As a serious critic, I cannot say too many times how beneath me it is to comment on the Academy Awards. As I wrote in my hard-hitting book, When Awards Lie:
Oscars are not about merit blah blah but how the Hollywood establishment blah blah politics blah blah middlebrow blah guilty liberal blah old blah blah Valenti blah no Citizen Kane blah blah no Hitchcock blah blah Gladiator…
Buy the book.
Anyway, it's nice to be back for another round of Oscar chitchat with my fave journalist-turned-big-deal-movie-producer and Hollywood party animal. Perhaps the biggest cliffhanger of this Oscar season will be how far I can push you in the direction of alienating studio heads and big stars you might someday want to hire. I do try so hard.
Before you can say it, let me: This contest is quite a snooze. No Michael Moore. No Mel Gibson. A lock for Jamie Foxx for Ray. An early Best Picture favorite (The Aviator) that many admire but no one seems to love. On the other hand, those who love Million Dollar Baby love it—and its septuagenarian director—with a near-religious fervor. Although it's not my cup of hemlock (I'm grossed-out at finding myself in the company of Michael Medved and Rush Limbaugh in objecting to its treatment of suicide), the movie's haunted simplicity and the quality of its performances will likely put it over. I'm picking Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood for direction, Morgan Freeman, and, by a hair, Hilary Swank. I wonder if the right-wing attacks on Baby will actually have helped it. Medved is probably more visible in Hollywood, alas, than the activist disabled group Not Dead Yet. I'd be tempted to vote for Baby myself.
Freeman is widely and justly beloved, and I can't imagine anyone doing a more eloquent job in that ridiculous role. He would surely have won in 1989 for Driving Miss Daisy had he not had the misfortune of going up against Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot—one of the most amazing performances in the history of the medium. I'm partial to Thomas Haden Church in Sideways, of course—I still laugh when I think of his groggy delivery and that uniquely Hollywood combination of seeming at once laid-back and peevishly entitled. But he doesn't have age going for him. I hear rumblings that Alan Alda has some support for The Aviator, and it's a great performance, one of the most convincing portraits of a sleazeball politico I've seen in a movie. But he has only a couple of scenes.
Need we say anything about Jamie Foxx except that it's a done deal? I liked Ray well enough, but Foxx takes it to another dimension: not just in his physical impersonation, but in the monstrous solipsism that he portrays so convincingly. Don Cheadle does a stupendous job in Hotel Rwanda at showing how a cagey politician can use those same suck-up skills in heroic fashion. And Eastwood is physically and vocally moving in Million Dollar Baby. But it's Foxx's year, no? (I can't say too many times how sad I am that Jeff Bridges, one of our best film actors, wasn't nominated for one of his two best performances, in The Door in the Floor. And he wasn't nominated for the Dude, either.)
Am I wrong about Swank? I'd like to be. Annette Bening is currently my fave American actress, and she's radiantly intelligent in Being Julia. No actress is so brilliant at playing characters that act in their daily life, and her performance as a great actress is practically an essay on the tension between the mask and the human being beneath. A few years back she lost to Swank in Boys Don't Cry—justly, I think, although she was hilarious in American Beauty. Will it happen again? Is there any support for anyone else in this category?
Cate Blanchett's Kate Hepburn divided critics: I thought it was a howl. Will it divide academy voters? Does the luminous Virginia Madsen have a shot? Is there a lot of affection for Laura Linney (even in that drab role) and Sophie Okonedo?
Does Charlie Kaufman have a chance for my favorite screenplay of the millennium? Or will it go to John Logan for The Aviator?
Much ink has been spilled about Chris Rock, but there's a long tradition of bad-boy court-jester Oscar hosts, from Bob Hope back in the day to Johnny Carson to Billy Crystal to Whoopi Goldberg. (OK, she's a bad girl.) Can we expect anything more abrasive from Mr. Rock? Or does Gil Cates have him on too tight a leash?
Which brings me to my least-favorite part of the program: Cates. Is anyone planning to give him some well-deserved poop for turning so many of the tech nominees into second-class citizens? (Will they still be handed Oscars in their seats or forced to stand on stage like beauty-pageant contestants awaiting the opening of the envelope???) Will Cates ride the winners even harder this year, drowning them out before they can get past thanking their directors, agents, and managers? Does anyone agree that the last thing you want at our annual orgy for movie-lover is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface with a stopwatch?
Have the 40 days and 40 nights of rain dampened everyone's party spirits?