Film

OSCAR AND THE GUNS OF MARCH

Orwellian security and dire dramas of humanity on the brink will be the hallmarks of this year's awards

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 24 2003
Film

OSCAR AND THE GUNS OF MARCH

Orwellian security and dire dramas of humanity on the brink will be the hallmarks of this year's awards

BRIAN D. JOHNSON February 24 2003

OSCAR AND THE GUNS OF MARCH

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Orwellian security and dire dramas of humanity on the brink will be the hallmarks of this year's awards

AS THE WHITE HOUSE prepares for war, Hollywood has been mounting its own highly mechanized campaign of Shock and Awe, a struggle for the hearts and minds of 5,600 Academy voters. Presuming the Oscars go ahead as planned, on March 23, there may be more to the night's suspense than simply opening the envelopes. By then the United States could well be knee-deep in Iraq. The orange alert that now routinely appears on the CNN screen, like the pollution index, could be off the charts. And as one of the most watched TV events in the world—the Super Bowl of entertainment— the Oscars will represent the most attractive terrorist target in all the land. Amid Orwellian security, Hollywood royalty will put on a brave face. Gowned and jewelled (demurely if American lives are being lost overseas), they'll gather at the high altar of the world's most extravagant culture—and celebrate America's divine right to diversion at a time when its citizens are being advised to arm themselves with duct tape.

What's so strange about it all is that the Academy has chosen to honour movies that are, for the most part, about the death of Western civilization as we know it. Among the Oscar nominees announced last week, the candidates vying for best picture are all period films, and with one exception, dire, loveless portraits of humanity on the brink.

Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese's epic bloodbath, traces the roots of Yankee intolerance from the image of an eagle etched in a patriot's glass eye to a fast-forward vision of Manhattan's twin towers rising from the fray of history.The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers takes place in the somewhat more mythical realm of Middle Earth, but its apocalyptic vision of world war looks a lot like Christendom's last stand against the infidel hordes. Then there's The Pianist, Roman Polanski's roots saga of the Warsaw Ghetto, the tale of an artist scrambling for salvation in the ruins of the Holocaust.

The other two best picture contenders are war stories on a more intimate scale, scenarios of distraught women driven to suicide and murder. Filtered through the shimmering self-annihilation of Virginia Woolf,The Hours is a fugue of female despair in the modern age. At the other end of the scale,Chicago, a fable of duelling femme fatales, offers an oasis of harmless entertainment. It leads the Oscar field, with 13 nominations. But as a musical without a love story, it's a cold, cynical confection, some of that old razzle-dazzle backlit by a stale satire with the earth-shattering revelation that celebrity is fake and fleeting.Chicago is this year's Moulin Rouge, without the innovation. And as a showbiz yarn that holds a vanity mirror up to Tinseltown, it's less

threatening than the funhouse ride through the looking glass offered by Adaptation.

Surrounded by desperate pictures in desperate times, it's no wonder Hollywood has embraced a refurbished musical as a safe haven. The last musical to win best picture was Oliver! That was in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War.

There are other ways of viewing the Oscars, aside from the prism of the Zeitgeist. The awards have become the focus of quasimilitary campaigns, and this year's nominations fell into place with surgical precision. All the best picture nominees were launched in December, proof that Hollywood has positioning down to an art. Even Oscar queen Meryl Streep, who set a record with her 13th nomination this year, has been carping about politics spoiling the fun.

As much as anything, the nominations have come to reflect the balance of power in Hollywood. During the 1990s, you could see a dramatic schism between independent productions and studio pictures, with The Piano squaring off against Schiruiler'sList, Pulp Fiction against Forrest Gump. Now that the former indies have become so-called mini-majors, the lines are blurred. Four of the best picture nominees were produced or co-produced by either Miramax or New Line, both former indies based in Manhattan, not Hollywood. And some of the year's

edgier films have been financed by major studios, including Columbia's Adaptation, which snared four nominations, and MGM's Igby Goes Down, which was snubbed.

Of course, this year the Cinderella story of independent cinema belongs to Winnipeg's Nia Vardalos, whose Big Fat Greek Wedding became the most lucrative indie movie of all time, grossing US$330 million worldwide. The first Canadian to be nominated in a major Oscar category since Atom Egoyan (for 1997's The Sweet Hereafter), Vardalos is up for best original script. And she's got some eclectic compeition: Far From Heaven, Gangs of New York, and two foreign gems, Spain's Talk to Her and Mexico's YTu Mamâ También. Without being cruel, you could say that Vardalos's script is the weakest of the bunch. But don't be surprised if she wins. A lot of Academy voters will be longing to see her bring the fairy tale to a triumphant conclusion, and ice the Wedding cake with a big fat acceptance speech. Some were disappointed to see Vardalos fail to win a best actress nomination. But after all, her movie's a comedy, and Oscar's famous for not having a sense of humour.

This also happens to be Hollywood's strongest year for female roles in recent memory. Even Streep, who got a supporting nod for Adaptation, failed to be recognized in the lead category alongside her Hours co-star, Nicole Kidman. This year that category should be renamed: best triumph by an actress over unlikely odds, playing a character who triumphs over unlikely odds. Kidman is up against Salma Hayek, who moved heaven, earth and Madonna to bring the life of an iconoclast painter to the screen in Frida. Then there's Diane Lane, who sustains a performance of unwavering

Surrounded by desperate pictures in desperate times, it's no wonder Hollywood has taken to a refurbished musical as a safe haven

realism amid the formula cheese of Unfaithful. Julianne Moore sublimely transcends a faux fifties cliché of an earnest housewife in Far From Heaven. And Renée Zellweger proves to the world that she can sing and dance in Chicago.

Kidman, however, already did that in Moulin Rouge, while dancing through a public divorce from Tom Cruise. Now, from behind that fake nose, she not only defies expectations by making a credible Virginia Woolf, she brings a quicksilver intelligence to the part. I expect her to win, not just for her 30-minute slice of The Hours, but for the steely heroism of her career.

The Oscars tend to recognize actors for who they are, and how far they've come. And among the men, shows of physical virtuosity are often rewarded. In this year's close race for best actor, there's a lot of that. Michael Caine delivers the only unassuming performance, as a jaded Saigon correspondent in The Quiet American. Then there's a hollow-eyed Adrien Brody wasting away in The Pianist, and a knotted Nicolas Cage playing twin screenwriters m Adaptation. In Gangs, Daniel Day-Lewis does everything but set himself on fire as Bill the Butcher, the kind of diabolical monster that Jack Nicholson used to specialize in. Jack, meanwhile, is remarkably un-Jacklike as a grizzled, smallerthan-life retiree in About Schmidt— although

playing against type becomes a stunt in its own right. All the nominees but Brody already have Oscars. My hunch is that Nicholson will win his fourth, tying Katharine Hepburn's record. Hollywood loves a winner.

But I don't want to wade into predictions ( I always lose the office pool). Except to say that Martin Scorsese will win best director for Gangs, not because it's a masterpiece, but because he tried so hard, he's America's most revered auteur, and he's long overdue. It's also gratifying to see Talk to Her's Pedro Almodovar nominated for director. Talk To Her and Y Tu Mamâ También were arguably the year's two best movies. After Spain and Mexico failed to submit them for best foreign-language film, Academy voters found room for them in the writing and directing categories.

Canadians, meanwhile, can take pride in Vardalos's nomination, even if her film is an American production shot in Toronto but set in Chicago. Then again,Chicago, was shot in Toronto, too. The Canuck hero of the Oscars could turn out to be Michael Moore, America's honorary Canadian.Bowling for Columbine, Moore's sad, funny and provocative satire of gun-crazy America, is nominated for best documentary. It was financed and co-produced by Canadians. And it's rife with Canadian content, even if Moore does caricature our peaceable kingdom as a foil for American violence. Until now, Oscar has snubbed Moore's guerilla filmmaking, even though Roger &Me and The Big One broke box-office records for documentaries. But Bowling for Columbine has struck a chord among Hollywood liberals. And if Moore gets to make an acceptance speech in the thick of a war with Iraq, look out. The Oscars will be on red alert.