I'm an Oscar cynic. I'm one of those people who is disgusted by the obsessive attention that otherwise ordinary people pay to celebrities. I look at most of the movies regularly rewarded with those gold statuettes and see commerce masquerading as art. I read the list of nominees to see how many truly good films and performances were left off. I smile wryly at the names of the few genuine artists who were nominated along with the usual suspects. Great directors like Martin Scorsese are always going to get passed over for directorial morons like Kevin Costner. (Remember how the solid-but-dull Dances With Wolves beat out the dazzling Goodfellas for almost every major award in 1990?) I used to be convinced that I would never see a woman, much less a person of color, making an acceptance speech for "Best Director." I was even starting to believe that a black woman would never be named "Best Actress."
But then it happened one night. Halle Berry won. The next year, a convicted rapist was named "Best Director," the work of a Japanese genius beat Disney's latest manufactured animated classic, and Woody Allen showed up in California. The greatest show on earth suddenly seemed to be growing wings.
This year there is more variety -- in terms of gender, race and age -- than we usually see. You could look at this and say that Hollywood is diversifying, that audiences like more challenging fare, that film -- after a few lightweight decades -- is becoming multifaceted and complex again. But really the only thing that's becoming multifaceted and complex is the way that studios can make money. Don't look for films that treat ethnic, gender or cultural minorities as rich, individualistic resources. Look for films that treat these groups like economic subdivisions.
If this has a benefit, it's that we'll finally see awards being given to minorities in more categories than just the previous leader for gratuitous recognition: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role. This year, however, the nominees are Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), Patricia Clarkson (Pieces of April), Marcia Gay Harden (Mystic River), Holly Hunter (Thirteen) and Ren & eacute;e Zellweger (Cold Mountain). What gives? Every one of them is talented, except for Zellweger. So my money's on her. She was denied an Oscar for Chicago, and when an ambitious young actress feels snubbed, she goes into what I'll politely call campaign mode. It tends to irritate everyone. Giving Zellweger an award will shut her up.
The Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role was given by Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. But he -- like the rest of the cast of that film -- wasn't nominated for anything. (I wouldn't be surprised if they're all hauled onstage, though, for surprise Oscars all around.) So we're left with a list of good actors in mediocre movies: Alec Baldwin (The Cooler), Benicio Del Toro (21 Grams), Djimon Hounsou (In America), Tim Robbins (Mystic River) and Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai). I would love to see Watanabe win; his performance as a rebel samurai was the brightest point in Tom Cruise's deeply flawed The Last Samurai. But this award is often used to placate aging actors who deserve some career recognition. That pushes Baldwin and Robbins towards the podium.
The Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role nominees span generations this year, suggesting that we're at the turning point in Hollywood's history of ageist treatment of women. They range in age from 13 (Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider) to 58 (Diane Keaton in Something's Gotta Give). In between are Samantha Morton (In America), Charlize Theron (Monster) and Naomi Watts (21 Grams). They are all wonderful actresses, and aside from Castle-Hughes, deserve an award for past work if not for what they did last year. Keaton, though, has the longest track record, and Hollywood learned from the success of Something's Gotta Give that middle-aged women buy a lot of tickets. Giving Keaton the Oscar might inject more enthusiasm into that market, and give rise to a lot of work for other Academy-voting, middle-aged actresses. But if I were in charge, I'd give the award to Theron; her performance in Monster was a true transformation.
The two best performances in the Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role category are, thankfully, funny: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation. It's rare that the Academy recognizes comedy. Jack Palance in City Slickers and Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou leap to mind. Murray deserves the award not only for Lost in Translation, but every other time his talent has been unrewarded (like Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day). The other three nominees -- Ben Kingsley (House of Sand and Fog), Jude Law (Cold Mountain) and Sean Penn (Mystic River) -- are all good, and Penn certainly deserves an Oscar. But not this year.
The winner of Best Director often indicates where the Best Picture award will go, although during the last few years the Oscars have been split. However, I fully expect Peter Jackson (LOTR) to win along with his film. His films have been nominated for each of the past two years, and it's time he was rewarded. Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) would be a wonderful second choice. As the daughter of Hollywood godfather Francis Ford Coppola, she's royalty. She made a brilliant film. But she's a she. Look for her to pick up a writing Oscar instead. The other nominees range from the competent -- Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Peter Weir (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World) -- to the good-but-undeserving Fernando Meirelles (City of God); he had a co-director, and she wasn't nominated.
Finally, with Best Picture, I don't think we'll see a big surprise. The hobbits and elves from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King are too powerful. Lost in Translation is brilliant, but it didn't make a zillion dollars. It would be wonderful if they gave awards without considering earning potential. But actors, actresses, technicians and the other movie-industry professionals who do the voting usually make their selections based -- at least partly -- on who can give them work in the future. It's almost incidental, where Oscar is concerned, that the results were also great art. In any case, none of the other nominees -- Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River and Seabiscuit -- deserves the award. Because, for all of the political and economic posturing that the Academy Awards represent, the Oscars still have the power to tell people: "Look at this; this is good."
Naming the movies that history should remember is one of the important roles of the Oscars. If we don't take our art seriously, we're doomed to repeat it. And I don't want to sit through Forrest Gump again.
Black Tie or Black T-Shirt -- The annual Oscar bash. Like a drunken office holiday party or Super Bowl gathering, it's an American tradition. Friends get together, make predictions, evaluate fashions, and bask in all the glamour on display. But If you don't already have an invite to an intimate celebration for that small gold man with the bald head, consider heading out to one of the local Oscar galas. You'll not only be able to watch the Academy Awards with like-minded individuals, but you might even meet someone who shares your obsession with Keanu Reeves or hatred of anorexic starlets.
This year, whether you're looking to dress up or kick back, there are two options that benefit the Spokane AIDS Network, letting you mix charitable work with having fun -- a time-honored Hollywood tradition.
The gala-est of the galas will be held at the Davenport Hotel on the big night, complete with red carpet and fabulous food. If you prefer your Oscars a little simpler (or just want to spend the night incognito to avoid fans), you can catch the awards on a large-screen TV at AMC Theaters and enjoy light hors d'oeuvres from Twigs Bistro. Tickets for the Davenport event are $125 per person; admission to the AMC party is $25, or $40 for couples. Call 455-8993 to make your acceptance speech.