Shock and Awe

Two Critics and a Producer Chat About the Oscars

Shock and Awe

Two Critics and a Producer Chat About the Oscars

Shock and Awe
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March 20 2003 4:51 PM

Two Critics and a Producer Chat About the Oscars

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It feels strange to be nattering on about the Academy Awards given current events and the continued existence of a brutal and unscrupulous dictator who runs roughshod over the lives of innocents. But enough about Harvey Weinstein.

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OK, there are more objectionable individuals on the planet. But who would have thought that Chicago would turn out to be the Miramax Ethics Platform?

I hope that most people in the industry are fed up, and that Hollywood's annual ritual of Harvey-bashing will go beyond the level of griping and finally translate into healthy self-regulation.

How many late-December releases should a studio have? This year, Miramax flooded the market with Chicago, Gangs of New York, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind in the last two weeks of December and gave The Quiet American a quiet, two-week November platform before pulling it from circulation and then reopening it just as the ballots were mailed out. Obviously, other studios play the same game. ( The Pianist and The Hours—co-produced by Miramax but distributed by Paramount—opened in New York and L.A. on Dec. 27.) But the sheer quantity of product from one studio of movies designed to get in under the wire for critics' awards and then be in wide, visible release in February and March is just staggering. (Miramax's Rabbit Proof Fence also opened in December but didn't go wide until 2003.) Why can't the academy say to every studio, "You can have three December releases eligible for awards—that's it"? (What are you, a Communist?—ed.)

OK, here's another foolishly hopeful question. How many smear campaigns must there be before journalists decide to waive the idea of protecting the confidentiality of their sources? If someone comes up to you and says, "Pssssst, wanna copy of Roman Polanski's victim's deposition?" isn't the real story the agenda of the person passing it to you and not the information itself? If someone says, "Hey, I hear Nicole Kidman is trying to break up Jude Law's family—here's a shot where they look real cozy," isn't the real story the whispering creep with the photos and not whatever might or might not be passing between stars playing lovers on a movie set?

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When I reviewed The Pianist on the day that it opened in New York, I raised the issue of Polanski's crime. I felt that I had to: The rape of a minor is among the most despicable of all crimes, and Polanski has paid neither his debt to society nor to the young woman whom he violated. The Pianist, however, is not a movie that strives to be ennobling, or to remind you of its maker's bounteous soul. It is the story of a man separated from the world by things both heavenly (his music) and hellish (the Holocaust). It's about clinging to one's art—for better or worse—in the face of incomprehensible horror. It is not an excuse for immoral behavior, but it is clearly the work of a deeply traumatized man—an artist who lost two families to two different butchers in a single lifetime. I believe that The Pianist is the best movie of the year and that Polanski deserves to be recognized for his achievement. I'm proud that the National Society of Film Critics, of which I'm a member, recognized him accordingly.

But the Oscars represent a different sort of election. It's not only about artistic achievement; it's about the way in which Hollywood wants to portray itself to the world—as a fount of ennobling (preferably liberal humanist) values. I'm not sure that, in the best of times, the members of the academy would have been able to put aside their feelings about Polanski's crime. But with someone making sure that the victim would be incessantly in voters' faces, the only serious obstacle to Chicago has been effectively demolished. And what luck—the incident happened in Jack Nicholson's house! Two birds with one stone!

Why did Miramax commission a ghostwritten Robert Wise letter on the greatness of Martin Scorsese? In part, I'd guess, to counter the William Goldman screed in Variety, which suggested that the only reason to vote for a mess like Gangs of New York would be out of sympathy for what Scorsese had to endure. (Polanski might have survived the Holocaust, but Scorsese survived Harvey.)

What would be Harvey's dream scenario? Easy: Chicago wins Best Film, since it's a homegrown Miramax product with a handpicked and relatively inexperienced director. Scorsese wins Best Director. (Sure, it would be great for Harvey if Rob Marshall cleaned up—and he's the odds-on favorite to do so. But if Scorsese wins then Harvey can say he delivered for Marty what Marty couldn't get on his own with such fringe efforts as MeanStreets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, etc.) If Scorsese and Daniel Day-Lewis take home Oscars, it's almost a second Best Picture. Catherine Zeta-Jones would be the icing on the cake. Renee Zellweger would be the cherry—although I think it's going to be Nicole Kidman, by a nose. Otherwise, it's Shock and Awe, Harvey-style.

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Is this too inside baseball? Well, what else is there to talk about? The year in movies? The war? I sympathize with the passionate view of the industry columnist David Poland that the awards should be postponed—but, until when? When wouldn't they look absurdly insensitive? And I confess to a certain morbid curiosity this year about the extent to which actors, informed by their publicists of the solemnity of the occasion, can keep their exhibitionism in check. Will they risk their careers and appear to undermine Americans in harm's way? Or will the specter of Jane Fonda's dead-and-buried career haunt their dreams? I look forward to watching Susan Sarandon, Richard Gere, Bono, etc. grapple with this question publicly. It will be as delicious as Jack Nicholson's climactic toast in About Schmidt.

More relevant than Saddam (and even Harvey) is another tyrant: Gil Cates, the show's producer. Cates is the brain trust who once upon a time decided that the most tedious element of the Academy Awards is the winners' acceptance speeches—i.e., the only enjoyable part of the evening. The new wrinkle this year is that, in addition to having only 45 seconds before the orchestral hook, winners can thank only five people. This means the show will be full of the same endless montages and pointless production numbers, but the winners will be too nervous about the ticking clock to get the words out. What a terrible thing to do to people who've spent most of their lives dreaming about their Big Moment.

The good news is that Steve Martin is the host, and Martin isn't a creature of showbiz like Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg. Alone among the potential emcees, he has the ability to be serious and absurdist at the same time—which seems like the best way of getting through this no-win ceremony.

My picks/choices?

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In the major categories, it's going to be Chicago, Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Chrisses Walken or Cooper. Marshall will win director.

I don't really object to any of those choices. Chicago was on my 10-best list: I think it's one of the greatest movie musicals made from second-rate material in the last 50 years. I predicted that it would bring back the public's appetite for the genre, and am glad that I was proven so right. (Didn't you also write that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was unlikely to cross over?—ed.)

Given my druthers, of course, I'd like The Pianist to win. Adrien Brody's performance in the same movie is unlike any I've ever seen—I felt he was living the horror and that I was privileged to bear witness to it. (I love Day-Lewis, too, but after Brody my choice is Michael Caine, for his majestic portrait of anguish.) In Unfaithful, Diane Lane gives us a window into her erotic inner world unlike any I've ever seen (on-screen or, alas, off). But I wouldn't be unhappy if Julianne Moore won for Far From Heaven: The combination of 100 percent stylization and 100 percent soul made her the perfect mascot for that artificially genuine/genuinely artificial Sirk homage. I'm at a loss as to why Renée Zellweger won the Screen Actors Guild award: I loved her, but Roxie Hart just isn't that rich or interesting a part. I liked Salma Hayek, too, but agree with the person (I can't remember who) who suggested that the real Frida would have fucked her with pleasure and thrown her away. Nicole Kidman is excellent in The Hours, but the context is excruciating.

I love Christopher Walken in Catch Me If You Can: It's the first time he has triumphed as an ordinary man, using his patented dissociated timing to generate an astounding amount of vulnerability. But Chris Cooper was a roaring delight in Adaptation—lewd and sexy and outrageous and able to bend with the spirit of that overrated movie. Ed Harris alone among this year's acting nominees was awful. But I don't blame the actor. I blame the screenwriter (and, alas, likely Oscar winner) David Hare for some of the most implausibly stilted dialogue ever written. In the Supporting Actress category, the most deserving is Julianne Moore—but not for The Hours, in which she bored me silly, but for her husband Bart Freundlich's little-seen World Traveler, in which she played a mentally-ill alcoholic in search of a lost child. The movie doesn't work at all, but once again her transformation is both miraculous and through-and-through. The shoo-in for the Oscar is Zeta-Jones for passing herself off so well as a hungry, musical-comedy animal.

Seems to me I haven't mentioned that Lord of the Rings picture, which I liked very much but which doesn't have a hope in Hobbitland.

Whew. What have I missed? And whom have I not offended?

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.