The Iowa of the Oscars

Times Staff Writer

You hear it every year, the talk about the Oscar campaign, the Oscar vote, the front-runners and dark horses. You see them every year too: ads, fliers, even billboards soliciting votes. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a political election ... and you wouldn't be far off.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may aspire to honor the best films each year, but it's always been about active campaigning, and politics has as much to do with it as art.

The Oscar race begins with what in effect are early primaries -- the year-end best-of lists by major film critics, plus the year's best tallies from the various city film critics' associations. These votes, along with the nominations from the various peer groups -- actors, writers, directors, producers and various other crafts unions -- help set the platforms for the campaigns. As with presidential primaries, the winners of these early rounds frequently don't win the ultimate contest. Remember John McCain? Remember "Mulholland Drive"?

Like longshot presidential candidates, some films try to get up close and personal with voters, via cocktail parties, screenings with Q&A; sessions following, even mailing copies of the script; you half expect the stars to stop by for dinner.

Like governmental politics, the Oscar race features the equivalents of the two major political parties: Miramax and DreamWorks. The former more or less invented the modern, bare-knuckled form of Oscar campaigning when the then-upstart independent earned a best picture nomination for 1989's "My Left Foot," then perfected the formula with 1992's "The Crying Game." It's had a best picture nomination every year since, a feat unmatched by any studio, and has won twice. DreamWorks, an even newer film studio, matched Miramax's intensity, and it has been behind the last three best picture winners. They remain bitter rivals.

Of course, best picture isn't the only race. There are acting, writing, directing and foreign-language categories -- the equivalent, say, of Senate or gubernatorial races. And then there are races, such as sound-effects editing, original score or documentary short, that might be the equivalent of county assessor or insurance commissioner.

The politics of Oscar might play out something like the following.

There will be butterflies over this ballot

Like in most elections, projects and people represent parties, which in this case represent standard appeals that have worked in the past; unlike in most other elections, contenders can represent more than one party. Here's a breakdown of the ballot in the major categories:

*--* Best Picture Movie Party affiliation (And we don't mean Vanity Fair's) "Gangs of New York" Prestige Filmmaker/Miramax Fading Push "Chicago" This Year's "Moulin Rouge"/Miramax Alternate Push "The Hours" Classy Adaptation/Miramax Just in Case "Catch Me If You Can" DreamWorks Main Push "The Pianist" Prestige Festival Winner (Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or)/Bio "Road to Perdition" Oscar Pedigree/DreamWorks Alternate Choice "Antwone Fisher" Feel Good About Yourself/Actor-Turned-Direct or "Adaptation" Quirky Picks/Critics' Darling "About Schmidt" Critics' Darling "Far From Heaven" This Year's "In the Bedroom" "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" This Year's "The Lord of the Rings" "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" This Year's "The Full Monty" Write-ins "The Quiet American" If All Else Fails for Miramax "About a Boy" Golden Globe Nomination "Signs" Disney's Big Push

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*--* Best Actor Name Movie Party affiliation Jack Nicholson "About Schmidt" It's Always His Party Tom Hanks "Road to Past Winners/Playing Perdition" Against Type Daniel Day-Lewis "Gangs of New Showy Acting/Past Winners York" Nicolas Cage "Adaptation" Showy Acting/Past Winners Michael Caine "The Quiet Past Winners American" Adrien Brody "The Pianist" Breakthrough Performance Leonardo DiCaprio "Catch Me If Maybe We Were Wrong About You Can" Him Dennis Quaid "The Rookie" Career Redemption Hugh Grant "About a Boy" Career Elevation Al Pacino "Insomnia" Past Winners Alfred Molina "Frida" Showy Acting Clint Eastwood "Blood Work" Contractual Obligations Tom Cruise "Minority Contractual Obligations Report" Ben Affleck "Changing Contractual Obligations Lanes"

Best Actress Name Movie Party affiliation Nicole Kidman "The Hours" She's Not Just Beautiful, She Can Act Renee Zellweger "Chicago" It's Her Year Julianne Moore "The It's Finally Her Year Hours"/"Far From Heaven" Meryl Streep "The Hours" It's Always Her Year Diane Lane "Unfaithful" Career Redemption Salma Hayek "Frida" Career Elevation/This Year's Halle Berry Nia Vardalos "My Big Fat Blockbuster Success Greek Wedding" Maggie Gyllenhaal "Secretary" You Never Know

Best Supporting Actor Name Movie Party affiliation Chris Cooper "Adaptation" Oh, That's Him Ed Harris "The Hours" Dying in the Role/Career Achievement Paul Newman "Road to He's Still Got It Perdition" Viggo Mortensen "The Lord of Breakthrough Performance the Rings: The Two Towers" Christopher Walken "Catch Me If Career Achievement You Can" John C. Reilly "Chicago"/"Gan Career Achievement/This gs of New Year's Jim Broadbent York" Ray Liotta "Narc" He's Due

Best Supporting Actress Name Movie Party affiliation Catherine Zeta-Jones "Chicago" She's Not Just Beautiful, She Dances Too! Kathy Bates "About Schmidt" Past Winners/Memorable Cameo Julianne Moore "The Hours" It's Finally Her Year Meryl Streep "Adaptation" It's Always Her Year Michelle Pfeiffer "White Star Wattage Oleander" Samantha Morton "Minority Small but Key Role Report" Patricia Clarkson "Far From Small but Key Role Heaven"

Best Director Name Movie Party affiliation Martin Scorsese "Gangs of New Opus From a Veteran Artist York" Peter Jackson "The Lord of Opus From a Young Artist the Rings: The Two Towers" Paul Thomas Anderson "Punch-Drunk Well, at Least It's a Lot Love" Shorter Than His Last Film Steven Spielberg "Catch Me If It's Always His Year You Can" Rob Marshall "Chicago" We Slighted Baz Luhrmann Last Year Todd Haynes "Far From This Year's David Lynch Heaven" Spike Jonze "Adaptation" "Being John Malkovich" Wasn't a Fluke Stephen Daldry "The Hours" This Year's Sam Mendes Sam Mendes "Road to Past Winners Perdition" Denzel Washington "Antwone Actor-Turned-Director Fisher" Roman Polanski "The Pianist" Career Achievement Alfonso Cuaron "Y Tu Mama Feel Good About Yourself Tambien"

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Propositions

101. The Short Memories Initiative: At the end of each year, the film release schedules are jammed with award wannabes angling to catch the eye of year-end critics' lists, and to be first in line for the prestige awards. For: "Gangs of New York," "The Hours," "Chicago." Opposed: "Road to Perdition," "Minority Report," "Signs."

102a. The Golden Bellwether Initiative: Everyone looks for a leading indicator, and the common belief is that the Golden Globes show, from the 87-member Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., is the best. Critics note that they give two best picture awards (for drama and comedy/musical) and that they aren't so reliable in tossup years. For: "A Beautiful Mind," "Gladiator," "American Beauty." Opposed: "Saving Private Ryan," "Sense and Sensibility" (they didn't convert Globes into best picture Oscars).

102b. The Broadcast Bellwether Initiative: No, it's the Broadcast Film Critics Assn., which has a much more populist approach, that's become the leading indicator, say its boosters. For: Everyone who feels uncomfortable dealing with the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. Opposed: Everyone who has no idea what the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. is.

103. It Should've Been Frodo's Night Initiative: Historically, the film with the most nominations wins the best picture award. For: "Titanic," "Shakespeare in Love," "Gladiator." Opposed: "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," "Reds," "Saving Private Ryan."

104. Oscars for Spidey Initiative: Never mind the prestige, Oscar is swayed by big box-office performers. Being the No. 1 or No. 2 most popular film is a sure way to get at least a best picture nomination, and often a win. For: "Forrest Gump," "Titanic," "Rain Man." Opposed: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

105. Settle Into Your Couch, Please Vote for Me Initiative: In the belief that even the prospect of a free night out at the movies won't get Oscar voters out of the house, film companies bombard the members with DVDs and videos. For: "The Silence of the Lambs" (said to be the first best picture winner to benefit from a home video release)., "Erin Brockovich." Opposed: The motion picture academy, which strictly restricts what can be on packaging and forbids any extras from being included; cinematographers and art directors also believe these releases don't highlight the crafts work in its best light.

106. The Residual Effect Initiative: People campaign so hard, the argument goes, because winning an Oscar can make, or at least validate, a career. Winning an Oscar makes you a major player or elevates your status. For: Hilary Swank, Robin Williams. Opposed: Marisa Tomei, F. Murray Abraham.

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