Sublime work gets cold shoulder amid a flurry of awards

Commentary

January 12, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Movie Critic

Tuesday, the Oscar speculation begins in earnest.

That's because the most popular Oscar bellwether, the Golden Globes, are being handed out Monday. Though the two award shows don't always agree -- Brokeback Mountain and Walk the Line won Globes last year, while Crash won the Oscar -- their outcomes tend to reflect each other more often than not. Whoever and whatever walks away with a Globe on Monday night will almost automatically become the Oscar favorite.

Certainly, some Globe predictions are in order, and we'll get to that momentarily. But an even bigger question is whether the Globes -- not to mention the gazillion other film awards that have been handed out over the past two months -- hold too much sway over the Oscars. As usual, there are plenty of Oscar-worthy movies and performances that are doomed to be overlooked, simply because none of the award season's advance guard has noticed them.

Take, for example, Nicolas Hytner's The History Boys. This perceptive and enthralling speculation on the value of mentorship and the benefits of a rollicking liberal education is nowhere to be found among the Golden Globe nominations or the flurry of year-end critics'- group nods (although it has been nominated for a quartet of British Independent Film Awards).

Also absent are a couple of big names, both previous Oscar nominees, who turned in some of their best work this year. Columbia's own Edward Norton (previously nominated for Primal Fear and American History X) shone in both The Illusionist, as a magician with more tricks up his sleeve than anyone realized, and The Painted Veil, as a betrayed husband carrying one of the cinema's most cool-headed grudges. In the latter film, he was abetted in every possible way by Naomi Watts, as the wife whose deception forces her to grow in ways neither could have foreseen. Last year, Watts' enchantingly steely performance as a giant ape's love interest went largely unheralded, in part because actors in movies like King Kong never get the plaudits they deserve. But Veil is just the sort of serious-minded exercise award shows usually love.

Although she's not being ignored this year, Meryl Streep isn't getting all the credit she deserves. While she's expected to earn yet another Oscar nomination, as best actress for The Devil Wears Prada, she should earn two. Her supporting turn, as one of the singing Johnson Sisters in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, was one of the year's most sublime performances. At least the National Society of Film Critics recognized that, in awarding her its best supporting actress nod.

It's not only the veterans who are being unduly passed over. While Helen Mirren is justly being praised for her work as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen (and if she doesn't win the Oscar, expect an investigation), few are paying attention to Michael Sheen's equally revelatory turn as Prime Minister Tony Blair. Thankfully, the Toronto and Los Angeles film critics' associations noticed his work and rewarded him accordingly.

Among supporting actors universally ignored, one of the year's most memorable performances came from Mos Def, as an ex-con police informant in Richard Donner's 16 Blocks. And few actresses were as gently heartbreaking as Sally Kellerman in The Boynton Beach Club, playing an aging beauty easing her way back into the dating scene after her husband died.

Fortunately, hope is not yet lost. Oscar nominations won't be announced until Jan. 23.

As for the Globes, here's a handful of fearless predictions. Unlike the Oscars, the Globes split their prizes in two, bestowing separate awards in the categories of drama and comedy or musical (as well as to the leading actors and actresses therein). That means members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, who vote on the Globes, have two chances to get it right.

Best Motion Picture: Among dramas, look for Martin Scorsese's The Departed to begin its march to Oscar glory. The Queen or Babel could pull an upset, while Bobby and Little Children appear to be long shots. The musical or comedy category is tougher to call: Little Miss Sunshine has its fans (who were doubtless heartened when the film's directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, were surprise nominees for a Directors' Guild award), and Borat was the year's breakaway hit. But look for Bill Condon's Dreamgirls to win the prize.

Best Actress: On the dramatic front, Helen Mirren will win. No surprise. Nor should Meryl Streep's win for The Devil Wears Prada come as much of a shock among the musical or comedy nominees.

Best Actor: Perennial Globe favorite Leonardo DiCaprio is nominated twice, for The Departed and Blood Diamond, so his support will be split. The dramatic award will probably go to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland, though don't be surprised if that wiley old Brit, Peter O'Toole, scores a win for Venus. On the comedy or musical side, look for Sacha Baron Cohen to win for Borat, unless the voters decide to finally reward Johnny Depp, whose first turn as Capt. Jack Sparrow -- in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl -- was passed over in 2004.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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