When reviews make a difference to Oscar

It's a toss-up as to how far crix' prizes can go

It seems to be all over but the shouting. The motion picture awards season, which began back in September when such now-prized items as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Capote” unspooled at the Toronto Film Festival, is about to reach a climax with the Academy Award noms later this month and the ceremony March 5.

In between, all manner of critical organizations will have said their piece. At least nine orgs chose “Brokeback” as best picture, with a nod or two apiece from other crix groups going to “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “Munich,” “Cinderella Man” and “A History of Violence.”

Focus Features had originally planned to have “Brokeback” playing 250 theaters by Jan. 13. Due to strong reviews and equally good word of mouth, the company upped it to 300-400 theaters by Jan. 6. But will the Academy voters pay attention to the crix?

“I’ve never been able to quite figure out whether critics’ awards really have an impact on the Oscars,” says Time’s Richard Schickel. “They certainly don’t hurt them. And this year it seems to me that a lot of the ‘big pictures’ for the holidays aren’t panning out too well for the studios.”

Increasingly, Oscar and the crix have not agreed. “Over the past 10 years, the Academy Awards have become more like the Golden Globes,” says the Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer. “You have films like ‘Titanic,’ ‘Gladiator’ and ‘A Beautiful Mind’ that win best picture that don’t even get on the radar of the critics’ organizations. So there’s a kind of polarity between the Academy and the critics.”

There tends to be less of a divide when it comes to the top thesp categories. But a big surprise was the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn.’s actress prize: Vera Farmiga won for playing a drug-addicted, desperate housewife in the barely released indie drama “Down to the Bone.” Even though it’s just one award given by one critical body, the Farmiga nod has cued much interest in the thesp in a year that is short of outstanding female leads.

“I was looking at the various places where (Oscar) predictions were being made, and Vera Farmiga was not listed anywhere by anybody,” Rainer says. “That’s the most off-the-wall award in a while. Not since ‘Brazil,’ really. That was certainly the (L.A.) group’s finest hour. That was a film that wasn’t going to be released theatrically at all. If it was nowadays, it would have gone straight to DVD.”

Terry Gilliam’s dystopic fantasy won the L.A. Film Critics’ best picture prize in 1984, forcing a very reluctant Universal Pictures to release the film — leading to Oscar nominations (though no wins) and mild box office. But as a video item the film has garnered sold cult status.

As for larger impact, it’s a toss-up as to how far crix’ prizes can go. As Rainer notes, ” ‘Atlantic City’ was a film that was helped by all the critics prizes to get some Oscar nominations. Everybody loved it. It didn’t make a dime.”

Then again, without those five Oscar noms, it might have made even less at the box office. “If several groups point their finger at a movie, then it’s something Academy voters figure they have to see,” says publicist Ziggy Koslowski of Block-Korenbrot. “But I’m not sure if it means that much. Every week a movie opens, that becomes the critical darling of that week. And every year there’s a juggernaut that can’t be bucked.”

Koslowski recalls doing PR chores for “Leaving Las Vegas.” “There was a kind of critical consensus, because every group kept giving best actor to Nicolas Cage. He went on to win the Oscar.”

Thanks to the L.A. crix, “Down to the Bone” distrib Steven Zeller has every hope of helping Farmiga win at least an Oscar nom. “We’ve been talking about making DVDs for Academy voters; we’ve gone back and forth. It’s a great expense,” he says. “We’re talking about sending to the acting branch of the Academy only.”

It might work. As L.A. Weekly’s and Variety’s Scott Foundas notes: “The fact that LAFCA recognized ‘Down to the Bone’ will put it on the map for a lot more people. It’s clear that it has been seen by a lot of casting directors.”

History could repeat itself. “In the past, some real dark horses got into the acting category, like Carol Kane in ‘Hester Street’ and Janet McTeer in ‘Tumbleweeds,’ ” says Foundas. “Jessica Lange in ‘Blue Sky’ is another example.” For Farmiga, the question remains: “Do they manage to pop that DVD screener into their players?” Foundas asks of the Academy voters.

“I don’t think critics can change anybody’s mind, but they can hold something up to the light,” says Entertainment Tonight’s Leonard Maltin. “Felicity Huffman gives one of the great performances this year in ‘Transamerica.’ She’s already got recognition beyond what you would expect for an indie movie, because of ‘Desperate Housewives.’ ”

Maltin finds Terrence Howard another interesting example. ” ‘Hustle & Flow’ didn’t find the audience (Paramount) thought it would theatrically,” says the critic. Even so, “It’s a great performance that has been singled out by a number of critics, and that makes him an Oscar contender.”

Many in the industry make mention of the small window of time the awards season allows for crix to have maximum impact. Variety’s Todd McCarthy believes that it’s not an insurmountable problem. “No one ever even heard of ‘Million Dollar Baby’ until Dec. 1 last year,” he notes. “Within three weeks it was catching fire. It really was a last-minute thing.

“Of course you can’t ignore the Clint Eastwood factor in that case. And certain films that go the distance with the critics’ organizations still can’t get over the hump with the Oscars. For a lot of films, by Oscar time they’re on their way to DVD, so it’s not necessarily the theatrical life of the films that’s being helped anymore. Others are given a new birth — or even given birth.”

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