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The shifting sands

I approach this annual task with a sense of foreboding. The 2002 Oscar race rests on shifting sands. There are scarcely even any absolute front-runners, unless it is Jennifer Connolly as best supporting actress. I am sure of one category, then another. Then I change my mind.

Best Picture

I began Oscar season convinced that "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" had a lock on this category. It is visionary, expensive, and has two sequels already in the can. If it is true (and it is) that one of the purposes of the Academy Awards is to improve future business, LOTR has more to gain than its competitors. It is also a pretty good picture--the kind of sweeping epic that reminds us of Hollywood's glory days.

But then, no... I began to doubt LOTR's chances. The Academy voters skew older. They don't much like action fantasies. True, many of them read LOTR in their younger days, but did they respond to this picture at this moment? No, there was another film they responded to more strongly: "A Beautiful Mind."

This is the kind of film Oscar loves to honor, the story of a man who overcomes enormous odds to achieve great things. A schizophrenic who wins the Nobel Prize? That sounds like a movie! And one directed by Ron Howard, who combines being liked with being respected. And it stars Russell Crowe, a serious actor on a winning streak.

But then, no... The lustre of "A Beautiful Mind" was tarnished in two ways. First, Crowe was unwise enough to get in a shoving match with the producer of the British Academy Awards, over the way his acceptance speech was edited. And we began to hear stories that the hero of "Mind," John Forbes Nash, had been tidied up for the film version, had skeletons in his closet, and might even have spent some time in there with them. Then came the news that he'd made anti-Semitic comments. My own feeling is that movies need to work as movies, not as fact sources, and that a schizophrenic cannot be held to the same standard of behavior as a healthy person--especially when he goes without medication to keep his mind unclouded. But the film's chances seemed to fade in the early days of March.

That leaves "Moulin Rouge," surprise winner of the Producer's Guild award, which has predicted the Oscar in nine of the past 12 years. This is a movie that has grown with familiarity. USA Today reported that its fans were watching it over and over on DVD, and indeed when I watched it in that form, I found new ways and reasons to enjoy it. It is venturesome, ambitious, wildly exuberant, and about show business. And it has no minuses.

Prediction: "Moulin Rouge."

Best Actor

A two-man race, between Crowe and Denzel Washington ("Training Day"). If I am right and Crowe has scuttled his chances (he won last year, after all, and has not been a good boy who deserves another), the Oscar will go to Washington.

Conventional wisdom says the Academy seldom votes for evildoers, especially a cop as corrupt and vicious as Washington's in this film. Voters sometimes seem to honor the achievements of the characters more than the skill of the performers. How can they vote for a homicidal mad dog over a Nobel Prize-winner?

Easy, I think. Denzel Washington's image is to consistently positive, he has played so many good and likable characters, he is such a nice man, that Academy voters will focus not on his vile cop, but on the stretch and risk it took for Denzel to play him. He'll get a sympathy vote for having to be in the same movie with his character.

Prediction: Denzel Washington.

Best Actress

Here I think the best performance is clearly by Halle Berry in "Monster's Ball," but have enough voters seen it? I hope so. I fear not. The favorites are Sissy Spacek for her searing work in "In the Bedroom," and Nicole Kidman, whose "Moulin Rouge" was joined during the year with another admired performance, in "The Others." My first hunch was the voters will go for Spacek. They have admired ber for 30 years. They like comebacks. It is a very good film. But next hunch is that Nicole Kidman and Sissy Spacek will split the Very Good Film vote, and that Berry, whose performance really is in a league of its own, will take the prize. Her win in the Screen Actgors' Guild awards last Sunday may be a harbinger (on the other hand, Crowe also won).

Prediction: Halle Berry.

Best Supporting Actor

A tricky category with no front-runner. I proceed with a process of elimination: Jon Voight would be the favorite if audiences had liked "Ali" more, but his fine performance is clouded by that film's failure. Ben Kingsley's performance in "Sexy Beast" is the best in the group, but has the Academy seen it? (True, enough actors saw it to nominate it.) Jim Broadbent in "Iris" is playing a soft-edged character in a squishy movie. Ethan Hawke is superb in his showdown with Washington in "Training Day," and indeed has more screen time, but he has languished in indie films, tested the limits of his art, and in general not behaved like a star in training.

Sir Ian McKellan, on the other hand, is enormously admired, is in LOTR, which the voters will want to reward, is respected for his fearless militancy for gay causes, has been knighted (the voters lover titles), and is very good.

Prediction: Ian McKellan.

Best Supporting Actress

Jennifer Connelly. She's in a film they like and admire, and has paid her dues by consistently side-stepping the sexpot roles she was born to play and choosing instead to work in serious and worthy films ("Requiem for a Dream," "Waking The Dead," "Pollock"). That she is really in a leading role only enhances the impression she has made on voters.

If there is an upset, it will be by Dame Judi Dench or Helen Mirren, because the Academy loves them, Smith has one of those titles, and the voters have always meant to get around to one of those Iris Murdoch novels.

Prediction: Jennifer Connelly

Best Director

Ron Howard. The Academy has long meant to get around to honoring this favorite son, and here is the perfect chance, since, after not voting for "A Beautiful Mind" because of the disinformation campaign, they will want to vote for it anyway.

Possible dark horse: Robert Altman, who on Oscar night will be the best filmmaker in the house, nominated or not. But he's an outsider, a maverick, and worst of all, a truly great director. Voters will wonder, if they honor him, who'll be next? Martin Scorsese?

Prediction: Ron Howard.

Best Animated Film

"Shrek" will win. In fact, if this new animated category hadn't been introduced this year, it had an even-money chance of being nominated as best film. It was that admired and liked.

Prediction: "Shrek."

Best Foreign Film

"Amelie," hands down. Wildly popular, even beloved--although, even liking it as I did, I couldn't go that far (it was good, not great). Possible upsets: "No Man's Land," the darkly comic parable about the war in the Balkans, with its soldier trapped atop a live land mine between the lines. Or "Lagaan," from India, the first Bollywood film nominated. It's a box office hit, but will enough Academy members have sat through its 3.5 hours of song, dance, action, romance, melodrama, intrigue, history, politics and cricket? Answer: No.

Prediction: "Amelie."

Best Original Screenplay

Here the most ingenious screenplay, and one most directly responsible for the success of the film, is "Memento," by Christopher Nolan. But I suspect the Oscar will go to Julian Fellowes' slinky, witty work for "Gosford Park," both because it does such a good job of juggling all the characters and story lines, and because at some point the voters will feel shame, actual shame, if they do not vote for the Robert Altman picture.

Prediction: "Gosford Park."

Best Screenplay Adaptation

Akiva Goldsman's screenplay for "A Beautiful Mind" will win, despite the fact that its failure to air all the dirty laundry about John Forbes Nash Jr. will be the precise reason the voters did not choose it for best picture. This will be because many voters will sneakily continue to think it is the best picture even while not voting for it in the top category.

Best Documentary

Again this year the Documentary voters have carefully avoided any film that had box office success, such as Agnes Varda's stunning "The Gleaners and I," the insider story "Startup.Com," or "Endurance," the story of Shackleton's Antarctic expedition (it was disqualified on an inane technicality).

The winner will be "Promises," by Justine Shapiro and B.Z. Goldberg, and boy, do we need to see this film now. Shot between 1995 and 2000, when the borders more or less slammed shut between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians, it is about seven children, Jewish and Arab, and how they see each other in the world they are growing up in. They show great promise of being able to live together peacefully and become friends. Too bad about the adults running their worlds. 

Prediction: "Promises"

Best Song: Randy Newman for "If I Didn't Have You," from "Monsters, Inc."

Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie, "Lord of the Rings"

Art Direction: Catherine Martin and Brigitte Broch, "Moulin Rouge"

Costume Design: Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, "Moulin Rouge"

Film Editing: I dunno, but maybe Dody Dorn for "Memento," because when the voters get to this category they won't be able to stop thinking about the film's backward crazy-quilt. Conventional wisdom: "Moulin Rouge," because many voters in this category vote for the picture with the most cuts.

Makeup: Peter Owen and Richard Taylor "Lord of the Ring." No contest.

Original Musical Score: John Williams, "Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone." More for Williams than for the movie. 

Sound: Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Roger Savage and Guntis Sics, for "Moulin Rouge."

Sound editing: Gary Rydstrom and Michael Silvers, "Pearl Harbor." Because it looks like it was a harder job than the only other nominee, "Monsters, Inc." Many members have no idea what they're really voting for here.

Visual Effects: Jim Rygiel, Randall William Cook, Richard Taylor and Mark Stetson, "Lord of the Rings." Dark horse: "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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