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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, February 24, 2005

Best-picture Oscar still million-dollar question

By Terry Lawson
Knight Ridder News Service

Oscar Night

77th Annual Academy Awards

6:30 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Sunday (tape delayed)


Where's "Return of the King" when an Oscar predictor needs one?

I've consulted the experts, checked out the Vegas line, personally pumped a member of the Academy to get a read on how those people make decisions, and thrown the "I Ching." Where did it get me? Nowhere. So I should be honest: My brain tells me one thing, my instincts tell me another, and my heart tells me a third.

Truth is, when the best-picture Oscar is announced Sunday night, I'll be as surprised as anyone.

Sure, I'll be a little disappointed for my heartfelt favorite, "Sideways," because "Sideways" is a great movie. Like a lot of people's lives, it is sweet, smart and poignant in a way that never outwardly calls attention to itself.

So, as it happens, is "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood's late-inning home run that proves what everyone suspected: The tough guy is the compassionate conservative that too many politicians have claimed to be.

If "Unforgiven" or "Mystic River" haven't convinced everyone Eastwood is a top American director, nothing will. "Million Dollar Baby" takes him somewhere else entirely, and he shoots as straight in it as he ever did with a Winchester or a Magnum in the spaghetti Westerns.

Then there's "The Aviator," which according to most odds makers, is the favorite and has piled up the most nominations with 11. For half of director Martin Scorsese's full-bodied biography of flawed but visionary American enigma Howard Hughes, I thought he made a great Hollywood movie. For the other half, I wished he would just quit trying to make Hollywood movies.

Yet the specter of Hitchcock and other masters who never won a best-director Oscar looms heavy over the man who made "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and unacknowledged masterworks including "The King of Comedy," "The Last Waltz" and "Kundun." As Quentin Tarantino ungenerously but honestly pointed out, Scorsese's best films may be behind him.

Eastwood has an Oscar. "Sideways" director and co-writer Alexander Payne, the most consistent of the next generation of American filmmakers, probably has a few other great films in him that will be Oscar contenders. If Scorsese finally wins his Oscar next week, I will applaud him.

And don't get me started on the acting categories: I could easily pick winners in most categories from actors not even nominated, most obviously in the best- actor competition: No Javier Bardem ("The Sea Inside")? No Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries")? And no Paul Giamatti (the aforementioned Miles in "Sideways")? At the risk of sounding like a marred CD, I must say yet again it is long past time for the Academy to institute an ensemble-acting award to ensure a cast like the one assembled for "Sideways" is not ignored.

End of rant: Below are my best, semi-educated guesses, once again leaving out the short film categories. When my picks go against my ever-wavering beliefs, I will let you know, as always.

SUPPORTING ACTOR: This race would seem to be won with Morgan Freeman of "Million Dollar Baby" the clear favorite. He's cast yet again as the wizened prophet in the guise of a humble hanger-on (in this case, an ex-boxer). I'm in his corner, though I wouldn't be unhappy if an upset was pulled by Thomas Haden Church, who as the cool voice of dissent is to "Sideways" what John Travolta was to "Pulp Fiction." But Freeman, one of America's great actors, deserves the recognition.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: The Virginia Madsen story is basically too good to resist. Outgrowing the sex-bomb roles her physical lusciousness provided her in her 20s, she got by on made-for-TV movies until "Sideways" director Payne acknowledged the obvious: She was always more than her physical attributes. She's the deserved winner, although Cate Blanchett, playing Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," was wonderful, and Natalie Portman would be real competition had "Closer" not been so solidly rejected by the public.

ACTOR: With Giamatti criminally overlooked, there's no underdog in this fight. The award belonged to Jamie Foxx the minute after Taylor Hackford's misshapen Ray Charles biography "Ray" was screened at last fall's Toronto Film Festival. It left most of those in attendance with mouths agape at the precision of his impersonation.

I was one of the underwhelmed, though I argued he should have been nominated in this category for "Collateral" instead of for supporting actor for that movie. (Did anyone notice that the nominal star of "Collateral," Tom Cruise, was never a serious contender? That's because the movie is about Foxx's character.) My personal choice is Eastwood, who plays boxing trainer Frankie Dunn in "Million Dollar Baby," but his reward probably lies elsewhere .

ACTRESS: It's deju vu all over again, with Annette Bening anointed early as a sure thing for her convincing portrayal of a popular actress threatened by advancing age in "Being Julia." The same thing happened to her five years ago for "American Beauty" until Hilary Swank came strutting into the ring with "Boys Don't Cry." Once again, I believe Swank's the winner, but if I were an Oscar voter, I probably would have been compelled to cast my ballot for Imelda Staunton's brilliant work in "Vera Drake," a movie nobody wanted to see.

DIRECTOR: Yet again, the seemingly unsolvable argument is evoked: Isn't the best picture the product of the best director? I'm probably cooking my own goose, but I'm semi-convinced the Academy will not venture where my heart says it should, naming Payne best director and "Sideways" best picture. I think voters will split the difference and finally acknowledge Martin Scorsese as one of the best American directors, even if his award is for a film that is not one of his best.

Eastwood, after all, already has one of these (for "Unforgiven"), but if the common wisdom is correct and he wins, I'll be thrilled, because "Million Dollar Baby" may be his finest movie.

PICTURE: Having already expressed my admiration for "Sideways," the real race remains between "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Aviator." The winner is ... "Million Dollar Baby."

As for the consolation prizes: One has to hope the adapted screenplay award has been reserved for Alexander Payne and his "Sideways" writing partner, Jim Taylor, not just because the movie may be passed over in other categories, but because it's just about perfect.

If you want to know how perfect, pick up the published script to read the scenes that were cut from the finished film; they are as beautifully written as those left in. The pinot noir scene is one for the ages.

Original screenplay is a tough call, but I'm expecting John Logan's script for "The Aviator" to be more to Academy members' liking than Charlie Kaufman's mind-bending "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

"The Aviator" is also a good bet to win film editing, art direction and cinematography, although the beautifully photographed "The Passion of the Christ" has an outside chance at the last category. My guess is that "The Passion of the Christ" will go home with two statues, both fully deserved, for makeup and John Debney's beautifully rendered score.