- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

"Gladiator," a spectacle predicated on the corruption of ancient Rome during the reign of the bloodthirsty emperor Commodus, took the lead among finalists for the Academy Awards this year with 12 nominations in various categories, including best motion picture.
The closest competitor is another adventure spectacle set in the past: the extraordinary Chinese martial-arts fable "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which secured 10 nominations. It could be the first foreign-language attraction to win the ultimate accolade of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which announced the preliminary round of its 73rd annual awards balloting yesterday in Beverly Hills, Calif.
The winners will be revealed during a gala awards ceremony March 25 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. ABC will telecast the show starting at 8 p.m. EST.
The other finalists for best motion picture are the topical melodramas "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic," both directed by Steven Soderbergh, and the whimsical romance "Chocolat."
Mr. Soderbergh also is a double nominee as best director. In that category, a split vote for his candidates easily could swing the award to Ang Lee of "Crouching Tiger" (the winner at the Golden Globes, when Mr. Soderbergh also was in contention with two movies) or Ridley Scott of "Gladiator."
The fifth candidate for best director, Stephen Daldry for the British heartwarmer "Billy Elliot," which championed an adolescent boy with a yen for ballet, appears to be a distant long-shot.
Perhaps the likeliest of all conceivable winners is Julia Roberts in the best-actress category. Miss Roberts was Mr. Soderberghs leading lady in "Erin Brockovich," the story of a real-life legal assistant who helped prepare a damages case against a public utility in central California.
A star for the past decade, since earning her first Oscar nomination in "Pretty Woman," Miss Roberts would appear to enjoy a commanding advantage as best actress over Joan Allen in "The Contender," Juliette Binoche in "Chocolat," Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream" and Laura Linney in "You Can Count on Me." Miss Binoche and Miss Burstyn are previous Oscar winners.
One of the most surprising omissions from the finalists: Michael Douglas, expected to adorn the final five as best actor for his performance as a rumpled, self-defeating novelist-professor in "Wonder Boys."
Its possible that two-time winner Tom Hanks, nominated for his role in "Castaway," will loom as the Hollywood establishment preference over Australian maverick Russell Crowe, conceded a new starring status on the strength of "Gladiator" but also freshly notorious for a whirlwind love affair with actress Meg Ryan, his co-star in another 2000 release, "Proof of Life."
The other three nominees for best actor accentuate the biographical: Geoffrey Rush, a flamboyant Marquis de Sade in "Quills"; the Spanish actor Javier Bardem, a suffering Cuban poet, Reinaldo Arenas, in "Before Night Falls"; and Ed Harris as the brooding abstract painter Jackson Pollock in "Pollock," which opens next week in the Washington area. Mr. Rush is a previous Oscar winner.
Two actresses from the autobiographical comedy "Almost Famous," Frances McDormand and Kate Hudson, have been nominated as best supporting actress. The remaining candidates are Judi Dench in "Chocolat," Marcia Gay Harden in "Pollock" and Julie Walters in "Billy Elliot." Miss McDormand and Miss Dench have won Academy Awards in recent years.
Albert Finney, a frequent nominee and distinguished actor who has never won an Academy Award, may seem irresistibly overdue as a supporting-actor finalist in "Erin Brockovich." His competition: Jeff Bridges in "The Contender," Willem Dafoe in "Shadow of the Vampire," Benicio Del Toro in "Traffic" and Joaquin Phoenix in "Gladiator."
"Crouching Tiger" recently became the most successful foreign-language movie in North American exhibition history, surpassing the Italian import "Life Is Beautiful." With gross receipts of slightly more than $60 million, "Crouching Tiger" could add substantially to its success during the countdown to the Academy Awards. Like "Life Is Beautiful," it has been nominated as best foreign-language film as well as best motion picture. "Life" won the former but failed to upset "Shakespeare in Love" for the latter during the 1998 competition.
The suspense on March 25 could be sharpened by the fact that "Crouching Tiger" and "Gladiator" are finalists in seven awards categories. "Crouching Tiger" is one of the rare Oscar contenders that did not place any performers among the acting nominees. The front-running "Gladiator" was the third-most-popular attraction of 2000, with receipts of almost $190 million at years end. "Erin Brockovich" also cruised into the blockbuster class with grosses of more than $125 million.

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