Let the critics decide

"Lord of the Rings" and David Lynch deserve to win Oscars, but the Academy can rarely be trusted to single out the best movies.

By Charles Taylor
Published February 12, 2002 7:00PM (EST)

The work that the Oscars ceremony provides for Joan Rivers and her hell-spawn notwithstanding, the sanest reaction to the Academy Awards in years has been the focus on what the stars are wearing. How can you seriously talk about the Oscars as anything other than a fashion show? It's never been about the best movies of the previous year ("Gandhi"? "Chariots of Fire"? "Terms of Endearment"? "The Sound of Music"?) but about what a small, conservative (aesthetically, I mean) group of Hollywood insiders deems the best.

Unlike critics' organizations, the members of the Academy can't be counted on to have seen anything that doesn't register on mainstream radar or, if they have, can't be counted on to appreciate it. The murmur that went through the crowd of reporters assembled this morning to hear the announcement of this year's nominees at David Lynch's nomination as best director for "Mulholland Drive" was telling. It was the same surprise heard in 1999 when Paul Thomas Anderson (for "Boogie Nights") and Atom Egoyan (for "The Sweet Hereafter") were announced as best director nominees. Even when a picture has earned as much attention as "Mulholland Drive" has, it's still surprising when the Academy shows any awareness of movies existing beyond the mainstream.

The most obvious division between Academy taste and some sensibility that reflects a wider range of movies has always been the split between what movies win awards from critics' organizations and what wins at the Oscars. I think the awareness of that split is one of the reasons for the ridiculous proliferation of awards shows in recent years. No matter how much those shows exist because they are grabs at publicity for their various organizations, their existence is implicitly a way of saying that the Oscars are the final word on nothing.

This year's nominations proved that in a couple of obvious ways. Nowhere more so than in the three nominees for the first-ever animated feature award, which didn't include Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," but did include "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." Uh-huh. And it proved it with the token "Mulholland Drive" nomination for David Lynch. Here's a movie that has won best picture awards from the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics, the Boston Film Critics and the New York and national divisions of the Online Film Critics Society (full disclosure: I'm a member of the last two, and of the National Society).

With that kind of critical support the Academy couldn't ignore "Mulholland Drive," so it gave a nomination to Lynch. (Which raised the yearly question of how a director can receive a nomination, but the movie he directed cannot. Two of the best picture nominees, "In the Bedroom" and "Moulin Rouge," did not get nominations for directors Todd Field or Baz Luhrmann. While Ridley Scott was nominated for "Black Hawk Down," the movie was not nominated for best picture.) In some ways, that token nomination is worse than a complete snub. It's nonsense to pretend to make discriminating choices about the year's performances and not nominate Naomi Watts, whose performance in "Mulholland Drive" was the performance of the year, and perhaps the most fearless, extreme and daring piece of screen acting since another Lynch-directed performance, Sheryl Lee in "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me."

There were other obvious omissions: Steve Buscemi in "Ghost World," the entire cast of "Last Orders," Lukas Moodyson's "Together" (for best foreign film), Anthony LaPaglia and Kerry Armstrong in "Lantana," Pierce Brosnan in "The Tailor of Panama," Hugh Grant for the best screen cad in years in "Bridget Jones's Diary."

What's surprising is that many of the major-category nominees (even if my personal choices would have edged some of them out) are actually decent. Four of the nominees for best picture ("Gosford Park," "In the Bedroom," "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" and "Moulin Rouge") are actually good movies. All of the nominees in the supporting categories are worthy, as are most of the best actor and actress nominees. The nicest surprise may be the nomination of that underrated actor Ethan Hawke for "Training Day." It's a far less showy role than Denzel Washington's. But without Hawke's quiet, contained portrayal of an honest young cop in over his head, Washington's corrupt character would have nothing to resonate against.

The talk already seems to center on the fact that two African-American actors were nominated in the same category, Will Smith in "Ali" and Washington in "Training Day" (both terrific performances). And there's an African-American nominee for best actress, Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball" (a performance with some fine moments but one that's ultimately undermined by the clumsiness of director Marc Forster). The nominations, though, may backfire on the Academy, highlighting how few African-Americans have been nominated over the years. Where were the nominations for Jeffrey Wright in "Shaft," Charles S. Dutton in "Cookie's Fortune," Forest Whitaker in "The Color of Money" and "A Rage in Harlem," Ice Cube in "Boyz N the Hood," Richard Pryor in "Live in Concert," Irma P. Hall in "A Family Thing," Regina King in anything? (OK, Regina King hasn't gotten a chance to give a major performance yet. I'm just crazy about her.) Especially when Sidney Poitier takes the stage to receive an honorary Oscar. Poitier was the last African-American actor to win in one of the two top acting categories. And that was 38 years ago, for "Lilies of the Field."

Of course, good taste didn't entirely win out this year. "Every year," Pauline Kael wrote in 1975, "there are a few ambitious performances so spectacularly bad that there are immediate cries for the performer to get an Oscar, and every year or two one of these performances does indeed get its Oscar ... performances like these don't happen overnight; a lot of training, thought, and preparation go into them, plus a talent for shamelessness." That strain was duly represented this year by the nominations for Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind" and -- even more shameless -- Sean Penn in "I Am Sam." If Crowe doesn't win -- as "A Beautiful Mind," the only stinker in the best picture category, surely will -- it will be because the best actor award goes to Denzel Washington (it would be his second Oscar, his first a supporting award for his performance in "Glory").

So how, then, to regard the Oscars? Well, for some years my wife and I have had an Oscar night tradition, a meal that we think sums up the show's mixture of kitsch and class -- hamburgers accompanied by a really good bottle of red wine. That seems to me as good a way as any of looking at the Oscars -- as a spectacle where the fine vintages and the chopped meat are served up on the same plate.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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