The most surprising thing about "The Martian" is how relaxed and funny it is.
Nothing that has happened since the Academy Awards nominations were announced has swayed me from my immediate conviction that "Chicago" will be the big winner on Oscar night. I know that "The Pianist" was named best film by the British Academy. I know "The Hours" was honored for its screenplay at the Writers Guild Awards. But, hey, I also know the Directors Guild honored Rob Marshall for "Chicago" over Martin Scorsese--and when a rookie can outpoll a living national treasure in a vote of directors, there's a bandwagon on the way."Chicago" is not the best of the nominated films. That would be "Gangs of New York." But you have to understand that the academy doesn't vote for the best film. It votes for the best headline. This year, it sees big type that shouts "The Musical Comes Back!" Having failed to honor "Moulin Rouge!" last year, the academy will vote this year the way it thinks it should have voted the year before. (Example: The 2001 Oscar for best actor went to Russell Crowe, who more reasonably should have won a year earlier for "The Insider.") Here are the major categories and my predictions:
ACTOR: A few weeks ago, Jack Nicholson was mentioned as the front-runner in this category, but I've sensed a certain lack of urgency to award him at this time. Of the others, Nicolas Cage is my favorite, for his wiggy, off-the-wall dual role in "Adaptation," but the film and Cage's characters may be too comic for the academy. Adrien Brody won admiration for his work in "The Pianist," and little does the academy suspect that he can also play a nutty extrovert (rent "Bread and Roses" and see him as a labor organizer). But he's too much an unknown to take home the prize. As for Michael Caine, beloved and respected, the nomination is his award.That leaves Daniel Day-Lewis, as Bill the Butcher in Scorsese's "Gangs of New York." There are two powerful omens suggesting that he will win the Oscar: (1) He won the Screen Actors Guild Award last Sunday, and there are more actors among the voting members of the academy than any other bloc. (2) Although Miramax also released Caine's "The Quiet American" and supported his Oscar campaign, Harvey Weinstein has more at stake with "Gangs of New York," and is campaigning like crazy for Day-Lewis. There is also the fact that it's quite a performance, from the knife tapping on the glass eye to that weird accent, which Day-Lewis allegedly learned from an ancient Edison wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading a poem. Daniel Day-Lewis it is.
ACTRESS: Renee Zellweger won the SAG Award, but gee, despite what I just said, do you think that means she'll win the Oscar? Her performance in "Chicago" is admirable up to a point, but unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones she is not an experienced dancer. Of course, her character, Roxy Hart, isn't supposed to be a talented performer--that's the whole point--but in the golden age of the Hollywood musical, even the untalented characters were brilliant at being untalented (see Jean Hagen as the hapless silent star in "Singin' in the Rain").
Salma Hayek has the role of a lifetime in "Frida," but the film got more respect than affection. Nicole Kidman embodies Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" with an immense, sad dignity, but has less screen time than co-stars Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep. Also, those viewers who do not already know the story of Virginia Woolf's death (and, believe me, they are legion) are less moved by her suicide than perhaps they should be. Yet she is considered the front-runner, not least because Hollywood admires the class with which she handled her divorce from Tom Cruise, and the flair with which her career has gone from one good choice to another.
That leaves Diane Lane, from "Unfaithful," and Julianne Moore, from "Far from Heaven." I would be pleased to see either woman win--slightly more pleased for Moore, because she faced the technical challenge of adopting a 1950s Hollywood studio-acting style, as well as the emotional challenge of a failed marriage and a forbidden love affair. I have a feeling Moore's vote will split between her two nominations and that Lane's picture has not been widely enough seen. So the winner will be Nicole Kidman.
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Will Paul Newman win because the academy loves him? Will Christopher Walken win because moviegoers smile with anticipation every time he appears in a movie? Probably not, in both cases. Newman was powerful and sad in "Road to Perdition," a tragic rainy-day gloomfest that has no Oscar muscle behind it because it has earned about all the money it's going to make. Walken, as the sometimes grudgingly proud father of a teenage con-man (Leonardo Di Caprio) was good, weird and offbeat, but he's so dependably watchable that Hollywood tends to take him for granted. That leaves Ed Harris, as the suicidal poet in "The Hours" (downbeat, in a movie some voters probably found too intellectual) and John C. Reilly, as Renee Zellweger's invisible husband in "Chicago" (could benefit from a landslide) and the front-runner, Chris Cooper, for "Adaptation."
I think Cooper will win. Voters will have enjoyed the brilliance and originality of "Adaptation," while appreciating the way Cooper's performance remains anchored in reality while the film has a nervous breakdown all around him. He plays a man who looks like a swamp rat, urgently requires dental repairs, and yet is able to charm a New Yorker writer (Meryl Streep) with the sheer energy of his enthusiasm. His feelings about orchids are infectious to such a degree that the feelings, not the orchids, become the focus of the story-within-the story. He'll win.
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Here a plausible case can be made for all five nominees. The weakest, strangely, may be Meryl Streep, because she has been nominated so often and is a known quantity. There are two "Chicago" nominees, and although Catherine Zeta-Jones may have the advantage because her role is so much bigger (and she won the SAG Award), Hollywood will have noted that Queen Latifah's "Bringing Down the House" brought down $31.7 million last weekend, close to a March record. That was way ahead of Bruce Willis' $17.2 million--and because of Latifah, not co-star Steve Martin (it was his biggest opening ever, a fact that is trying to tell you something).
Hollywood respects box-office clout, and when Latifah proves she has it while ballots are in the academy voters' hands, that counts for something.Still, I think the contest may be between Kathy Bates, as a sexually open-minded middle-aged woman who embraces the life force in "Alias Schmidt," and Julianne Moore, as a woman who seems to be fleeing from life in "The Hours." Moore of course is also nominated as best actress for "Far from Heaven," which will cut into her vote, and that makes Bates the front-runner.
DIRECTOR: Here the contest is between Rob Marshall of "Chicago" and Martin Scorsese of "Gangs of New York." Roman Polanski has won a lot of honors for his story of Holocaust survival, "The Pianist," but brings along way too much baggage for the academy crowd. Stephen Daldry ("The Hours") and Pedro Almodovar ("Talk to Her") should be content with their nominations.If I predict Scorsese will win, I will be going against one of the most accurate Oscar predictors of all. The winner of the Directors Guild Award goes on to win the Oscar well over 90 percent of the time, and so for Oscar parties and office pools Rob Marshall is the safe bet.
But I can't believe it. I can't believe that Martin Scorsese, at 60 one of the two greatest active American directors (with Robert Altman), will be passed over again by Twizzler-brained Oscar voters who get timid when confronted by genius. In 1981, he was nominated for "Raging Bull," later generally acclaimed as the best film of the 1980s, but the Oscar went to first-time director Robert Redford ("Ordinary People"). In 1989, he was nominated for "The Last Temptation of Christ," and the Oscar went to Barry Levinson ("Rain Man").
In 1991, he was nominated for "GoodFellas," a timeless classic, but the Oscar went to first-timer Kevin Costner ("Dances With Wolves"). Which one of those two would you want to see again tonight? Scorsese is not only a great director but an invaluable citizen of the film community--a crusader for film preservation, a historian whose documentaries about Hollywood and Italian classics are themselves classics. And damn it all, he made the best of the five films.
But I'm not predicting that Martin Scorsese will win just because he deserves to. I'm predicting he'll win because Harvey Weinstein, who produced both "Chicago" and "Gangs of New York," is going full-bore, hell-for-leather to win the best picture Oscar for "Chicago," but has let it be widely known that he hopes voters will split their tickets and vote for Scorsese for director. It's the only category in which Harvey is making personal phone calls. He is a very persuasive man.
PICTURE "Chicago." Period, end of story. See above.
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: In this category the academy reached out with nominations to three (two art films, one pop) movies that generated enormous enthusiasm last year. Nia Vardalos, whose "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" grossed more than $200 million, has been nominated, along with "Y Tu Mama Tambien," written by director Alfonso Cuaron and his brother Carlos, and "Talk to Her," written by its director, Pedro Almodovar. "Greek Wedding" might win, if only because voters would be writing the happy ending for Vardalos' Cinderella year. But the contest is probably between "Gangs of New York" by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, and "Far from Heaven," by its director, Todd Haynes. When all is said and done, "Gangs" has not generated a lot of affection from Hollywood audiences, although its creation of the extraordinary Bill the Butcher and his violent world is a feat of writing as well as acting and directing. "Far from Heaven," however, is an extraordinary work--better than any of the five nominated best films--and a bold act of imagination. It attempts no less than to make a 1957 film as if it knew a little of what we have learned since about race relations and homosexuality. It deserves to win, and it will.
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Here the obvious front runner is "Adaptation," which is about adapting a screenplay. Twin brothers Charlie and Donald Kaufman have been nominated, despite the fact that Donald does not exist, for a screenplay in which both are played by Nicolas Cage; the writing is a high-wire act in which the desperate Charlie tries to adapt an intractable book that forces him into bizarre strategies of writing, pitching, lying, compensating, obsessing and competing with his brother. Of the other nominees, "About a Boy" is deserving--it was the year's best traditional character comedy, and "The Hours" was ambitious in its three variations on a theme. The strength of "Chicago" and "The Pianist" was not in their scripts.
FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: Here I labor under the handicap of not having seen two of the nominees ("Hero" and "Zus & Zo"). Of the others, it is unlikely the academy will go for "The Crime of Father Amaro," with its controversial sexual and political content. Aki Kaurismaki's "The Man Without a Past" is a considerable achievement by the Finnish director, about a man with amnesia.But the movie with heart and sentiment and the most popular touch is "Nowhere in Africa" by Caroline Link, the totally engrossing story of a German Jewish family, refugees from Hitler, who end up working on a farm in Kenya. That'll be the winner.
ANIMATED FILM: The race here seems to be between "Spirited Away" by the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, considered the greatest of all animators, and "Lilo and Stitch," an uncommonly entertaining and original Disney film. Disney is distributing the Miyazaki, but is likely to put its clout behind the film from its own shop. So it's "Lilo and Stitch."
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: Michael Moore's box-office hit "Bowling for Columbine" has been the front-runner since the day it opened, and recent charges that he made up stuff probably won't hurt it, because somehow you know, watching it, that Moore has granted himself poetic license. So, OK, the Columbine killers didn't go bowling earlier that morning, as a news report falsely claimed. So, OK, that bank didn't hand Moore the rifle as a premium right there in the bank, but made him go to a gun shop to pick it up. I think where Moore is concerned, audiences make their allowances and go for the big picture. The fact that "Bowling for Columbine" is a hybrid of documentary and invention was tacitly noted by the Screen Writers Guild, which gave the film its original screenplay award. Documen-taries do have screenplays, but they're not usually regarded that way. Possible dark horse: "Spellbound," a charmer about the National Spelling Bee.
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Everyone seems convinced that beloved genius Conrad Hall, who died earlier this year, will win for his work in "Road to Perdition." And so I predict. But nothing would make me happier than to see Ed Lachman win for the inspired reinvention of the 1950s Universal wide-screen melodrama style in "Far from Heaven."
Art direction: "Gangs of New York" will interrupt the "Chicago" steamroller.
Costume design: "Chicago." Not because the costumes were the best, but because they were popular, and influenced a little fashion boomlet.
Film editing: "Chicago," as part of the landslide, and also because its editor, Martin Walsh, was able to cover for stars who as dancers who were not quite ready for prime time. Documentary short subject: "Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks," fresh from its NAACP Spirit Award, and in sympathy after "Barbershop." The immortal Miss Parks will be in the audience.
Best musical score: "The Hours," by Philip Glass, because I have it on my iPod, and it has really grown on me.
Best song: Probably Kander & Ebb's "I Move On," from "Chicago," as part of the "Chicago" landslide, but wouldn't it be fun to hear Eminem's acceptance speech? Do they make tuxedos with hoods?
Sound: "Chicago." Sound editing: "Minority Report." Visual effects: "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." Because Spider-Man looked too much like a cartoon.
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