Stewy’s picks and pans for Oscar night |

Stewy’s picks and pans for Oscar night

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Knocking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the folks who hand out the Oscars – has become too easy a sport. The academy has become so predictable in its tendencies – ignoring comedies entirely, favoring any period piece over a contemporary story and going for big names and big budgets every time – that it has made itself an easy target. The categorical failings of the academy are so huge that getting down to specific gaffes seems almost beside the point.

So instead of burying the academy, I will praise it. For starters, at least.

The first thing you’ve got to admire about the academy is how much its awards continue to capture the public’s attention. When the Academy Awards program is broadcast – Sunday, March 23, at 6:30 p.m. from the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Steve Martin – it will be the kind of television event that is becoming a rarity. People who can’t even remember the last movie they saw will not only watch the program but talk about who deserved to win, who wore what and whose speech went on too long.

Hardly anyone remembers who, besides Norah Jones, took the big honors at the Grammy Awards a few weeks ago, but who can forget Halle Berry – her dress, her reaction – from last year’s Academy Awards? And the Academy Awards seem only to have gained in prominence even as a slew of other movie awards – the Independent Spirit Awards, the Golden Globes, the National Board of Review, etc. – vie for attention. For all its missteps, the academy has remained in the spotlight.

This year the academy has even made some bold, commendable selections. “The Pianist” was one of the two or three best films of the year, but a combination of factors – lack of big-name stars, the exiled status of director Roman Polanski and a take on the Holocaust that avoids black-and-white heroism – made its nomination uncertain. That the academy recognized the film with best picture and best director nominations is to its credit; the nomination for actor Adrien Brody, who could have lost out to bigger names like Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks or Al Pacino, was a show of simple good taste.

Overall, the best picture nominations reflect an embrace of weighty, even daring, material. “Chicago” is a cynical take on crime and the media; “Gangs of New York” is brutally violent and overtly political; “The Hours” centers around three depressed women; and “The Pianist” follows a man hiding in the Warsaw ghetto as the Nazis close in. That all four of those movies have upbeat conclusions, or are at least couched in the most entertaining presentation possible, shouldn’t take away from the academy’s recognition of gritty material.

And let’s be thankful that “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” got nothing more than a best original screenplay nomination. It didn’t deserve even that much, but it could have been worse.

The tomatoes get thrown

Enough of the back-slapping congratulations and on to the nastiness.

What exactly is it about “Gangs of New York” that merits a best picture nod? Yes, it is ambitious, serious-minded filmmaking. And yes, Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the most energetic and imaginative performances in recent memory. But the central story, of a man seeking revenge for his father’s murder, is far from original and poorly presented.

Question: Did anyone, at any point in the film, actually get the impression that Leonardo DiCaprio was seething to avenge his father’s death? DiCaprio’s leaden performance was enough to doom “Gangs of New York” on its own, but it had plenty of help from Cameron Diaz’s Jenny, a character in search of a purpose; the stagy battle scenes; and the way politics are crammed into the film in an effort to balance the violence with significance. Martin Scorsese deserves honors, but not for this mess.

Making matters worse is that there were so many movies that merited the chance to compete for best picture. Of those that didn’t make the cut, “Adaptation” tops the list. A sharper film than even “Being John Malkovich,” the last creation from the writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonez, “Adaptation” seems too odd, original and slippery for the academy.

Other films far more deserving than “Gangs of New York” include “Minority Report” (despite its weak ending); “Insomnia” (apparently forgotten, thanks to its early-year release); and “25th Hour” (rivaling “Do the Right Thing” as Spike Lee’s best movie). The academy could have really shown its ability to deviate from the script had they given a best picture nomination to “Bowling for Columbine” or “Talk to Her.” But giving best picture nominations to a documentary or foreign film would be asking too much.

The what-in-the-world-were-they-thinking? award goes to the handling of the “Adaptation” screenplay. The film earned a nomination for best adapted screenplay, which could only have been the product of the film’s title. How on earth can a film whose two principal characters were completely new be considered an adapted work? Getting a nomination in that category, instead of for the more proper best original screenplay, is a cosmic goof that seems appropriate for “Adaptation.”

On a related note, “Gangs of New York” earned a best original screenplay nomination, despite the fact that the film took its title, themes and character from a 1928 book by Herbert Asbury.

In the acting categories, the academy showed backbone in nominating Nicolas Cage. Cage hasn’t done decent acting in ages, but his dual roles as Charlie and Donald Kaufman was an artistic achievement, a precise blend of comedy and tragedy. The other best actor nominations can’t be faulted too harshly, though I would have loved for Sam Rockwell’s performance in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” to be recognized. Day-Lewis is likely to win and maybe deserves to. Without him, “Gangs of New York” would have been exposed as a colossal failure.

On the actress side, the only thing that explains Salma Hayek’s nomination for “Frida” is that five slots had to be filled. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance in “Chicago” could have easily been called a leading role; instead, she was nominated for best supporting actress. Maribel Verdu, sensational as the sad, beautiful woman on the run in “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” would have been a worthy contender.

In the best supporting actor category, Tom Hanks deserved a nod for “Catch Me If You Can” over Paul Newman’s turn in “Road to Perdition” (which, coincidentally, starred Hanks). “Catch Me If You Can” was a far better film, and Hanks’ portrayal of the FBI agent was true supporting work. Dennis Quaid, too, was better than Newman, and in a better movie, “Far From Heaven.”

Patricia Clarkson deserved recognition for her supporting role in “Far From Heaven” over Kathy Bates’ work in “About Schmidt.”

Here’s how I see the results. “The Hours” will get best picture, though my choice would be “The Pianist.” Day-Lewis is a shoo-in for best actor; I’d go with Cage. For best actress, Julianne Moore is likely to win, and deservingly so, for the exquisitely made though questionably relevant “Far From Heaven.” Zeta-Jones is a near-lock for supporting actress and should win, even if her role was substantial enough to be a lead.

The best supporting actor category seems to be the most competitive, with Chris Cooper (“Adaptation”), Christopher (“Catch Me If You Can”) and John C. Reilly (“Chicago”) all turning in memorable performances. My guess here is Cooper, who would be my pick as well. But if Paul Newman gets the award, well, it won’t be the first time the academy has left me wondering what universe it lives in.

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