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The nitwits can now step aside

Although the major studios continue to covet movies targeted to young adults, the academy still prefers quality.

January 26, 2005|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

To look at Tuesday's Oscar nominations as a whole is to find yourself facing an alternative movie universe where Mike Leigh's beautifully austere but little-seen British "Vera Drake" got exactly as many nominations as the raucous, homegrown and highly profitable "Spider-Man 2." What a photo op seeing Vera and Spidey together would be, especially because the Leigh film's nominations -- best director, best actress for Imelda Staunton, best original screenplay -- were easily the more prestigious.

Hollywood's relation to the Oscars is that of a man on a weeklong bender who conveniently finds religion on Sunday. The studios spend most of their time and money on nitwit films for the young adult demographic and suddenly discover someone else's quality work when it comes to nominating for the Oscars.

To see how completely the studios have abandoned the adult audience -- for what are Oscar-type films, if not films made with those people in mind -- just look at the origins of the five pictures with the most nominations. For the reality is that none of them have any but the most tangential relationships to the majors, if they have any relationship at all.

Two of the group -- "The Aviator" with 11 nominations and "Finding Neverland" with seven -- were released by Miramax. "Ray" (six nominations) was released by Universal, but the film was financed by Philip Anschutz and acquired after it was finished. And you only have to look at the rest of the Warner Bros. release schedule to know that absent the presence of Clint Eastwood, the chances of the studio financing "Million Dollar Baby" (seven nominations) were all but nonexistent.

The nominations received by "Sideways," a classic indie released by Fox Searchlight, indicates another facet of the new Oscar situation, the mind-meld between the independent and the Academy Award worlds. A true crossover work, "Sideways" had almost the same number of nominations from Oscar voters (five) as it did from the IFP Spirit Award nominators (six).

Other independent-style choices include two for Spanish-language films that premiered at Sundance a year ago: best screenplay for "The Motorcycle Diaries" writer Jose Rivera and best actress for Catalina Sandino Moreno, also a Spirit nominee for "Maria Full of Grace." "Hotel Rwanda" got three nods, and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," a romantic fantasy whose budget kept it out of Spirit contention, got both best actress (Kate Winslet) and best original screenplay (Charlie Kaufman) picks.

In fact, with all the studios now having classics divisions with the ability to fund films in the $15-million to $30-million range (high for indies but small by the standards of the majors), we may be looking at the coming of age of a new kind of hybrid, the quality independent film that does not have to max out its creator's credit card to get made.

Interestingly enough, the one place where the academy showed its old-school tendencies was the slighting of "Kinsey," which had to settle for just a single nomination, Laura Linney's for best supporting actress.

Nothing for Liam Neeson or Peter Sarsgaard, despite their fine work, or for writer-director Bill Condon.

Given that Neeson and Condon have been smiled upon by the academy before (Neeson with a nomination and Condon with a win) and that "Kinsey" is impeccably made in a traditional way, the most plausible explanation is that Alfred Kinsey's self-mutilating bisexual lifestyle was too much for enough academy members to keep the honors away.

For one thing academy voters invariably shy away from is controversial films. "Fahrenheit 9/11" did not get a best picture nomination, and though "The Passion of the Christ" did get three nominations, they were not in any of the major categories, such as picture, writer, director or star.

On the other side of the coin, it was heartening to note the high quality of all five nominees in the best documentary category and to see the academy recognize the virtues of Brad Bird's "The Incredibles" with four nominations, not only the expected best animated feature but the prestigious best original screenplay as well.

There's no knowing how close this film came to a best picture nomination, but if the animation category didn't exist it likely would have had one for sure. The film's ability to mix sophistication with substantial box office receipts, once business as usual for Hollywood, is something only Pixar can manage with any regularity these days.

No matter how much things are changing, however, there are ways in which the academy remains the academy. The members enjoy rewarding actors who respond to challenges, which helped former comic Jamie Foxx get two nominations, and they enjoy rewarding veterans -- whether it be actors Don Cheadle and Alan Alda, actress Virginia Madsen or director Taylor Hackford -- doing some of their best work ever.

That logic should have worked for "Sideways' " Paul Giamatti, but he was bested by actors voters had a stronger emotional connection to. One of those was a juggernaut named Clint Eastwood, who chose this year to do the most emotional work of his 50 years in front of the camera.

The arc of Eastwood's career, from playing cattle drive ramrod Rowdy Yates on TV's "Rawhide" to international action film stardom to a position as one of the most critically respected of directors, is something no one could have imagined. When the truth of a life becomes legendary, you have to go with the legend.

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