Duel to the death

The coauthor of the definitive "Inside Oscar" looks at the battle brewing between "Gladiator" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" at Sunday's Academy Awards.

Published March 22, 2001 8:04PM (EST)

If part of the fun in watching the Oscars is the satisfaction of knowing you did well in predicting the winners, we all may be in for a rough night on Sunday. It's disorienting to have so many categories up in the air this late in the game. (The Oscar balloting -- votes from the 5,700 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- closed Tuesday, and the results are now being tabulated.) And it's fair to say that any year in which a "Gladiator" is a serious contender for best picture is bound to be one of the wackier years in Oscar history.

With no one (or even two) movies dominating the critics' awards, and with four of the five best-picture nominees having reached the $100 million box-office mark ("Chocolat" is the exception) -- meaning that this crop of contenders has found favor with the public -- this Oscar race has been particularly volatile.

Here, then, are the ways things are looking through an admittedly very cloudy crystal ball.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Best picture
This year, there has been no consistently clear front-runner for the best-picture Oscar. At various times, one film or another takes the lead, only to see yet another gain new momentum. (It's almost as if Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris were somehow involved in the proceedings.)

It's amazing what a couple of awards given by movie guilds can do. Prior to the March 10 and 11 ceremonies held by the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild, respectively, the Academy Award for best picture looked to be a done deal.

It defies the laws of logic, but "Gladiator" seemed to have things sewn up. If, when this popcorn movie opened last May, you had suggested it would be a serious Oscar contender, you would have been laughed at, ridiculed and maybe even tossed to the lions. The film is lacking that "stature" thing.

But in a two-day period in late January, "Gladiator" was named best picture by both the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the Golden Globe folks) and the Broadcast Film Critics Association. OK, granted that these are, respectively, a band of perennially wide-eyed Tinseltown boosters and the folks who invariably show up on the small screen in mid-January, proclaiming this or that Chevy Chase vehicle "the funniest movie of the year!"

But over the years, through sheer longevity, these awards have come to count for something, if only for the buzz factor. But the most salient event at the Golden Globes wasn't that the starstruck foreign correspondents deemed "Gladiator" a better picture than "Traffic," but, rather, the standing ovation they gave to best-director winner Ang Lee. This ovation was utterly spontaneous, akin to the one accorded Roberto Benigni two years earlier -- an unfortunate event that gave the first clear indication that the Italian buffoon was on his way to an Oscar. The show of affection for Lee suddenly made it clear that at that point in time -- Jan. 21 -- his movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was the front-runner in the Oscar race.

Why then didn't it beat "Gladiator" for the Golden Globe? For the simple reason that under Globe rules, the Taiwanese martial arts film was eligible only for best foreign film (which it won) and -- unlike at the Oscars -- not for best picture.

But "Crouching Tiger" didn't retain front-runner status for long. Far more important than the victories of "Gladiator" at the Golden Globes and Broadcast Film Critics Association was the clean sweep the film began compiling in February from the various film guilds. In quick succession, "Gladiator" received an Eddie for best-edited drama from the American Cinema Editors, a mixing award from the Cinema Audio Society and a production design award from the Art Directors Guild.

This last was especially noteworthy because so many of the sword epic's sets were not sets per se, but computer-graphic images, and shockingly shoddy ones at that. (Compare them with the incredible sets actually built for one of the direct antecedents of "Gladiator," Anthony Mann's 1964 "The Fall of the Roman Empire" -- now that was an epic.) One would have thought that members of the guild might be a little concerned that the more this computer-generated stuff is encouraged, the more precarious their job security becomes.

But the bottom line is that movie craftspeople love "Gladiator."

The film next received the Darryl F. Zanuck Award, the top nod from the Producers Guild of America. Why producers need a guild is anybody's guess, but it seems plain that both management and workers alike embraced "Gladiator," and with all of this momentum, the film became the one to beat at the beginning of March.

But then the Directors Guild came along and gave Lee best director for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the first time the guild has honored the director of a non-English-language film. And let's be honest, most people would tell you that "Crouching Tiger" is far superior to "Gladiator." The only thing that "Crouching Tiger" really has working against it is the fact that it's in Mandarin. (Of course, one could argue that the subtitles are also what the film has going for it, because they add a patina of class to what, in English, might be considered just another action movie.)

And then to mix things up even more, the next evening the Screen Actors Guild gave its award for best ensemble (more or less the SAG version of best picture) to "Traffic," a film that seemed to have peaked in interest a couple of months ago. In fact, the high point of "Traffic" might have come even before it opened, when the New York Film Critics Circle named it best picture two weeks prior to the film's official release.

The SAG award is not always a reliable bellwether for the Oscars -- "The Full Monty" won the year of "Titanic," for example -- but it does mean that there's more life in "Traffic" than many of us realized, and that "Gladiator" isn't an unstoppable monolith. (Oscar ballots weren't due until Tuesday; thus, they were still in circulation when the DGA and SAG awards were announced, so these results can affect the voting.)

What does it all mean? Damned if I know. But one thing is certain: This is the most open-ended best-picture race since 1995, when an action movie even worse than "Gladiator" won -- Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." (Its competition included "Apollo 13," "Babe," "Il Postino" and "Sense and Sensibility.") "Erin Brockovich" is probably too small a film to have a serious shot at the big prize. "Chocolat" is apparently the favorite of many older academy voters, but if "Babe," a truly beloved fantasy, couldn't win best picture, "Chocolat" -- which was showered with as much ridicule as praise -- doesn't stand a chance. That "Chocolat" was even one of the final five stands as a testament to the genius of the people doing Academy Awards publicity for Miramax.

Still, giving "Crouching Tiger" the Oscar for best picture would be the academy's acknowledgment of what many of us take for granted -- that the best movies these days come from countries where English is not the primary language. I simply can't imagine people who live and work in Hollywood or New York owning up to their failings in such a public manner, so look for a win by "Gladiator." And anybody naive enough to think the Oscars have anything more than a passing acquaintance with quality will have their faith tested.

1. "Gladiator"
2. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
3. "Traffic"
4. "Erin Brockovich"
5. "Chocolat"

Best director
Ridley Scott is a hack. You know it, I know it, Hollywood knows it. That's not to say that being a hack necessarily disqualifies one from winning the best-director Oscar. (John Avildsen or Richard Attenborough, anybody?) But this does look to be one of those infrequent years in which the picture and director awards may very well be split. (While in its youth the academy frequently gave the picture and direction Oscars to different films, it is now about a once-in-a-decade occurrence.)

There have only been four occasions in the 52 years of the Directors Guild of America awards that the DGA winner did not win the Oscar -- and two of those were cases where the DGA winner wasn't even Oscar-nominated (Steven Spielberg for "The Color Purple" and Ron Howard for "Apollo 13"), with the guild's award perceived as a protest statement against those snobbish academy members. And while "Crouching Tiger" is a foreign-language film, Lee is practically one of the family, having made a couple of American movies, notably "The Ice Storm"; he has, in fact, lived in America since the late 1970s (and currently resides near New York).

A lot of ink has been written about Steven Soderbergh's canceling himself out by receiving two nominations, but even if he had been in contention with only one film, he'd probably still go home empty-handed. He's not completely out of it -- March 25 could conceivably still be "Traffic's" night -- but conventional wisdom says that "Traffic" is too downbeat to be the academy's favorite, and Soderbergh's other film, "Erin Brockovich," too slight. With no best-picture nomination to go with his director's nod, "Billy Elliot's" Stephen Daldry should just plan on using Oscar night as an opportunity to make new contacts.

1. Ang Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"
2. Steven Soderbergh for "Traffic"
3. Ridley Scott for "Gladiator"
4. Steven Soderbergh for "Erin Brockovich"
5. Stephen Daldry for "Billy Elliot"

Best actor
What is it about "Cast Away"? How can a movie make more than $200 million and still get nobody to care about it? Even when it was the No. 1-grossing movie back during the Christmas season, "Cast Away" created not even a bare minimum of buzz. The disdain for his vehicle is only one of the hurdles Tom Hanks must overcome, after having been widely seen as the front-runner in the best-actor race immediately after the nominations were announced.

Hanks also has history working against him: No one has ever won best actor three times; even Jack Nicholson, as big an icon as there is today in Hollywood, has a supporting statuette among his trio. The feeling is that giving Hanks a third award when he is still in his mid-40s would be a case of too much too soon. Moreover, "Cast Away" has the feel of a movie whose entire raison d'être was specifically to get its star another Oscar -- much like Jodie Foster's "Nell." (It didn't work in her case.)

There is a general perception among the public that Hanks is beloved in Hollywood, but the more you talk to people, the more you realize that affection for the guy may only be skin-deep. What have in the past been seen as genuine Mr. Nice Guy qualities now are perceived by some as pompousness and holier-than-thou smarm. Hanks has gotten involved in so many bland causes -- the World War II monument, anything portraying astronauts as salt-of-the earth heroes -- that he seems like the head of the local Kiwanis Club.

Perhaps nothing else so subtly yet forcibly showed the unseemly high regard in which Tom Hanks holds Tom Hanks as his taking it upon himself to escort Ruby Dee to the stage at the SAG awards, when Dee and her husband, Ossie Davis, were being honored with a lifetime achievement award. Hanks' serving as a walker was an act of startling presumptuousness: Dee was in no need of assistance and her husband was right there. The fact that Hanks lost the best-actor SAG award to someone who is generally considered a supporting actor (Benicio Del Toro, from "Traffic") indicates that the industry's love affair with him may well be coming to an end.

Meanwhile, Russell Crowe has, improbably, emerged as the front-runner in the best-actor race. In public persona, Crowe has developed this year as the anti-Hanks: the affair with Meg Ryan and the subsequent breakup, the public dressing down of "Proof of Life" director Taylor Hackford, the overall surliness he proudly displays. With Hollywood's favorite president no longer in the White House, academy members may be looking to vote for another "bad boy."

Few would ever mistake Crowe's performance as Maximus in "Gladiator" for particularly awardworthy acting. But it's clear now, in retrospect, that when he was nominated last year for "The Insider," he was more deserving than ultimate winner Kevin Spacey (even if not as deserving as the late Richard Farnsworth, for "The Straight Story"). So, what the hell, give it to him now -- and present it with a wink so that everyone is aware this Oscar is really for "The Insider," and also for his non-nominated work in "L.A. Confidential," for that matter. If "Gladiator" had been released in 1999 -- thus establishing the actor's blockbuster movie-star credentials a year earlier -- and "The Insider" this past year, Crowe would be a shoo-in.

A third contender? Count out Geoffrey Rush -- hammy performance in a movie nobody in Hollywood likes ("Quills"). Javier Bardem in "Before Night Falls"? Nicholson himself has been campaigning for the intense Spanish actor by hosting screenings of the film, and that has to count for something. It probably won't be enough, though, as Bardem's an unknown actor in a movie too arty for general academy taste.

But there is Ed Harris. Since "Pollock" was around only for a week in December, and then reappeared after the nominations in February, his is likely the performance freshest in voters' minds. Harris gets to scream, knock over tables and be a really mean drunk; the film has the added cachet of being a self-directed labor of love. Moreover, the thrice-nominated actor is well-respected around Hollywood.

1. Russell Crowe in "Gladiator"
2. Ed Harris in "Pollock"
3. Tom Hanks in "Cast Away"
4. Javier Bardem in "Before Night Falls"
5. Geoffrey Rush in "Quills"

Best actress
I would say bet the ranch on Julia Roberts to win best actress -- except that I said the same thing about Lauren Bacall in the race for best supporting actress in 1996, and look at how that turned out. Plus, Bacall's subjugator is in the running this year, too. Not that Juliette Binoche has a chance to win for "Chocolat" (she won in 1996 for "The English Patient"), but veteran Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream" and Laura Linney, a first-time nominee in the inexplicably well-liked "You Can Count on Me," could conceivably emerge for voters as pleasing alternatives to Roberts. Joan Allen, nominated for her dynamic turn as a scandal-dogged senator in "The Contender," should have an Oscar by now, but if it wasn't her year when she was nominated for "Nixon" or "The Crucible" (not to mention that she wasn't even nominated for "Manhunter" or "Pleasantville"), then this won't be her year either. I would still bet the ranch on Roberts.

1. Julia Roberts in "Erin Brockovich"
2. Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream"
3. Laura Linney in "You Can Count on Me"
4. Juliette Binoche in "Chocolat"
5. Joan Allen in "The Contender"

Best supporting actor
Logic says that Albert Finney should be running away with this race. He's a distinguished five-time best-actor nominee, and over the past decade the supporting-actor Oscar has often been presented to older men as an ersatz lifetime achievement award. Plus, Finney is spectacularly good. He and Roberts do a wonderful two-step together throughout "Erin Brockovich," and she would not have been nearly as memorable without Finney to work off of, for it is his reactions that crystallize her character. But Del Toro in "Traffic" is the one who emerged as the critics' darling this year, even though Don Cheadle, Luis Guzman and Miguel Ferrer all did work in the film that was the equal of Del Toro's. Del Toro's victory in the lead category at the SAG awards, thus enabling Finney finally to win an award, makes things especially interesting. That award shows the esteem in which Del Toro is held, but it also meant that Universal's ads for Finney could now tout him as the winner of a supporting-actor award.

Joaquin Phoenix was the liveliest thing in "Gladiator," Willem Dafoe was a lot of fun in "Shadow of the Vampire" and Jeff Bridges, nominated for "The Contender," has been one of the movies' unsung great actors for decades. All three have talent worthy of Oscar recognition, and perhaps someday they'll get it -- it just won't be March 25.

1. Benicio Del Toro in "Traffic"
2. Albert Finney in "Erin Brockovich"
3. Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire"
4. Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator"
5. Jeff Bridges in "The Contender"

Best supporting actress
This award has often gone to up-and-coming actresses, even though that tendency has not infrequently caused retroactive embarrassment for the academy. (Do Marisa Tomei and Mira Sorvino really have Oscars?) This trend favors Kate Hudson from "Almost Famous," and the fact that she's second-generation Hollywood, with her mother, Goldie Hawn, having won this award in 1969, adds a heartwarming touch to the proceedings.

On the other hand, rumors have been flying that director Cameron Crowe had his hands full with Hudson's acting, and that her performance was put together in the editing room. A rumor, of course, doesn't have to be true to be damaging, and it remains to be seen what effect this one will have.

When this award isn't being presented to sweet young things, it goes to older women playing warmhearted characters. This year we have two: Judi Dench in "Chocolat" -- she won the SAG award -- and Julie Walters in "Billy Elliot." (Frances McDormand in "Almost Famous" and Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock" don't fit either of the two profiles for this category, and aren't likely to buck the trend.) My heart wants me to say Walters, but all signs continue to point to Hudson.

1. Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous"
2. Julie Walters in "Billy Elliot"
3. Judi Dench in "Chocolat"
4. Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock"
5. Frances McDormand in "Almost Famous"

Best original screenplay
"Erin Brockovich" and "Gladiator" are the only nominees in this category that are also up for best picture, so they would seem to have the upper hand. Except that, since "Erin Brockovich" is a true story, writer Susannah Grant won't get points for originality, and the dialogue in "Gladiator" is downright and numbingly atrocious. (This is the worst nomination in any category this year; even in 1997 the academy's writers branch could not bring itself to nominate "Titanic.") The other nominees, "Billy Elliot," "Almost Famous" and "You Can Count on Me," are all well-liked films. What it comes down to is that any of the contenders besides "Gladiator" could win, but I still have to play the percentages and go with the other best-picture nominee.

My prediction: "Erin Brockovich"

Best adapted screenplay
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is loved for its direction, production values and visual sweep, but not so much for its script. That leaves the award open for "Traffic," which also has the extra bonus of writer Stephen Gaghan's inspirational (and much-publicized) real-life story: Junkie cleans up and becomes hotshot Hollywood writer.

My prediction: "Traffic"

Best art direction
A stylized version of feudal China is a more unusual cinematic sight than ancient Rome, so "Crouching Tiger" should win.

My prediction: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

Best cinematography
Tossing a coin is as good a way as any to pick between "Crouching Tiger" and "Gladiator," but the former is more overtly "beautiful."

My prediction: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

Best costume design
Another battle between "Crouching Tiger" and "Gladiator."

My prediction: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

Best editing
"Crouching Tiger" and "Gladiator" finally have a serious contender in a technical category. Because three different stories and dozens of characters were juggled so adroitly, "Traffic" has a real shot here. But then again, this award tends to go to more obvious examples of editing -- i.e., action movies. And since a lot of people felt that the desert flashbacks in "Crouching Tiger" should have been edited down or even excised completely, "Gladiator" will win (never mind that the action scenes were cut in such a way as to be practically incoherent).

My prediction: "Gladiator"

Best foreign-language film
My prediction: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (It's even more of a sure thing than Julia Roberts.)

Best makeup
Rick Baker is the brand name here, and his (and Gail Ryan's) work on "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" was more extensive than what Ann Buchanan and Amber Sibley had to do for "Shadow of the Vampire" (which they did marvelously).

My prediction: "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas"

Best original score
Ennio Morricone is a great composer who has never won. Unfortunately for him, the Italian film "Malena" is -- despite a Miramax push -- too obscure. The music for "Crouching Tiger" is probably too exotic for many academy voters, and John Williams' nomination for "The Patriot" is a joke. Rachel Portman's music for "Chocolat" was sweet and evocative, but Hans Zimmer's bombastic score for "Gladiator" was much bigger, and for voters, bigger will probably mean better.

My prediction: "Gladiator"

Best original song
I doubt that very many people could hum "Things Have Changed" from "Wonder Boys." Doesn't matter -- it was written by Bob Dylan and therefore will win.

My prediction: "Things Have Changed"

Best sound
"Gladiator" is the only best-picture nominee in this category. It will win.

My prediction: "Gladiator"

Best sound effects editing

My prediction: "U-571"

Best visual effects

My prediction: "The Perfect Storm"

By Damien Bona

Damien Bona is the co-author, with Mason Wiley, of "Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards."

MORE FROM Damien Bona

Related Topics ------------------------------------------