OSCAR WEEK 2003
2003 OSCAR PREVIEW
From left, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman
in THE HOURS, the year's most original and engrossing movie
Will it be a 'Chicago' year
or will drama rule?
By RON MILLER
If the oddsmakers are correct, the exciting and agressive musical CHICAGO may sweep the Academy Awards this Sunday night (March 23), perhaps signalling a robust revival in the fortunes of movie musicals.
Though I vowed to hang myself in public if last year's musical pretender, MOULIN ROUGE, won the Best Picture award, I feel much better about CHICAGO. It's a wonderful movie, despite its many shortcomings. Still, I wouldn't like to see it sweep through the Oscars just because Academy voters are blinded by its razzle-dazzle.
Here's my argument: CHICAGO is a marvel to many because its three leading players--Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere--really aren't musical performers trained to sing and dance, yet give strong performances. Personally, I'm down on that trend because I don't think the musical movie is really going to return in glory until the studios start giving us genuine musical stars and not just regular actors who do a super job of trying to sing and dance well.
I love Renee Zellwegger, but she's no Doris Day, Ginger Rogers or Barbra Streisand in terms of musical talent. Zeta-Jones has definite musical skills, but it's hard to tell how much of her zingy performance was due to camera angles, sound enhancement and director Rob Marshall's ringmaster techniques. As for Richard Gere, I still remember the abject embarrassment of his awful dancing in KING DAVID and suspect he was doubled in the long shots for CHICAGO. Anyway, we'll never see the likes of those real musical stars again if the best roles in movie versions of Broadway shows keep going to non-singers like Zellwegger and dancers you can only show from the waist up.
Worse yet, a CHICAGO win in the Best Picture category would rob that prize from one of the finest movies I've seen in years: THE HOURS, an engrossing drama with one of the best acting ensembles ever assembled.
THE HOURS juggles the stories of three women linked only by their connection to Virginia Woolf's novel "Mrs. Dalloway," shifting from one era to another with extraordinary deftness. The way these stories are interwoven is astonishing. I was never confused or puzzled by the switches from one time period to another. Instead, I was continually bowled over by the way David Hare's screenplay and the actors' performances revealed new insight into the lives of these women and the issues that confronted them.
In my opinion, Roman Polanski's THE PIANIST is the third worthy contender for the Best Picture Oscar. I dutifully went to the movie, but without overwhelming anticipation. I was certain I'd already seen the Holocaust and the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto depicted on screen well enough and didn't need to see more. But Polanski's approach to the material, emphasizing the human element of the people we get to know so well before the nightmares begin, made the whole issue of man's inhumanity to man fresh again.
Though THE PIANIST is a more traditionally told story, it still has some sequences that linger long in the memory. Watching the brilliant Jewish pianist play a mock concerto on a dusty piano keyboard without touching the keys, fearful that his hidden presence will be heard by those who might betray him, was profoundly moving. Imagine a great artist like the pianist being forced to do without his music, the one thing that keeps his soul alive, for fear of his life!
As much as I admire the films of Martin Scorsese--most especially RAGING BULL and TAXI DRIVER--I was not very impressed by his Oscar-nominated GANGS OF NEW YORK. Scorsese doesn't work best on a grand scale. His vision is sharpest when he narrows the field and zooms in on a single persona. I felt GANGS had severe structural story-telling problems and never punched over its emotions enough to really involve me. Though Scorsese's films often are about people you can't really like, I REALLY disliked these people. I'd love to see Scorsese finally get an Oscar, but not for a film that doesn't reflect his genuine genius.
LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS is nominated in the Best Picture category, but must buck
the Academy's record of never
giving a Best Picture Oscar to
a fantasy film.
The fifth Best Picture nominee is LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, a very exciting fantasy adventure, but not quite up to the level of its 2001 predecessor, LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING. I loved it and I can't wait for next year's final chapter, but it's not the best picture of the year.
In the Best Actor category, I've seen only three of the five nominated performances. I love Michael Caine, but his THE QUIET AMERICAN hasn't yet opened in theaters in my community. I also missed Nicolas Cage's performance in ADAPTATION because the film was in and out of town rapidly--and it wasn't high on my priority list, coming from the makers of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, a film that left me cold.
That said, I don't think anybody could give a better performance than Jack Nicholson gives in ABOUT SCHMIDT. The old veteran has a chance to tie Katharine Hepburn's record of four acting Oscar wins if he wins this year. I'm hoping he will. Though Nicholson has lots of patented grins and eyebrow lifts that he falls back upon in his less demanding parts, I feel he shakes off his lethargy this time and reaches back for a deeply-felt performance as a lonely man, groping for a reason to go on with his life after his career and his wife are gone.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the gambler's choice for his nasty gang boss role in GANGS OF NEW YORK. It's a very good performance, but it's pretty much on a single note. Nicholson's is the richer, more affecting portrayal. Before I'd pick Day-Lewis, I'd go for Adrien Brody, the little known American actor who plays the title role in THE PIANIST. His is a deep and inspired performance. We should see more of him after this exposure.
In the Best Actress category, I haven't seen Salma Hayek's performance as FRIDA, but the choice is already tough enough among the four other nominees. I loved Diane Lane as the sexually-deprived wife in UNFAITHFUL and Renee Zellweger in CHICAGO, but I can't imagine anybody matching the three leading performances in THE HOURS. Yet that brings up my great disappointment of the Oscar nominations: Meryl Streep, in my opinion the best of the three, wasn't nominated for THE HOURS! And Julianne Moore's nomination in this category comes for FAR FROM HEAVEN, a good performance, but not her best last year. Her work in THE HOURS earned her a supporting actress nomination, even though her part is equal to her co-stars, Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep.
So, giving the chaos of that category, I'm picking Nicole Kidman for Best Actress. Her performance as Virginia Woolf in THE HOURS is exceptionally good, though it's greatly enhanced by the makeup job that transforms the beautiful Kidman into the dowdy Woolf. I've seen THE HOURS twice already and Kidman's performance looks even better the second time around. She deserves an Oscar anyway for last year's performance in THE OTHERS, but if she wins for THE HOURS she'll be getting the Oscar that ought to go to Meryl Streep. Given the nominations, though, she's my pick.
In the supporting actor category, I'm rooting for Ed Harris in THE HOURS. Harris gets better each year and his small, but effective role as the dying AIDS patient is keenly-wrought. However, I wouldn't be upset if John C. Reilly won the award because he was superb in a whole raft of movies last year, including both CHICAGO, for which he's nominated, and THE HOURS. Nor would I be stricken if Chris Cooper got it for ADAPTATION, even though I haven't seen the film. Cooper has been good for a long time in a lot of pictures. Christopher Walken in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and Paul Newman in THE ROAD TO PERDITION are good, solid jobs, but they're up against someone exceptional in Ed Harris this year, so I'm hoping they don't win.
In the supporting actress category, I'd be okay with any of the five nominees, though I haven't seen Meryl Streep's performance in ADAPTATION. My personal favorite is Julianne Moore for her subtle portrayal of Ed Harris' mom in THE HOURS, even though I don't think it's fair to put her in this category against geuine supporting parts. I also would be happy if Kathy Bates wins for playing the middleaged hippie in ABOUT SCHMIDT. Queen Latifah is a riveting performer in CHICAGO, but it's not her acting that gets you excited--it's her musical performance. The same goes for Catherine Zeta-Jones in CHICAGO, though I must say her "All That Jazz" number vividly demonstrates how far this gorgeous actress can stretch her abilities into new territory.
In the directing category, I'll be surprised if Rob Marshall doesn't win for CHICAGO. If so, I think he should post the Oscar on the grave of Bob Fosse, the original creator of the Broadway show. Fosse's fingerprints are all over the movie, even though Marshall has achieved miracles with his players. My choice, though, would be Stephen Daldry for THE HOURS, whose achievement integrating his three storylines and bringing out the very best work from a large and deeply-talented cast is truly phenomenal. I've already had my say on Scorsese and I haven't seen Pedro Almodovar's film, TALK TO ME. I'll be okay with either Marshall or Daldry winning, but I'll admit it would be a much better Oscar "moment" if the disgraced Roman Polanksi, still a fugitive from justice on a statutory rape charge, should win for THE PIANIST.
In recent years, the Academy Awards have regained some respect for often choosing the smaller, more independent-minded films over the big studio blockbusters. Films like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and AMERICAN BEAUTY have been the outsiders that ended up with the gold. If that trend continues, THE HOURS may overcome the giant wave building for CHICAGO.
But I wouldn't count on it.
©2003 by Ron Miller. The "Oscar" logo and the phrase "Academy Awards" are the registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
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