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Split decisions

Top race still reflects original schism between grandeur and intimacy

In order to grasp the essence of Oscar’s top honor, you have to go back to the very first Academy Awards ceremonies in the late 1920s.

From 1927-1930, the top category was known as “best production.” Also, in 1928, the org also handed out something called “best artistic quality of production” to “Sunrise” (the “best production” winner was “Wings”).

In his new book “The Whole Equation,” film historian and critic David Thomson writes: “It says a lot about Hollywood’s sense of itself that in 1927, the first impulse was to have no single Best Picture. Instead, there would be two awards, one for ‘the most outstanding motion picture production, considering all the elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness’; and the other for ‘the most unique, artistic, worthy and original production without reference to cost or magnitude.’ It was having your cake and eating it, cleaning up now, but banking on eternity.”

That schism remains despite the category having been renamed “best picture” in 1930. The difference between a production and a picture is subtle but significant. A production suggests moving parts, scale and grandeur — war epics, historical dramas and the like.

A picture, on the other hand, is an endearment for just about anything (which may help explain “Marty” and “Chariots of Fire”). That quaint linguistic paradox resurfaces every time people refer to computer-enhanced “pictures” whose budgets could be used to feed the Sudan.

Most winners more closely fit the definition of “production.” There was little doubt, as last year’s historically amped-up campaign season ground on, that “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” had the historical bloodlines, to say nothing of its cinematic merits, to carry the day.

Where does that leave us in Oscar’s new century? Hard to tell, exactly, but Fox Searchlight certainly has a firm sense of best-picture history. The specialty label has unleashed a stretch-run ad campaign for “Sideways” imploring, “Rarely does a comedy come along that deserves to be taken seriously.”

It’s a reasonable enough point, except for the accompanying examples in the ad: not just usual suspects “Annie Hall,” “The Apartment” and “Shakespeare in Love,” but also … “Forrest Gump” and “Driving Miss Daisy.”

The popular Web database All Movie Guide polls moviegoers to determine “tones” for every film. Its “Forrest Gump” entry uses the words “bittersweet,” “heartwarming,” “sentimental,” “nostalgic,” “earnest,” “sweeping” and “whimsical.” The “Driving Miss Daisy” entry does contain “humorous,” but also “heartwarming,” “earnest,” “sentimental,” “gentle,” “affectionate” and “bittersweet.”

All of this is not to suggest that “Sideways” does not have its fair shot at the top prize, especially given its abundance of pre-Oscar kudos wins. After all, this is not a year that would give the David Thomsons of the world reason to accuse the Acad of having mercenary motives. None of the five pic nomi-

nees has cracked $75 million domestically, the first year that has happened since 1986. (“Platoon,” the eventual winner that year, would stay in theaters for more than a year and wind up with a $138 million domestic cume.)

There is no “Rings” behemoth casting a shadow over the field. If anything, the running time and leading 11 noms for “The Aviator” give it some statistical advantage. A striking 29 of the 76 best picture winners — or 38% — have been longer than 150 minutes, and the most-nommed pic has won the top trophy 18 out of the past 20 years.

About the field this year, it can certainly be said that Academy voters initiated what is known on Wall Street as a “flight to safety.” Showbiz had heard a drumbeat for months about specialty fare such as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Passion of the Christ,” “Kinsey” and “The Woodsman,” plus foreign-lingo entries like “A Very Long Engagement,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “The Sea Inside” and “Bad Education.”

In the end, voters stuck with stories and characters that reminded them of traditional winners. “Million Dollar Baby” updates “Body and Soul.” “Ray” could be considered the new “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” “Finding Neverland” seems to many a fact-based “Chocolat.”

As one Oscar consultant put it, “Too many movies just made people uncomfortable. The critics may have liked them, but Academy members aren’t usually going to reward something for being difficult.”

When, aside from “Midnight Cowboy,” has that sentiment not prevailed?

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