Once again, I'm delighted to be talking with you—a producer of $100 million movies and an accomplished writer and an A-list partygoer—about the year in film—at least, the year in film as viewed through the glamorously insular prism of the Academy Awards.
First, a disclaimer: Nothing in the discussion that follows should imply that I endorse the collective taste of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or believe that the Oscars are an objective measure of artistic achievement in the manner of, say, my own reviews. What we're talking about is an election, not so different from the primaries next Tuesday in which you and I will be casting votes, and in which candidates finish on top for all sorts of cockamamie reasons. I'm here, then, as a political pundit—not because I think that Titanic, Gladiator, American Beauty, A Beautiful Mind, etc. are great works of cinema.
So let me grill you on the politics.
Is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as popular in Hollywood as Las Vegas oddsmakers have proclaimed? The fanboys who constitute the most vocal segment of the multiplex audience have, for the last three years, been shooting off outraged e-mails over Peter Jackson's "snubbing"—when, in fact, the number of nominations that all the Rings films have garnered is unprecedented for any sort of trilogy, let alone a genre trilogy. But we know it takes more than that kind of grass-roots campaign to push a film over the top, Oscar-wise: It takes some confluence of box office, lefty-humanist-inspirational heft, and an "Ingredient X" based on voters' personal feelings about the filmmakers (and, of course, about their competition). What do you think is Ingredient X in this instance? Is it the existence of the two other Rings movies—and the notion that this will be an award for all three? Is it the absence of a real consensus on the other movies (apart from Lost in Translation, which everyone but multiplex audiences adores)? Is it the Miramax Factor?
About the Miramax Factor: The story of the nominations was the lack of a best picture or actress nomination for Cold Mountain. Miramax and some news outlets suggested that this was because the movie had been released too late in a shortened campaign season, with awards scheduled for the end of February instead of the end of March. (The company traditionally releases a slew of movies in December—as late as Dec. 31—to make sure that its films are open and in voters' minds and VCRs in January and February.) Others argued that this was directly related to the January appearance of Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures, which presented Miramax in a none-too-flattering light. I made the admittedly odd suggestion that it might have had something to do with the film itself, which is choppy and in places seemed to me (when compared with the novel) artistically neutered. Is the fact that Miramax drove Peter Jackson so crazy and finally dumped the Rings trilogy the precious Ingredient X? Will Jackson be honored as much for escaping the clutches of Harvey & Co. as for his epic prowess?
One way I think that you can measure a backlash against Miramax is in the absence of nominations for the lovely film The Station Agent and the astonishing technical work (and cinematography) of Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Great as Patricia Clarkson was in Pieces of April, she was better in The Station Agent, and the performances of Peter Dinklage and Bobby Cannavale were equally wonderful. Why not a single nod?
It's Miramax that is crying foul about some recent Dreamworks ads, I gather, which have pitted House of Sand and Fog's Shohreh Aghdashloo head-to-head against the favorite, Renée Zellweger. Much as I enjoyed Zellweger's Young Granny Clampett in Cold Mountain, I smell an upset and think the Oscar goes to Aghdashloo this year. It's the Miramax Factor meets the Third World Supporting Actress Factor.
There's a bit of an Asshole Factor in the actor and supporting actor nominations, no? Both Sean Penn and Bill Murray (both, incidently, magnificent in their respective films) are widely disliked yet are the favorites to win. (Johnny Depp's amazing SAG victory notwithstanding, he won't win the Oscar unless Penn and Murray take votes away from each another—he's thought of as even more of a weirdo than they are.) I think Penn will get it because he has been nominated before—what say you? Meanwhile, the favorites in the supporting actor category are Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin, both mouthy liberals with a reputation for arrogance. I loved Baldwin's performance; a rebirth, I think—from ridiculous leading man to great comic character actor. But it looks like a lock for Robbins, who I thought was the weakest thing in Mystic River—you could really see him acting (as opposed to Kevin Bacon and, for that matter, Laurence Fishburne). On the other hand, the academy traditionally honors you-can-see-the-acting performances because, well, you can see the acting.
Speaking of seeing the acting, Charlize is also a lock, right? A terrific performance in a heavy drama plus massive weight gain will be enough to counter the real affection for Diane Keaton's marvelous work and either nonexistent or impressively inconspicuous plastic surgery in a comedy. My only regret is that the woman who created Theron's makeup (she goes by the name Toni G.) won't be up there to collect the award with Theron. Makeup any less superlative would have made it seem too much like a stunt.
Any rumblings for Eastwood or Peter Weir? Any clear favorite among the docs? I'm not allowed to ask you how you voted, but what have you heard?
Will Mel Gibson be a presenter this year, and, if so, how will the crowd receive him? (Many will be watching for confirmation that Hollywood is indeed the headquarters of Satan.)
Finally: Is everyone in L.A. as sick of awards as I am? There were the Golden Globes, SAG, and DGA prizes in addition to the upcoming Independent Spirit awards. Does it feel as much like overkill there, too, or is there simply no end to the pleasure Hollywood takes in paying tribute to itself?