Film

AT OSCAR’S ALTAR

Who’ll be exalted at that annual High Mass of celebrity, the Academy Awards?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 1 2004
Film

AT OSCAR’S ALTAR

Who’ll be exalted at that annual High Mass of celebrity, the Academy Awards?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON March 1 2004

AT OSCAR’S ALTAR

Film

Who’ll be exalted at that annual High Mass of celebrity, the Academy Awards?

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

AFTER A YEAR OF MOVIES, and a year of war, America is ready to celebrate the highest ritual of its own deeply held fundamentalist religion: celebrity. Last year’s Academy Awards, staged four days after the United States declared war on Iraq, were a muted affair (aside from Michael Moore’s diatribe against the President) and drew the lowest TV ratings in the event’s history. But the Oscars remain television’s biggest annual pageant next to the Super Bowl. And with Billy Crystal hosting this year’s show on Feb. 29, it’s back to show business as usual. We can look forward to Billy crystallizing the themes of the nominated films with his traditional songand-dance extravaganza, another vaudevillian essay on the Hollywood Zeitgeist. He has some rich material to work with—queeras-folk hobbits, drunken buccaneers, a homicidal hooker, a racehorse with a heart of gold. He could sing a geriatric version of Jack & Diane to Nicholson and Keaton, croon Climb Ev’ry (Cold) Mountain to Renée Zellweger, or talk about the campaign to evict President Bush from the (White) House of Sand and Fog.

Over the past year, as America lost itself in The Fog of War called Iraq, the movies served up an alternative fantasy, more like The Fun of War. Four of Oscar’s five best picture nominees are tales of righteous combat between the powerful and the weak.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and Seabiscuit offer heroic sagas of little fellas beating insurmountable odds and healing old wounds—the hobbit on Mount Doom, the jockey on the mount. They tell us the meek shall inherit Middle Earth, and Middle America, if they try really, really hard. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a bracing maritime antidote to all those ignoble desert storms, allows Americans to indulge in the exotic notion of waging war against a superior military power— and they get to hate the French in the bargain. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood’s Stygian cruise into the Yankee heartland, is the one nominated film in which evil wins. This tragedy of gangsterish vengeance, with delusions of Shakespearean grandeur, is also the only serious drama in the bunch. (Pointedly, Cold Mountain, the year’s sole anti-war epic, was snubbed, although it’s the kind of sweeping spectacle that Oscar usually adores.)

That leaves Lost in Translation. The fifth best picture nominee is a Zen oasis amid all these moral fables, the one movie that’s not about underdogs fighting bullies. It’s a tale of two lost souls in a fishbowl, platonic lovers becalmed in a foreign sea of incomprehension. I loved Lost in Translation, and wouldn’t want to read too much into it. But it’s tempting to see it as aposf-war movie: in the aftermath of history, a couple of quiet Americans go through the dislocated motions of a karaoke romance in a Tokyo hotel.

The Lord of the Rings and Lost in Translation lie at opposite ends of the filmmaking spectrum. It seems a safe bet that Rings will win best picture, along with a passel of technical prizes. Its main competition is Mystic River, which has gravity on its side—always revered at the Oscars—and some highoctane acting. But after delivering a blockbuster grand slam, Peter Jackson will finally win the prize for best director.

What’s odd about this year’s Academy Awards is the gulf between the movies and the performances. Of the 20 nominated actors, only four are in films nominated for best picture: Bill Murray for Lost in Translation, and Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden for Mystic River. In the supporting roles, Robbins should win for his brooding performance as a murder suspect traumatized by a childhood rape—unless he’s trumped by Alec Baldwin’s casino sadist from The Cooler. Harden, who plays Robbins’ wife, will likely lose to Zellweger, who heats up Cold Mountain with her flamboyant turn as a scruffy pioneer woman.

Penn and Murray, meanwhile, square off as a compelling study in opposites. Penn is an actor’s actor, long overdue for recognition, and this is his fourth Oscar nomination. As Mystic Rivers Jimmy Markum, he shows tremendous range, evolving from a father stricken by his daughter’s murder to a coldblooded avenger in bed with Lady Macbeth (Laura Linney). Framed by Eastwood’s ponderous direction—Clint hauls out the heavy artillery of a crane shot to hammer home Jimmy’s anguish at his daughter’s death— Penn displays the kind of emotional bravado that Oscar loves. It’s a meaty, entertaining performance, but not his best; I preferred his more measured work in 21 Grams.

POINTEDLY, the anti-war Cold Mountain was snubbed, although it’s the kind of spectacle Oscar usually adores

As for Murray, this is his first nomination, and he seems unlikely to win for a deadpan role in which he appears to do so little. It’s too easy to conclude that he’s just playing himself. But as a jaded actor making a Japanese whiskey commercial—who finds a transient soulmate in a younger woman (the overlooked Scarlett Johansson)—Murray creates a more natural character than any of his fellow nominees. With his unique blend of wit and melancholy, he gives the most distilled performance of his career. And who would you rather see give an acceptance speech, Sean Penn or Bill Murray? The best actress contest comes down to another face-off between tragic and comic— between Charlize Theron’s scary tour de force as a serial killer in Monster and Diane Keaton’s disarming portrayal of a playwright who tames Jack Nicholson’s heart in Something’s Gotta Give. But my vote would go to Naomi Watts for her scalding performance opposite Penn in 21 Grams, even though Theron is the clear favourite. Monster is this year’s Monster’s Ball and, like Halle Berry, she’s shown that she’s more than a pretty face, by gaining 30 lb. and blunting her beauty with latex skin and prosthetic teeth. Oscar likes nothing better than physically expressive acting. Playing both bully and victim, Theron acts up a storm, a stunt that Chicago critic Roger Ebert (hoisting his thumbs to untold heights) hailed as “one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.” In an industry that worships stars at the expense of art, it’s not surprising that the actors tend to be more convincing than the movies. A.O. Scott, a critic for the New York Times, recently suggested that we’ve entered a new “golden age of screen acting,” distinguished by an unprecedented threshold of realism. That may be true. But it’s a theatrical realism.

Aside from Murray, all the best actor nominees are marooned in fantastical scenarios. Johnny Depp’s Keith Richards impersonation elevates Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl to high camp. Ben Kingsley’s Iranian immigrant cuts through the dense melodrama of House of Sand and Fog like a laser. And Cold Mountain’s Jude Law, though beautifully understated, plays a hopeless romantic who trudges through hell to reunite with a woman he’s barely met. Among the actresses, the most natural performances are again hinged to stories that are anything but realistic—from Watts making love to the man who’s received her dead husband’s transplanted heart to 13year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes fulfilling the destiny of her title role in Whale Rider.

For unadulterated realism, we turn to documentaries, which were among the year’s strongest films. The four nominees that I’ve seen all engage in a kind of forensic history —from The Weather Underground, which disinters a chapter of American terrorism, to My Architect, a son’s attempt to understand the secret life of his esteemed father, architect Louis Kahn. But the real contest is between Capturing the Friedmans, the home movie from hell about child abuse, and The Fog ofWar, about the enigma of former U.S. defense secretary Robert S. McNamara. Capturing the Friedmans uncovers a remarkable story. But my vote goes to The Fog of War: Errol Morris’s poetic inquiry into the business of military slaughter transcends documentary realism, and makes us think about Iraq without ever mentioning it.

Hollywood dominates the Oscars so thoroughly, you can almost forget there’s something called world cinema. But aside from co-producing The Lord of the Rings, New Zealand gave us Whale Rider. Brazil’s slum warfare drama City of God has four nominations. And The Barbarian Invasions, by Quebec’s Denys Arcand, is nominated for original screenplay and foreign-language film—expect it to win the latter. Those looking for hometown heroes can also cheer on the Canadian co-produced animated feature The Triplets of Belleville, the animated short Nibbles and Howard Shore, composer for The Lord of the Rings. But no matter how much Oscar loves big movies about the little people, its celebrity altar has no room for lesser mortals. So don’t expect a Barbarian Invasions gag from Billy Crystal. CT1