A "Live" Look at the Oscars, 2004 Edition

Commentary by James Berardinelli
February 29, 2004

Somehow, it doesn't seem like a whole year since last time...

For the first time in several years, I am actually optimistic about tonight's Oscar telecast. In the first place, Billy Crystal is back as host. Steve Martin did a respectable job last year, but there's nothing like having Crystal at the podium again. He is to this generation what Johnny Carson was to the previous one, or Bob Hope to the one before that.

Plus, there are actually some close races. Close, as in too close to call. Best Actor. Best Supporting Actor. Best Documentary. None of those are locks. How long has it been since the awarding of more than one Oscar has generated any legitimate suspense? And there's always the question of whether any of the winners will choose to say something political. (Hopefully, if they do, they will not emulate Michael Moore's tasteless example of self-promotion from last year's ceremony.)

This year should mark the coronation of Peter Jackson, whose epic three-part adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is now available in its entirety. The Return of the King should sweep through the Oscars, winning nearly everything it was nominated for, including the big two. It is the consensus pick, but because I admire it greatly, I admit to having a rooting interest

As usual, here are my fearless predictions. Uncertainty is the watchword for Best Actor. I'm leaning towards Bill Murray because I have been sensing a slip in Sean Penn's support (and I don't think the stodgy Academy will go out on a limb and pick Johnny Depp). In the Supporting Actor category, it wouldn't surprise me if Tim Robbins is edged out by Djimon Hounsou, although I'm not predicting that. And could Cold Mountain turn into an albatross around Renee Zellweger's neck? Finally, if Diane Keaton upsets Charlize Theron as Best Actress, keep all children away from the monitor. The torrent of profanity I will type in that event will certify this commentary as R-rated.

By the way, I skipped predictions for categories in which I haven't seen anything (the shorts). Based on my past track record, I will hopefully get about 15 of 21 correct (71%). Also, please note that these are predictions of who will win, not should win. I avoid the latter because (1) it leads to rants and (2) it's cheating (you essentially get two picks – then if the "should win" actually wins, you can still take credit). Consequently, I don't consider merit. Instead, I consider what I think the Academy members will deem to have merit. The two are not necessarily synonymous.

This year, by the way, I intend to update during commercial breaks, rather than at regular intervals. (Please hit the Refresh/Reload button after every commercial break to see what new things I have to say. Since I am writing this "real time," there will probably be plenty of spelling and grammatical errors.)

8:20 pm EST:

In a holding pattern right now, waiting for the actual program to begin. I am not watching the idiotic Red Carpet pre-game show. This is what's inherently wrong with the Oscars – too much emphasis on glitz and glamour. I have to tone down my opinion, though, because my fiancé is currently watching and enjoying this 30-minute excursion into pettiness. (Her real reason is that she wanted to see Johnny Depp's arrival. That accomplished, she has wandered away from the television.)

8:55 pm EST:

It's great to have Billy Crystal back! The opening "trailer" was arguably the most inventive (and one of the most hilarious) starts to any Oscar broadcast. And I even have a kind word for Michael Moore's willingness to lampoon himself. But how did a song about Seabiscuit turn into one about Pete Rose?

Best Supporting Actor: Tim Robbins

In keeping with my personal tradition, I will record my hits and misses. This is 1/1. Robbins stayed away from politics in his speech in favor of a message about how to get help in case of abuse. Unfortunately, he preceded that with 60 seconds of rambling thank-yous.

9:05 pm EST:

Ian McKellan certainly looked less scraggly tonight than he did yesterday during the Independent Spirit Awards. That's what a good tux will do for you.

Art Direction: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

2/2. Big shock! Pretty pedestrian speech, but at least it didn't go on forever.

Animated Film: Finding Nemo

3/3. Billy Crystal and Robin Williams: a combustible combination. This has started out as, hands-down, the most successfully comedic Oscar celebration I can recall. A nice, short speech with a sweet ending.

Random thought: is it just me, or does Benicio Del Toro resemble a Wookie?

9:25 pm EST:

Did Renee Zellweger say that "naked people have little or no impact on society"? Is she forgetting Janet Jackson?

Costume Design: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

4/4. Unless you're a LOTR fan, this could end up being a monotonous evening, especially during the first 90 minutes...

Nic Cage – a defection. How could this respected Coppola turn his back on his family and introduce Master and Commander instead?

Best Supporting Actor: Renee Zellweger

5/5. It's interesting that neither of the supporting categories offered a surprise this year. Is there anyone she didn't thank in this audition for speed-talking. Even Tom Cruise and the devil incarnate, Harvey Weinstein.

Some great clips of Bob Hope's many years hosting the telecast. Just a few reminders of why he was the best host the ceremony has ever had.

9:50 pm EST:

Live Action Short: "Two Soldiers"

Animated Short: "Harvie Krumpet"

(I didn't predict these, so they don't impact my prediction percentages.)

Has anyone been more informally dressed than Ben Stiller (a.k.a. Starsky) when presenting an award. Those who don't like the penguin look are probably envious.

Introducing the songs, Liv Tyler was obviously going for the school teacher look. I typically use these songs as opportunities for bathroom breaks. I know some people enjoy them, but, unless I really like a tune, I don't bother watching the performance. "You Will Be My Ain True Love"/"Scarlet Tide" are good as sleep aids. "Into the West" is a better song, but still too low-key. This will be a test of how deeply the LOTR sentiment runs. So what happened to the two songs I had some interest in: the ones from The Triplets of Belleville and A Mighty Wind? (Presumably, they will be later, but either could have livened up this 10-minute snoozefest.)

10:10 pm EST:

Billy Crystal's "What Are They Thinking" bit – not as good as the opening monologue, but still respectable.

Visual Effects: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

6/6. I wonder if Marc Shaiman is getting tired of conducting music from LOTR. Nice, quick thank-yous, though.

I'm a techie, but even I find the recap of the Scientific & Technical Awards to be a bore. But I suppose it needs to be done.

Somehow, the Blake Edwards honorary award was underwhelming. Despite having a clever entrance and an introduction by Jim Carrey, the biggest laughs still came from Peter Sellers (via clips). The speech was so-so, but at least not too long.

10:30 pm EST:

I suppose I could be the umpteenth person to comment how much Scarlet Johansson looks like Marilyn Monroe, but I won't bother.

Makeup: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

7/7. A broken record? I suppose, but not an unwelcome one. I'm beginning to wonder if anyone is going to make a speech that isn't a long string of thank-yous. If Bill Murray doesn't win, we may be in for a long night of worthless speeches. Actually, it has already been a long night. More Billy Crystal!

Sound: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

8/8. More uninspired thank-yous.

Sound Editing: Master and Commander

8/9. I can't for the life of me figure out why/how LOTR could be nominated for Sound but not Sound Editing. Truly bizarre. However, since it wasn't nominated, there was some uncertainty about what would win. I had a 33% chance, and guessed wrong.

Crystal: "It's now official: there is nobody left in New Zealand to thank."

It strikes me that the most salient difference between Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope is that Hepburn was respected while Hope was beloved. She would, I think, have disdained this tribute. (I'm expecting one later in the show for Gregory Peck.)

10:50 pm EST:

The show is now past the two-hour mark and only half the awards have been handed out. And the fluff isn't over yet (still two more songs and another tribute or two). Time to pick up the pace. The last few years, the Oscars had managed to clock in at under four hours. It would be unfortunate if tonight reversed the trend.

Documentary Short: "Chernobyl Heart"

Easily the longest and most boring speech of the night. Get this woman off the stage.

Documentary Feature: The Fog of War

9/10. I recognized ahead of time that this would come down to Capturing the Friedmans and The Fog of War. My thinking was that the intense fascination about Kennedy and Vietnam would push Errol Morris' film to the fore. Good guess. Morris' speech at least included some heartfelt sentiment, plus he got in the first political comment of the night. And, of course, Billy Crystal followed up with a zinger.

I had expected Gregory Peck to get his own tribute. Instead, he led off the annual roster of dead Academy Members. This year's list seemed unusually star studded.

11:10 pm EST:

Score: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Ring

10/11. Strange placement. This award is normally immediately followed by Best Song, yet there are still two songs to be performed.

Editing: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Ring


Crystal: "Do you know that people are moving to New Zealand just to be thanked."

Without a doubt, "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" was one of the show's highlights. On the other hand, the rendition of "Belleville Rendez-vous" was just strange. I don't remember any English lyrics in the movie version (and I saw the film three times). Nevertheless, the energy level in this song was a big lift after the dullness of the earlier three tunes.

11:30 pm EST:

The end isn't quite in sight, but, after a few more awards, it will be. Nevertheless, I'd say midnight looks like a good estimate (nine more awards plus assorted filler).

I would love to know who wrote the lyrics to "You're Boring." Very clever bit, and nicely executed by Jack Black and Will Farrell (who, apparently, can actually sing).

Song: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Ring

12/13. Not even the power of Sting, Elvis Costello, and Mickey and Mitch can derail the LOTR steamroller.

Foreign Language Film: The Barbarian Invasions

13/14. Actually, the reason I picked this is because it's the only one of the nominees I saw. Maybe that's true of the people who voted, as well. Great line: "We're so thankful The Lord of the Rings did not qualify in this category."

Cinematography: Master and Commander

14/15. I think if LOTR had been nominated here, it would have won.

11:35 pm EST:

Adapted Screenplay: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Ring

14/16. My thinking here was that the Academy might want to pause in its LOTR adulation to give Mystic River something. I was wrong. It looks like LOTR will be a perfect 11-for-11. I believe that ties for the most number of Oscars won, and it may be the only time a film has been perfect. (I'll leave that to Oscar historians to research.)

Original Screenplay: Lost in Translation

15/17. Sofia Coppola may be a great writer and director, but she's a really boring speaker. Her father seemed more excited than she did.

11:50 pm EST:

Now we get to the real meat, the so-called Big 4: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Picture. If there was any doubt who would win in the latter two categories, I think the results thus far have effectively eliminated it.

Best Director: Peter Jackson (duh)

16/18. Doesn't this usually come immediately before Best Picture? Two points about Jackson: (1) He wore shoes, and (2) He didn't thank Harvey (as he did at the Golden Globes).

Best Actress: Charlize Theron

17/19. The big question was about Brody and the kiss, and he made a nice joke out of it. And did Theron again thank her lawyer? Yes. (Actually, this sounded like pretty much the same speech she gave yesterday at the Independent Spirit Awards.) These are also the first real tears we have seen tonight.

12:10 AM EST:

I still believe 3 1/2 hours is too long, but it's an improvement over several years ago (and about the same as last year). Now, all they have to do is start things about an hour earlier, and it would end at a reasonable time. Since it's Sunday, what's wrong with opening things at 7:30 instead of 8:30?

Best Actor: Sean Penn

17/20. Penn picked the right year to show up in person. He also claimed not to have written a speech. Based on what he had to say, he should have written one. (He got a brief political comment in, but it may have gone over many heads.)

Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

18/21 (86%). This puts an exclamation mark on Jackson's trilogy. It also means that LOTR swept the board and ALL of the favorites won.

Finally, I have some ideas about how the Academy can speed up and slim down the Awards show, but I'll leave that for a future ReelThoughts column. Good night.

© 2004 James Berardinelli

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