The Cracked Crystal Ball, or A Look at the Oscars, 2001 Edition

Commentary by James Berardinelli
March 24, 2001 & March 26, 2001

When it comes to Oscar predictions, I'm like a cracked crystal ball - not hopeless, but far from the best in the business. Those who have solicited my input over the years for their Oscar pool picks have inevitably been disappointed. Still, picking the Oscars (which is more of an art than a science) is one of the few remaining fun things about the increasingly bloated and self-important Academy Awards. And, for those who keep a running score, it's an effective way to stay awake through the seemingly endless telecast.

Every year, Roger Ebert runs a "Beat Ebert" contest in which those who do better at predicting than him win a prize. I can't be so generous - I'd lose a fortune. But I present my picks because I know there are a number of readers who enjoy matching up against me. Immediately after the ceremony, they'll fire off e-mails telling me how much better they did. (I will add an update to this article after the ceremony is complete, offering a few final thoughts about the winners and eating a suitable portion of crow as I give my final tally.)

From a pure competition point of view, 2001 has turned out to be a good year for the Oscars. A lot of the races are too close to call. Gladiator, the behemoth to beat when the nominations were announced, has been afflicted with a nasty backlash that has sapped its strength. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Traffic have both picked up steam, and there has been a concerted effort in the Best Director category to get voters to go for Traffic rather than Erin Brockovich so that Soderbergh isn't his own worst enemy.

When I wrote a reaction column to the nominations more than a month ago, I took a few stabs at early predictions. My thought process has changed a little since then, as has one of my predictions. So, for those who want to match up against me this year, these are my "official" stances (no guesses in the short or documentary categories, where I don't have enough experience to make a pick):

The Major Categories

Best Supporting Actress: Kate Hudson, Almost Famous: Hudson seems to be nearly a consensus pick for her work as groupie Penny Lane in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. For fun, a few critics are picking Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), but that's more an example of a wishful-thinking longshot than anything else.

Best Supporting Actor: Benecio Del Toro, Traffic: Del Toro's star hasn't waned much since he was given the early nod in this category as the favorite. I still think he'll win, but there's a growing feeling that if enough voters saw Shadow of the Vampire, Willem Dafoe could score an unexpected upset. Don't bet the ranch on it, but, keep in mind that if there's a surprise, it usually comes in one of the Supporting categories.

Best Actress: Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich: A done deal. Whatever uncertainties may plague the other categories, this one is a lock. For Laura Linney and Ellen Burstyn, the nomination will have to be the honor.

Best Actor: Russell Crowe, Gladiator: As Gladiator's star has plummeted, so too has Russell Crowe's, but probably not enough to lose him this category. But it's a very close race between Crowe and Cast Away's Tom Hanks - closer than it looked like it would be. It wouldn't surprise me if Hanks scored the upset. It would surprise me if Ed Harris sneaked in, although there is some support for him, because the people in Hollywood respect how much of himself he invested in Pollock.

Best Director: Ang Lee, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A month ago, I picked Ridley Scott (Gladiator). In the interim, however, Lee has shot ahead of Scott in the visibility race, leaving the Brit to talk about his next Hannibal movie. Ah, but there's a wildcard here. Common wisdom has it that Steven Soderbergh will split the vote for Traffic and Erin Brockovich. Assume for a moment that everyone in Hollywood is aware of this and all of Soderbergh's supporters vote for Traffic, regardless of which of his two movies they favor. Then he would probably win handily. The thing is, I'm not convinced any movement in Hollywood could be that organized.

Best Picture: Gladiator: A lot of people think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is going to win here, including my distinguished colleague, Roger Ebert (although I wonder whether his extreme distaste for Gladiator might be coloring his perception). And, while it's true that Crouching Tiger has turned into a stronger contender than might have been expected (the same could be said of Traffic, which can't be counted out entirely), I still think Gladiator will pull it off.

The Lesser Categories

Foreign Language Film: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Original Screenplay: Almost Famous.
Adapted Screenplay: Traffic.
Original Song: "Things Have Changed", Wonder Boys.
Music (Score): Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Makeup: How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Art Direction: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Cinematography: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Costume Design: Gladiator.
Sound: Gladiator.
Sound Editing: Space Cowboys.
Visual Effects: The Perfect Storm.
Film Editing: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Post-Ceremony Comments

All things considered, I didn't do too badly. That's 14 out of 19, or 74%. In fact, that's the best I have ever done. Missed two of the "big ones", though.

I have to admit to not having watched the entire telecast. I took an hour out for "The Sopranos", then listened to the 10-11 (EST) portion on the radio while traveling home. I have to give the producers credit for keeping it under 3 1/2 hours - a vast improvement from last year. I think there's more fat that can be cut. The Oscars should probably come in at under 3 hours, but, considering that this year's program was almost an hour shorter than last year's, now isn't the time to gripe about that.

Regarding Best Supporting Actress - it was kind of nice to see Marcia Gay Harden win. I'm not the biggest fan of Pollock, but my problems with the movie aren't related to the acting. Plus, by all accounts, she's a much nicer person than Kate Hudson, who has been described to me in some rather unflattering terms by those who have interviewed her.

It seems that Hollywood was able to organize voting for Soderbergh for Traffic. He seemed completely unprepared for the award; I suspect that he, like everyone else, expected that the vote would be split. It would be interesting to see the overall tallies to find out how many people voted for him for Erin Brockovich.

Is it just me, or did most of the speeches tonight sound heavily rehearsed? There was so little spontaneity. I suppose we can't expect to have a Jack Palance, Cuba Gooding, or Roberto Benigni every year...

Really, I have so little to say that it's probably a good thing I didn't do the "live" coverage this year. Maybe I'll go back to it next year - if reader response is any indication, a lot of people missed it this year. Now, all I have to do is figure out how to get a television set into the same room as my computer...

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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