Oscars May Surprise Despite Front-Runners
NEW YORK – As Oscar season heats up, it’s a one-horse race led by two cowboys.
“Brokeback Mountain,” the Western romance starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, is widely considered the front-runner approaching the Jan. 31 nominations.
The Ang Lee-directed film won a commanding four Golden Globes, including best picture, adding to previous honors from New York and Los Angeles film critics. On Sunday, it also won the top honor from the Producers Guild.
But the March 5 Oscars are unusually late this year because of the Olympics, leaving voters plenty of time to mull over their choices.
In the meantime, awards will be bestowed by the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild and the British Academy √≥ all of which could change the handicapping.
“The guild awards are the same voters as the Oscars √≥ they’re all like-minded people,” says Tom O’Neil, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times’ “The Envelope” Web site. “They could give us a very different direction for this race.”
“In that month, there’s a lot of time for pampered, indulgent Oscar voters to change their mind if they want to,” he says. “This race is not over.”
O’Neil grants that “Brokeback” is easily in the lead right now, but sees competition in George Clooney’s black-and-white retelling of Edward R. Murrow’s famous broadcasts in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He also sees a contender in “Crash,” the ensemble drama about intertwining prejudices, by Paul Haggis.
“Crash” has caught heat recently, buoyed by a DVD release (its theatrical release was in May) and nominations from the Producers Guild for best picture and the Directors Guild for best director.
Nevertheless, its spring release and low budget don’t give it the heft of other Oscar contenders, leaving it a definite underdog.
“Walk the Line,” which took three Golden Globes including best picture for a musical or comedy, will probably be nominated for best picture. However, the Johnny Cash biopic doesn’t have the social themes that “Brokeback,” “Good Night” and “Crash” do.
In the past, Hollywood has often opted to support films making a statement. Last year’s winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” was far from your typical popcorn fare, dealing with the divisive issue of euthanasia. 2002’s winner, “A Beautiful Mind,” tackled mental illness, and “American Beauty,” which won in 2000, peered at suburban mid-life crisis.
Other Best Pictures that could be said to have an air of importance include “Schindler’s List” (1994), “Driving Miss Daisy” (1990), “Rain Man” (1989), “Platoon” (1987), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1980), “The Deer Hunter” (1979) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1976).
But there are also a fair share of less brainy winners, including crowd-pleasing epics like “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2004), “Gladiator” (2001) and “Braveheart” (1996). Then there are bright, optimistic movies like “Chicago” (2003), “Forrest Gump” (1995) and “Rocky” (1977).
If the 2006 Oscar voters choose to go that way, they could look to Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” the pageantry of “Memoirs of a Geisha,” or the Jane Austen adaptation “Pride & Prejudice.”
That appears unlikely, though, since critics savaged “Geisha,” “Kong” never quite ran amok as expected, and “Prejudice” received good reviews but little buzz.
Other story lines to look for:
√Ø Capote vs. Cash: The Golden Globes kept Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) and Joaquin Phoenix (“Walk the Line”) separated by genre, but the Oscars won’t. Toss in Heath Ledger from “Brokeback,” and the best actor category is a battlefield of heavyweight performances.
√Ø Munich Rebound? In November, Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” was expected to rule the Oscars. It has since been received by some as a classic, but by many with a shrug. Still, Spielberg isn’t often forgotten by Oscar.
√Ø Felicity Alone: The best actress category appears this year’s most predictable. Felicity Huffman’s gender-bending performance in “Transamerica” has the look of a shoo-in, though Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” has a fighting chance.
√Ø Clooney On Top: Can George Clooney land two nominations √≥ one for acting in “Syriana,” one for directing “Good Night, and Good Luck”?
√Ø A (Newer) World: Terrence Malick has edited down his poetic tale of Pocahontas after initial screenings. Will the shorter cut of “The New World” find favor with Oscar voters? The maverick, recluse director has long been a hero of Hollywood’s; his last picture, “The Thin Red Line,” was awarded seven noms by the Academy.
√Ø Daily Show, Primetime: Everyone will be curious how political the jokes of host Jon Stewart’s are. The entire ceremony may have a generally liberal vibe (even more so than usual), considering so many of the relevant films deal with sexuality or politics.
√Ø Will Anyone Watch? Past ratings have suggested that the key to high viewership for the Academy Awards often isn’t the host, but the movies. When one film (like “Titanic”) has dominated the field, people tune in. This year, the current favorite, “Brokeback Mountain,” is a controversial film that has grossed less than $50 million.
Oscars May Surprise Despite Front-Runners