The Academy Awards process represents the second-most ballyhooed popularity contest in the United States - right behind the Presidential election. And, like in the race for the President, merit has little to do with who wins. Instead, it all comes down to marketing. Whichever movie runs the best campaign takes home the prize. One only has to look at the recent roster of Best Picture winners to understand this. Of all the films to be released in a given year, it's rare that the best five are nominated, and even rarer that the most qualified of those five nabs the Oscar. So, at this point, let me throw the word "deserving" out of the window, since it has little place in any practical discussion of who's going to win.
Of the six major categories (Picture, Director, Actress, Actor, Supporting Actress, Supporting Actor), the most hotly contested is likely to be Best Supporting Actor. A legitimate case can be made for any of the five nominees. Jeff Bridges, selected for his part as the President in Rod Lurie's The Contender, is well-liked by the denizens of Hollywood, and his popularity could get him enough votes. Albert Finney, despite not having much to do in Erin Brockovich is the kind of veteran performer that the Academy likes to give an award to more for "lifetime achievement" than for an individual performance. Finney has been nominated on four previous occasions (dating back to 1963's Tom Jones), but has yet to win. Joaquin Phoenix is nominally the weakest of the candidates, but if Gladiator has coattails, Phoenix could get swept in on the tide. Based on performance alone, Willem Dafoe deserves (ooops) the Oscar, but the question is whether enough voters will have seen Shadow of the Vampire? Finally, there's my pick for the eventual winner: Benicio Del Toro, the slightly bent cop from Traffic. He's well-liked, but, more importantly, he is viewed as being "hot", and that secondary qualification will probably put him over the top.
For Best Supporting Actress, there's much less of a horse race. Three of the actresses have no chance whatsoever. Judi Dench, who sleepwalked her way through the miserable Chocolat, should be ashamed to even acknowledge the nomination. Dench is a wonderful actress, but this is a bland, by-the-numbers performance in a subpar film. The Academy has fallen so deeply in love with Dench that it wouldn't surprise me to see her nominated in a couple of years as "M" in the next James Bond film. Julie Walters' work in Billy Elliot was decent enough, but hardly the kind of thing that's going to get the voters excited. Ditto for Marcia Gay Harden in Pollock. That leaves the two Almost Famous women: Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson. The knock against McDormand is that she won a few years ago. Meanwhile, Hudson is the daughter of a popular Hollywood personality (Goldie Hawn) and is arguably the most attractive of all the nominees. So she's my pick. Besides, even though she was perfect as Penny Lane, I'm not sure she has much range, so this could be her one and only shot at the little gold man.
The situation in the Best Actor category is similar to that in Best Supporting Actress. There are two legitimate candidates and three wanna-bes. It's nice to see Javier Bardem get a nomination for his lead role in Before Night Falls, but does anyone (even Bardem) think he really has a shot? Geoffrey Rush was nude and crude as the Marquis de Sade in Quills, but he doesn't have a better chance than Bardem. Ed Harris is hugely respected in Hollywood, and Pollock is well-liked for that reason, but the goodwill won't be enough to carry Harris to a win. That leaves heavyweight Tom Hanks for Cast Away and relative newcomer Russell Crowe for Gladiator. Crowe will win, in large part because Hanks has emerged victorious twice in the last ten years. Ironically, of all Hanks' various nominations, his work in Cast Away is probably his best. It won't help, though. Despite doing very little in the way of real acting in the role, Crowe is 2001's flavor of the year. (That's not to say he isn't a fine actor - his work in films like Proof and The Insider is top-notch - but the part of Maximumus required more in the looks and stamina departments than in the way of real acting.)
Best Actress is probably the easiest category to call. It's nice to see a nomination for Ellen Burstyn, whose work in the sadly-overlooked Requiem For a Dream was heartbreaking. Ditto for Laura Linney (You Can Count On Me) and Joan Allen (The Contender). I'm much less enthused about Juliette Binoche, whose saccharine performance in the despicable Chocolat was one of many reasons why the movie didn't work. But no one stands a chance against Erin Brockovich herself, Julia Roberts, who will sashay up the aisle, say some really nice things, and go home with her first Oscar. Roberts is a better actress than many people give her credit for, and, to the degree that an Academy Award legitimatizes a performer, this will give her some ammunition against her critics.
When it comes to Best Director, Steven Soderbergh is his own worst enemy. Had he been nominated solely for Erin Brockovich or Traffic, I would have predicted a win for him. But, as things stand, the vote will be split, and he's not going to have enough for either one (ironically, it's a given that Soderbergh's overall total will be greater than that of any of the other three nominees, but that won't be sufficient to give him a win). So, while it's flattering to be nominated twice, it's also the kiss of death. For Billy Elliot's Steven Daldry (the only Best Director nominee whose film didn't get into the Best Picture sweepstakes), the nomination is the honor. Ang Lee will probably get serious consideration for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most successful foreign language motion picture in the history of the United States. But, in the end, I believe that the tidal forces surrounding Gladiator will push Ridley Scott over the top. And it doesn't hurt that his latest movie, Hannibal, is currently devouring the box office. That kind of free publicity can only help.
Finally, there's Best Picture. Let's look at the candidates one-by-one, starting with three glaring omissions. Of the trio of Almost Famous, Billy Elliot, and Cast Away, I had expected two to be nominated. While I'm not saddened that Billy Elliot was omitted, I would have liked to have seen one or both of the others in the hunt. And what were they passed over for? Chocolat. The word melts in my mouth and leaves only the taste of bile behind. I hate that this film was nominated, and all that its nomination represents - the complete, unvarnished commercialization of the Oscar nomination process. In the past, Miramax has been accused of buying Best Picture awards for moderately deserving films, but, in this case, they have bought a nomination for a piece of crap. (And not just one nomination, but five.) Fortunately, rumor has it that there's a backlash brewing against Miramax; some Academy voters are likely to vote against anyone or anything associated with the distributor. The other four films are at least somewhat deserving (ooops again). However, Erin Brockovich, which might have been a strong contender, will lose votes to Traffic, so neither has much of a chance (see "Best Director", above). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon represents a wonderful success story, but I don't think the Academy is ready to give the Best Picture trophy to a foreign-language film (expect it to run away with Best Non-English Language Film, however). That leaves Gladiator, which, all things considered, is probably a no-brainer. Roger Ebert won't like it, but I suspect most of the rest of the country will be satisfied.
I won't be watching the Academy Awards ceremony live this year. Four-plus hours is more than I have the stamina for - and, besides, it's on opposite a first-run episode of "The Sopranos". So I'll tune in to the Oscars from time-to-time, and probably watch the last hour while I'm folding my wash. Because the Oscars have become more about the marketing than the craft of movie-making, I find the entire process to be somewhat distasteful. As a film critic, I can't ignore it - it's too important to the industry. But I wish I could. I dearly wish I could.
For a complete list of 2001 Oscar nominations, click here.
© 2001 James Berardinelli