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Looking Forward to Oscar 2002


By Ben Patrick Johnson

LOS ANGELES, 8 February 2002 - It is said that an American presidential candidate begins his campaign for the next election on the day of his predecessor's inauguration, and it is never too early to begin watching his moves. The same holds true for Hollywood's studio chiefs in their gear-up for each year's Academy Awards race.

On November 9th, the scaffolding and construction site board-ups were pulled back from Los Angeles' new "Hollywood and Highland" shopping and theatre complex, revealing an architectural paean to the vision of director D.W. Griffith, complete with a three-story Babylonian archway that frames the famed Hollywood sign and a retinue of massive plaster elephants, allusions to his 1916 film Intolerance.

As I stood in a throng of sight-seers before this floodlit architectural spectacle late on its opening night, I was struck by the irony of building an homage to the director of one of Hollywood's most notoriously racist films in what is today a marginal, predominantly black neighborhood: Griffith's 1915 silent epic Birth of a Nation was an embrace of the Ku Klux Klan, and has been cited as American cinema's most glaring and embarrassing example of racist agitprop.

Then again, Hollywood has never had much of a sense of irony. Why develop one now?

The jewel in the crown of the $650 million dollar Hollywood and Highland project is the glittering new Kodak Theatre, scheduled to host the Academy Awards ceremonies starting in 2002. Gazing up the "awards walk", a long, wide stairway leading from Hollywood Boulevard to the front doors of the theatre, I felt a shiver of excitement, imagining which movie luminaries might be taking the stage in a few months to fumble and cry their way through Academy Awards acceptance speeches.

While they'll talk about the honor of being recognized by their peers, and how the flat-featured little man they're holding is a testament to the creative brilliance of their under-acknowledged coworkers, the dirty truth—and another irony lost on this town—is the Oscar race has always been a popularity contest.

In the wake of the September 11th tragedy, American box office receipts have surged to levels not seen since World War II, especially for blockbuster films. While boffo box-office won't lock up nominations or statuettes for a movie, a dismal opening certainly lowers its prospects. The same is true for critical notice: Movies proclaimed stinkers by the major papers usually don't stand a chance with voters either toe the popular line or simply dont see all the nominated films or performances before filling out their ballots (yes, it happens.).

Meanwhile, studios have become well aware of what an Oscar win can mean to a film's bottom line. Wooing Oscar votes used to be an afterthought, but in recent years the campaign budgets have grown substantially and strategies are mapped out with as much care as those to promote films to the general audience.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a set of "Guidelines Concerning the Promotion of Films Eligible for the 74th Academy Awards" which purports to level the playing field for all films and performances. However, it's not likely to work. Hollywood lives and dies by weekend box-office rankings and year-to-date tallies. With few exceptions, a "good" film is one that earns a lot of money—or has a certain cachet about it. The latter is not to be underestimated at Oscar time. Five-color, gold-laminated cardstock inserts in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety are just the beginning of what studios will do to promote the image of a film (as opposed to the film itself.).

This year, some of the most-viewed movies (Planet of the Apes, Pearl Harbor) were so thoroughly drubbed by critics that their Oscar prospects seem dim, except perhaps in technical award categories. The record-breaking opening take by the first in the Harry Potter series reflected enthusiastic audience turnout but, once again, critical response was cool enough to subdue its Oscar hopes.

Other youth-oriented films, particularly animated features, may fare better this year. Both this summer's Shrek and Disney's recent hit Monsters, Inc. crossed over to adult audiences, and Academy voters may give them thumbs up in unexpected categories.

Musicals have historically been hit-and-miss with voters, but 20th Century Fox is making a strong effort for its absinthe-fueled frenzy Moulin Rouge by re-opening the film in a play for renewed attention. Expect heavy campaigning for its director, Baz Luhrman, as well as its principals, Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor and the indefatigable Jim Broadbent.

Miramax co-chairmen Bob and Harvey Weinstein (to whom the Academy's aforementioned campaigning memorandum might as well have been personally addressed) will surely be employing their studio's notorious lobbying machinery for Bridget Jones' Diary, The Others, and the official 2002 French entry Amelie. Ms. (formerly Mrs.) Kidman will get much attention for her polar-opposite performances in Moulin Rouge and The Others, and her odds of a nomination should be mathematically (and empathetically, following her divorce) increased.

And Miramax's The Shipping News bowed on Christmas Day; while reviews have been uneven, Miramax may harbor hope for its principal performers Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, and Judi Dench (Academy voters seem to adore her British accent and alum-puckered delivery.) One can expect Miramax to put a lot of heat behind the project.

There are other wildcards among films released around year's end. The boxing biopic Ali drew attention both for Will Smith's performance in the title role and for the work of director Michael Mann (The Insider). And The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which, unlike Harry Potter, blends technical craft with some remarkable performances—Elijah Wood's Frodo Baggins and Sir Ian McKellen's Gandalf—may have an outside shot at some statuettes normally off-limits for fantasy fare.

Historically, as far as the Academy is concerned, Oscar begets Oscar: a nod from voters has often resulted in kinder consideration in subsequent years. This year, though, that pattern may or may not hold. It's worth keeping an eye on the Tom Cruise-branded Vanilla Sky; if director Cameron Crowe, no stranger to the acceptance speech, has less to hope for this time around, some insiders are bullish on Penelope Cruz' second crack at a role she played in the 1997 Spanish language version of the film. Likewise, Steven Soderbergh's all-star remake of Ocean's Eleven, while generally well-received, hasn't generated that much buzz. And the hype machine sputtered briefly for twice-nominated director/writer Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) and his Jim Carrey vehicle The Majestic. But with critics having savaged the Capra-warmed-over concoction, Darabont (and Carrey) seem to face dim prospects.

As for the Oscar ceremony itself, organizers must be hoping it doesn't suffer a similar fate to this year's Emmys—cuckolded when bumped in the wake of the terrorist attacks, then re-scheduled in a smaller venue for (alleged) security reasons. The upstart Blockbuster Awards organization, wishing to avoid such a calamity, has already cancelled its own 2002 ceremony, with a spokeswoman citing "the uncertainty of the times." Hollywood, the heart of America's media-industrial complex, may export Western ideas and images around the world; but it seems likely that, if all goes according to plan, the greatest uncertainty in Oscar-land this season will be over which studio succeeds in wrenching the most mantelpiece ornaments from the Academy's clutches.

Ben Patrick Johnson is a writer and free-lance journalist in Los Angeles. His novel, The Valley of Smoke, will be published by Palari Press in 2002.

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