Oscars' Grouch: Thoughts on the 2003 Academy Awards

Commentary by James Berardinelli
March 22, 2003 (updated March 24, 2003)

For the second time in three years, I have decided to give the Oscars a pass. I could make up a convenient story about it having something to do with the war, or a desire to watch the NCAA basketball playoffs, but the simple truth is that, with each passing year, I am finding it progressively more difficult to care who wins and loses. There are some tight, difficult-to-call races this year, but none of them have piqued my interest. I imagine that, during the course of the night, I will catch some of the Oscar coverage as I channel surf, but the idea of sitting on my couch for 3 1/2 hours and watching Hollywood masturbate strikes me as a decidedly unappealing way to waste a Sunday evening.

I would argue that the Oscars are also losing their relevancy (assuming that they ever had one). It seems to me that the label of "Best Picture" once meant a lot more than it currently does. Nowadays, it's possible to buy the award (ask Miramax), and the reason for a distributor to covet it has more to do with boosting box office take than with prestige. Think I'm exaggerating? I'll offer a little anecdotal evidence – unscientific but undeniable.

At a recent press/publicity screening, I asked a random sampling of 20 people a series of four questions. (1) Which film won the Best Picture Oscar in 2002? (A Beautiful Mind) (2) In 2001? (Gladiator) (3) In 2000? (American Beauty) (4) In 1999? (Shakespeare in Love)

Respondents scored a respectable 10 out of 20 (50%) for 2002. The number dropped off to 7 out of 20 (35%) for 2001. It was 3 out of 20 (15%) for 2000 and 2 out of 20 (10%) for 1999. Not exactly earthshattering numbers. At best, the Best Picture Oscar has about a two-year shelf life.

Nevertheless, I will fearlessly make predictions in the six major categories so that people can laugh at me and I can critique myself on Monday morning. I decided not to present a full roster of predictions, since those are only interesting when I'm doing a live commentary, which I will forego this year.

Supporting Actor:: Two weeks ago, Chris Cooper was a lock. Then, along came Christopher Walken, threatening to spoil Cooper's party. The real question is whether Walken's surge arrived a little too late. At any rate, it should be a dogfight between them, with the Oscar going to… neither. My guess is that, by siphoning votes away from Cooper, Walken will leave the door open for a third nominee to walk through: Paul Newman. Newman is undoubtedly the sentimental favorite, and many Academy members will vote for him because they would like to see him win one more time. It's a longshot, admittedly, but the Best Supporting Actor category often provides a surprise (how many people guessed Jim Broadbent last year?), and it could happen again this year.

Supporting Actress:: I don't have a strong feeling for this award, either. It's possible to construct a case for either Kathy Bates or Catherine Zeta-Jones. But, despite the exposed nature of the performance, I don't see Bates as being a strong enough contender, and I think that Zeta-Jones will lose some of the Chicago votes to Queen Latifa. So my prediction is Julianne Moore. In most cases when an actress has been nominated in both the Lead Actress and Supporting Actress categories, she has won the Supporting award. My guess is that's what will happen here. (Perversely, I hope Bates wins, however; she would become the first actress to win the award because she took off her clothes. That would make for an amusing acceptance speech.)

Lead Actor:: Jack or Daniel? Nicholson would be a lock if he hadn't won a few years ago, but Day-Lewis is just about the biggest Hollywood outsider there can be. Plus, rightly or wrongly, everyone associated with Gangs of New York will be tarred by the brush of Miramax's mighty blunder (see "Director"), and that should be enough to push a few votes away from Day-Lewis. I know the Irishman is the favorite, but I have to go with Jack Nicholson on this one.

Lead Actress:: Wear a funny nose, win an award. Nicole Kidman should walk away with it. Her competition might be Renee Zellweger (less on merit than as the result of a Chicago tidal wave), but it's hard to believe that someone who can't dance or sing in a musical would actually win this award. Stranger things have happened, but I'll go with last year's musical star.

Director:: For quite some time, I have been predicting that Martin Scorsese would win this in honor of an amazing career. Then Miramax screwed up big time. A letter written by the legendary Robert Wise advocating Scorsese's candidacy appeared in trade paper ads. Shocked voices were raised in protest (this kind of pandering for votes has never before been attempted, and is viewed as being highly unethical), and an anti-Miramax/anti-Scorsese (who had nothing to do with the ad) backlash ensued. The key unanswered question is whether enough pro-Scorsese votes had been cast before this happened to carry him to victory. My guess is that the answer is "no" and the gap will be filled by Chicago's Rob Marshall.

Picture:: Chicago. No need to explain. This is something everyone agrees on. It's the best bet since Titanic. But only the third best picture among the nominees.

Post-Oscar Thoughts:

On My Feeble Prognostications... Can't say much here. 2 out of 6 isn't good. Admittedly, only one of the results truly surprised me. I did not expect Polanski to win. However, Zeta Jones and Cooper were the favorites, and rumblings out of Hollywood indicated that Brody might be a dark horse. In terms of the other awards, I was pleased to see Almodovar get a Best Screenplay award for Talk to Her and Sprited Away walk away with the Best Animated Picture statue.

On Steve Martin... Did a solid job under difficult circumstances. Some of his jokes were surprisingly edgy, yet he exuded a degree of calmness and competence in keeping with the mood of the evening. My preference would be for Billy Crystal to come back next year, but, if he can't do it, Martin isn't a bad second choice. (Of course, my fantasy host would be John Cleese.)

On Michael Moore... I believe Moore is sincere in his anti-war views. He is known to be what was once referred to as a "flaming liberal" and is proud of it. But there was no excuse for the crassness of his "acceptance speech," which was less of a pro-peace declaration and more of an example of granstanding self-promotion. In Moore's case, there are times when ego trumps talent. His message(which replicated that at the previous evening's Independent Spirit Awards) was all about him. The point was to stir up controversy so everyone would be talking about him, which is precisely what it accomplished.

On the Show in General... Snooze-inducingly boring. 3 1/2 hours is about 90 minutes too long. The parade of ex-stars was hollow and pointless. (Didn't they do that a few years ago?) However, since the ratings for the program continue to slide, my guess is that a format change will be in order within the next few years. My suggestion: split the Oscars into two pieces. The first part, which would feature the issuance of all the "minor" awards, would start around 6 pm ET and be televised on cable (maybe the E! channel). The second part, to be on ABC, would start at 9 pm ET and last precisely two hours (not a minute longer). It would feature the handing out of nine Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Original Screenplay, and Song) with slightly longer acceptance speech times (3-4 minutes), performances of the Song nominees, one Honorary Oscar, and a short introduction by the host (following a montage announcing who won in the other categories). Then I'd watch the whole thing, and maybe even enjoy it a little.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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