For a supposedly wide-open Oscar race, this year's field sure seems narrow.
Just weeks ago Academy Awards handicappers were proclaiming the up-for-grabs nature of the contests in the absence of consensus Big Fat Oscar Movies -- that is, the kind of grand, life-affirming, critical/popular hits that Academy members tend to embrace.
Yet in contrast to the guessing game of 2001, few of the 2002 races are likely to find their five nominees (to be announced Tuesday after 7:30 a.m.) from a pool of more than six or seven contenders. A combination of pre-Oscars awards -- such as the Golden Globes, various guilds and, to a lesser extent, critics groups -- and that nebulous buzz factor has led some movies and performances to become shoo-ins
"It seems like there are only six or seven properties in the running, if that many," said veteran Oscar campaigner-for-hire Lloyd Leipzig, working on behalf of Pedro Almodovar's "Talk to Her."
"I think the choices are much fewer than normal," agreed writer-director and Academy member Tom Mankiewicz. "I don't think there are going to be any big surprises."
Maybe so, but the narrowing of the Oscars field, which occurs every year to some degree, could be studied as a case of mass brainwashing. After all, far more widely admired films were released in 2002 than are considered to be in the running for Oscars.
The critics' groups start the winnowing-down process, although Academy members don't follow critics too closely, and this year almost every such organization opted to spotlight a different film, anyway. Far more important are the Golden Globes -- awards voted on by foreign press junketeers that are taken seriously because . . . well . . . Hollywood opts to take them seriously.
Thus Rob Marshall's "Chicago," which won the top musical/comedy award, and Stephen Daldry's "The Hours," which won the prize for best drama, now are considered locks for Oscar best picture nominations. "Chicago" looks like it's going to be a popular hit, but I've talked to many industry people, particularly of the male variety, who either admire "The Hours" more than they like it -- or they simply despise it.
"The Hours" also doesn't seem to be an audience favorite. CinemaScore, which polls opening-night audiences, reports the film scoring an average of C grades among men and B grades among women, not exactly best picture marks. Perhaps if the movie had been released over the summer, its sheen might have worn off by now. But at present "The Hours" represents the Academy's opportunity to honor highbrow filmmaking -- as well as an all-too-rare showcase for women -- so the film carries an air of inevitability.
Early releases forgotten
Meanwhile, Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition," praised so extravagantly over the summer, has faded from view, perhaps because it left so little to think about, perhaps because it wasn't released in December like most of the current contenders. It's also hard to find anyone who thinks acclaimed earlier releases such as Chris and Paul Weitz's "About a Boy" or even Todd Haynes' "Far From Heaven" have a shot at best picture nominations.
Then there's Denzel Washington's "Antwone Fisher," a movie that received A+ CinemaScore grades from men and women and is a type of film the Academy traditionally has embraced: the male weepie, a la "Good Will Hunting" or "Field of Dreams." Yet Fox Searchlight hasn't managed to sell "Antwone Fisher" to the public or, apparently, the industry; with the exception of a Writers Guild nomination announced Thursday, the movie has been absent from the pre-Oscar awards.
"They made the film look like medicine," one rival studio official said.
Aside from presumed front-runner "Chicago" and "The Hours," the top category likely will include Peter Jackson's second trilogy entry "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," Roman Polanski's Holocaust tale "The Pianist" and one of the following: Martin Scorsese's violent epic "Gangs of New York," Spike Jonze's brain-warping "Adaptation" or Joel Zwick's surprise indie smash "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
Reliable Oscar indicators
The Directors Guild of America, usually one of the most reliable Oscar indicators, and the British Academy of Film & Television Arts (BAFTA) each nominated the same five films for their top awards: "Chicago," "The Hours," "The Two Towers," "Gangs of New York" and "The Pianist."
The Screen Actors Guild, another strong Oscar forecaster given that actors make up the majority of the Academy's 6,000 or so voting members, nominated "Chicago," "The Hours," "The Two Towers," "Adaptation" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for its top ensemble-acting award.
The trickiest question is whether "Gangs of New York" will get a nod. The Academy loves epics, and Scorsese has earned widespread sympathy for his struggles in making his dream project -- and he'll no doubt receive a directing nomination for his efforts. But my sense from having talked to many Academy members and industry officials on both coasts is that the film left many viewers cold.
"There are too many people who are lukewarm on the movie," said one Los Angeles producer/Academy member.
"Talk to Her" could be considered a best picture dark horse, though Almodovar is more likely to sneak into the director category. An argument could be made for Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt," though it's more likely to be recognized for Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates and its writing. Out of the mix: Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report" (forgotten since summer) and "Catch Me If You Can" (too light) and Alfonso Cuaron's "Y Tu Mama Tambien" (Academy members don't dig sex and drugs).
Miramax, meanwhile, continues its ace Oscar-promoting job: "Chicago," if not "Gangs," is likely to give the New York-based company its 11th straight year with at least one best picture nominee. (Miramax also co-financed "The Hours" and owns a percentage of "Lord of the Rings," so co-chairman Harvey Weinstein is sitting pretty.)
In the female acting categories, the biggest variable may be whether voters want to enter Meryl Streep's and Julianne Moore's names twice each. Streep is vying for best actress for "The Hours" (along with cast mate Nicole Kidman) and best supporting actress for "Adaptation"; she was nominated for both by the Golden Globes (she won the supporting award) and neither by SAG, likely because Sony mistakenly entered her in the lead category for "Adaptation."
Moore is a shoo-in best actress nominee for "Far From Heaven" and also could receive a supporting nod for "The Hours." The other likely best actress nominees are Kidman, Renee Zellweger for "Chicago" and Diane Lane for "Unfaithful," leaving a slot for Streep or Salma Hayek for "Frida."
Not on radar
Worthy performances not on the radar: Susan Sarandon in "Moonlight Mile" (or her supporting performance in "Igby Goes Down"), Goldie Hawn in "The Banger Sisters" (really, she's impressive, more so than the movie), Jennifer Aniston in "The Good Girl" and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Secretary."
The best actor race seems a pick-5-out-of-6 proposition. Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis of "Gangs of New York" are far and away the frontrunners. Michael Caine, despite the lack of a SAG nomination, likely will make the cut for "The Quiet American," and Adrian Brody has a good shot for "The Pianist" despite a unshowy role.
Does Richard Gere ride the "Chicago" juggernaut and take the last slot for his Golden Globe-winning performance or does Nicolas Cage get recognized for his double-role in "Adaptation"? I'm betting on Cage. Hugh Grant, meanwhile, made his job look too easy in "About a Boy" to get a nod.
Meanwhile, I'm peeved that my favorite supporting performance of last year has zero chance of being nominated. Bebe Neuwirth is flat-out hilarious and sexy in "Tadpole," but the movie fizzled over the summer, and that's that. Of course, the Miramax folks could mount an all-out campaign on her behalf anyway, but they've got their hands full with "Chicago," which boasts a shoo-in best supporting actress nominee in Catherine Zeta-Jones.
And whose stage role did Zeta-Jones take as "Chicago" made the transition to the screen? Bebe Neuwirth's. Life, like the Oscars, isn't fair.