Ringing in Oscar

Though 'Lord of the Rings' came in with the most nominations, the real news is that three African-American actors are vying for top awards.

February 13, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

We already know who the biggest winner will be on Oscar night. His name is Sidney Poitier.

On Jan. 24, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that Poitier would be given a special Oscar "for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen" and for his "dignity, style and intelligence" as a representative of the movie industry.

Poitier is the only African-American ever to receive an Academy Award in a lead acting category, when he took home a Best Actor Oscar in 1964 for Lilies of the Field. (Five black actors have triumphed in the supporting categories.)

That may change. This year, for the first time, two black performers are competing for Best Actor - Denzel Washington for Training Day, and Will Smith for Ali - and Halle Berry is in the running for Best Actress with Monster's Ball. And all three are in roles that challenge the status quo.

Movie-lovers also can revel in the 13 nominations for Peter Jackson's sumptuous and turbulent The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the seven nominations for Robert Altman's spry, elegant Gosford Park.

Otherwise, Academy nominators indulged in predictable tastes, honoring sentimental tales of the mentally afflicted. The Academy showered A Beautiful Mind, a film about a schizophrenic math genius, with eight nominations, including Best Picture and the first best-director nod for Ron Howard.

The Academy paid its token obeisance to austerity with five nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) for In the Bedroom - a movie so lackluster that one director described it as "watching paint not dry." Glitzy blow-outs got their typical due as well, with the mind-numbing Moulin Rouge receiving eight nominations, ranging from Best Picture and Best Actress for Nicole Kidman.

The heartening news is the long-overdue prominence of the black actors.

Astonishingly, the only other time three African-American stars landed in Oscar's lead-performance ranks was in 1972, when Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson were up for Sounder and Diana Ross for Lady Sings the Blues.

You can trace the Academy's recognition of one of this country's great creative resources - its black acting talent - directly to Poitier. The cliched image of Poitier is of an ebony Superman. To be fair, sometimes he was cast that way, most notoriously in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Not even the indomitable Spencer Tracy's great white father would bar his daughter from marrying a black suitor of such overwhelming virtue.

But whether in such hits as The Blackboard Jungle and The Defiant Ones or in such little-seen films as The Wilby Conspiracy (in which he played an African political activist), Poitier's special potency came from his ability to convey the fierceness and tension behind his self-control. No one has better dramatized the principle that an actor's intensity onscreen increases with the amount of power he holds in check. In that way, Poitier in his prime was the Martin Luther King Jr. of the movies.

Denzel Washington's performances suggest that he learned from Poitier how to keep a wealth of intelligence and emotion in reserve, all the better to devise behavioral surprises that can knock audiences off their multiplex stadium seats even in these jaded times. In Training Day, he outclasses the movie and conjures a villain of Shakespearean proportions, so smart and seductive he gets you thinking that his misdeeds might be justified.

In Ali, Will Smith comes of age as an actor. He too knows how to drill down to black gold - and, just as important, how to keep it ebbing and flowing, Poitier-style, through a character's travails and triumphs, rather than have it all gush out in crowd-pleasing jokes and roundhouse gestures. Perhaps his nomination, and that of Jon Voight for the supporting part of Howard Cosell, will win new audiences for a movie that treats a beloved, real-life mythic figure as a credibly flawed giant - in turn inscrutable, exasperating, and inspiring.

Halle Berry deserves credit for bringing spontaneity and grit to Monster's Ball, a cripplingly self-conscious Southern Gothic. Her character starts out married to a black convict and, after his execution, falls in love with the white man she doesn't realize was his Death Row keeper. Berry never pulls back from her character's excesses, not even when she's slapping around her compulsively-overeating son.

On the other hand, Sean Penn got nominated for best actor for swallowing the screen in I Am Sam.

The directors branch of the Academy evinced a rare respect for individualistic talents, such as Jackson, whose Lord of the Rings is a union of lyric emotion and outlandish images ranking with and perhaps surpassing the silent fantasies of Douglas Fairbanks or Fritz Lang. He's in good company: Altman, David Lynch for Mulholland Drive and Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down.

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