Why and Why Nots
The 75th Academy Award Nominations
75th Academy Awards (2003)
feature by Paula Nechak

The nominees for this year's Academy Awards elicit as many "why" as "why nots." The machinations of the collective studio mindset - most specifically Miramax - labored over their political strategizing and placement of nominees, resigning an actor to a different category if necessary to carefully not compete against another performer in the same film and -- on the final ballot -- cancel each other out. The result of all this calculation feels obvious and uncaring --  itís no secret they just want to reap in the gold.

Meryl Streep ≠ conspicuously absent as a best actress contender for The Hours -- was on the money when she recently put noses out of joint with a statement about how commercial the whole awards campaign has become: "I find it alarming that all the campaigning for Oscars is getting like a political campaign," she said. "It won't be long before they start paying for television commercials for Best Picture, Best Actor and all the rest."

Iím neutral over the nominations this year, though there are a few glaring omissions that rankle; where are Dennis Quaid, Toni Collette and Bebe Neuwirth in the supporting categories? Categories that, for my money could have done without Ed Harris and John C. Reillyís names. Harris over-emoted shamelessly in The Hours but voters seem to think his performance was courageous; Reilly had a great year but he was virtually the same (save for his self-inflated Irish cop in Gangs of New York) deluded schlub in Far From Heaven, The Good Girl and the nominated role in Chicago.

I donít know who you could knock out of the running in the supporting actress category. All the women are terrific here and itís one of the most exciting races of the entire program. But Catherine Zeta-Jonesí screen time equalled Renee Zellwegerís in Chicago and she was more impressive and solid than her co-star. She should have been in the running for a Best Actress nod, making a slot for Collette or Neuwirth. So here is an example of Miramaxís mindset. They figure Zellweger will take it and Zeta-Jones wonít get much competition from Queen Latifah or anyone else in the supporting race. Itís the one bet that may backfire upon them, to Zeta-Jonesí dismay.

Both the best actor and actress category hold some unexpected surprises. Why Adrien Brody for The Pianist, I wonder? Despite the Academyís slavish respect and awe for Holocaust-themed films, Brodyís passive character had little to do but react to his heinous circumstances. And while post-nomination critics are revelling over the fact that Diane Lane grabbed the spot reserved for Streep, there was never any doubt in my mind that Lane had the slot in the bag all along. Itís perhaps the finest work by all the women in the running as Lane had to make something extraordinary out of a fictional, ordinary woman. Salma Hayek (Frida) and Nicole Kidman (The Hours) had the benefit of history and reams of documentation to draw upon for their notable performances as Frida Kahlo and Virginia Woolf while Julianne Mooreís '50s housewife was played as essentially written into Todd Haynes excellent script of Far From Heaven.

The best director category is ominously doomed to honor Martin Scorsese for the wrong film, too. Gangs of New York features a bookend pair of grand, epic scenes --  its opening gang battle and the closing Draft Riots sequence. In between lies a tepid love story atop a single volcanic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Critics have sniped that he grandstands and overacts; had the rest of the cast kept tempo with Day-Lewis there might have been something to this mish-mash movie. He was, outside of the two segments mentioned above, its sole virtue. Iíd love to see something gutsy happen instead, like the Academy giving the prize to nominated Pedro Almodovar or better, un-nominated Phillip Noyce, whose dual efforts - Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American were consistently exceptional and both distributed by Miramax. But itís going to be Scorseseís moment, at the expense of directors who made better films -- and to the virtual exclusion of Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers.

I would have loved to have seen Almodovarís heartfelt, surreal film Talk To Her take the best foreign-language prize but Spain submitted another in its place and ultimately neither made the cut. Perhaps thereíll be a repeat from this yearís Cannes Film Festival where Aki Kaurismaki took the Grand Jury Prize for the second part of his Finland trilogy, Man Without a Past. But this category is always iffy --  witness the Academyís upset of the very popular French film Amelie last year by the dark horse Bosnian war drama No Manís Land.

Documentaries are also touch and go. Generally theyíre noble, philanthropic works or exposes of corporate environmental injustice. We have Michael Mooreís misguided Bowling for Columbine in the running this year --  worthy subject matter lamed by bad execution -- and I can certainly do without witnessing Moore pontificate through an acceptance speech. Iíd much rather have seen producer Robert Evans at the podium picking up the Oscar for the humble documentary based upon the excessive rise and fall of his illustrious film career, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Alas, it wasnít even nominated.

The composite whole of the best picture category feels more anti-climactic than the breadth of excellent performances this year. Chicago is a fun, terrific musical and The Hours sneaks up on you. By the end itís emotional and introspectively soul-searching. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feels like a preface to its next big chapter, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, which, I have a hunch, will be a shoe-in next year for several prizes. The Pianist and Gangs of New York are throwaways and unwarranted - tepid films that donít hold up under scrutiny. I would have rather seen Todd Haynesí forgotten homage to Douglas Sirk - Far From Heaven - niched in where it belonged. And what of Adaptation and About Schmidt, two films that challenged convention and made no apologies for their humanistic flaws, yet were unique and revelatory?

Adaptation earned a well-deserved screenplay nod as well as its acting kudos for Nicolas Cage, Streep and everyman Chris Cooper, but About Schmidt was ignored for its script by wonder-team Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, and outside of its two acting acknowledgments is nowhere to be seen.

I have a hunch that because few distributors have the gift of savvy and the ability to turn controversy into an asset, or to play the kind of hardball that Miramax can, they were sideswiped by Miramax's product. For the first time Harvey Weinstein and company have eclipsed even Steven Spielbergís Dreamworks SKG in their reported long-running Oscar "feud." After the neck-in-neck race between the two companies over competing films Shakespeare In Love and Saving Private Ryan and whispered allegations of Miramaxís buying the awards through massive campaigning, Spielberg still received only faint weak applause for Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can this year. Further proof is in the numbers: Miramax received a momentous forty nominations (they must split noms for The Hours with Paramount Pictures). Could it be that Meryl Streep is on to something after all?


Be sure to read reports of previous year's Academy Awards:

Read about the Academy Awards
at the Los Angeles Times





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