- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The prospect of approaching war in Iraq overshadowed last year’s Academy Awards. Only the demagogic and self-righteous (i.e., Michael Moore) were certain about how to behave under the circumstances. Another cloud of controversy, this one provoked by Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent biblical spectacle “The Passion of the Christ,” may divert attention from the Academy Awards of 2003, which will be revealed Sunday during ABC’s telecast of the 76th annual Oscar ceremony.

Although Mel Gibson is neither a nominee nor a participant in the upcoming Oscar show, his name may be difficult to ignore. When the Academy’s board of governors decided to advance the Oscar broadcast from late March to late February, the motives were reportedly twofold: shorten the duration of the campaign season available to nominees and facilitate ABC with a high-rated special for television “sweeps” month.

Coincidentally, Mr. Gibson desired an Ash Wednesday opening date for his new movie, a graphically punishing re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. It’s bound to be more of a conversation piece than the Oscar nominees, all in circulation for months. However, it’s also a conversation piece that may not lend itself to Oscar night facetiousness and commentary.

Billy Crystal, whose joke inventory is rich in allusions to Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” returns as the Oscar master of ceremonies this year. Will he — and the writing staff at large — be prepared to mention the Gibson phenomemon? Perhaps. Even joke about it? Not so likely. Every movie becomes a subject for mockery sooner or later, but it’s probably a little early to wax familiar or impious on the subject of Mr. Gibson’s “Passion.”

The smartest thing the motion picture academy could do this year is confirm “The Return of the King,” the final chapter in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, as the most esteemed movie of the year. When the first installment, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” realized only four Academy Awards, in the craftsmanship categories, from 13 nominations of 2001, I was inclined to believe that the Oscar prospects of the trilogy had also vanished. Happily, it appears that decisive Hollywood endorsement for Peter Jackson’s homage to the mythological fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien has been reserved for the decisive chapter.

Neither of the year’s outstanding spectacles, “The Return of the King” and Peter Weir’s seafaring drama “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” have nominees in the acting categories. This seems especially unsporting in the case of “Master and Commander,” where Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany proved the year’s best heroic team in the roles of Capt. Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin.

Only “Mystic River” combined nominations for best picture and direction with a significant share of the acting contenders. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, playing two of the year’s most dismal specimens, respectively despotic and pathetic lowlifes from Boston, could emerge as Oscar winners. Not to mention the most suspicious candidates for soapbox acceptance speeches in a year that will lack the self-righteous indignation of Michael Moore.

Mr. Robbins, weirdly neglected when he had stronger vehicles, notably “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” may have the clearer path. Mr. Penn, nominated three times in the past, most competitively when he appeared in “Dead Man Walking” under Mr. Robbins’ direction, should enjoy an advantage as an overdue contender. However, he’s also a chronic absentee at festive industry events and may be leery of the Bill Murray bandwagon, fabricated on the wispy foundation of Sofia Coppola’s whimsical comedy about culture shock in Tokyo, “Lost in Translation.” Like Mr. Robbins, Mr. Murray is a first-time nominee whose smartest vehicles, from “Ghostbusters” to “Groundhog Day,” never got a tumble from the Academy membership in years past.

Funnymen in general have been shortchanged by the Oscar bias for pathos. On the night when a career award is finally being presented to Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther farces, it would be satisfying to see a bit of harmonic convergence with specialists in comedy. At the same time, I regard Sir Ben Kingsley as the most powerful and accomplished actor in the field. His superiority to Mr. Penn while embodying an aggrieved father is self-evident. Nevertheless, only Bill Murray stands in the way of a dubious prize for a miserable crime thriller, so I’ll be content to savor his triumph.

Among the actresses Charlize Theron probably has the edge for effacing her beauty in order to portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.” The recent examples of Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry” and Halle Berry in “The Monster’s Ball” suggest a membership tilt toward degradation as a winning gambit. The Theron quest may have been smoothed by the absence of Gwyneth Paltrow for “Sylvia” and Cate Blanchett for “Veronica Guerin.” Two commanding performances as self-destructive women have been conveniently eliminated.

The spoiler for Miss Theron may be Diane Keaton, playing the alter-ego of writer/director Nancy Meyers in “Something’s Gotta Give.” If you’ve met the prototype, the self-portrait can be insufferable, even when filtered through Miss Keaton, but that’s a specialized stumbling block. I have an upset favorite among the best actress finalists: Samantha Morton as the young Irish wife and mother struggling with West Side poverty in Jim Sheridan’s “In America.” I’m also baffled by the nomination for Keisha Castle-Hughes, the juvenile lead in the New Zealand ethnic fantasy “Whale Rider.” Academy voters love this sort of beau geste with girls. Sometimes they even go overboard and make them Oscar winners: Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon” and Anna Paquin in “The Piano.” Renee Zellweger was perhaps the most deserving also-ran of 2002 for her performance in “Chicago.” Lest we forget, Nicole Kidman’s masquerade as Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” won the category. Now Miss Zellweger is expected to prevail on the rebound in “Cold Mountain,” where her supporting role was cleverly calculated to upstage Miss Kidman’s leading role.

The Academy membership can easily protect its professional self-respect by honoring the New Zealand filmmakers who demonstrated that a “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was within the realm of possibility. The Academy would also be saluting far-flung independents by doing so.

The behind-the-scenes material in the DVDs for “The Fellowship of the Ring” and “The Two Towers” illustrates what a resourceful, down-home group of movie bohemians the Peter Jackson apparatus happens to be.

They’ve advanced methodically from amateur filmmaking to formidable powers of cinematic illusion. Evidently without losing the common touch.

They deserve a culminating affirmation at the Academy Awards. Then we can start speculating about whether “The Passion of the Christ” will qualify as a foreign-language film next winter.

It’s probably the first Aramaic-speaking candidate.

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