Season of anger and upsets finally winds to a close

As the awards season draws to a close, the March 24 Oscarcast offers something that hasn’t been seen in a long time: genuine suspense.

For the last few years, the outcome has seemed iffy. “American Beauty” and “Gladiator” seemed to be the front-runner, but many were predicting upsets (though they never happened). But this year, all five best pic contenders seem like front runners.

However, in a season filled with question marks, there have been a few certainties: Bellwethers are no longer valid, several studios waged brilliant campaigns, and nearly everyone hopes that the mud slinging of this year won’t be repeated.

As for bellwethers, no matter which film wins best picture, it will defy the odds.

  • Fox’s “Moulin Rouge,” DreamWorks/Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind” and USA Films’ “Gosford Park all won key guild honors.

  • New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” as well as “ABeautiful Mind” and “Moulin Rouge” took top honors from such peer orgs as BAFTA and the AFI.

  • Miramax’s “In the Bedroom” as well as “Mind” and “Park” took top prizes from some of the major critics groups.

In other words, no matter what film wins, a lot of “surefire” Oscar predictors will be proven wrong.

And this year has made clear that if year-end critics kudos ever had any Oscar clout, it’s certainly diminished by now.

Probably because so many of the major contenders were bunched up late in the year, the early bellwethers didn’t seem to ring true; sometimes it takes a while for a film to find its awards footing, and for the critical consensus to coalesce. Whatever, some films and some performances that looked like sure-bets early on now are barely mentioned.

The wide-open race may account for the fact that the campaigning has changed this year. Almost any conversation with a studio exec, marketer or Oscar consultant begins with a mournful refrain of “I’ve never seen a campaign so nasty.”

Stories in newspapers and on the Internet slammed Fox for its campaign for “Moulin Rouge” (as if it were the only studio pushing its film); questioned the accuracy of “A Beautiful Mind” and attacked the character of John Nash, the focus of the film; and pooh-poohed the chances of “Rings,” since it’s “only” a fantasy (though it’s closer to “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” than to “E.T.”)

Howard and “A Beautiful Mind” star Russell Crowe both addressed the simmering controversy at the Oscar nominees luncheon on March 11, an event usually known for its relaxed atmosphere and congenial tone.

Magazine articles even stirred up the race card in the acting categories. In all these cases, studio execs and Oscar campaigners theorized that the negativity was being stirred up by the competition. There were even accusations that the recipients of the mudslinging were capitalizing on it to get sympathy votes.

The fighting isn’t confined to the best picture category either. Longstanding bad blood between Disney and DreamWorks spilled early in the race as the two animation powers jockeyed for the new feature animation prize.

Even in the foreign-language film category, competitors are throwing accusations at each other, but claiming that their main beef is not with rivals, but with the Academy – which still insists that voters must see all the nominees on the bigscreen before voting.

While this eliminates virtually all voters outside of L.A., New York, S.F. and London, there is a reason. Can a little film submitted by Vietnam, for example, which has no U.S. distributor, be able to mail cassettes to 5,700 voters? And would the voters actually watch such a film before voting?

And, of course, no Oscar season would be complete without a scandal. Acting contender Crowe didn’t help his Oscar cause with his profanity-laced outburst at the BAFTA ceremony. But in the point-counterpoint game of Oscar predicting, many see the fuss as being beneficial to the pic’s director Howard’s Oscar bid.

Crowe’s contretemps

If you watched the 8th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards program on television, the ovation when Crowe won sounded suitably enthusiastic. But at least from table 65 in the Shrine Auditorium Exhibition Hall, there was no escaping that the applause ended well before the actor even reached the stage. Will his recent run-ins with the BBC impact Oscar voters? Or was it simply bad acoustics in the hall?

By now the unpredictability of this year’s Oscar race has become the most predictable story, unless it’s the lamenting over the unprecedented nastiness of the campaign. And yet with each passing week and every event, the two threads are reinforced, and more closely wound together.

Despite the squabbles, a number of efforts this year deserve commendation.

  • Imagine Entertainment and Universal/DreamWorks: For fending off the bulk of attacks on “Beautiful Mind” and at least seeming to have avoided the bruising body blows U took over similar punches to 1999’s”The Hurricane.”

  • New Line: For entering the best picture race, for the first time, in a big way, garnering 13 noms for “Rings” and keeping the filmmakers and cast in the public eye. The first fantasy or sci-fi pic to earn double-digit nominations since “Star Wars” in 1977, it has added kudo prestige to its B.O. bragging rights.

  • Fox: Despite some sniping early on about the vehemence of its campaign for “Moulin Rouge,” there’s little dissent that the studio has waged a smart campaign, and kept the pic a strong contender, despite the fact that it’s a musical and opened in the first half of the year. Against the odds, it stands a good chance for multiple Oscars.

  • USA Films: For two years in a row, this mini-major has taken a difficult film and made it into a bonafide best picture contender (“Traffic” last year; “Gosford Park” this year). Despite a much smaller budget than some of its bigger counterparts, it has built momentum for the pic.

  • Miramax: Not only did the company snare its 11th best pic nom in 10 years, it also managed five noms for “Amelie,” the only noms earned by a foreign-language film this year, outside that category. It also took three of the five noms in the foreign-language category.

  • Lions Gate: Taking a cue – and, they hope, a repeat performance – from Fox Searchlight’s longshot victory for Hilary Swank for 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” this indie has waged a clever effort for Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball,” capped March 10 with her best actress win at the SAG Awards.

The ultimate lessons from the 74th Oscars won’t be really clear until the final prize is handed out on March 24. With only one winner out of five nominations in most categories, the race always produces close to an 80% failure rate.

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