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Chicago front runner for Oscars

By Arthur J Pais
March 23, 2003 16:13 IST
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When was the last time an Oscar competition excited me as much as today?

I don't remember getting so excited in the past decade as today and experiencing the sweet agony I undergo now as I wonder which movie is going to stun us by winning over the predictable ones. The competition is maddeningly exciting this time because some of the most hallowed names in the movie industry are competing with worthy newcomers.

The presentation ceremony may not be very exciting given the fact that America is at war with Iraq. Several top Hollywood names such as Will Smith have begged themselves off the awards ceremony on Sunday. Barbara Walters, who has been offering special interviews with star nominees for many years, won't air her special.

Early in the month, there was buzz that some of Hollywood's outspoken critics of war with Iraq would not be invited to present awards. The black list apparently included Martin Sheen and Tim Robbins.

Sheen and Robbins were not invited. But Robbins' partner and vociferous anti-US foreign policy activist Susan Sarandon will be one of the presenters. Will she make a statement or merely wear an anti-war button?

Michael Moore, whose documentary Bowling for Columbine, which has grossed about $40 million worldwide and is regarded by many to be a surefire Oscar winner, is another outspoken war critic.

His humorous and chilling documentary that examines the American preoccupation with violence is also one of the most applauded of the movies released last year. There is speculation what Moore will do tonight.

Will the filmmaker and writer, whose book Stupid White Man has remained on the national bestseller list for over a year and from time to time claimed No 1 position on the list, make a fiery speech? Or will he surprise viewers by talking about his film and not mentioning Iraq?

Steve Martin, known for his droll wit, is the host of the ceremonies this year. Martin returned to physical comedy after many years and saw his filmBringing Down the House remain top of the box-office chart for two weeks and earn a solid $70 million in two weeks. Will some of his newly rediscovered fondness for physical comedy affect his performance? Or will he settle down for a more sober presentation?       

The 75th Oscar ceremony could be one of the most subdued in its history but let us not forget there will be intense interest in the fate of the competition.

Films such as The Hours that were considered too literary -- and hence untouchable -- not only made a good show at the box-office last year but also garnered over half a dozen nominations.

And, of course, the controversies.

The venerable Martin Scorsese, whose Oscar candidature was severely criticized by scriptwriter William Goldman in weekly trade publicationVariety a few weeks ago, says he is dismayed at the efforts being made to promote him. Goldman declared Scorsese's Gangs of New York to be inferior compared to his great films like Taxi Driver and ripped the high voltage campaign by producer and distributor Miramax to get Scorsese his first Oscar. 

Then came an op-ed piece by another Oscar winner Robert Wise (maker of West Side Story and The Sound of Music) in theLos Angeles Times on why Scorsese should win the Oscar. Miramax, which has 40 Oscar nominations for its films including several in the best director category, ran Wise's article as an ad in many influential trade and consumer publications. And a new controversy began brewing over the Miramax tactic of using an Oscar voter's opinion in ads, adding to Scorsese's embarrassment. Suddenly, the frontrunner looks like an underdog.            

Meanwhile, I have been picking my favorites. It has not been this difficult -- and fun --in a long time.

Best Picture

I am torn between The Hours, a deeply psychological and suspenseful film connecting three women in three eras, and The Pianist, a haunting film celebrating the triumph of the human spirit.

I think I will go forThe Hours. It is made by comparative newcomer Stephen Daldry whoseBilly Elliott also fetched him a nomination.

On the other hand, The Pianist is the comeback vehicle for Roman Polanski who made the brilliant, dark Chinatown nearly three decades ago.

I loved the grand Gangs of New York though I found it a bit too violent, and the superb fantasy Two Towers, too.

But these films did not surprise and move me as much as The Hours did. I am amazed how seamlessly three seemingly distinct stories come together in The Hours.

In making a visually rich, musically delightful, emotionally satisfying funny, angry and true film, the makers of Chicago have proved that innovative musicals have not only a place in movie theaters but could become solid hits. By the second week of March, Chicago had grossed about $145 million in America, grabbed many top awards including the Directors Guild of America nod to director Rob Marshall and had plenty of life ahead, even without Oscars.  

It is not easy to overlook this dazzling and tuneful melodrama that offers powerful observations on the folly of justice and fame, which are as true today as they were in  Chicago some seven decades ago. But I will stay with The Hours. 

Likely Winner: Chicago, which has been nominated for 13 Oscars. I expect the film to get at least 6 nods.

Best Director

I am tempted to give the trophy to Stephen Daldry but if I feel sentimental, I will embrace Martin Scorsese for sticking to his vision of a gangster's New York and 19th century immigration history for over 20 years.

Despite making brilliant films like Taxi Driver that probed urban psychology and terror, Scorsese has never won an Oscar in nearly four decades in Hollywood. But then Gangs of New York, a spectacular epic, is nowhere as good as Taxi Driver or Raging Bull

Rob Marshall, the first time director who successfully reinvented the musical genre inChicago and made a spectacular film that showcases its brilliant cast, deserves the award more than Scorsese.

Pedro Almodovar, whose Talk to Her, offers a beautifully crafted movie out of a uniquely  sentimental story, is also a formidable candidate.

Polanski is too much of an outsider; his reputation is still tainted by the charge of statutory rape about 25 years ago.

The Pianist, Polanski's unflinching Holocaust drama partly inspired from his life and a book by its protagonist, has won for him a raft of awards including the Palme d'Or at Cannes and the British Film and Television Awards. The movie, which had done moderate business in America (about $20 million and fading) has fared much better in Europe (about $40 million).

Likely Winner: If the sympathy factor weighs high, it will be Scorsese. Otherwise, it is Marshall's year.  

Best Actor

Adrien Brody's towering, stirring and unsentimental performance as the ultimate survivor in The Pianist gets my vote. But I also feel guilty for not voting for Daniel Day-Lewis, who is mesmerizing as the mob leader in Gangs of New York.

But should I really feel that bad? Day-Lewis, after all, has one Oscar for My Left Foot.

Michael Caine, whose expressive eyes and intensely mobile face in The Quiet American are alone worth seeing that superb movie for, isn't an Oscar novice. In fact, Caine has an Oscar for Alfie, and then a supporting actor nod for far less accomplished work in Cider House Rules.

As for Jack Nicholson who gave one of his most restrained performances in About Schmidt, I can say this much: He is a treasure. But we have praised him a lot and have given him many awards. Nicholson, who portrays a retired insurance salesman forced to confront some awful and some hilarious truths about life for the first time, has described this as the least vain of his performances. It is the very opposite of his most celebrated performance as the manic rebel in One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest.

Nicolas Cage, Oscar winner for Leaving Las Vegas, has redeemed himself with his double role in Adaptation, essentially a story about a writer who is fighting to be productive. After seeing him in listless movies as Captain Corelli's Mandolin it was a pleasure to see his brave performance inAdaptation. But the movie may not attract too many voters.

Likely winner: Daniel Day-Lewis    

Best Actress

My vote goes to Nicole Kidman who is shaping up as one of the most talented of actresses. Don't measure her by the screen time she has inThe Hours but remember how Kidman, with a delicate performance revealing the soul of a troubled writer, makes you remember her long after the film is over.

I know Rene Zellweger as the Death Row candidate who has to fight for her survival by any means is splendid too. And she had to do a lot of dancing and singing apart from superb emoting. Several critics have compared Zellweger's sensuality to that of Marilyn Monroe.

Like Kidman, who was nominated last year for Moulin Rouge, Zellweger too makes back-to-back nomination history. Last year, she landed a nomination for Bridget Jones's Diary

I am torn between Kidman and Zellweger, but will settle for the former. In moving in a matter of few seconds from an awkward gait to blistering anger, Kidman provided a 'performance of astounding bravery,' Stephen Holden pointed out in The New York Times.  

As for Salma Hayek, nominated for Frida, in which she portrayed temperamental and troubled Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, I feel she did pretty impressive work.

The other two contenders are Diane Lane for Unfaithful and Julianne Moore for Far From Heaven.

Lane, who played a housewife whose reckless infidelity causes a huge storm, has given the best performance of her career. And yet she pales compared to Kidman.  

Whether she goes home with an Oscar or not, this is certainly Julianne Moore's year.

The actress, who has given one brilliant performance after another -- whether it is the huge hit Hannibal or the beautifully made The End of the Affair from a classic Graham Greene novel -- has been nominated two times this year.

In the best actress category for Far From Heaven, the haunting, melodramatic film directed by Todd Haynes, she is honored for playing a repressed 1950s housewife whose inner turmoil seems out of place in a seemingly satisfied and prosperous America. She also received a nomination for supporting actress for playing a woman unprepared for motherhood and domesticity in The Hours. 'She lands every punch with devastating power,' said Rex Reed inThe New York Observer.

Likely Winner: Rene Zellweger  

Best Supporting Actor

Chris Cooper, whose talent has gone largely unsung by the Awards, is my choice. He plays an orchid collector whose story in a best-selling book baffles a screenplay writer. A splendid actor by any reckoning, whose work includes American Beauty and Patriot, Cooper has never been this effective before. This is his first Oscar nomination.

As the deeply ravaged man in The Hours, Ed Harris' character goes through a lot of despair. The movie's last 15 minutes suddenly reveal he has been carrying on a life-long burden of loneliness and rejection. Harris, an acting phenomenon who has been nominated for several films including Apollo 13, has never been as effective as in this film.

Paul Newman, who has been nominated for nine Oscars and won one for The Color of Money, is found in the supporting actor category for the first time. As the soft-spoken Irish gangster inRoad to Perdition, the 77-year-old actor offered one of the subtlest performances of his career.

Christopher Walken, often seen as a spooky villain, played, as one reviewer said, a human being for the first time in Catch Me if You Can. 'Walken, who has rarely been a recipient of love in the movies,' declared David Denby inNew York magazine, 'has his most sympathetic role in a career largely devoted to sinister loonies.'  

John C Reilly was brilliant in two movies -- as the cuckolded husband in Chicago where he gets to performMr Cellophane, one of the best numbers in the film and as a face of new immigrants inGangs of New York. He also excelled in a small role inThe Hours as yet another husband who does not know his wife. 

Likely Winner: Chris Cooper.

Best Supporting Actress

I am torn between the feisty Queen Latifah, who emotes and sings with verve inChicago, and the ever luminous Julianne Moore as the woman unprepared for a domestic career in The Hours. Though Moore has not won an Oscar despite several nominations, I will embrace Latifah who made an astounding career leap in Chicago.

Other worthy contenders are Kathy Bates whose flamboyant role in About Schmidt is just about 10 minutes long, but whose ebullience and voice rings in our mind for days. The never-challenged Meryl Streep gives another benchmark performance in Adaptation as a writer whose book is being scripted by a troubled film writer.

There is tremendous pleasure in watching Catherine Zeta-Jones playing a murderer in Chicago. She not only emotes brilliantly but dances and sings with abandon. People who have watched her on the London stage believe the musical theater comes naturally to her. But to millions seeing her in a musical for the first time she is ecstasy. 

Likely winner: Catherine Zeta-Jones

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Arthur J Pais