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Critics are fighting it out: It's 'Baby' vs. 'Sideways'

In an era of multimillion-dollar Oscar campaigns, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" may be heading for success with an old-fashioned formula: Keep a poker face until you reveal your winning hand. Although Alexander Payne's "Sideways," itself a wonderful picture, seemed on track to burst out of the indie ranks and lead the Oscar parade, now the momentum seems to be shifting to "Million Dollar Baby."

Eastwood's strategy for the film was the opposite of Hollywood's conventional wisdom. There were no on-set interviews, no trailers, no advance ads, no hoopla. He made the movie quietly and efficiently, on a budget of about $25 million, which is peanuts these days. Then he held a handful of quiet screenings around the country; in Chicago, his editor Joel Cox flew in with a print that was shown to a few critics on Nov. 29.

Those screenings generated astonished pre-release reviews. I walked out convinced I had seen a masterpiece, certainly the best film of the year, and said so on the "Ebert & Roeper" program that played Dec. 4.

Eastwood opened "Baby" on Dec. 15 in just seven theaters, where it led the nation in its per-screen box-office averages. Although many critics' groups already had their awards in motion and gave top honors to "Sideways" (as the Broadcast Film Critics Association did at Monday night's Critics' Choice Awards), Eastwood began to pick up important trophies: Both A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis of the New York Times thought it was the best film of the year, as did the National Society of Film Critics.

Most Academy voters live in Los Angeles and New York, where the early theatrical runs were supplemented by Academy screenings. Now the movie opens wide Jan. 21, perfectly timed to take advantage of the Oscar nominations, which will be announced Jan. 25. As Oscar voters get their ballots, the nation's moviegoers will have the power of "Million Dollar Baby" fresh in their minds.

It's a well-known Oscar phenomenon that movies opening late in the year dominate the awards. One year all five best picture nominees opened in December. That may be because the emotional currents stirred up by a movie lose strength over time. "Sideways" opened Oct. 22, which means that its delights may not be as fresh in the minds of Academy voters. (To be sure, some will see it on those free videos we hear so much about.)

Not only did A. O. Scott pick "Million Dollar Baby" as the best film of the year, he took the extraordinary step of writing a Times piece on Jan. 2, nine weeks after "Sideways" opened, calling it the "most overrated" film of the year. He concedes that the "funny-sad" movie is praiseworthy, but as he ponders the year-end compilations that add up all the awards and reviews, he arrives at an intriguing notion:

" ... the near-unanimous praise of it reveals something about the psychology of critics, as distinct from our taste. Miles, the movie's hero, has been variously described as a drunk, a wine snob, a sad sack and a loser, but it has seldom been mentioned that he is also, by temperament if not by profession, a critic."

I don't think that fact influenced my own review of the movie because I thought of Miles as a drunk, yes, but not a critic -- not that the two groups don't sometimes overlap. "He's an oenophile," I wrote, "which means he can continue to pronounce French wines long after most people would be unconscious."

I have no doubt Eastwood set his sights on the Oscar from the moment he read the screenplay by Paul Haggis, based on stories by F. X. Toole. It is, I think, a nearly perfect screenplay, in that it contains everything necessary to accomplish what it sets out to do, and not one thing more.

Eastwood must have felt the same way. The movie's star, Hilary Swank, told me this was the only movie she's ever made with "no colored pages." As screenplays go through drafts and rewrites, the changed pages are reproduced on paper of different colors, to distinguish them; Eastwood therefore was filming the first draft without a single change.

Famed in Hollywood as a quick, efficient director who films under budget and ahead of schedule, Eastwood assembled a team of longtime collaborators. Joel Cox has edited 23 of Eastwood's films, and won an Oscar for "Unforgiven"; production designer Henry Bumstead, who is 90 and won the first of his two Oscars for "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 1962, has designed Eastwood's most recent nine films. ("They built a room for Henry on the sound stage," Swank told me, "and he had all his models and sketches in there.")

Although Eastwood has a long association with Warner Bros., the studio was not thrilled about the project. Eastwood had to raise half the money from Chicago-based producer Tom Rosenberg before Warners kicked in the rest. "With all the big $150 [million] and $200 million films out there, they thought this film was at a different importance level," Eastwood told me. "I had about $25 million to make it with. They had their 'Alexanders' and 'Polar Expresses' they were working on, and I figured my movie was going to have to live or die on its own terms."

I think that suited him just fine. Suspecting his film had the potential for greatness, Eastwood wanted to go off in a quiet corner and make it unobserved.

"We went and made it, they didn't know anything about it, and after we showed it to them," Eastwood told me in a December interview, "they said, 'Jesus, it's not too bad.' Some people in the organization started getting enthusiastic."

Considering its Oscar chances, a studio executive discussed "mounting a campaign." Eastwood says he replied: "No mounting a campaign, no mounting anything. Just see where it goes."

It was his idea to open it in a handful of showcase theaters and depend on word-of-mouth -- a strategy that last worked for an Oscar winner with "Chariots of Fire" (1981). These days important movies open on thousands of screens on the same day, partly to take advantage of national media buys, partly because, well, the word-of-mouth may not be all that good (consider the case of "Alexander").

Writing in the Sunday Independent of London, the paper's California-based film critic David Thomson flatly states Eastwood's film "is going to win best picture," and adds that his tears at the end "were not just for its story but for the movies. Because at long last someone has said, 'Look, this is how you do it.'"

Thomson is the author of the long-respected Biographical Dictionary of Film. That adds weight to his observation: "At the age of 60 or so, [Eastwood] began to improve, no matter that he was rich and successful enough to do whatever he wanted. This is a very rare phenomenon in today's world of film where people of Eastwood's age [75 in May] either turn impossibly childish or senile, or stop. Instead, Eastwood has begun to search for better and better material and in the process has enlarged himself as an actor and an artist."

All true, but I am still running into people who say, "I hear it's good, but I don't like boxing movies." To which all I can say is, "It's not a boxing movie. It's a movie about a boxer. Trust me on this."

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