Analysis: Hollywood values expressed

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Jan. 30, 2002 at 4:23 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Now that the major critics groups and Hollywood guilds have announced their nominees -- winners in some cases -- for top honors, it's time to evaluate the content of the movies they've declared to be the best of 2001, and see if their choices tell us anything about the state of the entertainment business.

Of particular interest is the question of how Sept. 11 -- which, as everyone knows, changed everything -- changed Hollywood in particular.

With some notable exceptions -- such as the special season-opening episode of "The West Wing" and a few references to terrorism in some other TV drama series -- much of what Hollywood producers and writers will have to say in direct response to the terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terrorism will be a while reaching the marketplace.

As a general proposition, it takes more than a few months to get a movie from the idea stage to the soundstage, and months more to get it to theaters.

However, the awards season can give us a glimpse into post-Sept. 11 thinking within the filmmaking community, because the choices that studios made regarding release schedules and promotional campaigns, and that critics groups and trade organizations made regarding awards, inevitably reflect judgments formed in the context of the attacks and the war on terrorism.

To be sure, other factors are in play as well, mainly having to do with market forces. But even those other considerations are shaded by the events and aftermath of Sept. 11.

The most decorated movie so far, including both nominations and actual awards, is "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." The second tier is occupied by "A Beautiful Mind," "Gosford Park," "In the Bedroom," "Iris," "Moulin Rouge" and "Mulholland Drive."

Some movies that had been expected to score heavily during awards season have fallen short of expectations. They include "Ali" and "Black Hawk Down."

The commercial and critical success of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" may well reflect an appetite on the part of the moviegoing public for what has always been one of Hollywood's most abundant commodities -- escapism. The movie also scores on two other counts -- quality and fortunate timing.

Director Peter Jackson and company did an impressive job of bringing the first book of author J.R.R. Tolkien's "Rings" trilogy to the screen, and the marketplace responded. The storyline -- an idealistic and apocalyptic struggle between good and evil -- was a perfect fit for the times.

That combination of factors makes "Rings" a formidable contender for the best picture Oscar. It has already been named best picture at the first-ever American Film Institute Awards, and is one of five finalists for the Producers Guild of America's Darryl F. Zanuck Producer of the Year Award -- the functional equivalent of a best picture award.

"A Beautiful Mind" -- which won the Golden Globe for best drama movie -- is also a PGA finalist, and will also contend for the top Oscar. But director Ron Howard's adaptation of Sylvia Nasar's book about the schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. offers audiences the antithesis of escapism.

Russell Crowe's Nash faces a very personal form of what might be considered evil -- a mental illness that very nearly destroys him until he manages to summon the strength to win the battle in which he is both the aggressor and the aggrieved.

Like "Rings," "A Beautiful Mind" is an impressive piece of filmmaking. Also like "Rings," it is a story grounded in an idealism that will always find a market in America -- as long as it is not laid on too thick.

"In the Bedroom," while not a grand movie by any means, is nevertheless a powerful piece of work -- mostly owing to the performances of Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as a professional couple preparing to face an empty nest, who must suddenly cope with the tragic murder of their son and the legal system's inability to give them satisfaction for their loss.

To the extent that idealism is portrayed in director Todd Field's picture, it is killed off with the death of the young man. From that point on, the movie marches toward a most pessimistic conclusion -- that revenge is ultimately unrewarding and that violence solves nothing, no matter how vile the character of the offender.

This sort of thinking is not exactly what you'd call in perfect sync with the national mood right now, but the awards season has been very good to "In the Bedroom" nonetheless -- with a bundle of nominations and awards flowing to Field and his co-writer, Rob Festinger.

"Iris" -- starring Judi Dench as the writer Iris Murdoch and Jim Broadbent as her patient, loving husband John Bayley -- sets up a personal struggle similar to that of "A Beautiful Mind," as we watch Murdoch give in to Alzheimer's disease while Bayley tempers the difficulty of his care-giving duties with memories of their life together.

Sometimes it seems as though "Moulin Rouge" succeeds in spite of itself. It's a bold piece of filmmaking, all right, but it defies so many commercial conventions it might have gotten a special award just for reaching the screen.

Maybe that's why it has received so many honors and nominations -- including the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy movie -- because the filmmaking community felt like endorsing the audacity of director Baz Luhrmann and his cast, headed by the game Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

The movie seemed dead in the water, awards-wise, but picked up new life late in the year. Is it possible that awards voters, post-Sept. 11, were lending their support to the movie's unashamed optimism, even as it reckoned with the cold, hard fact of mortality?

Writer-director Michael Mann's take on the life of three-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was supposed to take the box office by storm and make Will Smith an even bigger star than he already is for his portrayal of Ali. It didn't work out that way, and there's no way of knowing whether it was because movie fans weren't in the mood to watch the central character boast about beating people up -- or whether the picture just wasn't that hot.

Awards voters weren't exactly knocked out by "Ali." Smith was nominated for a best actor Golden Globe, and both he and the picture were nominated by the Broadcast Film Critics Association -- but that's about it.

"Black Hawk Down" -- like "Behind Enemy Lines" before it -- came into the marketplace amid much speculation as to whether audiences were ready to see actors in uniforms fabricated in a costume shop pretend to fight and die in combat situations. Director Ridley Scott's screen version of the U.S. military debacle in Mogadishu is making a fair amount of money, but it has not resonated with the awards committees to date.

"Black Hawk Down" was named one of the year's 10 best by the National Board of Review, and was nominated for best picture at the AFI Awards, but its best chances for Oscar gold appear to be in technical categories such as cinematography, editing and sound -- which pretty much puts it in a class with "Harry Potter."

And then there's "Shrek."

The computer-animated fairy-tale riff arrived in theaters in May -- long before Sept. 11 changed everything -- and made most of its money before the terrorist attacks. The respect it has been getting during the awards season may simply reflect a consensus feeling within the film community of admiration for a job well-done.

Whatever the explanation, "Shrek" has amassed an impressive number of best picture nominations.

It's one of five finalists for the Producers Guild of America best picture award. It was nominated for a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy movie, and for best picture at the AFI Awards.

Now the British Academy of Film and Television Arts has nominated "Shrek" for best picture, adding to speculation that it could have a shot at the top Oscar. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will, for the first time, award an Oscar for best animated feature, and many in Hollywood speculate that the opportunity to take that prize will cost "Shrek" a spot among the nominees for best picture.

However things turn out, it's interesting that a flat-out comedy like "Shrek" could earn so much praise in a season where most of the top movies have been deadly serious.

It could mean, very simply, that the awards voters really appreciated the value of a good laugh when times are tough.

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