Commentary: Alternative Oscar nominations

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  March 15, 2002 at 1:19 PM
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LOS ANGELES, March 15 (UPI) -- Who has been unfairly deprived of an Oscar nomination? Who deserves to be holding his breath when his category's envelope is opened at the Academy Awards show on March 24 but won't be?

Although some unjustly overlooked names stand out, such as Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Grant and Cameron Crowe, this is one of the rare years in which Oscar voters' standard biases -- against movies released early in the year, comedies and the big box office hits that pay the industry's bills -- didn't cause much harm. For the most part, the people who should have gotten nominations got them.

That doesn't necessarily reflect well on the movie industry, though. The Academy voters' usual difficulty remembering movies released before the fall didn't really matter in 2001 because the first eight or nine months of the year were one of the weakest stretches in movie history, probably because filmmakers were rushing to finish movies before the expected screenwriter and actor strikes (which ultimately never happened).

Indeed, most of the small number of interesting movies from early in the year - "Memento," "Bridget Jones's Diary," "Moulin Rouge," and "Shrek" -- all picked up nominations in significant categories.

Likewise, the Academy's prejudice against outright comedies didn't do much damage because -- other than in the new Animated Film category -- there weren't many first-rate funny films last year.

Finally, many of 2001's heavily hyped popcorn movies, which the Oscars routinely slight in order to make Hollywood look classier on its big night, turned out to be disappointments -- such as "Planet of the Apes" and "Pearl Harbor."

Fortunately, a respectable number of strong films debuted in the last quarter to save the year from ignominy.

Overall, I'd argue that the Academy's main mistake was virtually ignoring Crowe's big-budget art film "Vanilla Sky," which ended up with just a Best Song nomination. It may go down as 2001's "Blade Runner," While "Gandhi" was winning eight Oscars in 1982 for its then-trendy pacifist message, the deeply strange and intensely memorable "Blade Runner" was getting fobbed off with just two nominations in technical categories.

"Vanilla Sky" is a sometimes baffling film, but the richness of its script, score, cinematography, and Diaz's sensational supporting performance are already attracting a cult following. With the exception of his near-gigahit "Jerry Maguire," Crowe's movies -- such as "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Say Anything," and "Almost Famous" -- have tended to under-perform at the box office, but then find an audience on video. (And keep in mind that "Vanilla Sky" has pulled in a decent $99.5 million in domestic grosses.) When "Vanilla Sky" comes out on DVD -- its natural medium -- it's reputation will only increase.

Beyond "Vanilla Sky," though, it's hard to say that any movie got royally stiffed.

Individuals certainly were ignored, generally for doing good work in average movies. For example, the Michael Douglas thriller "Don't Say a Word" was forgettable, but its film editing (by Armen Minasian and William Steinkamp) was so visceral that I didn't realize how dull the movie was while I was watching it. But editing awards almost always go to good movies that the voters assume to be good in part because of their editing. So, bravura editing of mediocre movies goes almost completely unrecognized.

This prejudice against poorly scripted movies may have denied the Robert Redford-Brad Pitt thriller "Spy Game" some deserved nominations in categories like Editing, Cinematography and Sound. Its kinetic energy almost, but not quite, covered up one of the stupider scenarios of the year.

Akiva Goldman's concoctions for "A Beautiful Mind" -- such as moving John Nash's paranoid schizophrenic breakdown from 1959 to 1953 in order to point the finger of blame at McCarthyism -- somehow qualified for a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. I would have given the nod instead to Steven Kloves, who carried out a staggeringly difficult assignment with highly professional skill -- adapt J.K. Rowling's first "Harry Potter" novel so faithfully that its millions of fanatical 9-year-old fans wouldn't complain, yet make it filmable.

"Monster's Ball," a dreary faux-Faulkner Southern melodrama -- you know, the one where racist executioner Billy Bob Thornton learns to not hate blacks by getting some very hands-on racial sensitivity training from Halle Berry -- picked up an Original Screenplay nomination. A better choice would have been David Ayer's script for "Training Day," with its more modern perspective on race relations. That movie earned Denzel Washington a Best Actor nod and Ethan Hawke a Supporting Actor nomination. Perhaps Ayer gave them some good lines to read?

While there weren't many classic comedies in 2001, there were interesting performances in comedies and action films that were, of course, overlooked by the Academy.

For example, how about Reese Witherspoon for Best Actress? Her surprise hit "Legally Blonde," in which she's on-screen almost non-stop, was one of most profitable and likeable movies of the year. It's by no means a great film, but without her, it would have been a stinker.

Renée Zellweger earned a Best Actress nomination for her fine portrayal of Bridget Jones, but her supporting actor Hugh Grant stole every scene he was in. As Bridget's two-timing boss, Grant finally brought under control his famous ability to cycle rapidly through facial expressions. He used his face's ability to send multiple messages in a fraction of a second to show off cool dominance rather than the fluttery, Ally McBeal-like diffidence of his past performances. When flirting with Bridget, his lustful looks told her that not only did he want her, but that he knew she knew he wanted her, leaving her feeling arousingly checkmated by his masterful control of their flirtation.

Some striking supporting turns in otherwise indifferent movies included Ray Liotta in "Heartbreakers;" Paul Bettany -- better known now as Russell Crowe's imaginary friend in "A Beautiful Mind" -- as Geoffrey Chaucer in "A Knight's Tale;" Tim Roth's ferocious chimpanzee warlord in "Planet of the Apes;" and William Fichtner as a flamboyant yet dignified effeminate cop in the otherwise dismal "What's the Worst that Could Happen?"

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