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The Big Picture

Just in Case, Steven: Here's an Award-Winning Plan

February 06, 2001|Patrick Goldstein

Now that the Directors Guild of America has given Steven Soderbergh nominations for both "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich," the table is set for the director to achieve a rare feat--two best director Oscar nominations. In Hollywood, where Oscar campaigns have become as expensive and cutthroat as presidential electioneering, this has led to an orgy of industry hand-wringing: If Soderbergh doesn't support one movie over the other, his two nominations will cancel each other out.

It's what happened with the Golden Globes in January when the director was nominated for both films and lost to Ang Lee, director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." As "Traffic" co-star Michael Douglas, an Oscar winner himself, put it recently: "Steven is going to have to make a choice which film to campaign for."

Soderbergh has so far refused to take sides. At the New York and Los Angeles Film Critics awards, he sat with "Traffic's" USA Films contingent; at the Broadcast Film Critics Awards and National Board of Review dinner, he sat with "Brockovich's" Universal team. When he won best director at the Broadcast Film luncheon, he began his speech by saying, "I'm going to go chronologically." ("Erin" came first.)

If he remains scrupulously neutral, will he go home a loser? And if he campaigns, will he lose some of his above-the-fray luster with academy voters? As luck would have it, we obtained a copy of a top-secret Strategy Memo penned by Hollywood's most ruthless Oscar campaign operative.

Dear Steve:

I know you're off making "Ocean's Eleven," but the powers that be asked if I'd lay out your options involving the dreaded dual-Oscar issue. Although the nominations aren't announced for another week, if you want to make an impact, you should do it right away. Most academy voters mail in their ballots within days of the nominations, so you have to hit them hard and hit them fast. Here are your options as I see them:

1) Choosing sides.

Pro: It's probably the only way for you to win. If you convince a substantial number of voters to follow your lead, instead of having to beat four directors, you only have to beat three. Best of all, a lot of voters who would've voted for the movie you jettison will still give you a vote to reward your general level of excellence. There is precedent; actors in the past have made it clear to studios what film they want to support when they've had two contenders in the same year.

Con: If you campaign, you become just another Oscar slut, since you're basically disowning one of your own films. Obviously it sends a me-myself-I message to the film's actors, crew, studio etc. Right now you're putting your movies ahead of yourself, which buys valuable goodwill. Everyone else is out there, putting on their party dresses, schmoozing every potential voter in town. Julia Roberts has been eating out so much that when she got her best actress statue at the L.A. Film Critics shindig, she quipped: "The chicken here sure beats the [expletive] out of the fish at the National Board of Review!"

2) If you want to choose, here's the lay of the land:

The case for "Traffic": It's a more ambitious, uncompromising director's movie with the same kind of dark, self-questioning mood that won an Oscar last year for "American Beauty," and it deals with the kind of up-to-the-minute topic (the nation's drug wars) that has already elicited tons of op-ed pieces. It has the scope academy members are impressed by: multiple story lines, complex editing, different filtered colors for each parallel story. You probably get extra points for shooting the movie yourself (too bad they don't give cinematography Oscars to guys using pseudonyms).

In short, it has an aura of real importance, which Oscar voters love--unlike "Chocolat" with those Anti-Defamation League blurbs and "Gladiator," which is suddenly trying to make people think it's "Gandhi." I'm sure you heard the "Gladiator" speeches about the film's anti-violence message at the Broadcast Film lunch; imagine what we could do with a film that really does have a message. We'd get you on Charlie Rose and NPR, maybe even do a Tim Russert round table with politicians, DEA guys, recovering addicts (maybe Robert Downey Jr. could help out) and really sell the seriousness angle.

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