So, Michael Moore aces himself out of all Oscar consideration by not submitting his movie for Best Documentary (didn't want to distract from other worthy work, he says), but instead gambles on his movie's unprecedented popularity launching it to a Best Picture nomination. Well, Fahrenheit 9/11 failed to oust Bush from office, as was one of its stated goals, and Oscar voters, notorious and rabid liberals, one and all, must have thought it was better not to be reminded of the limits of film as a tool for social change and consequently left the movie completely off its honor roster for 2004. And Academy voters, each one surely a radical, left-wing, Christ-hating (or at least Gibson-hating) Jew, obviously conspired to make sure The Passion of the Christ, otherwise known as the People's Choice for Best Drama, got only perfunctory notice in technical categories, all the better to further punish its divinely inspired (and damnably wealthy) director. Those are the two angles you've probably already heard way too much about if you've followed any analysis of Tuesday's announcement of the 2004 Oscar Nominations.
But there were other questions not based in red state-blue state baiting that were equally compelling. I'll be damned if I can figure out how it happened, but when Paul Giamatti got out of bed Tuesday morning, listened to Adrian Brody read, in alphabetical order, this year's Best Actor nominees and realized they would never get further than the F's, I'll bet he suddenly had a much better idea of how Sandra Oh has probably felt all during this awards season, and more to the point, how Bill Murray felt in 1998 when all the talk about his performance in Rushmore failed to result in a nomination for the popular comedic actor. Much of the fretting and speculation about the logic, or lack thereof, behind figuring Oscar winners of any season is curiously predicated on decoding the mysterious groupthink of "they," as if the Academy, made up of voters from every field of expertise, gathered together in one room and cast the final ballots so as to better form some kind of a consensus statement. But even when one understands that the nominations are voted on only by those within the nominee's own peer group-- actors nominate actors, cinematographers nominate cinematographers-- the specter of "they" still raises its cloaked head. How could they find room for Johnny Depp and leave out Giamatti? How could they honor Thomas Haden Church and not Giamatti? How could they nominate I, Robot for anything? Well, just like it's silly to suppose that every member of the New York Film Critics Circle voted for Million Dollar Baby as Best Picture of the Year (reading David Edelstein's dismissive review in the online magazine Slate ought to put that myth to rest), artists and technicians who vote to nominate their peers are as prone to individual taste, splinter factions, politicking, and inconsistency, as any other group. It's the only way to explain how the Best Director nominees never quite match up with the Best Picture nominees. (Finding Neverland and Mike Leigh are this year's nominees without a corresponding director or film.) Explanations of groupthink are usually futile efforts anyway, except in years like the last one, in which one movie seems to totally overwhelm the sensibility of the voting body to such a degree that consensus almost seems plausible, if not probable.
Much better, and much more fun, then, to go at the categories one by one and point out the surprises and, more often, the deficiencies of the nominations in order to shore up the unassailable conclusion that the Oscars don't really mean a hell of a lot in the grand scheme of cinema. It's a very rare year that I can look back on in Oscar's 77-year history and say that the Academy really got much of anything right, as least as far as I can tell-- the list of Best Picture winners, despite the appearance of obvious classics like It Happened One Night, The Best Years of Our Lives, An American in Paris, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather (Parts 1 and 2) and Unforgiven, is as loaded with lard and empty calories as the drive-thru menu at Jackrabbit Slim's. (Would you like some fries with your Around the World in 80 Days? Or extra cheese on your Sound of Music?)
But the fact that the awards are largely insignificant to one's appreciation of film as an art form doesn't mean that following the vagaries and inconsistencies of the ceremony can't still be a lot of fun. And with the nominations announced Tuesday revealing that the 2004 Oscar race figures to be one of the tightest and, with one or two glaring exceptions, most unpredictable in quite some time, why not take a dip into Hollywood's foulest fondue pot and gulp down as much hot cheese and crusty bread as possible? (I haven't felt particularly well the past few days, so one would think I'd avoid rancid metaphors like that last one, but the weakness brought on by vacuum-packed sinuses, nausea and tumbleweed-ridden lungs may inadvertently lead me in directions I don't necessarily want you or I to go, so for that I apologize in advance.)
Best Actor: Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda; Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator; Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby; Jamie Foxx, Ray
Well, I already covered the puzzling absence of Paul Giamatti in this category, but I can imagine that Javier Bardem and Liam Neeson might also be scratching their heads in the wake of this category's announcement. The Sea Inside ended up with a foreign film nomination, but nothing for the virile Spanish star of this true-life drama, whose subjugation of his sex appeal to portray a quadriplegic campaigning for the right to die probably accounts for the film's only other nomination, one for Best Makeup (Bald Wig Division). Kinsey did receive one nod, in the direction of Laura Linney, which in the end may only make Neeson wish that his on-screen imitation of John Lithgow was as good as hers. I haven't caught up with Don Cheadle or Jamie Foxx yet (I know, I know, but I'm trying), but even sight unseen it's not hard to project why these acclaimed performances are getting some respect. Less obvious is how Johnny Depp, in a performance much less universally heralded, found himself among the final five. In fact, the whole Miramax-backed Finding Neverland movement, another film I have yet to see (and little interest in, to be honest), would only make sense to me had the film been directed by Lasse Hallstrom, thus completing a mysterious Chocolat-Cider House Rules trifecta of which the director's own The Shipping News (2001) fell far short. Finally, there's Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio doing perhaps the best acting work of their careers (so far) in Million Dollar Baby and The Aviator, performances that in any other year would stand as strong a chance as any of taking the prize. But unless Foxx makes good on his Golden Globe acceptance speech joke and does something massively, publicly horrendous between now and the final ballot date, nothing short of a Roland Emmerich-sized global disaster could possibly detain the likable actor from his date with the little gold man.
Winner: Jamie Foxx My Pick: Clint Eastwood
Best Actress: Annette Bening, Being Julia; Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace; Imelda Staunton, Vera Drake; Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby; Kate Winslet, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Okay, well, at least I've seen three of these nominated performances, and I fully intend to catch the outstanding two in this category before Oscar night, February 27. The rookies in this category are Moreno and Staunton, somewhat surprising nominees when you consider the under-the-radar status (at least by Hollywood standards) of the movies they were in. But given Oscar's fairly recent tendency in the acting categories to notice minimally hyped work from the industry margins that generates a lot of positive word of mouth, then suddenly these two actresses look less like dark horses for recognition and more like obvious choices. What, then, to make of Kate Winslet? (That's a rhetorical question.) I'm wondering-- only semi-seriously-- whether this talented British actress is going to start developing some sort of reputation for leaving her romantic costars in the Oscar dust. She was nominated in 1997 for Titanic while poor Leo was left holding James Cameron's bags (at the bottom of the Atlantic, no less). Sure, he's got his nod this year too, but now Kate's latest on-screen partner, Jim Carrey, whose got something of his own history of being ignored (rightfully or not) by Academy voters, finds himself hitched to Winslet's Love-'Em-And-Leave-'Em wagon as well. How long before Hollywood's he-men start shunning the stunning actress for fear of scuttling their own Oscar chances before a frame of film has been exposed?
And of course, the story in this category, surely to be rehashed into utter boredom and further inconsequentiality by, say, the end of the week, is the big "rematch" between likely front-runners Hilary Swank and Annette Bening. Swank snatched Bening's plump opportunity for a teary, pregnant appearance on Oscar's big stage right out from underneath her in 2000, winning for Boys Don't Cry, and most seem to believe, at this early stage of the game anyway, that the young whippersnapper might just be poised to do it again, despite both actresses taking home Golden Globes for their work a few weeks ago. I haven't yet seen Bening's film, and considering that I've only liked her on screen twice (in The Grifters and Mars Attacks!) I hadn't seriously considered doing so until my best friend Bruce saw Being Julia and recommended it to me, and now Oscar is kind of pressing the point. I can only hope her work in the new film is less stiff and obvious than her nominated turn in American Beauty, or, for that matter, her stilted Golden Globe speech accepting Best Actress honors this year. Bening is one of those major actresses whose persistent acclaim puzzles me, in large part because many of those praising her are people whose critical and observational instincts are usually fairly well attuned with my own. If they get it, why don't I? (Or, of course, the reverse.)
Winner: Hilary Swank My Pick: Hilary Swank
Best Supporting Actor: Alan Alda, The Aviator; Thomas Haden Church, Sideways; Jamie Foxx, Collateral; Morgan Freeman, Million Dollar Baby; Clive Owen, Closer
The hole in this category for me is Closer and Clive Owen, so I obviously have nothing to say about him, other than I thought he was better as the assassin in The Bourne Identity than he was in his perhaps purposeful sleepwalk through Mike Hodges' dreary I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. But since neither film is germane to the discussion at hand, I will gingerly move along. Alan Alda achieved something in The Aviator I wouldn't have thought possible in this day and age-- at no point during his performance did I find myself wanting to recoil in horror or revulsion at his mere presence. Now, after enduring 415 seasons of M*A*S*H, each one further paving the way for the actor's sainthood, and a career as a director of films with little ambition beyond hammering home the actor's most piously annoying liberal-humanist tendencies, how nice to see him tearing up a nasty, juicy character role as a corrupt senator that doesn't insist you find him likable or politically sympathetic. For Alda, at 66, that practically constitutes a leap of faith, and it comes courtesy of what might be his best performance since Paper Lion. Thomas Haden Church's work in Sideways is raucously delightful, but I think it pales next to Alda's, and I don't think either of them really approaches how Jamie Foxx holds the screen in Michael Mann's nightmarishly terrific Collateral. That said, they're all rookies, both in terms of previous nominations and sheer effortless effectiveness, next to Morgan Freeman, who not only does brilliant work alongside Swank and Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby, but also almost single-handedly redeems the concept and execution of the narrator from its many past excesses and misuses. And he's never won an Oscar before.
Winner: Morgan Freeman My Pick: Morgan Freeman
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett, The Aviator; Laura Linney, Kinsey; Virginia Madsen, Sideways; Sophie Okenedo, Hotel Rwanda; Natalie Portman, Closer
With apologies to Sophie Okenedo and Natalie Portman, neither of whose performances I have yet seen, this category looks to me to be as much of a slam-dunk as Jamie Foxx winning Best Actor, and, coincidentally, it's all about another uncanny embodiment of a beloved and distinctive real-life personality. From the minute Cate Blanchett strides on screen as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator it's clear we're in the presence of an inspired actor who deepens what could be a simple impersonation with every gesture and with each beautifully written scene she plays against DiCaprio's Hughes. With all due respect to Virginia Madsen's career revival courtesy of Sideways, and to Laura Linney, whose work in Kinsey is creditable but not particularly distinctive, Blanchett is the clear choice here.
Winner: Cate Blanchett My Pick: Cate Blanchett
Well, the hour is growing late, and I stayed up even later last night, ignoring household chores, cold symptoms and the strong desire to crawl into bed and disappear, in order to get as much writing done as possible, so tonight I'm going to finish up and give in to at least the bed part very soon. But not before touching on some of the various other oddities that I saw crop up amongst the list of nominees yesterday.
Why, for instance, does the Best Animated Feature category this year look less like a place to honor quality work wherever it might manifest itself (The Spongebob Squarepants Movie, Teacher's Pet, the critically acclaimed Ghost in the Shell 2) than a clearinghouse for cruddy, big box-office flotsam and jetsam (Shark's Tale, Shrek 2)? Either The Incredibles takes this contest in a walk, or they might as well shut down the whole operation.
Does anyone else find the inclusion of The Passion of the Christ in the Best Makeup category as somewhat tasteless? Maybe only if you found the experience of watching the film as distasteful and borderline pornographic as I did. I would think that if those involved in this aspect of the film's production had even a degree of Mel Gibson's zealousness they might also find it odd being lauded for, essentially, flaying the Lord so graphically and in such loving detail. But in a way it's appropriate that one of the movie's only nominations should highlight what for most, including its director, was probably its most powerful attraction-- the opportunity to indulge in unparalleled sadism with equally unparalleled sanctimony. Here's hoping the Academy just gives it to Lemony Snicket so we can just put this all behind us.
The selected nominees for Best Original Musical Score seem to be a pretty middle-of-the-road bunch this year. Even John Williams' fine, prickly score for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban skirts the familiar a little too closely. It's a damn shame that Clint Eastwood's sublime, haunting score for Million Dollar Baby was overlooked, but I didn't really expect recognition for the movie here. I had hoped, however, that Michael Giacchino, who composed the year's most rousing and delightful score, for The Incredibles, or Rolfe Kent, composer of Sideways' sassy jazz accompaniments, might find some respect. Howard Shore's terrific Aviator soundtrack was another obvious choice, but due to some odd Academy bylaw that I'm unfamiliar with, it was disqualified (if anyone can point me to a source describing the circumstances for this disqualification, I'd appreciate it.) Instead, room just had to be made, I guess, for more hackwork from the overly nominated James Newton Howard (The Village) and John Debney's derivative ambience for The Passion of the Christ. I'll be in the kitchen getting more bean dip when this winner is announced.
Perhaps the strongest technical category this year is that of Best Cinematography, with nominations going out to brilliant and evocative work from Robert Richardson (The Aviator), Zhao Xiaoding (House of Flying Daggers), Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement) and Caleb Deschanel (The Passion of the Christ). But I would have gladly sacrificed John Mathieson's nomination for The Phantom of the Opera-- I'm sorry, Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera-- to see Tom Stern's name on the roster instead, not only to honor his fine, underrated work in Million Dollar Baby, but to also take a step toward acknowledging that work by other cinematographers and validating it against incomprehensible accusations of incompetence. I also wish voters were willing to cast more votes to acknowledge the groundbreaking digital video cinematography of Collateral courtesy of Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, if only to spotlight what can be done brilliantly with a format that has more typically been implimented as an aesthetically neutral, economically feasible option for do-it-yourself filmmakers. But there may still be substantial resistance to tacit endorsement of the format in an industry comprised mostly of directors of photography who don't yet know their way around digital video the way they do celluloid, and who may resist contributing to a revolution they see as threatening to the legacy of film as film, even with pictorially challenging films like Collateral and Robert Altman's The Company pointing the way.
Finally, I couldn't be more thrilled for Brad Bird and his movie's nomination not only for Best Animated Film, but perhaps even more so for The Incredibles' wise and hilarious script. This movie bested just about every other live-action feature of any genre this year, and its appearance in this prestigious category is tacit recognition of that fact. I'm also very excited that, if the movie itself couldn't find its way toward other significant nominations, at least the dense and intuitive work from Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in their script for Before Sunset is being acknowledged. But in the Best Adapted Screenplay category? Adapted from what, exactly? From their extensive notes during improvisations? As I used to say to my high school English teacher, I just don't get it.
The march toward Oscar Night is a mercifully short one, thanks to the newly condensed period between announcement of the nominations, the balloting and the awards themselves, all designed to discourage grossly excessive and unseemly campaigning. Of course, those in Hollywood who naturally gravitate toward the grossly excessive (there are so few of those, aren't there?) will find a way. It is my job to ignore as much of that as possible and try to enjoy the spectacle of Oscar Night divorced completely from any lingering thought that it matters a damn. And I will do my job. If it's your job too, I wish you much success and enjoyment in the next month or so. I'm sure there'll be plenty more to write about between now and then. But right now my head, she swims pretty fluidly, that going-to-bed idea is getting to be nearly impossible to ignore, and I don't think I have a whole lot more to say anyway... It was just outside of Barstow that we first saw the bats... Did I type that out loud? Dreams of Oscar, take me away...