Slate of Confusion

Sizing up the Oscar chances of the best and the worst from a baffling year in Hollywood

March 25, 2001|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,Sun Film Critic

The good news for bettors is that most Oscars are still up for grabs. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Gladiator"? Tom Hanks or Russell Crowe?

The bad news for movie-lovers is that only bettors should care. The Oscars are up for grabs because American movies are up for grabs.

Once upon a time, every major studio had films of Academy caliber. Even if nominees were coffee-table films or gas-bags, they signaled the drive to create quality at Hollywood's high end. Groundbreakers such as "On the Waterfront" not only entered the Academy ranks but also the winner's circle, while epic dramas like "Lawrence of Arabia" represented peaks of movie arts and crafts.

These days, standards are so wobbly and executives so myopic that studios don't always recognize their own Oscar movies. Paramount tossed "Wonder Boys" into theaters in the dead of winter and reopened it right after Election Day; by then, this oddball classic couldn't shake its unlucky image.

Warner Bros. threw money after big-ticket items and artistic losers like "The Perfect Storm." But it never got any momentum going for the funniest film of the year, Christopher Guest's "Best in Show" - not even for Guest's own uncanny performance as a bloodhound owner who seems to mind-meld with his canine.

Even when a studio or its specialty division does sniff Oscar gold, voters and audiences can sense a lack of guts or conviction. Fox Searchlight pushed "Quills," Philip Kaufman's inspired fictional tragicomedy of the Marquis De Sade, heavily in New York and Los Angeles. But it was still playing in a mere handful of theaters in mid-December, weeks after the National Board of Review called it the best picture of the year. The company handled "Quills" so cautiously it developed a backlash before it got a front-lash. By contrast, Disney's Miramax framed its favorite son proudly, with blurbs from both the usual hacks and social activists such as Jesse Jackson, as if it were every progressive citizen's responsibility to partake of "Chocolat" - a sentimental fable about a magical confectioner whose chocolate opens hearts and minds in a French small town. It secured five major nominations, including best picture.

Though one wishes Miramax had a better film to back this year, the wails that issue from competitors whenever this company woos Oscar are misplaced. "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Cider House Rules" are vastly preferable to the other recent Miramax candidates.

But the kind of film Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein pushes hard at Oscar-time isn't any different from what David O. Selznick pushed in his MGM days with such productions as "A Tale of Two Cities" that feature handsome set design, talented ensembles and literary flavor and ambition. They may not be heights of film achievement, but they indicate an interest in something beyond the bottom line. And when they leap ahead at the box-office during the awards race, they prove how much bounce the bottom line can have with material that might seem distant and not immediately popular.

For almost two decades, the studios have lavished money on big-budget exploitation movies instead of Oscar bait. So it's no wonder that Academy voters pledge their allegiance to studio sub-divisions and independent producers and distributors. This year, in addition to "Chocolat" and Sony Pictures Classics' "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the best picture nominations include USA Films' "Traffic."

In general, what this slate reflects is the industry's confusion. For those who wonder how we got into this state, here, to paraphrase poet Robert Frost, are my momentary stays against confusion:

Soderbergh vs. Soderbergh

As everyone knows by now, Steven Soderbergh, with his nominations for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," has become the first director since Michael Curtiz in 1938 to be in the running for two pictures.

The Academy nominated Curtiz for the seminal soap opera "Four Daughters," which boasted John Garfield's breakthrough role, and the dynamite Cagney-Bogart crime film, "Angels With Dirty Faces." What's not generally known is that Curtiz had three movies up for Best Picture - the third, and Curtiz' best, was "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (which he took over from William Keighley, who received co-credit).

Astonishingly, in a list of ten best picture nominees that also tallied "Pygmalion"; "Test Pilot"; "Jezebel" and a great foreign-language film, Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," Frank Capra's hokiest production, "You Can't Take it With You," took home the prize.

Two years ago, it looked as if independent filmmakers were entering - and reinvigorating - the American movie mainstream. Soderbergh started the trend with the neat genre film "Out of Sight." But David O. Russell and David Lynch brought it further with, respectively, the incendiary "Three Kings" and the lucid, moving "The Straight Story."

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