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The vagaries of Oscar

The Academy invariably goofs up on best film, best actor and best actress — giving it to the most popular movie or performance. The selectors get it right, however, with the less glamorous awards, which usually go to the most deserving, observes PRADEEP SEBASTIAN.

``Mulholland Drive''... an unfair omission.

THE BEST film of the year did not even get nominated — that's the Oscars for you. ``Mulholland Drive," written and directed by David Lynch, has won wide critical acclaim but has been snubbed by the Academy Awards because it is saying some very dark things about Hollywood and how it messes with your mind. Can we actually hope that they will make it up to him by handing him Best Director? Nope. Pray that I'm wrong, but since when has a director got it when his film has not even been nominated? Besides, Oscar trends point to Peter Jackson for ``The Lord of the Rings" because everyone loves to see a movie sweep all the major Oscars. And ``The Fellowship of the Ring" is all set to do just that. It's interesting to see how the Academy Awards have worked over the years: they invariably goof up (sometimes advertently) on best film, best actor and best actress — giving it to the most popular movie or performance (subtlety doesn't count for much) while Best Director, Supporting Actor and Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Music Score can vary: it may or may not go to the right person. The Academy gets it right, however, with the less glamorous, more fundamental, creative or technical awards: Best Editing, Best Sound, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay and Best Documentary which usually go to the most deserving — because the Oscar here is based solely on excellence, not popularity. ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," notching up several nominations, will win Best Film and should: even Tolkien fanatics are pleased with Jackson's adaptation. He had been dreaming for years about making the trilogy into a film and now the results are there for everyone to see on screen.

On the other hand, Chris Columbus's Harry Potter, with three nominations for Art Direction, Music Score and Costume, disappoints. But what else can you expect from the guy who made the ``Home Alone" movies? The ultimate verdict is from the fans of J. K. Rowling, and they have given it a firm thumbs down, saying, ``it is wizardry without magic — a movie made by a Muggle for Muggles.'' The nomination of ``Moulin Rouge" for Best Film comes as a pleasant surprise — except for the odd critic, most of them had unfairly panned it when it opened. Now, in retrospect, it stands a chance of being re-evaluated. What could possibly upset all this? If ``In the Bedroom" wins. The Oscar race this year for Best Actor holds no sure bets. Russell Crowe's performance is the most crowd-pleasing (playing a mathematical genius who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia in ``A Beautiful Mind") and he may well grab it because the Oscars cannot resist giving it to actors playing damaged characters. But the one who deserves it is Denzel Washington: his performance as the devious, cynical cop in ``Training Day" is dazzling. Except, the film is only a slightly above average thriller and the Academy would much rather give it to something more, uh, ``serious." Possible upset? If the Brit character actor Tom Wilkinson actually wins.

The Best Actress is not an easy one this year either: there is no one single outstanding performance; all of them are competent. (Actually, there was one exceptional performance this year — from newcomer Naomi Watts in ``Mulholland Drive" but she has not even been nominated! Why? Because it is ``Mulholland Drive"). If it does go to Halle Berry for ``Monster's Ball," the choice would be politically correct and would make Oscar history since not many African American actresses have won. No upsets. That the Best Supporting Actress will go to Jennifer Connelly for ``A Beautiful Mind" is a foregone conclusion — it is a good performance and the Oscars can never resist giving it to a beautiful actress who has also demonstrated she can act. But I wish it would go to Helen Mirren. She's excellent in ``Gosford Park" but that isn't the only reason why: this intelligent, sexy, exceptional looking British actress has done remarkable work over the years and has never been recognised for it. (And in an interesting bit of Oscar trivia, nominating Kate Winslet and Judi Dench for the film ``Iris" is the first time that two actors have been nominated for playing the same person in the same movie — the writer, Iris Murdoch. Upsets: Marisa Tomei.

Director David Lynch... will there be a pleasant surprise?

Ben Kingsley has most of the critics rooting for him for Best Supporting Actor for his legendary performance as the deranged, cockney gangster in "Sexy Beast" but it could well be Ian McKellen who'll get the Oscar for his wizard Gandalf in ``The Fellowship of the Ring." No upsets. There's great cinematography work in ``Black Hawk Down," ``The Lord of the Rings," ``Moulin Rouge" and ``Amelie."

But they are all good and obvious in a flashy way: leaving little room for accolade and attention for a subtle, atmospheric, black and white camera work like that of Roger Deakins for ``The Man Who Wasn't There." Upsets? Roger Deakins, of course.

Original screenplay ought to go to Chris Nolan for his ingenious script for ``Memento" and Best Adapted Screenplay to Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff for ``Ghost World," an adaptation of a cult comic book series. As for Best Original Music Score it is high time it went to Howard Shore for ``The Fellowship of the Ring" because they ought to have given it to him years ago for his brilliantly moody score for ``The Silence of the Lambs."

And what has the Best Foreign Language Film category come to? I'm pleased as the next person about ``Lagaan" but a film nominated in this category once meant it was the kind of movie Hollywood couldn't make (think De Sica, Fellini, Ray or even Kieslowski), now it means a film that's more Hollywood than Hollywood: ``Life is Beautiful," ``Chocolat," ``Amelie," ``Lagaan." Sentimental, feel-good, slick, flashy, crowd-pleasing. Not the serious, difficult, complex, challenging, risky kind of film anymore. (Unless, what's happened is that there are no more great films out there). The only recent best foreign language film that truly deserved it was ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It was a crowd pleaser but it was not without daring and originality. ``Amelie" is what everyone is betting on but since dozens of French movies have won in the past, to give it to ``Lagaan" would be a real novelty for the voting Academy; unless, of course, ``No Man's Land" wins and (deservedly) upsets it all.

While Europe and the rest of the world seem to have gone Hollywood, the irony is that it is the small, independent American film that now takes risks and reaches for (and sometimes achieves) that kind of seriousness and artistry. One such small film nominated for Best Film this time is Todd Field's ``In The Bedroom," an understated domestic drama that came out of nowhere, edging out bigger competition. ``Ghost World" is another low-key art film that was lucky enough to bag a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. But for every small film that gets noticed, several go ignored. In the last couple of years it has been ``Election," ``Rushmore," ``The Tailor of Panama" and ``You Can Count On Me." This year it's ``The Deep End," ``Monkeybone," ``Donnie Darko" and ``Waking Life." And then, of course, for every ten small films that go ignored, there will be one hugely over praised film like ``A Beautiful Mind." The Oscars always have one film like that every year: a prestige picture everyone can cheer for. The film is a bio-pic of John Nash, a gifted mathematician who won a 1994 Nobel Prize (for his contribution to Game Theory in Economics) after emerging from years of schizophrenia. Having heard it had distorted the award winning biography (by Sylvia Nasar) it is based on, I was prepared not to like it. Add to that the critics ridiculing Russell Crowe overdoing the paranoid schizophrenic bit (tics and all) and it can make anyone suspicious. But I found myself liking it even as I was discounting it! Only seeing it a second time around will tell me if the film's really any good or just plainly manipulative. Is the film just another polished Hollywood sentimental true story which takes the suffering of John Nash to make a cliched, inspirational movie about the ``indomitability of the human spirit'' or is it a film that really takes us into the mind of John Nash? The question is: how far can you go with poetic licence; can a film take such liberties and if it has, should it be honoured? Will the Oscars never learn?

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