The Weekend Warrior looks at the potential 2004 Academy Awards candidates
By Edward Douglas
Every year, the nation spends the majority of the winter building up their expectations for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual recognition of some of the year’s best movies and performances. Besides the awards ceremony being held a few weeks earlier, this year is no different, as there have been many great movies and performances this year that have proven themselves worthy of the greatest accolade anyone working in the movie industry can receive. With that in mind, studios have fallen over themselves to get their Oscar hopefuls out by the end of the year and to make sure that as many people, particularly the voting members of the Academy, have a chance to see them.
There are a number of ways of thinking when it comes to deciding who is worthy of being nominated and most of all, who deserves to take home the awards. While there are many works of unarguable quality, including amazing performances from many established and relatively new actors and actresses, there are also a few directors and actors, who many feel are deserving of a nomination and reward for years of quality moviemaking.
In recent years, the Academy has begun to split up the awards more evenly among different movies, to insure that more quality films and performances are recognized. A few years back, a single strong movie could take everything, but these days, being recognized as Best Picture does not always mean that the director or the actors or screenplay were deemed as worthy. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of advertising and promoting the movies, to remind the voters of the Academy what movies came out that their studios feel were worthy of recognition.
Let’s start with the big enchilada, the one Academy Award that all studios and movie producers thrive for, since it means guaranteed long-term business for their movie in the theatres, as well as strong DVD rentals and sales. More importantly, it’s a badge of honor that says “This movie is a classic.”
There is very little question that the favorite this year is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the finale of Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. Considering that the previous two installments in the saga were nominated for Best Picture and many think that the third installment is the best of them all, the conclusion is almost guaranteed a nomination.
Two popular smaller films that have made most critics’ top 10 lists this year are Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, two very different movies set in unusual locales. A crime drama set in Boston, Mystic River features many strong performances and a moving and powerful story that has received rave reviews. Lost in Translation pairs veteran comic actor Bill Murray with talented newcomer Scarlett Johansson, as they face the culture shock of modern day Tokyo to humorous and poignant results. Both are very likely to get nominated in this category, as well as in many of the acting and writing categories.
Historical epics tend to make excellent Oscar fodder for Best Picture due to the magnitude of the productions, and this year, there are three strong films in possible contention. Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, based on the bestselling book, is a tale of Civil War romance with an Oscar caliber cast, including Nicole Kidman, Jude Law, and Renee Zellweger. Miramax Studios, a glutton for the awards, will do whatever it takes to get their modern-day Gone with the Wind on the ballot. Its eight Golden Globe nominations is a good start.
Miramax is also involved with the Russell Crowe seafaring epic, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, also based on the popular series of books, which is facing another action epic in Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai. Although there is still a bit of a stigma behind Crowe due to his past behavior, Master and Commander has three studios behind it, as opposed to The Last Samurai‘s one. Warner Brothers will probably want to put more of its clout behind Mystic River, giving Samurai a bit of a disadvantage.
The horseracing biodrama, Seabiscuit, is another likely candidate for that fifth spot. Its July release might make it harder for the Academy to remember it, even with Universal’s timely DVD release, but it has already been nominated for a Golden Globe. Despite a May release, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was strong enough to be remembered when it came to Oscar nominations in 2000; it went onto win for Best Picture.
Then there are the dark horse candidates, each with their own group of followers in the industry. Of them, Tim Burton’s fantasy-drama, Big Fish, has a better chance than In America, Jim Sheridan’s personal tale of his early days in New York City. The two “difficult” dramas, House of Sand and Fog and 21 Grams will probably also be overlooked, maybe thought of being “too small” for consideration.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King seems to be the favorite to win right now, if only because so many people will have seen it, and everyone seems very positive about it. Despite the lack of acting nominations, many voters will feel that the wrap-up of this epic saga is worthy of recognition with a Best Picture Oscar. If it does win, it will finally end the jinx of fantasy and science fiction films being overlooked at the Academy Awards.
Most of the time, this category tends to coincide with the Best Picture category, as the director of those nominated films are often responsible for every aspect of that picture looking and feeling the way it does.
With that in mind, the four directors of the strongest movies, Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, Anthony Minghella for Cold Mountain and Clint Eastwood for Mystic River all seem likely candidates for this year’s Oscar race. Of the four, Minghella and Eastwood have each won an Oscar in this category, Minghella for The English Patient in 1997 and Eastwood for Unforgiven in 1993. Mystic River is a return to quality filmmaking for Eastwood, but it’s not the best movie of the year, and critics tend to be mixed on Minghella’s past work.
Other possibles for this category include Edward Zwick for The Last Samurai, winner of this year’s award from the National Board of Review, and Peter Weir for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Weir has been nominated in this category three times for Witness, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show, but has yet to win; Zwick has never been nominated in this category, despite directing two Oscar winning films. Weir’s Golden Globe nomination makes him the favorite, and he stands the best chance at ending up in the running. The dark horses include Seabiscuit‘s Gary Ross, veteran director Tim Burton for Big Fish, and In America‘s Jim Sheridan. If for some reason, Eastwood or Minghella doesn’t get another nomination, one of these worthy directors should be able to slip in.
Regardless, most people think that Peter Jackson will finally get his just rewards this year, so he’s the odds-on favorite. The only thing standing in his way is a 32-year-old woman, whose second film, Lost in Translation, has received almost unanimous critical approval. As crazy as it may seem, Sofia Coppola is neck-and-neck with Jackson in winning the critics’ awards this year. Coppola should have plenty of time to win an Oscar, so this should finally be Jackson’s year.
Always one of the most controversial races at the Academy Awards, the Best Actor category sees the possibility of a number of returning candidates, as well as two actors who have yet to be recognized despite a vast body of work.
Sean Penn seems like the sure thing to be nominated for his performance as the criminal father whose daughter is murdered in Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. He has received raves for this and his equally stellar performance in 21 Grams. (He can only be nominated for one movie, so it’s likely to be the bigger studio effort.)
The second shoe-in is a comedic actor who few ever imagined could be in a movie that could be considered for an Oscar, but sure enough, Bill Murray’s starring role in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation made that movie what it was. Having already swept most of the critics’ awards and received a Golden Globe nomination, which he probably will win, Murray is guaranteed a spot in this category.
Ben Kingsley’s powerful performance as an Iranian dissident in House of Sand and Fog is likely to get him his second nomination in this category after winning the Oscar twenty years ago for his portrayal of Ghandi.
The first dark horse favorite for Best Actor is Johnny Depp, a great actor who has never been nominated for an Academy Award and has never won a Golden Globe. This year, he starred in the Disney’s mega-blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, a fun and entertaining adventure movie based on the theme park ride. Many of the people who saw the movie loved his performance as the wacky Captain Jack Sparrow, and many think he should get recognized for such a strong performance. Although he’s already nominated for a Golden Globe, he’s a bit of a long shot for an Oscar nomination; it’s also unlikely that he would win if he does get the nod.
Then again, Depp stands as good or better a chance than Russell Crowe or Tom Cruise, both of whom have been nominated before in this category, and each starring in a historical epic that may be considered for Best Picture. Likewise, Jude Law is another possibility to get into this category as Miramax continues to push Cold Mountain. It certainly would be odd if Nicole and Renee got nominations but Jude didn’t, so look for Law’s lack of baggage to give him a slight advantage over the more seasoned actors.
Just like every year, this one is going to be another close race, but Bill Murray and Sean Penn are the two favorites. Penn has been nominated three times in this category for movies that have not received nearly as much critical acclaim as Mystic River, and the Academy may feel he’s due. Despite the overwhelming recognition Murray has already received, one has to wonder if he can withstand the odds of being an actor in a “comedy” facing a dramatic actor. Penn has become notorious for spurning the Academy Awards ceremony, but he’s made himself far more available than in previous years. Murray, on the other hand, seems to be playing hard to get, which might make it harder for him to win. Still, I’m putting my money behind Bill Murray winning this one. At his age, it is highly unlikely that he’ll ever get another chance at a role like the one in Lost in Translation. (Put it this way. His next movie is voicing the cartoon cat in Garfield.)
This year, the Best Actress category is more vague than ever with many great female performances, but few of them getting an overwhelming groundswell behind them. There’s also a bit of a question whether they should be recognized as lead or supporting actress.
First and foremost in that latter category is Scarlett Johansson, whose performance in Sofia Copolla’s Lost in Translation is getting almost universal acclaim. It’s an amazing achievement for an actress, who was only 18 at the time of filming, and without her to play off of, Murray’s performance would not be half as great. Many question whether Johansson should be considered as a lead or supporting actress, but considering how important her role is, she deserves to get into the more prestigious category. The decision may have already been made, as Johansson has been nominated for Golden Globes in BOTH female lead categories, in the “comedy” Lost in Translation, and in the drama Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Academy should follow suit, elevating her from the supporting category into this one.
The actress receiving the most attention this year is Charlize Theron, for her portrayal of serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, in the independent film, Monster. Critics have been heralding the difficult nature of becoming a character so unlike the usual role she portrays, and her dramatic and emotional performance is almost guaranteed to get her on the ballot in January.
If Nicole Kidman is nominated for Cold Mountain, this will be her third nomination in a row in this category, after winning last year for The Hours. The Hollywood Foreign Press has already pegged her for a Golden Globe, which she could very well win with so little competition in the dramatic category.
Another returning favorite in this category is actress Diane Keaton, whose performance as a older woman trying to find love with a younger man in Nancy Meyer’s Something’s Gotta Give is getting her a lot of attention, much like Diane Lane received for Unfaithful last year. The Academy will remember her fondly for her role in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, helping her to grab one of the nominations.
Two actresses who did not get a Golden Globe nomination, but who will try to buck the odds to take that last spot in the Best Actress category are Jennifer Connelly for House of Sand and Fog and Naomi Watts for 21 Grams. Of the two, Watts’ performance as a woman whose family is killed by a hit ‘n’ run driver is absolutely breathtaking. After receiving recognition from many critics’ groups both for this and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the Academy will want to reward her hard work and dramatic achievment. Having already won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, Connelly will probably be forsaken this year for her difficult and unsympathetic role as an alcoholic trying to get her house back. Too many people might remember that she was in The Hulk, too.
It may be too early to tell who might win this category, but it will likely go to one of the dramatic actresses. Many would like to see a young talent like Scarlett Johansson get it over Kidman, who won last year, but Charlize Theron seems to be the clear-cut favorite right now, even before most people have seen the movie.