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This article by Angelina Sciolla was prepared for the March 19, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Why No Surprises (again) at the Oscars?

I‘m not sure if the big Oscar story this year is the

return of the splashy movie musical or the return of the blacklist.

With war tensions building and worry that politically-charged stars

might find the Academy’s global audience irresistible, the fear of

preachy acceptance speeches this Sunday, March 23, appears greater

than the fear of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ water breaking on the red carpet.

Amid all the talk of censorship and snubbing of potential presenters

who might want to climb the celebrity soapbox, there are still awards

to be given, although they too will reflect the mood of the country

and the film industry’s calculated attempt to make palatable political

statements without driving down stock prices any further.

Last Thursday David Denby, the New Yorker magazine film critic and

contributing editor, presented a Princeton University public lecture

on the current state of cinema in America. Denby contends that the

American film industry is riddled with number crunchers whose greatest

desire is to capture the young male demographic and make mindless

films that readily convert to toys, games, and Happy Meal prizes.

Intellectually challenging and art movies are released at awards season;

a practice that strengthens the notion that awards are no more than

a public relations exercise.

So why bother at all? Because it’s tradition and because, goodness

knows, we need the diversion.

A look at this year’s five nominated films hints to

much of what critics say about current films, although among the honorees

there is much to praise, and to scrutinize.

First, none of the five films was released before Christmas, 2002,

with the more "important" films getting their national release

in early 2003. This keeps them fresh in our minds (and the minds of

the attention-span challenged Academy voters) as award season gears

up. By Oscar time, we can pretty much predict which will take the

top prize. Box office receipts and, nowadays, one of those behind-the-scenes

specials on Bravo TV tips the hand of the Academy in a way that must

really bug the Vegas odds-makers.

The best picture nominees, "The Pianist," "The Hours,"

"Chicago," "The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers,"

and "Gangs of New York" are somewhat diverse in tone and genre

with a couple blockbusters among them. Two of them target that 15

to 25-year-old male demographic that Denby defines as Hollywood’s

pay-dirt audience.

With "Gangs of New York," we can actually envision the market-driven

casting meeting. We’ve got Leo DiCaprio for the teenage girls, Daniel

Day-Lewis for the discriminating cine-philes (and ladies of a certain

age), and Cameron Diaz for Hollywood’s boys with bucks. With Scorsese

directing and Miramax’s blessing, you’ve got the kind of cache to

carry a better than average but muddled film into the annals of cinema

history. The combination of smart casting, good branding, and even

better publicity has fooled some into thinking this is a great film.

It isn’t and in the end too few Academy voters will have been duped.

Another blockbuster with wide appeal and merchandising potential is

"Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers." While more violent than

the first in the trilogy, the film boasts spectacular special effects,

enough literary integrity to keep readers happy, and good performances

throughout. Although my money is on another movie, my sentiments are

with the Tolkien franchise because of the old-fashioned eloquence

of the theme — good versus evil — and its lack of moral relativism.

Sound familiar? Well, it’s that very attribute that will keep it from

winning top honors. With public debate raging over war on Iraq, no

one in Hollywood will want to concede that things are purely black

and white.

Now here’s a point Denby did not cover in his talk: What’s the safe

bet to win your office Oscar pool? With several television specials

and a shelf full of awards already under its belt, "Chicago"

is the no-brainer choice. The easy narrative, hummable Kander and

Ebb songs, and the much-needed escapism provided by the tried and

true tradition of the Hollywood musical makes this film a lock for

the Oscar. Well, almost a lock. France still might veto.

And that is because one of its citizens — a dark horse himself

— looms among the nominees. In accordance with Denby’s observation

about the late release of more important films or those that will

not manifest themselves on lunch boxes, I have saved the art film

for last.

"The Pianist" is Roman Polanski’s drama based on a powerful

book about the survival of a real-life Polish Jew, the pianist Wladyslaw

Szpilman. It is a life’s work for Polanski, a poetic film that is

effective in its lack of sentimentality. The fugitive director’s effort

could win — but that would fuel an already politicized evening.

Although since Polanski hails from Poland (the "New Europe"),

it could count for something. Too bad Donald Rumsfeld isn’t a member

of the Academy.

This year’s literary film, "The Hours," will probably take

the Oscar for David Hare’s screenplay adaptation (from Michael Cunningham’s

book), it clearly does not deserve it. While Denby had many kind words

for this film, I have few. Here is another example of showy and manipulative

casting, coupled with literary pretense. Although the performances

are immaculate, everyone seems to speak in parables and there was

much talk about feelings. Philip Glass’s hammering score telegraphed

every emotion before it arrived. I would be mightily surprised if

it took the best picture statue. The Academy usually reserves surprises

for the smaller categories. I would argue, however, that despite its

art house appeal, "The Hours" might easily find some pharmaceutical

spin-off opportunities. Perhaps some Eskalith or Paxil with your dinner,

Mrs. Dalloway?

So as Denby hinted last week, no big surprises. At least while we

clench our teeth in anticipation of protest speeches, we won’t have

to suffer through long diatribes or those long, ingratiating hand-written

lists of names. The producers this year have imposed more restrictions

on acceptance speeches and a 30-second time limit. If a winner gushes

too long, producers warn, the music will be cued to begin the drown-out.

This is designed, ostensibly, to avert boredom among the global viewers.

A few surprises could help, too.

— Angelina Sciolla

Oscar Night, ABC Television. The 75th Annual Academy Awards.

Sunday, March 23, 8:30 p.m.<

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