Hollywood’s pre-Oscar Final Four — the quartet of guild award shows the first two weekends of March — confirmed one of the main themes of this year’s race: Expect the unexpected.
The most emblematic moment came March 3 when the Producers Guild of America named “Moulin Rouge” its best picture over “A Beautiful Mind,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Shrek.” First came a second of bewildered silence as audience members asked themselves “Did I hear what I just think I heard?” followed by pronouncements like “Oh, my God” at the Century Plaza.
As if to underscore the sense of collective surprise, an obviously stunned “Moulin Rouge” director Baz Luhrmann then took the stage and offered a heartfelt thanks that struck the crowd as impressively sincere and clearly unrehearsed.
The win had to be particularly sweet for Luhrmann, who has remained unfailingly gracious despite being passed over by the Academy in the best director category. That snub led many prognosticators to assign dark-horse status to “Rouge” despite its eight Oscar nominations; the PGA award forced many to recalculate those predictions.
Besides “Rouge,” there was clearly a trio of other beneficiaries of the four-show shakedown: “Gosford Park,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Monster’s Ball.” Even though the shine attached to “Lord of the Rings” from its 13 Oscar nominations dulled a bit, its prospects remained fairly solid with Ian McKellan taking home a Screen Actors Guild award for supporting actor March 10.
Contenders that were shut out during the four shows remained viable Oscar candidates, albeit with less momentum than they had after the Feb. 12 nominations announcement. That eclectic collection includes “Black Hawk Down,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Ghost World,” “I Am Sam,” “In the Bedroom,” “Iris,” “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Sexy Beast” and “Training Day.”
The Writers Guild of America kudos, announced March 2 at the Beverly Hilton, mostly followed form with Akiva Goldsman winning adapted screenplay for “A Beautiful Mind” and Julian Fellowes taking the original screenplay trophy for “Gosford Park.” Neither had been viewed as an overwhelming favorite since each faced a pair of contenders — “Ghost World” and “Lord of the Rings” in the adapted category, and “Monster’s Ball” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” in the original category — that are also up for Oscars.
The awards capped by far the most informal of the four shows and the only kudofest to call for business attire rather than the usual black tie. That prompted Harlan Ellison to don a bathrobe-and-ascot outfit to make his presentation of the Edmund North Award to Christopher Knopf.
On the following night, the Producers Guild of America ceremony was far more buttoned-down. Host Bradley Whitford, from the cast of “The West Wing,” riffed off Russell Crowe’s spat over a recent acceptance speech, warning that the Aussie planned to read the entire text of “Beowulf” next time he got onstage.
The Directors Guild of America’s show, held March 9 at the Century Plaza and emceed for the 16th time by Carl Reiner, generated the most laughs. Presenter Ang Lee joined in, noting the tension in the room prior to the final awards presentation, and said, “I’m going to speak as long as possible. I was born in Taiwan. …”
The second weekend followed the pattern of the first. A seemingly nonsurprising choice, the DGA’s selection of Ron Howard for “A Beautiful Mind,” was followed by another upset March 10 as SAG — the only one of the four guild honors to be televised — chose “Gosford Park” for its cast award.
The reaction to the final award was again stunned but happy at the Shrine as the cast of “Gosford Park” topped “A Beautiful Mind,” “In the Bedroom,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Moulin Rouge”– the same lineup for the picture Oscar. After four shows in eight days, that most defining Hollywood race had become even harder to figure.