- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2001

The Academy Award nominations released this week provided more incentive for partiality than I expected: 10 chances for Ang Lee's marvelous "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Like "Life Is Beautiful" two years ago, "Tiger" has reached the finals for both best foreign language film of the year and best motion picture overall. No subtitled feature film ever has won the ultimate Oscar, but perhaps no other contender has been better situated to achieve this breakthrough.

The Academy membership has plenty of good reasons to support "Crouching Tiger." No other contending film is a hotter attraction at the moment. None has comparable thrills and heartaches or the promise of expanding the cultural horizons of the business and improving the taste of a mass international audience as much as "Crouching Tiger." None also reawakens the magical and rapturous attributes of the medium as impressively.

"Crouching Tiger" has American connections, even though the movie was based on mainland China and reflects the expertise of filmmakers born in Asia and schooled in production centers such as Hong Kong and Taipei.

Mr. Lee, born in Taiwan but educated and based in the United States, has been an asset to English-language filmmaking for much of the past decade. Even before his "Crouching Tiger," American performers with serious aspirations would have welcomed the thought of working with Mr. Lee because of his direction of "Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm" and "Ride With the Devil."

One of Mr. Lee's closest collaborators from the beginning has been an American: producer and screenwriter James Schamus, one of the "Crouching Tiger" nominees. Mr. Schamus is a contributor to the screenplay, but he confesses to near ignorance of its Mandarin dialogue and finer linguistic nuances.

The Academy went for "Life Is Beautiful" in a big way two years ago, awarding the Oscars for both best actor and best foreign language film to actor-director Roberto Benigni. Hollywood should underline in this year's awards that "Crouching Tiger" is a classier crossover attraction from the art-house market.

The "Life Is Beautiful" vogue in Hollywood always was a little mystifying. One would not expect Mr. Benigni's mawkish, trivialized perspective on the Holocaust to catch on so soon after Holocaust denial had become a notorious sore point and so soon after Steven Spielberg had been honored for "Schindler's List," an admirably sober impression of captivity, survival and redemption under Nazi tyranny.

A "Crouching Tiger" victory also would atone for the Academy's strange infatuation with Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," which won nine Oscars in nine categories, including best movie, in 1987. The dubious attachment to Maoist piety that permeated Mr. Bertolucci's historical spectacle is replaced by an immersion in Chinese romantic fable and heroic mythology in "Crouching Tiger."

This shift from moldy ideology to chivalrous poetic appeal is vastly preferable in aesthetic and emotional terms.

Mr. Lee's movie, despite its reliance on subtitles, has far surpassed the modest commercial showing of "Last Emperor."

Ridley Scott's Roman imperial spectacle, "Gladiator," emerged with more Oscar nominations, 12, than "Crouching Tiger." But I suspect "Gladiator" fever peaked months ago, when the trade press seemed to be overrating its epic contours. The high-profile private life of Russell Crowe, the film's star, also may prove a liability. (Remember his liaison with Meg Ryan while she still was married to Dennis Quaid?)

If "Spartacus" couldn't crack the finals 40 years ago, it seems "Gladiator" should not be humored in the year of "Crouching Tiger." Isn't "Gladiator" sort of a World Wrestling Federation misconception of "Spartacus"? Instead of a gladiator who escapes to lead a slave army against Rome, we have a betrayed and persecuted Roman general who stoops to celebrity as a gladiator to rile a treacherous emperor. The sociology is decidedly upside down. As the presiding corrupt emperor, Commodus, Joaquin Phoenix looks about as threatening as Don Knotts. He certainly poses no discernible threat to Mr. Crowe.

Lest we forget, Mel Gibson got the "Spartacus" homage right in "Braveheart" only a few years ago. There's no compelling need to congratulate "Gladiator" for falling short of a lofty historic tradition.

If Academy voters prefer a home-grown candidate, "Erin Brockovich" seems the more plausible stumbling block to "Crouching Tiger."

Julia Roberts almost certainly will win as best actress. Albert Finney, Miss Robert's co-star and comic foil, is long overdue for an Oscar and certainly is not outclassed for best supporting actor.

Director Steven Soderbergh has been nominated for "Traffic" as well as "Erin Brockovich," and this distinction might make it seem churlish to shortchange him.

"Crouching Tiger" is a transporting new classic, but it may be a loftier achievement than the membership requires.

The crusading and earnest aspects of "Erin Brockovich" are easier for prosaic filmmakers to emulate. The scenario derives from an authentic legal case that could be replicated time and again. The setting is close to home for Hollywood folks. Trial lawyers are championed at the expense of a public utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which has become more of a California whipping boy during the current power crisis.

Momentum and merit, however, should combine to make "Crouching Tiger" the inevitable choice of Hollywood pros who value their pride and love the movies.

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