Commentary: New, Improved Oscars

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  March 19, 2002 at 1:31 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 19 (UPI) -- Similarities between the annual Academy Awards telecast, which is scheduled for Sunday, and John Milton's epic poem "Paradise Lost" are only rarely mentioned, but Dr. Samuel Johnson's comment about the latter -- "No one ever wanted it longer" -- would certainly also apply to the former.

Nonetheless, the Academy is adding a new award this year for Best Animated Film. Yet, if they really wanted to make the show more fun - and more representative of the movie business as it really is today - they should lose some of the eye-glazing categories like "Best Live Action Short Film" and add new awards that reflect what we love about modern Hollywood, such as:

Best Sequel That Was Actually Better Than The Original - "Rush Hour 2"

Best Career-Enhancing Divorce - Nicole Kidman

Best Impression Of Someone Trying To Win An Oscar By Being Boring - Jim Carrey in "The Majestic"

Best Behind-The-Scenes Brother Act - A crowded field split among the Coens, Farrellys, Hughes, Wayans, and Wachowskis

Best Playing Of The Race Card - Halle Berry, who has been campaigning for the Best Actress Oscar by portraying herself as the Rosa Parks of Beverly Hills, even though she was raised by her divorced white mother in a highly white environment.

Least Unexpected Change of Sexual Orientation - This would make for quite a struggle between actress Anne Heche (Ellen DeGeneres' ex) and director Julie Cypher (Melissa Etheridge's ex)

Least Unexpected Coming Out Of The Closet - Rosie O'Donnell

These days, making the movie only accounts for three fifths of the average film's total $78.7 million budget. Promoting the movie typically costs $31 million. This side of the film business - which is of ever-increasing interest to movie fans - should no longer go unrecognized on Oscar Night.

For instance, in the category of Best Trailer That Was Better Than The Movie Itself, there would be hundreds of deserving nominees, but one clear winner: "Pearl Harbor."

There could also be an Oscar for Best TV Talk Show Appearances Promoting a Bad Performance. The Lifetime Achievement award for Best Guest would go to Robin Williams. The prime artistic justification of the film career of this brilliant comic (but sappy actor) has been that making movies gives him an excuse to practice his true calling as history's best talk show guest.

Other marketing awards that would make the annual broadcast more relevant might include:

Best Carcinogenic Product Placement

Best Recalled Fast Food Tie-In Toy

Best Leaks To Journalists Undermining A Rival Oscar Contender

Best Catering To Movie-Obsessed Internet Nerds' Need To Feel Like Hollywood Insiders

This portion of the evening would climax with the opening of the envelope revealing the winner of the coveted Best Campaigning For An Oscar.

The popular movie "A Beautiful Mind" could inspire three new Oscars all by itself.

Akiva Goldman's script, which is theoretically based on a best-selling biography of mathematician John Nash, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay instead of Best Original Screenplay, but it really deserves to compete in a category of its own: Best Made-Up Stuff About A Real Person.

Jennifer Connelly, a Best Supporting Actress contender for her role as Nash's long-suffering wife, would also be the dark horse contender for Best Weight Change. The frontrunners in this category, which was pioneered by Robert De Niro in his Oscar-winning "Raging Bull" performance, would be Will Smith, who added 30 pounds of muscle to portray Muhammad Ali, and Renee Zellwegger, who added 20 pounds of fat to play Bridget Jones.

Connelly, though, recently changed her entire shape without anyone even mentioning it in the press. More than a decade ago, she was a distractingly voluptuous teenage starlet starring in a string of lousy movies like "Career Opportunities." In today's Hollywood, however, actresses who get prestigious roles are no longer built like Sophia Loren. Instead, they are expected to resemble lollipops or bobble-head dolls, with heads disproportionately larger than their starved torsos. Connelly recently whittled herself down to the industry standard figure and suddenly became one of Hollywood's most respected actresses.

Russell Crowe, the star of "A Beautiful Mind," is generally assumed to be the front-runner for the Best Actor award because he's playing a schizophrenic.

Academy voters love actors who portray mentally-challenged characters, such as winners Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump," Anthony Hopkins in "Silence of the Lambs," and Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man." What's even more impressive, though, are the performances that deserve to be nominated for Best Portrayal Of A Sane Character By A Disturbed Actor. Anne Heche has thrown her hat into that ring with her recent autobiography, but she no doubt would face ample competition.

There are also a few new Oscar categories that should actually be considered seriously.

Now that animated films are being recognized, the next step would be an award for Best Voice-Over. Eddie Murphy's hilarious voicing of Donkey may well have added $100 million or more to the box office gross of "Shrek." How many live action supporting actors could make a similar claim?

Second, accent coaches deserve honor. The accuracy of stars' accents has improved notably over the years. The heroes in this trend are adviser such as Barbara Berkery, who spent six weeks coaching the Texan Zellweger to speak with the precise accent that Bridget Jones - an upper middle class girl from a posh London suburb with occasional pretensions toward being a gritty urbanite - would use.

Third, there should be an Oscar for Best Casting Direction. Casting is the most notable filmmaking profession not currently recognized with its own Oscar. Mary Selway of "Gosford Park" would no doubt be the frontrunner this year, but even ill conceived movies like "Ali" and "15 Minutes" featured excellent casting.

Casting directors are probably most important in television drama series, which have a voracious appetite for character actors. Bonnie Timmermann revolutionized hour-long shows in the 1980s with her memorable casting of "Miami Vice's" villains and stool pigeons. She established a tradition brought to perfection in "Law & Order's" endless parade of superbly portrayed witnesses.

The main objection to honoring movie casting directors is that the extent of their contributions to a film tends to be hard for outsiders to judge. Directors and dealmakers generally recruit the biggest name talent. Exactly who the casting director is responsible for hiring will vary from production to production. Yet, this criticism of a Casting Direction Oscar shouldn't be fatal, because right now there are plenty of producers and screenwriters whose actual input to the movies for which they won Oscars were less than overwhelming.

Saluting casting directors would also provide a legitimate way for the Academy to respond to feminist complaints. A decade ago, right after the Anita Hill brouhaha, the Academy developed a bad conscience about how few Oscars it gives to women. This generated some Awards-night hoopla about how Hollywood is sensitive to women, but then everything went back to normal.

For example, no woman has won for Editing or Visual Effects since the 1980s. Only two have ever been nominated for Best Director -- Lina Wertmuller for "Seven Beauties" in 1976 and Jane Campion for "The Piano" in 1993 -- and neither won. No woman has ever won for Best Sound or even been nominated for Best Cinematography.

There are several Oscar categories in which women are well represented, such as Set Decoration and Makeup, but none in which they dominate the way men do in so many fields. Casting directors, though, are overwhelmingly female, probably because it's the purest people person job. Some casting directors also argue that women tend to be better at the profession because they can nurture the delicate egos of the actors they reject. Good casting directors not only turn down actors auditioning for the current project, but keep the talented ones coming back to auditions until there is a role that's right for them in a future film.

The ultimate new selection that would punch up the Oscar telecast, however, was suggested last year by host Steve Martin, when he announced, "Stay tuned, because at the end of tonight's show, we're going to vote somebody out of show business."

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