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Primary coloring
On the campaign trail with this year’s Oscar hopefuls

Peter’s picks

Best Film

Cold Mountain

The Last Samurai

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Mystic River


Best Director

Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Clint Eastwood, Mystic River

Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain

Gary Ross, Seabiscuit

Best Actor

Peter Dinklage, The Station Agent

Ben Kingsley, House of Sand and Fog

Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Jack Nicholson, Something’s Gotta Give

Sean Penn, Mystic River

Best Actress

Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent

Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation

Diane Keaton, Something’s Gotta Give

Charlize Theron, Monster

Evan Rachel Wood, Thirteen

Best Supporting Actor

Kevin Bacon, Mystic River

Alec Baldwin, The Cooler

Chris Cooper, Seabiscuit

Tim Robbins, Mystic River

Ken Watanabe, The Last Samurai

Best Supporting Actress

Maria Bello, The Cooler

Keisha Castle-Hughes, Whale Rider

Patricia Clarkson, Pieces of April

Holly Hunter, Thirteen

Renée Zellweger, Cold Mountain


A longshot, a turncoat, a deserter, a hothead, a hobbit. Sounds like a Republican characterizing the Democratic field of presidential candidates. As is often the case in a presidential-election year, the Best Picture front runners can tell us something about the political landscape — at least as far as the Hollywood elite perceive it — and vice versa.

Try though they might, Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular can’t escape politics. Certainly not last year, when the War in Iraq almost derailed the glitz and glamor. And not this year, when the race for the White House arouses bitter memories of the past and anxiety about the future, coloring the films the Academy sees and how it sees them.

Let’s start with the surest thing, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. To speak ill of this movie is akin to maligning Mother Teresa. Why is it so revered, so honored, so lucrative, and so dull? Perhaps it’s an amorphous allegory of all that ails us and fills us with hope and dread (as was the case when J.R.R. Tolkien first published his epic in the ’50s). Is Sauron an embodiment of the Axis of Evil? Are Frodo and company the Coalition of the willing ready to smoke him out? If so, then why is Frodo carrying the Ring of Mass Destruction? Maybe Sauron is actually Dick Cheney, Mordor his undisclosed location, and Frodo a stunningly victorious Dennis Kucinich out to roust the Republicans from the White House! There’s something to satisfy every side in this mega-produced farrago, and though no performances are likely to win Best Actor nominations (even though Sean Astin’s Sam does support Elijah Wood’s Frodo for half the film), it’s sure to get a Best Picture slot and a Best Director nod for Jackson.

Also assured of recognition is Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. For one thing, it’s a profound meditation on vengeance, fate, memory, violence, and redemption. For another, it’s the always popular Eastwood’s best film since the Oscar-winning Unforgiven in 1992. And the blind fury of Sean Penn’s bereaved father taps into some of the rage that’s been building in liberals and that firebrand candidate Howard Dean has been nurturing. Best Picture and Best Director for sure, with Penn getting in for Best Actor (just check the controlled intensity of this performance next to the anything-goes emoting of 21 Grams) and Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon earning Best Supporting Actor spots.

A film certainly built for Oscar consideration is Anthony Minghella’s grandiose and fussy Cold Mountain. Nicole Kidman, sans schnozz, looks radiant and beautifully groomed as she tastefully starves during the bitter Blue Ridge Mountain winter of 1864! Jude Law, stoic and handsome, marches on! Renée Zellweger snaps off a rooster’s head! A big explosion and almost as many mangled carcasses as in Saving Private Ryan!

The story, though, is the keeper: a man tested by war and disillusioned by it, trying to return home and make things right but dogged by the cowardly, profiteering, chicken-hawk, neo-con militiamen who would hang him as a deserter. Senator Kerry, are you ready for your close-up? At the least, this will get a Best Picture nomination, with Minghella (though snubbed by the Directors Guild) in the contest for Best Director and Zellweger up for Best Supporting Actress.

It seems like a long time since Tom Cruise’s demonic grin leered down from a movie poster alit with Oscar ambitions, and though he’s not likely to get nominated for his performance as a latter-day, Far Eastern Kevin Costner in Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, this splendidly produced, thoroughly bogus potboiler will earn a place in the Best Picture race. The pseudo-Kurosawa swash-and-buckle doesn’t hurt, but the old chestnut of the Western warrior chastened by atrocity who finds redemption in a primitive culture and turns against his former allies is the real crowd pleaser. Kind of like Wesley Clark, the reformed Republican. At any rate, Ken Watanabe is the only thing worth seeing in this ersatz epic.

I would dearly love to see Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation earn the final Best Picture spot. It has gathered numerous critics awards, Golden Globe nominations and magazine spreads. But I think that, in their heart of hearts, most Academy members, like most viewers, just don’t get it. Sofia, of course, will get a shot at Best Director. How could they resist it — the daughter springing up to receive the award, her father in tears in the audience, just like Mira Sorvino in 1996. And Bill Murray will be nominated for Best Actor, finally receiving recognition for his talents and for embodying everyone’s desire for the unattainable, just as Scarlett Johansson will be nominated for Best Actress for embodying its object.

The movie, however, will go unrewarded. Instead, Gary Ross’s Seabiscuit will be the longshot that comes through (propelled partly by the millions that Universal has been pumping into its Oscar campaign, according to a recent New York Times story). And as those who enjoyed the Laura Hillenbrand book on which the movie is based will testify, it’s a great American story. In fact, it’s several great American stories: equine underdog makes good; technocrat returns to nature after tragedy; hardscrabble hobo poet rides to victory through pain; frontier coot’s horsewhispering beats Eastern arrogance (any of these narratives might fit any of the remaining Democratic presidential contenders’ profile — certainly they’re all underdogs). No doubt because of his extraordinary talent for making every possible wrong choice, Ross will get a Best Director nomination. And Chris Cooper as the coot will join Bacon, Robbins, and Watanabe in the Best Supporting Actor Category, where they’ll contend with Alec Baldwin, who plays the melancholy, brutal casino manager in Wayne Kramer’s The Cooler.

For a half-assed movie, by the way, The Cooler has engendered its share of Oscar interest, especially with its performances. Maybe that’s because its cast had no qualms about baring their less than perfect butts. Maria Bello as the faded, struggling casino waitress earns points for showing some cellulite and will get a Best Supporting Actress nomination. William H. Macy, with a posterior as hangdog as his face, will not.

Unlike Jack Nicholson, who takes his trademark cheek one step farther in Something’s Gotta Give. His unapologetic lust will serve as a spry counterpart to Murray’s morose delectation in the aging-desire subsection of the Best Actor contest. In the wildly grieving/pissed-off department, Sean Penn will be matched by a grotesquely overacting Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog. Kingsley plays an Iranian immigrant grappling with cleaning-lady Jennifer Connelly over a California beachfront property — no doubt both are looking for more scenery to chew. They should take a lesson from the understated performance of Peter Dinklage as the dry-witted misanthrope in The Station Agent; he will be the first dwarf actor, I believe, to receive a nomination since Michael Dunn for Ship of Fools in 1965.

As usual, the Best Actress awards will be a pathological cross-section of American gender dysfunction. These are all women who need a man in their lives. Such is the case with Charlize Theron in Patty Jenkins’s Monster. She puts on 30 pounds, shaves her eyebrows, wears prosthetic teeth, and, in short, turns herself into Dick Gephardt to portray Aileen Wuornos, the real-life male-bashing serial killer. She takes on the patriarchy and pays the price; Theron will be tough to beat.

Taking a more subtle approach is Diane Keaton as a long-in-the tooth "famous playwright" — a kind of combination of Annie Hall and Woody Allen — in Something’s Gotta Give. First appalled by Jack Nicholson’s shameless chauvinism, she warms to her subject, and after baring her body (a frontal to Jack’s backal) ends up baring her soul. So too does Patricia Clarkson as the estranged wife mourning a lost child in The Station Agent; she opens up to fellow recluse Peter Dinklage, and some serious acting erupts.

Not all the Best Actress nominees are unhappy older women. Some are unhappy younger woman. Joining Johansson as the unhappy young wife in Lost in Translation is Evan Rachel Wood as the unhappy teen daughter in Catherine Hardwicke’s underrated Thirteen. Wood’s rebellion is countered by the opaque but compassionate guidance of her in-recovery, working-stiff mother, Holly Hunter, who should get a Best Supporting Actress bid. So, too, should the double threat Clarkson, adding to her Best Actress nod a Best Supporting Nomination for her troubled mother in Peter Hedges’s Pieces of April.

The most promising performance of the lot, however, comes from lovely 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes in the shimmering New Zealand film Whale Rider. Not just because she proves in her first performance to be the most vivid new talent of the century (okay, so there are still 97 more years to go), or even because she was discovered by the same agent who got Anna Paquin her Oscar-winning role in The Piano. Rather, I find hope in her character’s story: a female destined for leadership, spurned by her misogynist society, who shows patience, resilience, and determination, achieving her dream and saving her people. So I predict Hillary Clinton in 2008.

Issue Date: January 23 - 29, 2004
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