don’t think it’s ever lost that punch.”

Added Rosenberg: “The secret of the Oscars is pure and simple: movies. There’s a mystique about movies and movie stars that is absent certainly in television.”

And with all bets off, the ante gets better and better for a genuine surprise.

(Steve Chagollan contributed to this story.)

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