Taking another look at Oscar nominees

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Last Tuesday's Oscar nominations were both exciting and intriguing -- and only intermittently outrageous. But they remind us that Academy Award races are usually taken seriously for the wrong reasons (their possible commercial effects) and not seriously enough for the right ones (their lasting cultural achievements).

There were cultural achievements justly applauded on Tuesday: "The Pianist," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Gangs of New York" would be exceptional movies in any year. And though I wasn't knocked out by either "The Hours" or "Chicago" -- the gaudy Bob Fosse-inspired movie musical based on the 1942 noir comedy "Roxie Hart" -- motion picture academy members apparently are. The front-runner so far, with 13 nominations, "Chicago" joins another 2002 Oscar juggernaut: parent studio Miramax, which racked up an awe-inspiring 40 nods for six films.

There were other early winners: Little Focus Pictures (home of "The Pianist" and "Far From Heaven") took the spotlight and so did the competitors in all of the acting categories, especially the unusually strong female ones. There were controversial nominees: notably Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski. Indeed, the best picture in this year's Oscar race, "The Pianist" suffers from the fact that director Polanski is too controversial: widely seen as a felon and fugitive unworthy of honors. And the best director, Scorsese, has been nominated for a film so disliked by some that his probable win has already been stigmatized as undeserved payback for past efforts.

Still, an Oscar contest in which Scorsese and Polanski are controversial nominees and Meryl Streep gets squeezed out of the best actress lineup the same year she breaks the record for most nominations in a career. is not in bad shape. As for Miramax, their success only proves that blitz publicity works -- and that it also helps to make the kind of movies critics and Oscar voters prefer.

The nominations this year gave the lie to charges that those critics suffer a disconnect in taste from the audience. If they do, it's a disconnect also suffered by filmmakers themselves. All five of the best picture nominees were among the 11 best reviewed movies of 2002, according to Moviecitynews.com.

What do the nods mean?

So what does it all mean? Will an Oscar night victory for "Chicago" (Miramax) help spark a renaissance of the movie musical? Will a win for "The Hours" (also Miramax, with Paramount) inspire more literary subjects and stories about women? Will a director's trophy for Scorsese (Miramax again) mean he finally gets the Oscar monkey off his back?

Far too many articles are churned out pondering how Oscar nominations will impact the box office and far too few grappling with the artistic or social merits of films like the ones just mentioned -- and "About Schmidt," "Adaptation" and "The Quiet American." Or, even "Chicago" -- which, after all, has very pointed things to say, expressing through its razzle-dazzle numbers a massive genial cynicism about the justice system and the media.

This year there is also an unusually large cargo of backstage drama -- including Michael Caine's successful battle (despite Miramax) for his "Quiet American" nomination. In Polanski's case it's sordid drama that has already cheapened some of the discourse about the great film that got him back in the limelight. Without downplaying the gravity of the charges against him -- Polanski, now 69, fled the country to avoid sentencing after pleading guilty to a statutory rape charge involving a 13-year-old girl -- we should recognize, here as elsewhere, that the art and the artist are separate. Polanski's past really shouldn't affect consideration of the merits of "The Pianist": for me, the best dramatic feature ever made about the Holocaust and an achievement that will long survive its maker.

Of course, the scandal will affect the vote; for many in Hollywood, honoring a convicted rapist may be comparable to genocide. They forget that great art sometimes is produced by people of dubious character, morality or sanity. Yet Richard Wagner's operas or the novels of Louis-Ferdinand Celine or Knut Hamsun are not diminished because the first two were virulent anti-Semites or the last a fascist collaborator, and we don't trash Christopher Marlowe's plays because of his criminal character, or the music of Schubert or Delius and the paintings of Manet because the artists may have died of venereal diseases. Polanski's past is not irrelevant to the law's treatment of him, but it shouldn't count against the superb movie he made, partly by distilling his own horrific past as a Jewish boy from Krakow eluding the Nazis during the Holocaust years. "The Pianist" is easily the best movie in competition -- unless you count all three parts of "Rings" as one film -- but it probably can't win.

Scorsese probably will win, but he has been subject to abuse as well, just not for his private life, but because some writers detest "Gangs of New York" and believe that -- like Bette Davis' 1935 "Dangerous" Oscar, Al Pacino's for "Scent of a Woman" or John Wayne's for "True Grit" -- any "Gangs" Oscar would be sentimental compensation for past efforts,

Delayed Oscars tradition

But would that be bad? Delayed Oscars are as much a part of Academy Award tradition as long TV shows and egregious omissions -- and the fact that Scorsese was beaten out before by John Avildsen (for 1976's "Rocky"), Robert Redford (for 1980's "Ordinary People") and Kevin Costner (for 1990's "Dances With Wolves") in the years he was up for "Taxi Driver, "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" doesn't mean that the mistakes should never be addressed. Nor should he suffer the same unjust fate of well-deserving directorial non-winners such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Charlie Chaplin or Stanley Kubrick.

I happen to think "Gangs of New York" is a terrific film -- if a flawed one -- and I suspect it's being attacked in part for the same reasons "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" were trashed in their day: because some voters feel it's too profane, violent and disturbing, even if they claim it's bad storytelling that offends them.

What about the slight suffered by another director, the unnominated Peter Jackson, whose ongoing "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is the most popular with audiences? Here, more than likely, many voters deferred on "Rings" as a work in progress.

"This year, it's `Chicago,'" my smartest movie-reporting friend told me right after the announcements. "Next year, `The Lord of the Rings' runs the table."

Ripple effect

What's most interesting about the race may be the ripple effect of the possible victories. I think "Chicago" is overrated -- a great musical show vividly translated but lacking great musical performances. But I'd welcome its victory if it sparks more interest from the studios in movie musicals, a form sadly moribund since 1972 and the movie "Chicago" most copies: "Cabaret."

On the good side, we can applaud the wealth of great female performances in the acting categories -- something not as notable even five years ago. On the bad side, isn't a foreign language film process that continually eliminates films such as Brazil's "City of God" and Spain's "Talk to Her" (made by surprise best director nominee Pedro Almodovar) -- and that nixed past classics such as "Persona," "Ran" and "Three Colors" -- drastically in need of reform? (A suggestion: Add five discretionary picks a year by the academy itself, so films such as "Talk to Her" or "Ran" aren't penalized if their countries fail to submit them.)

Finally, we should note the sheer formal and stylistic daring of many nominated films. Some have gutsy content (documentary "Bowling for Columbine"), some are technical marvels (feature cartoon "Spirited Away") and a number play excitingly with the idea of narrative, stripping bare storytelling mechanisms with admirable panache -- like "Adaptation" (a movie about writing movies), "Far From Heaven" (a movie pastiching other movies), "The Hours" (a three-stranded narrative in which life duplicates art) and even "Chicago" (a bravura theatrical piece that may take place inside the anti-heroine's mind). The public generally dislikes such film experiments -- just as critics often love them -- but this year the moviemakers liked them as well.

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