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Last year, however, an unusually strong roster of women was up for a doorstop, and this year seems to consolidate the trend. It's almost a case of quality overload, with two great actresses, each in two great films. Meryl Streep is back in action after the common, female-specific mid-life career lull with her excellent turns in The Hours and Adaptation. Meanwhile, Julianne Moore, whose star continues to rise, lights up the screen in Far From Heaven and The Hours. Even Kathy Bates, recipient of a questionable Oscar for Misery in 1991, puts in a great turn in About Schmidt.
Whether the two-year spurt represents a permanent shift in Hollywood's attitude to female roles, however, is another matter. Good as they are, quality actresses don't tend to headline in movies that bring in the mega-bucks Hollywood is increasingly reliant on. That remains the domain of men. This is one of the reasons why women tend to be sidelined. They are simply less critical to the business (even Julia Roberts' box-office appeal seems to be waning). There's no reason women can't headline blockbusters - as Chicago boisterously demonstrates - and the more it happens, we suspect, the more good female roles will flourish in arthouse and mainstream films alike.
Being the optimistic souls we are, we take this year's slate of female nominees as a sign that attitudes are changing in Hollywood. Last year's recognition of African-American talent, with Denzel Washington taking out best actor (for Training Day), Halle Berry best actress (for Monster's Ball) and a lifetime achievement award for Sidney Poitier, was a similarly encouraging correction of a long-tolerated anomaly.
We just pray it's not token. We'll twig that something's amiss if next year's acting categories are suddenly flush with nominees who have portrayed dwarves - not that we dare discount the possibility of a special award for John Rhys-Davies's sterling work as dwarf warrior Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (you read it here first).
The second thing jolting this year's Oscar ceremony is, of course, the war, with everyone's mind on events in Iraq. The big question is, will anybody say or do anything controversial?
Politics and Oscar have often danced. Three years ago, many actors refused to applaud a special award for director Elia Kazan, who ruined many careers in the 1950s by identifying people as communists to the infamous McCarthy committee.
The podium has sometimes been used to push causes. George C. Scott refused his Oscar in 1970 for Patton because he didn't approve of competition between actors; Marlon Brando refused his The Godfather Oscar in 1972 to highlight the plight of native Americans.
Nonetheless, discretion can rule. Jane Fonda became such a staunch anti-Vietnam war campaigner that she was dubbed Hanoi Jane and widely derided for posing in a propaganda photo showing her astride a piece of Vietcong artillery with VC soldiers. Yet when she won best actress for Klute in 1972, with Vietnam aflame with napalm, all she said was: "There's a lot I could say tonight, but this isn't the time or the place."
Will all this year's winners be so tactful? Will they bite their tongues, or bite the bullet and say what's on their minds? Could a comment derail a career? Is it possible somebody will make a statement by refusing a statuette? Man, if only films were so full of suspense. We're hoping for fireworks, but suspect most will put career before conscience.
A bigger question is whether the choice of this year's winners has been influenced by world events. Consider this:
A perceived challenge to post-9/11 patriotism was seen in Phil Noyce's excellent The Quiet American. The film, previewed on September 10, 2001, was seen by all at Miramax as a solid Oscar contender. Events the next day rendered its content, which is deeply critical of American foreign policy, unsuitable to the prevailing mood. It was shelved until late last year, when it was released quietly. Michael Caine is up for a best-actor Oscar, but that's the only attention the film has received.
In stark contrast, Chicago, a glitzy, old-style musical, has 13 nominations. This suggests academy voters have reacted to the dour climate of a war-ready America by opting for escapism. That, after all, is what movies do best. Watch Chicago clean up.
The third big reason for tuning in is to see host Steve Martin in action. Now, those with very good memories may recall that Steve was once a very funny actor, indeed, a "wild and crazy guy", as he was called back in the days when he did live concerts.
His films of late, however, have been about as funny as the Oxford Concise Dictionary. This has also been the case with previous Oscar hosts Billy Crystal and Whoopi Goldberg. As with Billy and Whoop, we expect Steve to be funnier in his opening five minutes than in his past six films. Hell, that'd be the case if he was reading out a eulogy at a funeral.
Before we charge headlong into the nominees list to siphon out who will win, who won't and who doesn't stand a chance, we need to take pause and remind all cineastes and film-lovers that the Oscars, fun as they are, are as much about marketing savvy as cinematic merit. Oscar does not seek out films it believes warrant attention. Films must come to Oscar and plead their cases. This takes millions of dollars, and small films often need marketing campaigns that eclipse their production costs (last year's In the Bedroom cost a paltry $US3 million; its Oscar campaign cost twice that).
If you don't have the bucks, or are not in the Hollywood scene, your film is simply a non-starter, however good it is. Hal Hartley made his best film in 1998 with Henry Fool. When asked why the film's script, direction or performances (particularly that of lead Thomas Jay Ryan) received no Oscar attention, Hartley said simply that he didn't know how to mount a campaign, and had no interest in doing so.
Similarly, Richard Linklater's dazzling Waking Life wasn't even considered in the best animated feature category last year. Linklater said there was no campaign, and no point. Why not? Linklater's explanation was simple. "It's a big club," he told EG last week. "I don't know anybody. I live in Texas. I don't know any of those people."
So, having made that salient point, allow us to cut through all the hype and hoopla as we slash and burn through all the major nominations, and a few of the choice minor ones.
The only easy one to dismiss here is Diane Lane for Unfaithful. The rest make the category a glorious nightmare to predict. By a coin toss we're giving it to Renee Zellweger for her brash song-and-dance turn in Chicago over Julianne Moore's magnificent work in Far From Heaven, with Nicole Kidman a very close third for her schnoz-enhanced turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Latino Salma Hayek consolidates her reputation as a top-flight actress with her nod for Frida.
Best supporting actress
Same nightmare deal here. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the fave for Chicago - and, God, she's good - but we're going to climb out on a limb and give it to buzz-girl Julianne Moore for her third of The Hours. Queen Latifah as Chicago's buxom prison matron, Kathy Bates as About Schmidt's new-age seductress and Meryl Streep as Adaptation's scheming author should be happy enough with the career boost.
Jack Nicholson has already cleared out the shelf space for his third best-actor Oscar for a very un-Nicholson-like performance in About Schmidt. Adrien Brody will be happy that the nod for his work in Roman Polanski's Holocaust drama, The Pianist, has put him on the map, while Nicolas Cage will be wondering why his fab dual performance in Adaptation didn't get him two nods. Daniel Day-Lewis chews the scenery in Gangs of New York, and Michael Caine, shining in The Quiet American, has been rendered a distant outside chance by world events.
Best supporting actor
Chris Cooper has been giving great supporting performances for years and will collect for Adaptation, beating Ed Harris's AIDS victim in The Hours, John C. Reilly's chump husband in Chicago and Christopher Walken's all-too-brief stint in Catch Me If You Can. Paul Newman's nod for his icy work in the dull Road To Perdition is the only major bite this pretentious, bloated piece of Oscar bait got. Good thing, too.
Rob Marshall will take it for Chicago. Martin Scorsese's nod for the messy Gangs of New York is a show of respect for his catalogue rather than for the film, and not to be taken seriously. Stephen Daldry will be happy to be in the Hollywood consciousness with his nomination for The Hours, as will Pedro Almodovar for Talk To Her. Roman Polanski has always been on the radar, and this mention for The Pianist is Hollywood's way of saying: "We may not admire your sexual conduct, but we still admire you as a filmmaker."
The Pianist may cause an upset, but the smart money is on Chicago taking this out to seal its domination of this year's awards. The Hours is too arthouse for the big one, and Gangs of New York isn't a serious threat. Neither is The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is absent from all other major categories.
Best original screenplay will go to Far From Heaven, with Talk To Her a close second and Gangs of New York in there for joke value. Best adapted screenplay will easily go to Chicago over The Hours, The Pianist, About a Boy and Adaptation, which, strictly speaking, isn't an adaptation of a novel, but a screenplay about the failure to adapt a novel.
Far From Heaven deserves best cinematography for so perfectly recreating the look and feel of the 1950s Douglas Sirk-directed melodramas director Todd Haynes was after. Gangs should take out best art direction over the more deserving Two Towers because of all the hoopla it attracted for building old New York on an Italian sound stage. Chicago will take out best costumes and Frida will take out make-up - because its only competition is The Time Machine. What's that hunk o' junk doing here?
Beautiful Japanese film Spirited Away will win best animated feature over Ice Age, Lilo & Stitch, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and the underrated Treasure Planet. Love to see Eminem's Lose Yourself win for original song for 8 Mile, but the paperweight will most likely go to U2's The Hands that Built America for Gangs. Mike Moore's hype-driven Bowling For Columbine will easily win a very undeserved Oscar for best documentary, proving, yet again, that in the race for Oscar, bull-twang works.
The Two Towers should take out best visual effects over Spiderman and Star Wars - Episode 2: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas is hating this), as well as Oscars for editing, sound and the Holy Grail Oscar for best sound editing. Well done, Frodo.
The Oscars screen on Channel Nine on Monday at 7.30pm.
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