- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 24, 2001

The Hollywood Reporter declared in February when the Academy Awards nominations for 2000 were announced that "Gladiator" "slew the competition with 12 nominations." Perhaps a case can be made for terminating the Oscar season with the nominations, but to date the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences still prefers to vote for one awards recipient among five finalists in most of the 23 competitive categories.

We will see the results during Hollywood's 73rd annual awards gala and advertising showcase — hosted by Steve Martin and telecast live by ABC for at least four hours — beginning at 8 p.m. March 25.

Only one other finalist was close to the total for "Gladiator," which is Ridley Scott's epic about the rivalry of a tenacious Roman warrior and a despotic emperor. That was Ang Lee's superb martial arts adventure fable, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Nominated in 10 categories — six of them in common with "Gladiator" — this remarkable foreign language entry had made a heartening impression at the box office. "Crouching Tiger" broke down resistance to subtitles with such promptness that it became the highest grossing import in recent history, surpassing the 1998 Italian feature "Life Is Beautiful."

The front-runners are joined as best-movie finalists by "Chocolat," an allegorical romance with a provincial French setting in the 1960s, and a pair of topical American melodramas set in the present, "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic." This trio had five nominations each, making them an unlikely threat to "Gladiator" or "Crouching Tiger." Nevertheless, certain contenders — Julia Roberts as best actress in the title role of "Erin Brockovich" and Benicio Del Toro as best supporting actor as a resourceful Mexican narcotics agent in "Traffic" — loom as favorites.

Until proved wrong by the results, I look forward to a triumphant evening for Mr. Lee and his colleagues. "Crouching Tiger" appears competitive in every category except best adapted screenplay and best song. When handicapping the Oscars, one would be wise to look to the Writers Guild's choices. Guild members chose Stephen Gaghan of "Traffic" for best adaptation and Kenneth Longergan of "You Can Count on Me" for best original screenplay. Bob Dylan, who composed the song in "Wonder Boys," seems the likely favorite among songwriters, while competing with the likes of Bjork and Sting.

Early showdowns in categories such as art direction, cinematography, costume design, original score and film editing should reveal an edge for "Gladiator" or "Crouching Tiger." Not that major contenders always go the distance with big leads on Oscar night. "Cabaret" was up 7-to-2 over "The Godfather" before the latter was named best movie of 1972.

Unfortunately, none of the cast members from "Crouching Tiger" made the finals, notably actresses Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Zi-Yi, who would have enhanced the current mix of finalists, while setting up a dandy 12-nomination deadlock with "Gladiator." I would be glad to dislodge Joan Allen in "The Contender," Juliette Binoche in "Chocolat" or Ellen Burstyn in "Requiem for a Dream" to accommodate Miss Yeoh in the best actress contest. Julia Roberts has seemed the favorite for a year. Her only plausible competition is Laura Linney, a richly deserving nominee for "You Can Count on Me."

The supporting actress category — lacking the exquisite Zhang Zi-Yi — may tilt toward a Judi Dench encore with "Chocolat" or a premature embrace of Kate Hudson, Goldie Hawn's daughter, in "Almost Famous." Recent awards to Marisa Tomei, Mira Sorvino and Angelina Jolie suggest a propensity for the new face option in this sector.

Under the circumstances, I prefer Washington's own Marcia Gay Harden, always admirably in character as Lee Krasner in Ed Harris' "Pollock." Often a tower of strength and an underrated, versatile performer, she's overdue for a nomination. An added incentive is the amazing failure of Washingtonian Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg" to make the finals as best documentary feature.

Ang Lee and company deserve to make Oscar history by becoming the first foreign-language collaborators to win Hollywood's big prize. Movies from abroad — from "La Grande Illusion" in 1938 to "Life Is Beautiful" two years ago — sometimes have cracked the Oscar finals. They never have gone all the way. The turn of the century seems smartly timed for a breakthrough of this sort, and "Crouching Tiger" is an aesthetically justifiable reason for generosity among Academy voters.

Would it surprise me if Hollywood decided to stay close to home in its choice and opt for "Traffic" or "Erin Brockovich"? Not really. Especially with a strike deadline approaching for actors and writers and a general feeling that Hollywood movies didn't command much respect last year and haven't begun to make up lost ground this year.

Prestige momentum since the end of the year has shifted to "Crouching Tiger" and "Traffic," despite "Gladiator's" role of early favorite. "Gladiator" got the short odds in Las Vegas (9-5) and qualifies as the biggest commercial success of all contenders (worldwide grosses of more than $450 million.) "Crouching Tiger" and "Traffic" are cruising toward the blockbuster plateau of $100 million in domestic grosses, although they are distributed by specialty houses, Sony Classics and USA Films. They continue to exceed commercial expectations.

Mr. Lee won the directing awards at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild ceremony. The latter almost always is a predictor of the Oscar winner. "Gladiator" didn't win any Globes, until the final one — best dramatic film — making it seem a flukey choice. "Crouching Tiger" won three awards, including best foreign language film, but wasn't a finalist for the last prize. The best dramatic film prize had seemed headed more logically to "Traffic" or "Cast Away" than "Gladiator." "Castaway" has come up curiously short in Oscar nominations. Many people consider Tom Hanks on track for his third Oscar as best actor, but, oddly, "Cast Away" missed the finals for cinematography, film editing, sound and makeup.

"Almost Famous," the Globes' winner for best comedy, didn't make the Oscar finals as best movie. The two Globe choices in the comedy acting category, Renee Zellweger in "Nurse Betty"' and George Clooney in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," also are absent from the Oscar showdown.

Mr. Del Toro's success has helped cloud the Oscar crystal, since he was named best supporting actor at the Globes and best actor by the Screen Actors Guild. He reverts to the supporting actor category tomorrow night. This may doom Albert Finney, a frequent Oscar nominee, to another loss. He has been nominated for playing Miss Roberts' legal mentor in "Erin Brockovich."

A good omen for "Traffic,"in addition to the Del Toro prelims and the Writers Guild award, is that it received SAG's award for ensemble acting. The most conspicuous stumbling block: Steven Soderberg's nominationas best director for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich." This honor could be a drawback, since Academy members can't vote a Soderbergh tandem; it's either one title or the other.

But "Crouching Tiger" seems to dwell in a loftier cinematic realm than the two other films, elevating an entire genre and international filmmaking.

Two conspicuously deserving actors missed the short list. I expected Michael Douglas to be the favorite as best actor for playing the faculty maverick in "Wonder Boys" and Bruce Greenwood to mop up as supporting actor for impersonating John F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days."' Their failure to be nominated adds two more famous oversights to Oscar history.

The Hispanic tandem of Mr. Del Toro in "Traffic" and Javier Bardem in "Before Night Falls" might be a shrewd handicapping choice. Coincidentally, both are Spanish-language roles in this year of distinction for a foreign language contender.

I've decided I would prefer an overdue ticket: Mr. Harris in "Pollock" matched to Mr. Finney in "Erin Brockovich." A nightmare ticket, also in biographical roles, is easy to identify: Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade in "Quills" wedded to either Joaquin Phoenix as the emperor Commodus in "Gladiator" or Willem Dafoe as the cadaverous German actor Max Schreck in "The Shadow of the Vampire."

If forced to choose, I would pick Mr. Rush and Mr. Phoenix since they also share the screen in "Quills."

The top three worst possible choices: Stephen Daltry as best director for "Billy Elliot" Joan Allen as best actress for "The Contender" and Mr. Phoenix as the ostensibly sinister but consistently laughable Commodus.

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