Is Babel this year's Crash?

Inside the big picture show.
Jan. 25 2007 1:18 PM

Please Don't Make Me See Babel

Will it become this year's Crash?

Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007

The Field Shapes Up:This year's race for the best picture Oscar is starting to resemble the 2008 presidential campaign: so many contenders but no one compelling choice.

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By now, you know that Dreamgirls pulled in the most nominations—eight—but was snubbed for best picture and best director. It is fascinating to imagine how this news is being received at Paramount headquarters, where Babel (from the studio's Vantage label) got seven nominations, including the big ones.

All has turned out well for studio chief Brad Grey. He got to issue a press release proclaiming that his studio led with 19 nominations, knowing that his friends at his DreamWorks "label" were left to lick their gaping wounds.

Yes, this was a bad day for DreamWorks (though not for composer Henry Krieger, who appears to be the single most nominated individual, with three best song nods for Dreamgirls).

Clint Eastwood, having been snubbed by the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild, and the Screen Actors Guild, had to be at least a little surprised to be running another victory lap with his best director nod for Letters From Iwo Jima. "When it comes to the Academy, never overlook an old guy who can do it and do it well," chortled one voting member.

The academy showed a healthy respect for diversity. African or African-American actors got five of 20 nominations (Forest Whitaker, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, Jennifer Hudson, and Djimon Hounsou). And the academy recognized all three of the three amigos—Alejandro González Iñárritu for Babel, Guillermo del Toro (for best foreign-language nominee Pan's Labyrinth), and Alfonso Cuarón for writing and editing Children of Men.

As the dust settles, little light has been shed on the eventual best picture winner. Some think that since only Babel and The Departed were nominated in the influential editing category, the race comes down to those two. Others point out that a contingent of academy voters hates Babel and dreads nothing more than seeing it become this year's Crash. Another group seems inclined to go only so far for Scorsese—and especially for this movie, which seems to have a number of endings.

So, if you need help with this year's office pool, don't call us. There are a lot of factions out there—making for mathematical possibilities too weird to contemplate. (link)

Time To Improvise: Here's an interesting note: Two of the Writers Guild's nominations for best screenplay this year honor movies that didn't have screenplays.

There was Borat, of course, which lists Sacha Baron Cohen along with Peter Baynham, Anthony Hines, and Dan Mazer as writers. According to Fox's production notes, they drafted an outline, but the film had no script. "The movie is an experiment—a new form of filmmaking for an age in which reality and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined," the notes say. "Real events with real people push the film's fictional story, and when scenes played out in unexpected ways, Baron Cohen and his colleagues had to rewrite the outline."

Thanks to a quirk of guild rules, Borat is nominated as best adapted screenplay because the film was based on a character previously seen on Da Ali G Show.

In the best original screenplay division is United 93 with director Paul Greengrass listed as the writer. But according to those familiar with the situation, there was no screenplay for this movie, either. It was heavily improvised. When Greengrass pitched the film to Universal, he turned in a lengthy treatment—one executive involved calls it a "script-ment"—that did not include dialogue but gave a sense of the characters and action. (Greengrass had already lined up the United 93 families to ensure their cooperation. And Universal, of course, was interested in having him direct another installment of the Bourne Identity series, so committing about $15 million to let him make a passion project seemed fair enough. The studio could not have been expecting a big return. But despite the difficult subject matter, the film has grossed more than $75 million worldwide, so that bet's paid off financially and been one of the few bright spots in Universal's generally bad year.)

The rules for the Writer's Guild awards don't require submission of a script. A guild spokesman was surprised to learn that United 93 lacked a screenplay but observed that HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, which also includes lots of improvisation, won for best comedy series last year. He added that even when there's no script, writers shape the story. "You don't just show up with cameras and a crew and make a movie," he observed.

It might seem that members of a writers guild would recoil from screenplay-free movies. But the guild is trying to expand its jurisdiction to reality shows. The production companies say those shows have no writers but the guild counters that those who shape the stories are in fact writers and deserve to be compensated as such. So, perhaps Fox should demand that Cohen withdraw Borat from consideration. Accepting a writing award for a film that is made for "an age in which reality and entertainment have become increasingly intertwined" might suggest that the guild's argument has merit after all. (link)

Breathe Out: If you heard a gentle "whoosh" last night as the name Dreamgirls was called at the Golden Globes, it came from the group that worked on the film as they finally exhaled. A loss could have been disastrous. Emerging with the most Globes, even if the total is just three, is much preferable. The result keeps Dreamgirls securely in the Oscar game. Obviously, the fact that the awards were spread about among contenders underscores how this year's race continues to be wide open.

With wins for Dreamgirls and Babel, the Paramount party was a hot ticket. Genuine Supreme Mary Wilson turned up there, and how cool is that? Held in a cavernous space that long ago was a Robinsons-May department store, the bash offered enough space for everyone to breathe. That's just as well, because, despite the many hugs, there was a bit of tension in the room.

Paramount should perhaps be renamed Paramounts. The studio is like a collection of city-states. The DreamWorks camp, which has Dreamgirls in contention, doesn't trust the main-studio camp, with Babel in the race. And vice versa. The intrigue thickens if you consider that Paramount chief Brad Grey is also a producer of The Departed, released by Warner Bros. So, which movie is he voting for? To add even more spice to the soiree, ousted studio President Gail Berman, fired just last week, put in an appearance. Game girl.

Planning a strategy for hitting at least a few of the many Golden Globes after-parties is a tricky business. You want to start at a party that's going to attract interesting talent. If you don't get in early, the fire marshals may be blocking doors. But by the time you wrest yourself free to move on, other doors may be blocked, or the wave may have crested anywhere else you go.

You have to give credit to the Weinsteins. Despite having nothing in contention, unless you count Bobby, they threw a party that stayed packed far longer than it should have. Aside from all sorts of stars, Rupert Murdoch dropped by, having spent an appropriate amount of time at the party thrown by his own studio. (The Fox celebration had its share of heat with Sacha Baron Cohen, Meryl Streep, and Forest Whitaker, but it had waned by the time Murdoch made his way to the Weinsteins' still-jammed event.)

Murdoch seated himself in a snug banquet with Harvey, and we cocked a curious ear but only caught Harvey apparently suggesting a visit to the Bahamas. Later we sidled up to another player at the table who had been sitting and nodding during the conversation. We asked what had been discussed. With the music thumping away, he yelled back, "Couldn't understand a fucking thing!" Thinking that he hadn't heard the question, we repeated it. "No!" he said. "I couldn't understand a fucking thing Murdoch said! It's the accent!" (link)

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