Prize picking gets tougher

Guild picks broaden field

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water of Oscar predicting.

The early awards season saw major orgs divvy the top prize among eight films; however, in the last few weeks, the race for best pic seemed to have settled down to two front-runners. Oscar pundits reasoned that “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “A Beautiful Mind” were the clear front-runners for Oscar’s top award. “Gosford Park” or “Moulin Rouge” have been given an outside chance of an upset and “In the Bedroom,” despite voluminous praise, has been considered the longest of shots.

Then, along came the Producers Guild of America Awards on March 3 to once again throw the best picture Oscar race into turmoil. The usually reliable Oscar predictor — the PGA winner has matched the Motion Picture Academy’s choice 75% of the time — gave its award to Baz Luhrmann’s one-of-a-kind musical “Moulin Rouge.”

Winning horse?

Suddenly, the Oscar race is starting to resemble the opening song in “Guys & Dolls,” where the three railbirds each sing the praises of the racehorses Paul Revere, Valentine and Epitaph.

“Moulin Rouge” had won best pic honors from the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes (in the comedy or musical category), the Golden Satellites (again for comedy or musical), as well as the London Film Critics Circle. Its popularity among the filmmaking professionals — the ones, after all, who vote for the Oscars — was also made clear by the pic’s wins from art directors, editors and hair & makeup artists.

Significantly, “Moulin Rouge” has also enjoyed a visibility boost with strong sales of the two-disc DVD version. And, of course, Luhrmann has been a tireless promoter of the film (see related story, this page).

Whether the Producers Guild will remain a reliable bellwether is also unclear, because this year’s PGA vote was the first since the org merged with the American Assn. of Producers. That contributed to a dramatic increase in membership, from 300 to about 1,600.

Reliable writers

The Writers Guild of America hewed closer to conventional wisdom, giving its feature film prizes to Akiva Goldsman, of “A Beautiful Mind,” for adapted screenplay and Julian Fellowes, of “Gosford Park,” for original screenplay. Goldsman was a Golden Globe winner; Fellowes took writing prizes from the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Society.

Despite the PGA win for “Moulin Rouge,” none of the other contenders is throwing in the towel. All four other nominees are campaigning hard — though perhaps Luhrmann and “Lord of the Rings” ringmaster Peter Jackson both should be recognized for their endurance on the campaign trail. Instead, it appears likely the race will go right down to the wire, which happens to be 5 p.m. on March 19, when the final ballots are due at PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ headquarters in downtown Los Angeles.

Just be glad there are no chads on the Academy’s ballots.

— Dave McNary contributed to this report

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