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Published: 3/23/2003

A new Oscar twist: suspense

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Every year, the crunch time leading up to the Academy Awards is normally a showbiz hornet's nest, buzzing with shadowy discrediting campaigns and sticky with ugliness. But this year it was all silence, and it was surreal. Maybe last year, with bruising blows traded between Miramax and A Beautiful Mind, between DreamWorks and Disney, left everyone a little shell-shocked. Or maybe the reason is more obvious: Harvey Weinstein.

Chances are you've heard the name. He runs Miramax, the ubiquitous Oscar night 800-pound gorilla, and this year he packs on a few hundred more pounds of muscle: Weinstein owns a stake in at least 40 of the nominations. In one way or another, he's behind Chicago, Gangs of New York, and, if you count Miramax's half interest, The Hours. Weinstein has mainly himself to compete against tonight.

He is the second coming of the all-powerful studio chief. I spent a few days at Miramax once and heard his name mentioned maybe 750 times, But I only saw him once, and he looked like a Soprano: large, loud, round, and surrounded by flunkies.

Harvey needs to control the game. He's thrown his weight behind Martin Scorsese for best director, and Chicago for best everything else, and you'd be wise not to bet against him. But some things are beyond even Harvey. With hours to go before the 75th annual Academy Awards honors its best batch of nominees in a decade - while also honoring three-quarters of a century of honoring itself - suspense has entered the Oscar race, on and off stage.

All last week the mantra of the show's anxious producers was: The show will go on, war or no war. But that situation could change by the minute. And say the show goes off without a glitch, wrapped in a swath of good taste, of course, and no red carpet this time - which of the famously antiwar movie folk will speak out first?

Producers should be sweating. So should all those so-called sure things. “Oscar Campaigns on Orange Alert” was a headline in Variety last week. Things have changed in the last few days: Suddenly Daniel Day-Lewis looks luckier than Jack Nicholson. The Pianist could have the chops to upset Chicago. Nicole Kidman appears now to be ahead by only a nose.

In a reversal of most years, the closer these Oscars come, the less obvious its winners are. But because the time has come for film critics everywhere to be clairvoyant, here are my best guesses. Please hold your tomatoes. With the Academy Awards moving to February next year, one thing is certain: these last March Oscars will go out like a lion.

Best Supporting Actor: Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Ed Harris (The Hours), Paul Newman (The Road to Perdition), John C. Reilly (Chicago), Christopher Walken (Catch Me If You Can).

It's a group so strong that any one actor might own this category in an off-year. Except Harris, who is the longest shot this time, playing a poet dying of AIDS in The Hours. Reaction to him is shaky, and not even enthusiastic from the pro-Ed camp. Reilly is the next longest shot, a ubiquitous presence in Oscar pictures, beloved by fellow actors who see him as a talented schlub without enough recognition. But no way will his small part in Chicago - saddled with the dullest musical number, too - be rewarded when Richard Gere was snubbed.

Newman has a best actor trophy already, and he might land a few sentimental votes. But not that many. His legend status works against him. The Academy reserves Best Supporting Actor for unacknowledged, second-tier pros, not superstars. This is a Chris-Chris category. And I flip-flop hourly.

Conventional wisdom whispers: “Cooper ... Cooper.” As a toothless Orchid poacher in Adaptation, he's a good bet: a well-respected actor who steals endless scenes in big movies like American Beauty, and shows he has surprising range here, giving us a sympathetic portrait of an eccentric many others would have turned into a caricature. Plus, he won the Golden Globe in this category.

But just the other day the collective buzz of a thousand publicists and dutiful prognosticators saturated the media ether with one word: “Walken.” And they make sense, too: Where is the downside to Walken? His heart-tugging role casts him against type, more voters know him, and certainly more voters saw and loved Catch Me If You Can. He won a supporting actor Oscar for The Deer Hunter, which might cost him - but he also just won the Screen Actors Guild supporting actor trophy. My guess is Walken. But ask again in 15 minutes.

Should win: Christopher Walken. Will win: Walken.

Best Supporting Actress: Kathy Bates (About Schmidt), Queen Latifah (Chicago), Julianne Moore (The Hours), Meryl Streep (Adaptation), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago).

Historically speaking, this category is a minefield. Zeta-Jones's brassy turn in Chicago is that film's buzz role, the one everyone loved. So eliminate Latifah, a first-time nominee. Bates shouldn't be discounted: playing her age without vanity, nude, opposite Jack Nicholson, could endear her to voters, many of whom are 50 and older. But the heat on About Schmidt has cooled considerably. Which means this is an uneven three-way race.

Moore, yet another pro, could benefit from a trickle-down theory of voting if the Academy skips her Best Actress nomination and opts for her in The Hours. If only it were the stronger role. Three factors give Streep an edge: she won the Golden Globe; a two-time winner, she hasn't won an Oscar in 20 years; and she was skipped for Best Actress nomination for The Hours. Could be an upset. But the safe money remains on Zeta-Jones. She's a hoofing showstopper in a jet-black bob. Plus, she's very pregnant. Meaning, good TV.

Should Win: Catherine Zeta-Jones. Will win: Zeta-Jones.

Best Actor: Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), Michael Caine (The Quiet American), Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt).

Another category that seemed so clear in February: everyone but Brody had won before, and the beloved, devilish Nicholson was a lock: Whoopee, Jack wins - again. Then something in the air changed. The new wisdom: Jack's won too many times.

Three, in fact. Four would tie him with record-holder Katharine Hepburn. And it still might happen. Cage played twins but with a subtlety that removed all gimmicks. (He should have played triplets.) Caine has been actively campaigning for Academy votes, and he's a four-time Best Actor wallflower.

The dark horse is Brody. If The Pianist doesn't get Best Picture (and it's unlikely), the Academy, always sympathetic to Holocaust themes, may use Brody as an indirect honor. Still, the heat belongs to Day-Lewis for noshing so heartily on Martin Scorsese's $100 million-plus production designs. He won the SAG award. He's positioned for a comeback. But Nicholson is a safe bet, if voters want to honor homeboy Jack. Or if they want to hear a funnier speech. But I say it'll be a squeaker.

Should win: Jack Nicholson. Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis.

Best Actress: Salma Hayek (Frida), Nicole Kidman (The Hours), Diane Lane (Unfaithful), Julianne Moore (Far from Heaven), Renee Zellweger (Chicago).

Hayek spent years bringing Frida to life. But she's worthier of a producer's award. As for Lane: Could her dark horse status be more than that? She's a showbiz vet who shines through endless bit parts and mediocre films. A vote for Lane would be a vote for struggling actresses hiding in plain sight. But struggling actresses don't make up the Academy.

Moore has one advantage here: actors make up the majority of Academy members, and the subtlety she wrings from her 1950s dialogue has her peers gushing. But since when does Oscar reward subtlety? Besides, dual nominations probably split her vote.

I see a glam-off between superstar titans Renee and Nicole. One that didn't exist six weeks ago. Zellweger's surprise SAG win burned the brakes off the Chicago locomotive. So she's the new favorite, right? Wrong. Momentum is all she has.

Forced to choose, voters will go for Zeta-Jones, but not both. Kidman remains the best bet, if not a sure thing. Reasons: the intensity she brings to Virginia Woolf; the literary cachet; Oscar loves a character who screams and dies; and a star who takes chances. A Nicole win is not only a coronation but a recognition of a rare species: a superstar with ambition.

Should win: Diane Lane. Will win: Nicole Kidman.

Best Director: Pedro Almodovar (Talk to Her), Stephen Daldry (The Hours), Rob Marshall (Chicago), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Martin Scorsese (Gangs of New York).

Is this Scorsese's year, finally? For his messy epic of near-brilliance? I hope so. Almodovar is out; he needed a Best Picture nod to be taken seriously here. Daldry pulled off a tricky film adapted from a difficult book, but it's seen as a writer's film. As for Polanski: He certainly deserves an Oscar, but I doubt there are enough voters willing to honor a filmmaker exiled because of a statutory rape charge.

So, weirdly, it's Marshall, a first-time director with a theater background, who becomes Scorsese's closest competition. He's new. It could work against him. But he could also ride a Chicago wave. He won the Directors Guild Award, and directing Oscars and the DGA have a scary amount of symmetry. Still, Scorsese has potent reasons in his favor: a huge Miramax campaign, a reputation for genius, and an embarrassment factor.

In other words: Is anybody in the Academy ashamed that in 1991 the director of Goodfellas, widely regarded as American's greatest-living filmmaker, lost the directing Oscar to Kevin Costner? Still, Miramax's pro-Marty campaign has been obnoxious; East Coast Marty doesn't play so well in West Coast sunshine; people actually like Chicago, while Gangs is hardly the best work of a long fruitful career; and when Robert Altman lost to Ron Howard last year, the writing was on the back lot wall: guilt works with snubbed actors but it doesn't run deep for studio-bucking mavericks.

Should win: Martin Scorsese. Will win: Rob Marshall.

Best Picture: Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist.

This is a tale of two films: Chicago and The Pianist. The Academy will wait until the next installment, The Return of the King, before it even considers honoring Peter Jackson for his ambitious Lord of the Rings cycle.

For reasons already described, Gangs is a bust. The Hours was a good bet in January, but not now. What The Pianist has going for it is current events: If you're an Academy member and think your industry would be better represented in a moment of world crisis by something serious, and brilliantly smart, you vote with your head.

But please. Not going to happen. Who votes for anything with their head? Miramax timed the Chicago juggernaut to peak right about now, it is making steady money, and people love it, and it really is very good.

Last year was a strange, terrific year for film. Glance again at that crop of nominees. Not a dud in a somber bunch that tackled depression, suicide, war, corruption, violence, death, and an uneasy world plunged into chaos. But what does it say about movies when the coziest, breeziest feel-good movie of 2002 was a poison-tipped musical celebration of showgirls lounging on death row, laced in cynicism and glitter?

Should win: Chicago. Will win: Chicago.



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