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OSCAR PREVIEW : Analysis

Is Arena Set for 'Gladiator' to Sweep Up?

The early signs point to a big Oscar night for the film. But don't bet the farm on it just yet.

March 12, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With "Gladiator" racking up one best picture honor after another (the Golden Globes, the British Academy, Producers Guild) over the past few weeks, it seems to have sprinted to the head of the field in the Oscar race. With its momentum building, will "Gladiator" also deliver several other major awards from among its 12 nominations?

Large-scale, epic films have a history of sweeping on Oscar night; the most recent examples are "Titanic," which won 11 Oscars in 1997, and the year before that, "The English Patient," which won nine awards--including a surprise victory for Juliette Binoche as best supporting actress, who was swept in with the film's Oscar tide.

An action drama set in ancient Rome, DreamWorks' "Gladiator" most resembles the 1959 best picture winner, "Ben-Hur," which won 11 Oscars, including Academy Awards for best actor (Charlton Heston) and best supporting actor (Hugh Griffith). "Gladiator" is nominated in both those categories as well.

"Gladiator is the old-fashioned choice," says Janet Maslin, former film critic for the New York Times. "It looks big, sounds loud, the kind of film academy members frequently vote for."

The film with the most nominations in a given year usually has the edge for the top honors. "Gladiator" is nominated in most of the technical categories--cinematography, editing, art direction, makeup, special effects, sound, costume design, as well as for best actor (Russell Crowe), supporting actor (Joaquin Phoenix), director (Ridley Scott), original screenplay (David Franzione and John Logan and William Nicholson) and score (Hans Zimmer). Only one film came close to "Gladiator" in terms of nominations--"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" received 10; no other film received more than five nods.

So based on historical precedents and the current buzz in town, "Gladiator" looks to be the film to beat. Hoping to add to that momentum, DreamWorks re-released the film in a Century City theater last week and offered up different nominees to speak at the screenings--everyone from Crowe to score composer Zimmer.

But with the Oscars (as with sporting events and elections), it can be risky to be the front-runner. Only two years ago, "Saving Private Ryan," seemed to be the overwhelming favorite for best picture until the night of the Oscars, when "Shakespeare in Love" waltzed off with the top prize. With the memory of "Ryan" still fresh, Terry Press, marketing head of DreamWorks--which released "Ryan and "Gladiator"--says, "I do not think anyone goes into the Oscars expecting a sweep. That would be moronic."

On the other hand, "it wouldn't be a big surprise" if "Gladiator" went home with several Oscars, says Terry Curtin, publicity head at Universal Pictures, which has a best picture contender in "Erin Brockovich" as well as being co-financier of "Gladiator" (Universal released "Gladiator" overseas).

Multiple Nominations, Multiple Awards?

"Gladiator's" sweeps potential could be based on what Artisan Entertainment Chairman Amir Malin calls "the probability factor." His theory: The more nominations a film has, the better its chances of winning more awards, especially if admiration for a film suddenly blooms into a "love affair" when it comes time to cast the final ballots. (The Oscar balloting ends March 20.)

"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" also has its fans, though insiders contend that because it's a virtual shoo-in for best foreign-language Oscar its chances for best picture are diminished. Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, which released "Tiger," however, says that the foreign-film category has produced consistent surprise winners over the years, so there's no assurance that it will win in that category.

One category that could be affected by a possible "Gladiator" rout is best actor, though this year the outcome could be influenced by more than just a sweeps surge. The race is largely considered to be between Tom Hanks for "Cast Away" and "Gladiator's" Crowe. Often, the best picture can bring along a major acting win (Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man," Gwyneth Paltrow in "Shakespeare in Love"), which would benefit Crowe.

"Voters might consider that because Hanks has won twice already that they want to see another actor share the glory," says Maslin--and Crowe lost last year in his highly praised performance in "The Insider." Hanks' turn, Maslin adds, "just might be the right performance at the wrong time."

However, since the actors' branch of the academy makes up the largest segment of the voters, it might acknowledge Hanks because "Cast Away" is virtually a one-man film. A third, less likely possibility is a split of votes between Hanks and Crowe, allowing a dark horse to emerge victorious.

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