Oscar plays nice

At the 73rd Academy Awards, Steve Martin holds his fire, and not even Russell Crowe does anything naughty.

Published March 26, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

The Oscars managed to be both boring and exciting this year. There were live remotes from Sri Lanka, Australia and outer space; Steve Martin as host; smoldering stars like Russell Crowe, Javier Bardem and Benicio Del Toro standing in the wings; and the most systematically unpredictable results of any show within memory.

So why was the 2001 edition of the Academy Awards so flat? Martin drew blood only once or twice. Not one unknown recipient of a tech Oscar did anything loopy, or droned on, or said something unexpected or memorable. None of the presenters ad-libbed or produced an original moment. There were no bad dance numbers (there were no dance numbers period) and no film collages beyond the in memoriam sequence. The special awards (to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, cinematographer Jack Cardiff and producer Dino De Laurentiis) were each charming, but nothing more.

The result was a brisk show, about three hours and 20 minutes -- an hour shorter than recent extravaganzas. The producers don't realize that we love to complain about the show, but we don't want it to change. We want long and wacky acceptance speeches! Weird tributes to obscure talents! ("The Foley Artist: Our Ears to the Cinema!") Hymns to Tibet! Honorary Oscars to directors who named names!

We want to feel, in other words, like anything can happen at the Oscars. The 73rd Academy Awards will go down in history as the one in which that zany Danny DeVito was eating carrots.

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Oscars are an election -- but one with a couple of odd, obfuscating elements. The voters are an elite, conservative group; even its more adventuresome numbers are quite conscious -- and protective -- of their industry's image. The other thing weird about the Academy Awards is that we never get to find out the actual counts; we'll presumably never know if Kevin Spacey beat Denzel Washington last year by one vote, 10 or a thousand; and we'll also presumably never know by what margins "Gladiator," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Traffic" jostled one another out of the way to take home their respective trophies.

The show Sunday night was one of the most inconclusive in several years. Ridley Scott's unsubtle, stolid "Gladiator," which led the field with 11 nominations, came through only spottily; it lost as many of its technical nominations as it won until, as expected, Russell Crowe took home best actor. Then it lost the screenplay and director races before running off with the best-picture statuette.

Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the dreamy, thrilling Taiwanese martial-arts epic, beat back "Gladiator" in the first half of the show, winning for cinematography, art direction and even best score. But after it won the Oscar for best foreign film, the film's streak ended -- Ang Lee did not even win best director, a rare instance of the Directors Guild of America award not presaging the Oscar.

And finally, Steven Soderbergh's kaleidoscopic, highly engineered "Traffic" overcame both of its more favored opponents to win for editing, adapted screenplay (by former addict Stephen Gaghan, from the British miniseries "Traffik") and, most surprisingly, best director for Soderbergh, who had the distinct disadvantage of being nominated twice in the category. (The other film was "Erin Brockovich.")

Again, we'll probably never know how close the results were, but it's difficult to believe that the margins weren't very small in the best picture, best director and screenwriting races, as well as the technical categories.

The winner in the original screenplay category was another surprise -- it went to Cameron Crowe, for "Almost Famous," his loving memoir of his years as a teenage rock critic for Rolling Stone.

The major acting awards went to Julia Roberts, as expected, for "Erin Brockovich," and to Russell Crowe, for "Gladiator." Del Toro, as expected, won best supporting actor for his work in "Traffic." Marcia Gay Harden won best supporting actress for her role as artist Jackson Pollock's wife in actor Ed Harris' directorial debut, "Pollock."

Crowe's win showed that the academy members might have a thing for guys who are bad for them. He drinks, he fights, he gets mad on the set. He engaged in a torrid affair with Meg Ryan (Mrs. Dennis Quaid) during the filming of "Proof of Life," and then hit the cover of People magazine just before the ceremony after the FBI informed him that he's been the target of a kidnapping plot.

But where in the past edgy stars like Dustin Hoffman denounced the very idea of awards, Crowe has been on his best behavior. For his acceptance speech, he spoke well but didn't say anything naughty:

"If you grow up in the suburbs of anywhere," he said, "a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. [But] this moment is directly connected to those imaginings. And for anybody who's on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage, it's possible."

Stripped down, he was basically advising kids to dream those dreams. Couldn't someone tell us something we didn't want to hear?

Even Bob Dylan didn't distance himself from the event. He won best song for "Things Have Changed," from Curtis Hanson's "Wonder Boys." Dylan performed live, from Sydney, Australia, and then waited around to hear the announcement of the award in his category. After dutifully thanking the suits at Columbia Records, his home for most of his 40-year recording career, he thanked the academy for recognizing "a song that doesn't pussyfoot around, or turn a blind eye to human nature."

He could be right, but he didn't seem to realize that a vote for a Bob Dylan song is no longer a radical act. The only person surprised may well have been Sting, nominated for a song from "The Emperor's New Groove," who might have expected to win and join a long line of tame acts -- like Elton John and Phil Collins -- who collect Oscars shilling songs for cartoons.

Soderbergh, accepting his best-director award for "Traffic," seemed on the verge of saying something important, but instead just urged people to "be creative." Neither he nor screenwriter Gaghan took the time to denounce the U.S. drug war their movie so specifically tore into.

Martin wasn't an embarrassment, the way Whoopi Goldberg was some years ago. But he and his writers didn't seem up to the task at hand. After an intro from the astronauts aboard the Destiny space station module, they were quickly forgotten; Arthur C. Clarke, who gave a screenwriting award live from Sri Lanka, where he lives, was similarly dispensed with. Martin took one strong shot, noting that Ellen Burstyn, nominated for "Requiem for a Dream," had made herself look 30 pounds heavier and 20 years older for the role -- "and Russell Crowe still hit on her!"

His other great joke was this: "Hosting the Oscars is like making love to a beautiful woman. It's something I only get to do when Billy Crystal's out of town."

But Martin had otherwise little to offer in place of Crystal's riffs on legendary Hollywood decadents like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. (Nicholson seemed not to be in attendance.) Martin's wackiest bit came when he ran down to give DeVito some dip to go with his crudités. It's not a moment likely to turn up in a future edition of "Hollywood Babylon."

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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