Oscar: Raw and uncut

Richard Gere gets snubbed, gay directors romp, Diane Lane wins one for the tramps, and Polanski is still at large -- but he might take home the golden nude.

Published February 12, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

Most everything fell into place with this year's Oscar nominations. Perhaps the only "What the hell?" omission was Richard Gere from the best actor list. Otherwise, Meryl Streep had a mixed day, "Lord of the Rings" got set up for next year and the nasty musical "Chicago" ran off with 13 nominations, helping Miramax, with four best-picture nominations, rout DreamWorks in its ongoing Oscar feud.

Besides being just about the only person connected with "Chicago" not nominated, Gere actually did something we haven't seen him do -- unlike the five men who were nominated. The relish with which he sang and danced, and the delightful way he balanced sleaze and charm, resulted in the most buoyant performance of his career. Instead, the Academy nodded at Adrien Brody for brooding in "The Pianist," Nicolas Cage's deadpan bemusement in "Adaptation," Michael Caine's beautiful soul-searching in "The Quiet American," Daniel Day-Lewis' overacting in "Gangs of New York" and Jack Nicholson for "stretching" by underplaying his role in "About Schmidt."

The miscast Nicholson was hardly believable as an uptight, buttoned-down Midwesterner, but sometimes just being Jack Nicholson is enough for a nomination. Until this morning, Nicholson had been the favorite to win, but since the film received only one other nomination -- for Kathy Bates as supporting actress -- there is evidently a lack of affection for it among Academy members. Nicholson is not out of the race, but it's no longer an easy win. Day-Lewis might be a front-runner, but how must Billy Zane feel? He was lambasted for his ludicrous villain in "Titanic," and Day-Lewis received a nomination for the same performance.

The only bright spot for Gere is that his omission has already brought him more attention than a nomination would have. A Gere nomination would have been "Chicago's" 14th, which would have tied the film with all-time leaders "All About Eve" and "Titanic." But it was good to see that, in honoring Bill Condon's "Chicago" screenplay, the writers branch showed that it understood that writing the screenplay for a musical involves creating structure for the film and the tricky integration of songs and narrative, not simply coming up with banter between production numbers.

At this point, "Chicago" is the obvious favorite for best picture. The two runners-up in nominations, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Stephen Daldry's "The Hours," both seem to have as many detractors as fans. In the tradition of little-remembered past best-picture nominees "The Dresser" and "The Accidental Tourist," "The Hours" is merely this year's most self-consciously "literate" release -- not a film for the ages.

Although it is highly unlikely that "Gangs of New York" will win instead -- it's too messy and unfocused -- there already has been a concerted movement to get Martin Scorsese the best director Oscar, thus turning the category into a lifetime achievement award. Steven Spielberg has been pushing for him, as has Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, even though the other favorite in this category is Rob Marshall for "Chicago" (also a Miramax picture). Apparently, Weinstein is one of those people who would come right out and tell you which one of his children is his favorite.

Actually, Roman Polanski, nominated for the third time for best director ("The Pianist"), is every bit as -- and arguably more -- deserving of a career award as Scorsese. This is, after all, the man who made "Rosemary's Baby," "Repulsion," "Chinatown," "Tess" and "The Tenant." He's also older than Scorsese and has been making films for a longer time, so is more overdue. Nominated for seven awards, Polanski's "The Pianist" may actually have the best shot at upsetting "Chicago." It's a Holocaust film that looks at the Holocaust from an unusual perspective; it focuses on emotional and spiritual degradation, taking a slightly cool, distant approach to the material. It remains to be seen whether Polanski's fugitive status will have any bearing on his Oscar chances. There is a chance that because his transgression was having sex with an underage girl, the so-called family-values gang will protest his nomination. That in turn may result in a backlash from those who insist it's the art that should be judged, not the artist. In an Oscar season that has yet to provide any controversy, we may well see things heat up.

It was a mixed day for Meryl Streep, but a big one for Julianne Moore. With a best supporting actress shot for "Adaptation," Streep now has 13 nominations, breaking Katharine Hepburn's record for the most ever. At the same time, she was overlooked for her part in "The Hours," while the Academy acknowledged costars Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore, as best actress and best supporting actress, respectively (even though Moore had more screen time than Kidman). Moore is also up for best actress in Todd Haynes' '50s melodrama-style "Far From Heaven." She is the ninth person nominated in two acting categories in the same year.

There's no clear front-runner for best actress, although Kidman, Moore and "Chicago's" Renée Zellweger are in the best position. The brevity of Kidman's appearance -- about 30 minutes -- may work against her, if not the almost comical manner in which she portrayed mental illness, furrowing her brow and looking off into the distance, more flummoxed than emotionally disturbed. Julianne Moore's performance as a troubled housewife may be too passive to impress a plurality of the voters, and the Academy as a whole was not, unlike most film critics, smitten with Haynes' postmodernist exercise. Meanwhile, Zellweger has exuberant star quality in "Chicago," but it's traditionally more difficult for performers in musicals to win than their dramatic counterparts.

Critics' darling Diane Lane received a nomination for Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful," which is the trashiest movie to receive a major Oscar nomination since Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction"; it's also probably too minor a vehicle to take her to victory. The same might be true of the little-seen Frida Kahlo biopic "Frida," which nonetheless earned Salma Hayek a best actress nomination for her interpretation of the Mexican artist, as well as five other nominations. (But nothing for Alfred Molina, whose performance as Diego Rivera was the most impressive element in the film.)

It used to be a rule of thumb that a performer nominated in both the lead and supporting categories would take home the latter prize, but that has not been the case the last four times the situation has occurred. Although Julianne Moore's certainly not out of the running, Meryl Streep and, especially, "Chicago's" Catherine Zeta-Jones are more likely to prevail, unless voters are turned off by Zeta-Jones' wailing in court about her wedding pictures.

"Chicago's" supporting actor nominee, John C. Reilly, has the distinction of appearing in three best-picture nominees -- "Gangs" and "The Hours" are the other two -- a feat accomplished by only one other great character actor, Thomas Mitchell, in 1939 (and back then there were 10 best-picture nominees). Paul Newman's ninth nomination is his first in the supporting category. Christopher Walken had to wait 24 years for a second nomination, for "Catch Me if You Can," after having won in 1978 for "The Deer Hunter." Jeff Daniels' subtle, and rather sweet, befuddlement in "The Hours" was much more convincing than Ed Harris' anger, but Harris was acting, so hence the nomination. Right now, though, the safe bet for supporting actor would be for Chris Cooper's toothless orchid thief in "Adaptation."

Of the five best-director nominees, two and a half are openly gay, the two being Rob Marshall and Pedro Almodóvar (for "Talk to Her"); the half, Stephen Daldry, was gay when he was nominated for "Billy Elliot" two years ago, but has since been married. In each of the major categories, there had been six or seven likely nominees, and so there were some unavoidable slights. Dennis Quaid, who played the emotionally tortured gay husband in "Far From Heaven," is perhaps the most surprising also-ran. "About Schmidt" was supposed to do better, but given the smug, condescending view of its characters, its poor showing, especially for adapted screenplay, is particularly pleasing.

Even though "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" received a best-picture nomination, the fact that neither its screenplay nor director Peter Jackson was nominated takes it out of the running. Excluding the animated "Beauty and the Beast," "The Two Towers" is the first best-picture nominee since "Jaws" not to receive a directing, writing or acting nomination. "The Two Towers" received a total of six nominations, down from the 13 for last year's "The Fellowship of the Ring." The indication is that Academy voters felt this second part of the trilogy was, to some degree, treading water, and it will be up to the upcoming "The Return of the King" to take a best-picture Oscar for the ambitious series.

This year there were five nominees for best animated feature, a category that shouldn't even exist. (In its debut last year, the category featured only three contenders, and managed to overlook Richard Linklater's "Waking Life.") Very few cartoons are good enough to merit Academy recognition; if something truly remarkable does come along, a special Oscar can take care of it. To have a bomb like "Treasure Planet" an Oscar nominee frankly diminishes the stature of the Awards. There were 17 films eligible in the animated feature category, which means that 29.4 percent of them were nominated. To put things in perspective, this is the equivalent of the 278 eligible feature films in 2002 yielding 82 best-picture nominees. (With odds like that, "Swimfan" and "Sorority Boys" would have had a good shot.)

At the 50th Academy Awards ceremony, Charlton Heston received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Twenty-five years later he's a teetering gun nut in best documentary nominee "Bowling for Columbine." Of course, one can be very liberal and find director Michael Moore as obnoxious as Heston, and even though Columbine is by far the best-known of the documentary features nominees, Moore's egomania -- on-screen and off- -- might drive voters to honor another film in this category, such as "Winged Migration," which tracks migrating birds across continents with breathtaking camerawork.

In the past, the music nominees have been widely criticized for being way behind the curve. (Among the non-nominees in previous years: any song from an Elvis Presley picture, "The Girl Can't Help It," "Let's Twist Again," any of the Beatles tunes in "A Hard Day's Night," "Help!" or "Let It Be," Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly," "Brown Sugar" and Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones, and the songs from "Saturday Night Fever.") This year, however, there was recognition for Eminem's "Lose Yourself" in the best-song category. He probably shouldn't be planning an acceptance speech, as the majority of Academy members probably still consider rap music an oxymoron. That leaves a three-way race among baby boomer favorite Paul Simon, the still-cool-after-all-these-years U2 and, in what would be the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, "Chicago's" John Kander and Fred Ebb, who, crazily enough, weren't even nominated for "New York, New York" back in 1977. And best song generally turns up one song from left field; this year that distinction goes to "Burn It Blue" from "Frida."

The bitter Miramax-DreamWorks Oscar rivalry will get a respite this year, mostly because Miramax trounced the competition. DreamWorks' trade paper ad campaign for "Road to Perdition" was the season's most elaborate, and it did help garner six nominations for the film, but other than Paul Newman's nod for best supporting actor, they were in the technical categories. DreamWorks' two Spielberg films received a mere three nominations, with "Minority Report" showing up only in the sound editing category, and "Catch Me if You Can" garnering Walken's supporting actor nomination and a predictable bid for John Williams' score. Miramax, on the other hand, scored 38 nominations, although the nine for "The Hours" have to be shared with Paramount.

A few submitted movies that had name recognition because they'd been released in the States didn't make the cut in the foreign film category: Francois Ozon's "8 Women," from France; Belgium's "The Son," directed by the Dardenne brothers; and Brazil's "City of God," despite having Miramax's backing. Roberto Benigni's fiasco, "Pinocchio," was also snubbed, which seems like divine retribution for the awfulness of his having won two Oscars for "Life Is Beautiful."

Other filmmakers with a reputation in this country who were left out in foreign film were Russia's Andrei Konchalovsky, who spent time in Hollywood in the 1980s, and Sweden's Lukas Moodysson. Curiously, the two films already released in America that are nominees in this category -- Mexico's "The Crime Of Father Amaro" and "Zus & Zo" -- received less-than-sterling reviews here. Spain stunned the film world when, instead of Pedro Almodóvar's "Talk to Her," it submitted "Mondays in the Sun" as its official entry. There was no nomination for that film, but Almodóvar himself was anointed in the director and original screenplay categories.

There's a month and a half of Oscar campaigning ahead of us now. That means plenty of back-stabbing, bullying tactics and shady dealings. It also means there's time for everything in the Oscar races to change.

By Damien Bona

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

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