Anything can happen on Oscar night
BACKSTAGE PASS - Lanz Leviste () - March 3, 2006 - 12:00am
This year’s Academy Awards (no, it’s not "Oscar Awards," and please never use that grating phrase; just say "Oscars" if you rather) was pushed back a week to March 5th to make room for the closing ceremony of the Turin (or as NBC prefers, Torino) Olympics. The Winter Games are far more addictive than their tedious Summer counterpart; and despite the absence of any scandal as news-making as the monumental Sale-Pelletier figure staking debacle of the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Turin provided enough drama (Michelle Kwan ending her Olympic career without the gold!) and personalities (we still love you, Johnny Weir!) to occupy those disappointed with the rather scandal-free Oscar season. To be clear, it’s not like the one movie totally dominating the season hasn’t been the deserving one: like Evgeni Plushenko on the Palavela ice, Brokeback Mountain was a lock for the gold way before the big night, having nabbed practically every major precursor except the SAG, but more on that later.

What has really been filling column space are the incessant complaints about this year’s Best Picture nominees, how "the Academy has failed to connect with America," how the films have earned less than $200 million combined, how not a single one is a definition blockbuster. But for the first time in years, I’d like to congratulate the usually milquetoast Academy for recognizing relatively small films that tackle difficult issues, and actually nominating some of the best movies of the year. Were these pundits expecting a Best Picture lineup that included Revenge of the Sith, War of the Worlds, or Chronicles of Narnia, some of the most inane popcorn flicks of 2005? I’d rather concede my soul to Uwe Boll than even consider such a thing.

Yes, the Academy has "alienated" the American heartland with its glorious left-wing politics, and with unabashed liberal (and funniest man on the planet) Jon Stewart handed hosting duties, this could very well turn out to be the lowest-rated telecast in Oscar history. But if America (and I don’t mean the coasts) doesn’t want to see films about racism, about gay cowboys and gay authors, about terrorism, about anti-communist witch-hunting, then that’s their own problem. AMPAS is simply doing its job of rewarding what it thinks are the best films of 2005, and it’s done well this year for a job that it hasn’t been great at in the past.

Despite the dominance of Ang Lee’s masterpiece since its December release, I have to admit that after years of definite locks and sure-things (Charlize for Monster, Jamie for Ray, a Return of the King sweep, to name a few), it’s refreshing, maddening, exciting, and breathlessly exhilarating to be presented an Oscar season that has thrown the rulebook – and Hollywood history books – out the window. Anything could happen, and with the predictions I’ve made, and my confidence with some of them, I’m sure to have egg on my face by the end of the night, one way or another. Okay, so Ang, Philip and Reese better have their speeches ready. But the supporting races, and even some of the technical categories (Brokeback or Geisha for Best Cinematography? Geisha or Brokeback for Best Score?), have become so tight and so frantically unpredictable that the night of March 5th is now ripe for an upset or two unseen since the jaw-dropping Polanski-Brody-Harwood Pianist trifecta of 2003. Hell, maybe a Felicity Huffman surprise doesn’t seem so farfetched after all.

Remember: anything can happen on Oscar night.

Best Picture


Brokeback Mountain

Capote

Crash

Good Night, and Good Luck

Munich


What will win: Brokeback Mountain. It’s amazing what news-starved entertainment journalists can come up with during a pretty uneventful Oscar season. Brokeback has insurmountably dominated the precursors unlike any film in recent memory, and though there are some that desperately want Crash to do well (that’s you, Roger Ebert), most pundits have greatly exaggerated its possibility of a Best Picture upset with enough wide-eyed embellishment to make James Frey proud. Granted, support for Brokeback isn’t as strong as it was in January, but can you really imagine a film that has won most critics’ prizes especially NYFCC and LAFCA, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, PGA, DGA and WGA not to lasso Best Picture? Such an awards-season sweep followed by a Best Picture loss is unprecedented – not even Saving Private Ryan had this much under its belt before losing to Shakespeare in Love. Most importantly, that much guild support from the producers, directors and writers is amazing. Brokeback’s loss of the SAG ensemble prize had pundits salivating; but really, were they that naive not to expect Crash to take it, the very definition of ensemble acting? The absence of a Brokeback Best Editing nomination, I have to admit, is puzzling, but let’s be realistic: this is a two-way race, and though Crash has gained some considerable ground (many thanks to Lions Gate’s shockingly aggressive campaign), it’s still the cowboys’ to lose. Not handing Brokeback Mountain the top prize would be like a night of endless foreplay without a climax – and we all know that’s just plain rude.

What should win: Brokeback Mountain. "Have you seen Brokeback?" has become the standard dinner-party icebreaker: it’s not only the best film of 2005 but the defining love story of the decade, an astounding work of intense brilliance and humanity that is at once devastating, beautiful, and triumphant. Undoubtedly a landmark, it is so far the most unforgettable and powerful film of the new millennium. I liked Crash for its passion and brazen fervor, but it was far from great filmmaking: the irritating contrivance and calculation, the broad caricatures, the way it insults an audience’s intelligence. Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is both raw and refined, cinema in its most stripped and fundamental form.

Best Director


Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain

Bennett Miller, Capote

Paul Haggis, Crash

George Clooney, Good Night, and Good Luck

Steven Spielberg, Munich

Who will win: Ang Lee. Lee is the surest lock of the evening: in a rare year of completely identical Picture and Director races, the Academy has validated the roles of these auteurs on their films, and it is uncontested that Lee is the true star of Brokeback Mountain. He has won every major precursor available to him, most significantly the DGA, and after one close call (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and an awful nomination snub (Sense and Sensibility) the Oscar will finally be his.

Who should win: Ang Lee. He understood Annie Proulx’s short story and was able to craft a masterpiece for the ages. And how could you not love the guy: he’s humble and funny and genuine each time he gives an acceptance speech, broken English and all. But where’s the nomination for Austrian auteur Michael Haneke, whose Cache, made from equal parts Hitchcock and Lynch, was the best thriller of the year?

Best Actor


Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote

Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow

Joaquin Phoenix, Walk the Line

David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck

Who will win: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like Ang Lee, there is no stopping chameleon-like Hoffman from claiming his statuette. He has swept the precursors, unrivaled by no one, and the fact that he plays a real person doesn’t hurt, either. The real person, Truman Capote, is of course incredibly respected in the industry, as is Hoffman himself, who to the general public has always been the wasn’t-he-that-guy-from-Boogie Nights schlub until this breakthrough role. Phoenix also plays a real-life character, but has been way overshadowed by his female co-star; buzz for Ledger has lessened from the absence of any significant precursor wins; and most in the Academy wouldn’t be wowed by Strathairn’s understated yet superb performance as Edward Murrow, another real person. That leaves Howard, this year’s only black nominee; he is this year’s wild card, and though I’m not entirely sure how Academy members would respond to his performance, it’d be such fun if he were able to pull off an upset for playing the pimp-turned-rapper in Hustle & Flow. In a three-way race between Hoffman, Howard and a flailing Ledger, the winner is Hoffman by a very long mile.

Who should win: Heath Ledger. He surprises with a performance of such delicate torture and anguish, carefully restrained and powerfully envisioned. I would also give the prize to Strathairn, who was able to make smoking look so damn sexy, all while fighting for truth, nobility and honest journalism in Good Night, and Good Luck. Or as a career-capper, Jeff Daniels deserves a statuette for his bitingly hilarious work in The Squid and the Whale, a film too overlooked for the Academy’s own good.

Best Actress


Judi Dench, Mrs. Henderson Presents

Felicity Huffman, Transamerica

Keira Knightley, Pride & Prejudice

Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line

Charlize Theron, North Country

Who will win: Reese Witherspoon. She’s sexy, she’s cute, she’s popular to boot. After almost a decade of beautiful actresses winning for performances that required major deglamorization, Witherspoon will easily take the Oscar for a role of brash glow and glam. Her deliciously retro costumes, her mega-watt smile, her cutesy singing all resulted in a performance that was luminous and had enough star-power for the Academy to take notice. She’s the most Hollywood of the bunch, in a crowd-pleaser seen by more people than all her competitors’ films combined. Dench and Theron simply serve as fillers in a category that sorely failed to nominate far better women, and though Knightley, in a perverse Oscar season unlike any other (i.e. this year’s) could pull off a ridiculously fun ingenue-upset (that nude Vanity Fair cover surely doesn’t hurt) for her terrific film, this is a race strictly between Witherspoon and Huffman. Fans of the de-glam (and it does have its supporters) have the option of Huffman, who is funny and touching as a pre-op transsexual in the wonderful Transamerica, and with Harvey Weinstein and the Housewives behind her, a Felicity victory feels more plausible each day. Nevertheless, Reese has proven irresistible to voters, winning the SAG, the Golden Globe and even the BAFTA; the British Academy passed on fellow Brit Rachel Weisz (this time placed in the lead actress category) to reward all-American Witherspoon playing all-American icon June Carter Cash.

Who should win: Naomi Watts. It stuns me how a delightful though lightweight supporting role wins Witherspoon a Best Actress trophy when Watts, astonishing in King Kong, wasn’t even nommed. This was true acting: Watts was able to flesh out a supremely gorgeous and heartbreaking performance with nothing but blue-screen walls and Andy Serkis to work with, and the lack of recognition is infuriating. Ditto for Joan Allen: one of the greatest actresses of our time gives us one of the best performances of her career in The Upside of Anger, and the Academy falls short of nominating her. Or even Laura Linney for The Squid and the Whale is missing from this line-up. Of those listed, I’m rooting for Huffman, who transcended makeup and an octaves-lower voice to manifest a character that was not only believable but crushingly endearing; I loved Transamerica, and she was the beating heart that kept everything alive.

Best Supporting Actor


William Hurt, A History of Violence

Jake Gyllenhaal, Brokeback Mountain

Paul Giamatti, Cinderella Man

George Clooney, Syriana

Matt Dillon, Crash

Who will win: George Clooney. Now here is where the races get interesting: I could see every single one of these actors claiming the Oscar in this tight race. I loved that Hurt was allowed a nomination for his so-freaky-it’s-funny mob boss send-up in A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, however, was criminally snubbed of a Best Director nod); though I still maintain that his film is too subversive and disturbing for most Academy members, Hurt is respected and gives a stand-out firecracker performance, and his 10-minute role is not out of the game yet. But poor Giamatti: after two trophy-worthy lead performances in American Splendor and Sideways for which he was snubbed of nominations, the Academy finally lists his name for a rather unmemorable performance in a mediocre Rod Howard drama that hasn’t been getting much love. If he wasn’t even nommed for two fantastic roles, why award him for a so-so supporting one? It’s insulting and unnecessary, and the Academy recognizes this; despite the SAG win, he’s out of the race. The Supporting Actor race is a three-way between Gyllenhaal, Clooney and Dillon: after the surprising BAFTA win, Jake’s gained some substantial momentum and could end up carrying the acting banner of the eventual Best Picture winner; Matt alternatively is Crash’s only acting nod, and after the SAG ensemble win, strong support from the acting branch will be solely concentrated on him. I predict Clooney though will take it for a performance that is hardly Oscar-worthy: voters can’t award him for his Director or Screenplay nods for Good Night, so they’ll have to settle with this one. Still, a Gyllenhaal or Dillon upset is looming.

Who should win: Jake Gyllenhaal. He gave life to the Ennis-Jack love story, was commanding and painful and strong, and was able to make "I wish I knew how to quit you" a worldwide phenomenon.

Best Supporting Actress


Michelle Williams, Brokeback Mountain

Amy Adams, Junebug

Catherine Keneer, Capote

Rachel Weisz, The Constant Gardener

Frances McDormand, North Country

Who will win: Amy Adams. This is the most unpredictable race of the night, in a category where historically anything could happen. At least we know McDormand can’t win, especially for a performance as generically Oscar-baity as this; she didn’t deserve her Best Actress trophy for Fargo, and she doesn’t deserve another for North Country. But aside from her, the race is wide open. Keneer could win not for her too-restrained-for-the-Academy work in Capote, but for a cruelly unheralded career and a great past year that also included roles in The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Interpreter and The Ballad of Jack and Rose; having worked with a large part of the Academy, they may finally want to give her her due. Now that Gyllenhaal has narrowly surpassed Williams as Brokeback’s best chance for an acting prize, Williams doesn’t seem as strong as she was before nominations were announced, but support for her film could still propel her to a win. Frontrunner Weisz is pure electricity in The Constant Gardener, and her character’s death is the driving force of the film: she’s won the Golden Globe and the SAG, though it is worrying how little support she had at the BAFTAs. I’m going out on a limb and predict a huge Adams upset: I feel that if voters actually get to watch their Junebug screeners, they would vote for her; the performance is likable and moving and carries the film. The question is whether Academy members have actually seen this tiny indie. The Academy loves to use the Supporting Actress category to anoint unknown talent (think Marisa Tomei, Anna Paquin, Mira Sorvino) and shock the public with upsets (The English Patient’s Juliette Binoche over Lauren Bacall), and I think Adams will provide the biggest surprise of the night.

Who should win: Maria Bello. How is this woman not even nominated for her stunning work in A History of Violence? I blame it on voting technicality: some in the acting branch nommed her as a lead actress while others thought of her as a supporting actress, causing a split vote. She gave the best performance in the already outstanding Violence ensemble, and that final dining-table scene – wow. Another gripe: Scarlett Johansson is missing for her intelligently modulated sultriness in Match Point. I had hoped the Academy would have sought to amend their wrongdoing after her Lost in Translation snub; but these two great actresses just can’t seem to get the recognition they deserve.

Best Original Screenplay


Noah Baumbach, The Squid and the Whale

Woody Allen, Match Point

Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, Crash

George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Good Night, and Good Luck

Stephen Gaghan, Syriana

Who will win: Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco. The Screenplay trophies usually serve as consolations to eventual Best Picture losers like Lost in Translation, Sideways, Gosford Park and Traffic. In what is strictly a two-way race between a couple of Best Picture nominees that will likely lose the top prize, voters will undoubtedly go for Crash: support is too strong for Haggis & Co., even with Clooney as a contender. The WGA win further solidifies Crash’s assurance of this award.

Who should win: Noah Baumbach. He took the oft-hackneyed cinematic concept of divorce and completely made it his own with The Squid and the Whale, crafting a screenplay so funny and real and tragic that every laugh hurts because it all rings true. By channeling a place (Brooklyn) and a time (the 1980s) and treating his characters’ delusions with such acerbic mercilessness, Baumbach was able to turn rocky domesticity into a razor-sharp American tragedy. I’m glad Woody Allen received a nod for Match Point, one of the most fascinating films of his career and a movie so un-Allen we could only trust the Woodman to produce it; it’s a pitch-black exercise in lust, murder and delicate perversion set in the English upper-class.

Best Adapted Screenplay


Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, Brokeback Mountain

Dan Futterman, Capote

Jeffrey Caine, The Constant Gardener

Josh Olson, A History of Violence

Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, Munich

Who will win: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Brokeback Mountain, which also won the WGA, along with the Golden Globe and BAFTA screenplay awards, has this one in the bag, with only a potential though very unlikely upset by Capote’s Dan Futterman (who knew that Charlotte’s gay-straight man from Sex and the City could write such a carefully observed screenplay?). It is intriguing though to consider how much of Munich’s small though rabid Academy fan base will matter in this race. Ultimately, they still have a Mountain to climb.

Who should win: Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. They expanded Annie Proulx’s short story into a spectacular American epic, using the medium to tell more about their characters than Proulx ever could. Still I can’t help but also want to give Tony Kushner an Oscar, if only for Angels in America.

Best Animated Feature


Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit


Tim Borton’s Corpse Bride

Howlís Moving Castle


What will win: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This year the Academy honored old-fashioned animation techniques, rejecting blockbuster stinkers Robots, Madagascar and Chicken Little. Wallace and Gromit has this locked: the Academy’s awarded Nick Park’s short films twice before, and after this year’s Annie win, he’s secured a third Oscar.

What should win: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The distinctly English eccentricity of Nick Park’s beloved claymation twosome has never been this exuberant and flat-out hilarious, and the stop-motion animation is masterful and flawless.

Best Documentary Feature


Darwin’s Nightmare

March of the Penguins

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Murderball

Street Fight


What will win: March of the Penguins. Because winners of both Documentary Feature and Foreign-Language Film are selected by a small voting panel of Academy members that have seen all the nominees, it gets increasingly difficult to determine patterns and leanings. Darwin’s Nightmare feels like it’s surging for an upset, but no one can deny the amazing success of March of the Penguins, the second highest-grossing documentary of all time with more than $70 million in the box office, a sum much more than what four of the Best Picture nominees have earned. That and the fact that those baby penguins are beyond adorable.

What should win: Grizzly Man. Due to some strange voting injustice, Werner Herzog’s gripping and distressing documentary on bear expert Timothy Treadwell, a meditation on mortality, passion for your work and the power of documentary filmmaking, failed to make the cut.

Best Foreign-Language Film


Don’t Tell
(Italy)

Joyeux Noel
(France)

Paradise Now
(Palestine)

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (
Germany)

Tsotsi
(South Africa)

What will win: Tsotsi. Joyeux Noel, to put it simply, est un morceau de merde, a hollow big-budget period piece of faux-literate pretension and syrupy sentimentalism that is nominated simply because 1. it’s French and 2. it’s about World War I. Sophie Scholl is the perennial Holocaust entry, and Don’t Tell plays to the voting panel’s love of Italian melodrama. This is a race between Paradise Now and Tsotsi. Being a Palestinean entry, no less a bleak (though brilliant) thriller about the difficult subject of suicide bombers, I’m worried Paradise Now’s odds of winning will be complicated by politics. Tsotsi is a safer choice for voters that usually go for this type of manipulative schmaltz: the South African entry is like a simple-minded City of God without Fernando Meirelles’ edge and brutality.

What should win: Cache. Cache is a film in French set in France written and directed by an Austrian genius, submitted by Austria as its film entry; such concepts cannot be comprehended by the Academy’s arcane foreign-language-film rulebook, and thus the sadistically unsettling and provocative Cache fell victim and was made ineligible. It’s tragic how technicality gets in the way of rewarding what is truly the best; similarly in 2002 masterpieces like Talk to Her and Y tu mama tambien also failed to get nominated simply because their respective countries chose not to submit them.
* * *
For comments, e-mail me at lanz_ys@yahoo.com.

ACADEMY BEST BEST PICTURE BROKEBACK BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN FILM MOUNTAIN ONE OSCAR WIN
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