The Good,the Bad And

The Oscars

Academy's epic blunders and sweet tooth are maddening, but great actors and filmmakers soldier on

Cover Story

March 24, 2002|BY MICHAEL SRAGOW | BY MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

You want to learn how to stop worrying and love the Oscars? Do what I do every year: As soon as you hear the fanfare, close your eyes, shut off your mind and think back to your childhood.

In my childhood, being a suburban kid in the age before multiplex cinemas had its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, you didn't get to see many movies. Then again, when you did see them, they were on screens the size of a football field, and they'd been so prodigiously promoted that they were terrific events regardless of their quality as movies.

Did I mind that, during my formative years, the Oscars were always going to widescreen Technicolor blockbusters? No; I loved widescreen Technicolor blockbusters. For one thing, they provided the most likely excuse for family trips downtown to see a movie. For another, the Hollywood high-rollers were right: They did give you something you couldn't see on television.

Was I upset that West Side Story swept the Oscars in 1961, beating out The Hustler for best picture? No. I was sorry that The Guns of Navarone didn't sweep the Oscars instead.

I discovered as a teen-ager that the key to an enjoyable Oscar night is developing a monomaniacal rooting interest. In most years, I've managed to find a movie that is sufficiently big, oft-nominated and good -- or even great -- to justify my ruthless cheering, from Reds, E.T. and The Right Stuff to Babe and L.A. Confidential.

For this edition it's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which is nominated in so many categories I may get grumpy only during the best actor award, wondering why Elijah Wood didn't get a nod.

Already, the rational half of my brain is telling me the cause is doomed: The champ this year is almost sure to be A Beautiful Mind, which has just the sort of pseudo-compassion and intellectual patina that usually wins.

Victory for A Beautiful Mind will lead to the inevitable morning-after gripe session. It is always best to come fully prepared to such a session, ready to disown all residual affection for the Oscars.

My line will go something like this: "You think the Oscars mean anything? Why didn't Last Orders get nominated for best picture and Fred Schepisi for best director? Why wasn't Naomi Watts put up for best actress for Mulholland Drive? How come Waking Life didn't make the list for best animated feature?"

Satisfied by the thunderous silence that will result, I'll allow my brain to clear and then start to think of those 2002 movies that might provide the combination of glamour and quality that the Academy will find irresistible. If only Gosford Park, my second choice, had had its premiere in New York and Los Angeles as well as Baltimore this year ...

IN CHAOS BEGIN POSSIBILITIES

Hollywood studios no longer finance movies simply because they have Oscar potential; by and large, they've left the prestige field to independent companies. Even the way-out (and to me unwatchable) Moulin Rouge probably never would have been made had not director Baz Luhrmann already brought home a bundle for his studio, 20th Century Fox, with his punkish William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

And since the independents have grown increasingly niche-oriented, any year's dominant critical favorites often have limited appeal -- the loudest sound to be heard at many showings of the clinically depressed In the Bedroom is fingers tapping on a watch.

The outcome for Oscar is an annual roster that doesn't so much underline trends as reflect chaos. Moulin Rouge as a best picture nominee? Since its closest creative relative is those Oscar-cast montages that flip through a hundred years of movie history in minutes, maybe the Academy was director Luhrmann's target audience.

Yet there is a terrific upside to the chaos. Peter Jackson, the director and co-writer of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, made an epic fantasy for that upwardly mobile, semi-major studio New Line Cinema as if he were still a cult director. He corralled an enormous and gifted cast and summoned them to New Zealand, where he worked with hand-picked craftsmen and followed through on the unprecedented decision to film all three novels in the Tolkien trilogy at once. The benefit to audiences is a special-effects fable in which every element emerged from the same fervid consciousness.

And Robert Altman's delectable tour de force, Gosford Park, made for the boutique company USA Films, has received the kind of recognition it might not have gotten in the days (not too long ago, in 1974) when the major studios were financing classy Oscar fodder like, say, the far inferior Murder on the Orient Express.

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