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Monday, February 17, 2003

The Obligatory Oscar Odds

Based on my imperfect knowledge, here are my odds for who’s going to win the major Academy awards on Oscar night.

(Note: I have seen all of the following: “About Schmidt.” “Adaptation.” “Catch Me If You Can.” “Chicago.” “Far From Heaven.” “Gangs of New York.” “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” “Road To Perdition.” I have not seen “Frida,” “The Hours,” “The Pianist,” or “Unfaithful.”)

Best Picture
Chicago - 3:2
The Hours - 2:1
Gangs of New York - 8:1
The Pianist - 12:1
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - 22:1

I guess we’ll start with the obvious. “Lord of the Rings” isn’t winning. It pains me to say that because I loved it so much – masterful, stunning, action-packed. The quick and dirty explanation: Director Peter Jackson was left off the Best Director list, in favor of Pedro Almodovar. If the director of a Best Picture nominee isn’t at least nominated, the film doesn’t win. (This is one of the few hard-and-fast Oscar prediction rules that never fails.) But even if Jackson had gotten a nomination, “Two Towers” would be a longshot. Big sci-fi, fantasy, or other high-concept-type movies get nominated from time to time but don’t win, even if they are enormous critical and commercial triumphs. “Two Towers” is this year’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” this year’s “Star Wars.” Some say that the filmed version of Tolkien’s saga has a shot to break that mold; however, it’s long been thought that the trilogy’s best chance at a Best Picture win lies with the final installment, next year’s “Return of the King.”

“The Pianist” is the so-called “fifth film.” Most observers had the other four nominees penciled in and speculated as to what the fifth would be. I had considered “Pianist” as a possibility, but thought the Academy could also go with “Antwone Fisher” or “Adaptation.” But in doing so I forgot something important; the Academy can’t resist Holocaust movies. Seriously, folks, if it weren't for the existence of "Jakob the Liar," I'd swear that Michael Bay could make a Holocaust movie, cast Rob Schneider, Freddie Prinze Jr., and Madonna in the main roles, and it'd still get a Best Picture nomination. Anyway, “Pianist,” which has a name director in Roman Polanski but no major stars, is the “little movie” of the bunch. Three of the other four movies are larger-than-life extravaganzas - “The Hours” is more modest in scale but is loaded with star power. And the “little movie” (“Chariots of Fire” and “Shakespeare In Love” notwithstanding) doesn’t generally win. It doesn’t help that it’s not being seen or talked about much.

Then there’s “Gangs of New York.” I loved it; not all critics agreed with me. It has been something of a disappointment at the box office, though the Oscar nominations will help.
It was grand, it was epic, and it made no apologies for either. Martin Scorsese has made better films, but it was a thrill to watch what he did when given a canvas this massive to realize his vision. (Don’t ever let anyone tell you American history is dull.) It was derided by some as overly long and pretentious and excessively bloody. I think the mixed reviews will doom its chances at Best Picture.

In short, it’s coming down to “Chicago” versus “The Hours.” My guess is that voters are opting for “Chicago,” despite the fact that “The Hours” is the sort of highbrow flick they adore, with stars they’ve nominated before (Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Ed Harris.) Why? The Academy loves the musical. They want to see the musical brought back to prominence like R. Kelly wants underage girls in his dressing room. They love it so much they elevated “Moulin Rouge” to Best Picture nominee last year despite it getting nearly as many negative reviews as favorable ones. With “Chicago” getting critical praise for its many fine performances on top of good box office numbers, this is the Academy’s chance at giving the musical a boost.

Best Director
Martin Scorsese, “Gangs of New York” – 2:1
Rob Marshall, “Chicago” – 2:1
Stephen Daldry, “The Hours” – 4:1
Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” – 9:1
Pedro Almodovar, “Hable con ella (Talk To Her)” – 30:1

Usually, the director of the Best Picture winner wins Best Director. The Academy has split its ticket twice in recent years, however. For 2000, it awarded “Gladiator” Best Picture but Steven Soderbergh won Best Director for “Traffic.” For 1998, “Shakespeare In Love” beat out “Saving Private Ryan” for Best Picture, but Steven Spielberg did win the consolation prize of Best Director.

However, even in those kinds of years, the Best Director winner at least had his film nominated for Best Picture. (I say “his” because women directors are still a rarity.) So Almodovar is immediately eliminated; “Talk To Her” wasn’t even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

I think Polanski is a longshot, for the same reasons his film is a longshot. Not to mention his own little “R. Kelly problem,” which means he likely won’t be at the ceremony, something some voters might consider.

Something tells me that this might be a split-ticket year, and it’s clear who the beneficiary would be. Something tells me Martin Scorsese is finally getting a Best Director Oscar, sort of like a Lifetime Achievement Award, even if I don’t think his movie is winning Best Picture. Amazingly, he doesn’t have a gold statuette yet. On at least two occasions – 1980 (Robert Redford won for “Ordinary People” over “Raging Bull”) and 1990 (Kevin Costner won for “Dances With Wolves” over “Goodfellas”) - he was robbed. (Polanski doesn’t have one either, but his best case was for “Chinatown” in 1974, and, well, he was up against Francis Ford Coppola for “The Godfather, Part II.”) Despite a stunning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, “Gangs” is all about Martin Scorsese. His movie was good enough to get a Best Picture nod. His main opponents are not exactly household names. Although there are probably some voters who dislike Martin Scorsese’s use of violence (although “Chicago” isn’t violence-free either) and others who might object to the three-hour length of his film. This is as good a chance as any for the Academy to reward a legend like Scorsese.

However, the Academy usually keeps the awards together. And if, as I think they will, they go with “Chicago,” there will be a lot of support for giving Rob Marshall, making his feature-film directing debut, the Oscar instead. The director’s role in a musical production is obviously extremely important, and the Academy has been willing to give Oscars to first-time directors.

Scorsese has a better chance of benefiting from the split if the Academy goes with “The Hours.” Stephen Daldry is also largely unknown – he had his breakthrough of sorts in 2001 with “Billy Elliot.” But more importantly, “The Hours” seems like more of an “actors’ picture” that lives or dies not with its direction but with its cast. Its principal roles are all filled by veteran, well-known, well-respected actors. It’s easier to see someone supporting “The Hours” for Best Picture and yet deciding someone other than Daldry deserving Best Director than it would be for supporters of any of the other three dual-nominated films.

Best Actor
Jack Nicholson, “About Schmidt” – 5:2
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Gangs of New York” – 3:1
Nicholas Cage, “Adaptation” – 7:2
Michael Caine, “The Quiet American” – 6:1
Adrien Brody, “The Pianist” – 13:1

Brody is the proverbial “won by being nominated” here. Usually, you have to be a name to win Best Actor (or Actress.) Caine is very much a name, but few people saw or talked about “The Quiet American,” a movie that sat on the shelves for the better part of a year due to Miramax being skittish about releasing a movie questioning American interventionism overseas after 9/11.

Nicholson is the slight favorite here, because he won the Golden Globe against the exact same competition, and because, well, he’s Jack Nicholson. His role in “About Schmidt” was a bit of a change for him – he played an understated Everyman character in an honest, human-scale picture rather than his usual over-the-top role that never lets the viewer forget he watching “Jack Nicholson.” That, and well, he showed his backside, which I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing, mind you, but that could have been the most ridiculed scene of the year in the wrong film.

I liked Nicholson and “About Schmidt,” but I’m hoping that one of the other two guys gets the prize. Not only does Jack have enough hardware, but Cage and Day-Lewis deserve it more.

Cage’s deft handling of dual roles in “Adaptation” was dead on – and the more I learned about how it was done, the more amazed I was by it. One character was shy, consumed with self-doubt, a tortured artist. The other was full of self-confidence, likeable but without much in the way of intellect or creativity in such a way that not everyone might notice. There was no blending – you always knew whether he was playing Charlie or Donald, despite the absence of obvious visual cues. (Of course, it also meant I left “Adaptation” lamenting how Cage wastes his presence on so many bloody awful films.)

Daniel Day-Lewis stole center stage from Leonardo DiCaprio in creating among the deepest, most complex, most unforgettable villains in movie history with Bill “the Butcher” Cutting in “Gangs of New York.” It’s easy to act in an over-the-top fashion, but this role was an achievement in that it mostly avoided caricature, not easy for a villain in a fairly melodramatic picture. In lesser hands, the Butcher could have fallen into self-parody.

Best Actress
Nicole Kidman, “The Hours” – 3:1
Julianne Moore, “Far From Heaven” – 3:1
Selma Hayek, “Frida” – 4:1
Renee Zellwegger, “Chicago” – 4:1
Diane Lane, “Unfaithful” – 9:1

This one’s very much up for grabs. I don’t see Lane winning it since “Unfaithful” was a spring picture that got mostly lukewarm reviews, even though most critics praised her portrayal of a wife in a troubled marriage.

When I first did these odds, I had Selma Hayek firmly in the “won by being nominated” category. A lot of reviewers were cool to “Frida,” and some even specifically panned Hayek’s performance. This is also the first time she’s been within a country mile of an Oscar, and the Academy is not known for its generosity to new actresses in this category.
However, two things changed my mind. First, the Academy likes artist biopics and performances in such movies are treated favorably. Second, well, she’d be the first Latina to win Best Actress. It’d be another “historic moment” the Academy could pat itself on the back for. (Halle Berry was third at best on many people’s predictions last year.) I’d still rate Kidman and Moore as having better chances, since “Monster’s Ball” was higher on critics’ “must see” lists last year than “Frida” was this year.

As the lead actress in the most nominated film, and as a previously nominated actress (for last year’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary”) Zellwegger has to be considered to have a shot. However, I’m of the opinion (and at least some observers agree with me) that Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance (for some reason in the “Supporting Actress” category) in “Chicago” upstaged hers. And my gut instinct says voters would rather reward Moore or Kidman.

Nicole Kidman has a plum role in “The Hours” as author Virginia Woolf. (Even if she had to wear that big prosthetic nose.) She was up last year for “Moulin Rouge,” but a lot of people think this is her year.

Julianne Moore is in the position of being nominated both as a lead actress (for “Far From Heaven”) and as a supporting actress (for “The Hours.”) She almost certainly will not win both. History suggests that an actress in that position has better odds in the Supporting category; to add to that, “The Hours” has had a higher profile than “Far From Heaven.” But I still like her chances here. “Far From Heaven” got great reviews. I get the feeling the Academy really wants to give Moore an Oscar, and something tells me they’d rather pass on Nicole Kidman than on Catherine Zeta-Jones in the Supporting category.

Best Supporting Actor
Chris Cooper, “Adaptation” – 3:1
Paul Newman, “Road To Perdition” – 3:1
Ed Harris, “The Hours” – 4:1
Christopher Walken, “Catch Me If You Can” – 5:1
John C. Reilly, “Chicago” - 7:1

This is the most wide open of the big six categories. I would not be especially surprised with any result.

Cooper, a veteran character actor, has a good shot against big-name competition due to snagging the Golden Globe in this category, for his role as a deceptively smart Florida swamp-rat obsessed with orchids in “Adaptation.” His character was among the most memorable in all of cinema this year. I hesitate to make him any more than a co-favorite because he’s up against some very big names.

Paul Newman is an Academy favorite, and his name alone is enough to put him in the running, for his low-key portrayal of an Irish mob boss in “Road to Perdition,” a summer film otherwise largely overlooked (Conrad Hall did get a nod for cinematography – it was a visually stunning picture) by the Academy. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in “Gangs of New York” (though nowhere near as dramatically) Newman plays a villain that an audience can actually identify with, and pulls it off.

Christopher Walken, who won in this category over 20 years ago for “The Deer Hunter,” is up for his charming role as Leonardo DiCaprio’s father in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can.” (Interestingly enough, Oscar darling Tom Hanks was in both the above movies and received no nominations.) The man who virtually defines the term “character actor,” Walken has always managed to carve a distinct imprint onto everything he appears in and always looks good no matter how bad the surrounding picture is around him. It’s a real treat when he actually appears in a quality film like “Catch Me If You Can.”

Ed Harris, perennial Oscar bridesmaid, has now been nominated for a third time in this category (1996, “Apollo 13”; 1999, “Truman Show”) in addition to his Best Actor nod for his portrayal of the title artist in “Pollock.” In “The Hours,” he plays a man dying of AIDS. Could this be his year?

John C. Reilly plays an unloved husband in both “The Hours” and “Chicago,” and was nominated for his role in the latter. (As if that wasn’t enough, he also appeared in “Gangs Of New York,” and received won a Sierra award for that role from the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards for that role.) The string of performances in three notable films worked for Jim Broadbent last year, so Reilly has a chance as well.

Best Supporting Actress
Catherine Zeta-Jones, “Chicago” – 7:3
Julianne Moore, “The Hours” – 5:2
Meryl Streep, “Adaptation” – 4:1
Kathy Bates, “About Schmidt” – 9:1
Queen Latifah, “Chicago” – 9:1

As I said above, Catherine Zeta-Jones was the leading light in “Chicago.” I had no idea she could sing or dance like that.

Julianne Moore is up for her supporting role in “The Hours” as well as her lead role in “Far From Heaven.” She’s not going to win both, and there’s at least some possibility the double nomination works against her in both categories.

Streep was not nominated for “The Hours,” as many expected, but for her role as a journalist captivated by one of her subjects in “Adaptation,” her 13th Oscar nomination. I think it’s more like that Zeta-Jones or Moore will win, but Streep has to be considered a possibility, since her multi-faceted performance, though quieter than those of co-stars Nicholas Cage and Chris Cooper, was strong, and, well, she’s Meryl Streep.

Kathy Bates has garnered another improbable nomination (after she unexpectedly won Best Actress for “Misery” in 1990, she was nominated for in her role in 1998’s “Primary Colors”) improbable acting career. This role (“About Schmidt”) even included a hot tub scene. But she’s up against some very tough competition, and she didn’t get a lot of screen time. I think she’s a longshot. Besides, I’m not sure I want to hear the hot tub jokes that would come with her acceptance speech.

I have to conclude that Queen Latifah is window dressing. Her number in “Chicago” was quite impressive, but her screen time compared to all the other nominees (except Bates) was very short. I can only conclude that the Academy would have been embarrassed if they had nominated no black actors or actresses just one year after they made history with the Oscar wins by Halle Berry and Denzel Washington. (Which makes me even more puzzled the Academy passed entirely on “Antwone Fisher.”)

Or perhaps it’s just a tougher year for men, the way last year seemed tougher for women.
The list of un-nominated male actors included Richard Gere, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Dennis Quaid.

Random Notes on Other Categories:

Best Screenplay (Original) – Very tough category this year; all five of these picks would be reasonable. I’m puzzled that neither “Hable con ella” nor “Y tu Mama Tambien,” both up for Original Screenplay, were nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Although “Gangs of New York” and “Far From Heaven” are both heavily nominated films, something tells me that this may be where the Academy chooses to reward “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Best Screenplay (Adapted) – “Adaptation” is the obvious choice, especially if it loses elsewhere. The script may actually, despite fine (and nominated) performances from its cast, be the best part of the film. And of course there is the nomination for the screen adaptation of “Chicago.” I’m pretty confident “About A Boy” isn’t winning, and, again, I think “The Pianist” is a long shot. I’d also be surprised if “The Hours” won here, despite David Hare being a name playwright (which worked for Tom Stoppard and “Shakespeare In Love”) The other big story here was that “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which got a nod in this category last year, was denied this year.

Best Documentary – “Bowling For Columbine” is the only one of the nominees I’ve seen. Something tells me it’s not winning. I just think the voters would rather encourage audiences to see more movies in this category, and people are already going to see “Bowling For Columbine.” The early buzz is on “Daughter From Danang,” about the reunion of a Vietnamese woman with her “Americanized” daughter. (Although watch out for the Holocaust picture “Prisoner of Paradise.”)

Best Animated Feature-Length Film – I guess they needed to fill a list of five, since “Treasure Planet” made the list. I’d like to see Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” win rather than yet another Disney flick like “Lilo & Stitch” or even Dreamworks’ “Ice Age.” I’m just afraid that people will confuse “Spirited Away” with “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron”


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