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The Iowa of the Oscars

It's primary season for Hollywood politicking. Time to check the voting guide.

January 12, 2003|Jonathan Taylor | Times Staff Writer

You hear it every year, the talk about the Oscar campaign, the Oscar vote, the front-runners and dark horses. You see them every year too: ads, fliers, even billboards soliciting votes. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was a political election ... and you wouldn't be far off.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may aspire to honor the best films each year, but it's always been about active campaigning, and politics has as much to do with it as art.

The Oscar race begins with what in effect are early primaries -- the year-end best-of lists by major film critics, plus the year's best tallies from the various city film critics' associations. These votes, along with the nominations from the various peer groups -- actors, writers, directors, producers and various other crafts unions -- help set the platforms for the campaigns. As with presidential primaries, the winners of these early rounds frequently don't win the ultimate contest. Remember John McCain? Remember "Mulholland Drive"?

Like longshot presidential candidates, some films try to get up close and personal with voters, via cocktail parties, screenings with Q&A sessions following, even mailing copies of the script; you half expect the stars to stop by for dinner.

Like governmental politics, the Oscar race features the equivalents of the two major political parties: Miramax and DreamWorks. The former more or less invented the modern, bare-knuckled form of Oscar campaigning when the then-upstart independent earned a best picture nomination for 1989's "My Left Foot," then perfected the formula with 1992's "The Crying Game." It's had a best picture nomination every year since, a feat unmatched by any studio, and has won twice. DreamWorks, an even newer film studio, matched Miramax's intensity, and it has been behind the last three best picture winners. They remain bitter rivals.

Of course, best picture isn't the only race. There are acting, writing, directing and foreign-language categories -- the equivalent, say, of Senate or gubernatorial races. And then there are races, such as sound-effects editing, original score or documentary short, that might be the equivalent of county assessor or insurance commissioner.

The politics of Oscar might play out something like the following.

There will be butterflies over this ballot

Like in most elections, projects and people represent parties, which in this case represent standard appeals that have worked in the past; unlike in most other elections, contenders can represent more than one party. Here's a breakdown of the ballot in the major categories:

*--* Best Picture Movie Party affiliation (And we don't mean Vanity Fair's) "Gangs of New York" Prestige Filmmaker/Miramax Fading Push "Chicago" This Year's "Moulin Rouge"/Miramax Alternate Push "The Hours" Classy Adaptation/Miramax Just in Case "Catch Me If You Can" DreamWorks Main Push "The Pianist" Prestige Festival Winner (Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or)/Bio "Road to Perdition" Oscar Pedigree/DreamWorks Alternate Choice "Antwone Fisher" Feel Good About Yourself/Actor-Turned-Direct or "Adaptation" Quirky Picks/Critics' Darling "About Schmidt" Critics' Darling "Far From Heaven" This Year's "In the Bedroom" "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" This Year's "The Lord of the Rings" "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" This Year's "The Full Monty" Write-ins "The Quiet American" If All Else Fails for Miramax "About a Boy" Golden Globe Nomination "Signs" Disney's Big Push


*--* Best Actor Name Movie Party affiliation Jack Nicholson "About Schmidt" It's Always His Party Tom Hanks "Road to Past Winners/Playing Perdition" Against Type Daniel Day-Lewis "Gangs of New Showy Acting/Past Winners York" Nicolas Cage "Adaptation" Showy Acting/Past Winners Michael Caine "The Quiet Past Winners American" Adrien Brody "The Pianist" Breakthrough Performance Leonardo DiCaprio "Catch Me If Maybe We Were Wrong About You Can" Him Dennis Quaid "The Rookie" Career Redemption Hugh Grant "About a Boy" Career Elevation Al Pacino "Insomnia" Past Winners Alfred Molina "Frida" Showy Acting Clint Eastwood "Blood Work" Contractual Obligations Tom Cruise "Minority Contractual Obligations Report" Ben Affleck "Changing Contractual Obligations Lanes"

Best Actress Name Movie Party affiliation Nicole Kidman "The Hours" She's Not Just Beautiful, She Can Act Renee Zellweger "Chicago" It's Her Year Julianne Moore "The It's Finally Her Year Hours"/"Far From Heaven" Meryl Streep "The Hours" It's Always Her Year Diane Lane "Unfaithful" Career Redemption Salma Hayek "Frida" Career Elevation/This Year's Halle Berry Nia Vardalos "My Big Fat Blockbuster Success Greek Wedding" Maggie Gyllenhaal "Secretary" You Never Know

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