Wednesday, January 21, 2004

When the members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association made “Cold Mountain” the front-runner for the group’s annual Golden Globe Awards, which will be announced during an NBC special on Sunday, they were playing favorites a trifle prematurely.

“Cold Mountain” received eight Globe nominations, giving the Homerically inspired Civil War epic a comfortable lead over runners-up “Mystic River” and “Lost in Translation,” with five each. At the time of the award nominations, about five weeks ago, a case could be made for assuming that “Cold Mountain” would emerge as the prestige release of the holiday season, even if the obvious favorite to dominate commercially was always “The Return of the King,” the final installment of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. However, the magnitude of its popularity had yet to be measured. “Return” had opened only a day before Globe nominees were announced. “Cold Mountain” was still a week away from theatrical release.

Now the results are in, and “The Return of the King” looms as both a commercial and critical powerhouse. Its $325 million domestic gross is way beyond any other film’s reach. At $65 million, “Cold Mountain” isn’t a flop, but it faces an uphill battle to recoup its costs and hasn’t performed as well as other prestige historical spectacles, notably “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” and “The Last Samurai.”

While there are no guarantees, “The Return of the King” has clearly emerged as the logical favorite to bask in Oscar glory when the Academy Awards are presented Feb. 29. Something else will need to deny it.

The most plausible spoilers are “Master and Commander,” another brilliant distillation of a cycle of adventure novels; “Seabiscuit,” an inspirational horse-racing saga steeped in New Deal nostalgia and piety; “Mystic River,” the year’s most acclaimed wallow in fatalistic crime fiction; and “Lost in Translation,” the darling of the sleepers.

The annual Globes bash, staged in an artfully congested banquet room of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, will be swiftly followed Tuesday by the actual Academy Awards nominations. “Cold Mountain” does not seem strongly positioned beyond the Globes. For example, it is not one of the five finalists for the Directors Guild Award. That group consists of Mr. Jackson for “The Return of the King,” Peter Weir for “Master and Commander,” Gary Ross for “Seabiscuit,” Clint Eastwood for “Mystic River” and Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation.”

Only one performer from “Cold Mountain,” Renee Zellweger, is in contention for an award from the Screen Actors Guild. The movie also failed to make the finals in the group’s best-ensemble category, which consists of “In America,” “Mystic River,” “Seabiscuit,” “The Station Agent” and “The Return of the King.” Failing to outpoll productions as modest as “In America” and “The Station Agent” has to be discouraging.

Still, while most of the trends favor other titles, all is not yet lost for “Cold Mountain” partisans. The DGA choices are only 80 percent accurate at anticipating Oscar finalists for best direction. “Cold Mountain” has placed John Seale in the final five for the annual feature award of the American Society of Cinematographers. The Writers Guild announces its candidates this weekend. And the Oscar nominations remain an imponderable for a few more days. It’s useful to remember that the HFPA is a 90-member group of movie journalists. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has 5,800 eligible voters, with actors making up the largest bloc.

Not to be discounted either is the prospect of an Oscar promotional push for “Cold Mountain” by Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein. In the past, he has engineered successful campaigns for “The English Patient”; “Shakespeare in Love”; and last year’s best-picture winner, “Chicago.”

The 1998 Oscar race between “Shakespeare in Love” and Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” a DreamWorks release, began to stir resentments that have lingered annually among Weinstein rivals. Some “Ryan” partisans felt that subtly disparaging comments were emanating from Miramax under the radar of its positive campaign for “Shakespeare.”

(Curiously, Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein appear on the credits of the “Lord of the Rings” movies as executive producers; they once controlled the project before deciding that a three-film cycle would be too rich for their blood. Miramax also has one-third of a three-cornered interest in “Master and Commander” with Universal and 20th Century Fox.)

Two of the “Cold Mountain” co-stars, Nicole Kidman and Miss Zellweger, are repeat Globe nominees, not to mention press favorites. They won Golden Globes last year, for “The Hours” and “Chicago,” respectively. Writer-director Anthony Minghella was a past winner for “The English Patient” in 1996 and a strong contender with “The Talented Mr. Ripley” in 1999. Jude Law made a striking impression in the latter before being cast as the leading man, a prodigal Confederate soldier called Inman, in “Cold Mountain.”

The date of the Academy Awards ceremony has been moved up from late March, ostensibly to short-circuit the time available for trade advertising but also to take advantage of a TV ratings “sweeps” month. The compressed awards season shrinks the distance between the Globes ceremony and the Oscar nominations to the blink of an eye.

The new calendar allows little time for the influence of the Globes to ripple outward; the directors host their awards show Feb. 7, the writers Feb. 21, the actors Feb. 22. Now that more and more regional critics groups have jumped on the award-giving bandwagon, the Globes look a bit squeezed fore and aft: from press colleagues at the end of the year and then industry professionals in February.

Does “The Return of the King” need a ringing endorsement from the HFPA Sunday night to anticipate pride of place in the Oscar race? Probably not. No other contender is going to approach its popularity, and there are times when professions, like individuals, should do the expected and endorse the overwhelming desirable choice.

The Academy voters are overdue to get things right, having missed an opportunity to honor Peter Jackson at the outset with “The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001, preferring the psychological enigmas of “A Beautiful Mind.” A year earlier, they also blew a unique opportunity with Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” settling for the wrong spectacle, Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator.”

Good vibes await if it’s a triumphant awards season for the Anzac filmmakers, Mr. Jackson with “Return of the King” and Mr. Weir with “Master and Commander.” It’s high time Hollywood gave decisive recognition to how much their filmmaking influence has reinvigorated the industry. “Decisive” means the awards for best movie and direction. As a rule, it’s easier to secure these prizes if several of your actors are also in contention. “Return” and “Master” may have to make do with an awesome-moviegoing-experience argument. They’ve made it to my satisfaction.

If the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s partiality toward “Cold Mountain” persists through the final balloting, its reputation for anticipating the eventual Academy Award favorites may suffer a humbling reversal.

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