Criminal moves

It was an unusual Oscar show this year: I was only twice tempted to hurl a brick through the TV screen — when Chris Cooper won Best Supporting Actor and when Eminem won Best Song. (Of course, that’s exempting the Oscar audience’s reaction to documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s acceptance speech.)

Alas, my hostess had neglected to provide me with bricks — a wise move on her part, but detrimental to my need for self-expression.

The show was also marked by its relative brevity (hey, for the Oscars, three-and-a-half hours is brief!), plus an edgy tone brought on by circumstances having nothing to do with movies, and a handful of surprises concerning the awards themselves.

Creeping out of the safety zone

As predicted — by myself and others — this year’s Oscar ceremony turned out to be Chicago’s night, even if it wasn’t quite the sweep projected.

While I think there were better choices than Chicago for Best Picture among nominated and un-nominated films alike, the musical wasn’t an outrageous choice. And it wasn’t a completely typical “safe” choice, as in last year’s A Beautiful Mind.

Chicago certainly wasn’t as adventurous as some of the year’s nominations (The Hours or Gangs of New York, for example), nor was it anywhere near as daring as last year’s musical-nominee non-winner, Moulin Rouge!. But it was still a good choice, and its win will undoubtedly help foster more films in a genre that has too long lain fallow.

Roman Polanski’s win as Best Director (The Pianist) was one of the evening’s bigger surprises — and one that’s proving controversial.

Polanski supporters spent a lot of time campaigning against using the filmmaker’s personal legal troubles — his late-’70s statutory-rape conviction that led to exile from the United States — as a consideration, arguing that it was the director’s work that mattered. The lobbyists’ efforts paid off, but the win has also generated a pretty vocal backlash, as it’s the first time in history the award has gone to a fugitive from justice (at least as far as the U.S. is concerned).

Polanski’s win also caused the inevitable question to resurface over how — given the nature of the medium — the Best Picture and Best Director awards can honor different movies.

Did Polanski deserve the award? That’s a hard call.

The Pianist is a great film — possibly the best film ever made about the Holocaust. And it may be Polanski’s most intensely personal work — though it’s also one of the least Polanski-esque of all his films. That, of course, may be why the voters went for it, since the Academy has a tendency to award people more when they depart from their usual style than otherwise. The Pianist also falls under the “safe” rule for voters, being an obviously serious, sincere work.

For this film, Polanski did a fairly straightforward and almost completely non-quirky directing job that isn’t going to wring anyone’s withers. The Pianist doesn’t involve a full-frontal-nude Lady Macbeth in a sleepwalking scene (Macbeth). It doesn’t feature a deranged, cross-dressing Polanski hurling himself out a window twice (The Tenant). It has no off-screen scandal attached to it (Tess). It’s bereft of mutually destructive S&M couples, and has no lesbianism thrown in (Bitter Moon). And it’s not a genre work, as are many of Polanski’s movies.

In other words, this was probably a cumulative award for 40 years of filmmaking given to one of the director’s least-problematic works.

But al in all, I’d have preferred to see Stephen Daldry win for The Hours — one of the most beautifully made movies of recent memory, and truly a filmmaker’s film. Scorsese would have been my second choice for his brilliant Gangs of New York, but he and Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein probably shot themselves in the foot by campaigning too hard for the award and alienating a lot of voters. Pedro Almodovar was a very dark horse for Best Director, simply because Talk to Her isn’t an English-language film.

And what of Rob Marshall for Chicago? Well, he’s certainly as responsible for that film’s success as anyone else — and probably more so than many people connected with it, since he took the kind of approach director Baz Luhrman used with Moulin Rouge!, making the movie more “user friendly.” Marshall probably lost out on the Oscar due to ingrained prejudices about musicals.

The truth is, there just weren’t any bad choices this year. But, of course, there can only be one winner.

Adrien Brody’s Best Actor award — also for The Pianist — was the evening’s other big surprise. No one — least of all Brody, it seemed — expected his win.

The smart money (including my own) had this as a lock for Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York. But Brody did give a brilliant, physically difficult performance as Wladyslaw Szpilman. Plus, his win resulted in what may well be the most genuinely moving speech in the history of the Oscar ceremonies. I do think Day-Lewis deserved the award more, but it’s impossible to fault Brody’s performance or seriously quibble with the results.

Have fake nose, will travel

In keeping with its history of rectifying a previous oversight, the Academy was almost certain to give Best Actress to Nicole Kidman for her performance in The Hours. It’s a no-brainer that this was in part to make up for her being slighted over Moulin Rouge! (though I know one person who claims Kidman took home the Oscar simply because the Academy is a sucker for a fake nose).

In any case, the award was completely deserved on the merits of Kidman’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf. I can’t think of another performance this year that came anywhere near it.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise, but Chris Cooper’s win as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the orchid-poaching egotist (“I’m probably the smartest man I ever met”) in Adaptation was high on my list of wrong-headed awards.

First, I just didn’t like the movie; but more seriously still, Cooper was up against two absolutely stunning performances: Paul Newman in Road to Perdition and Ed Harris in The Hours. Either of these would have been far better choices, but an Oscar show that doesn’t leave you scratching your head at least once in annoyed bafflement just wouldn’t be an Oscar show, now would it?

I expected Catherine Zeta-Jones to cop Best Supporting Actress for Chicago (especially after her show-must-go-on bout of Real Trooper-ness concerning performing at the ceremonies despite being nine-months pregnant), so that wasn’t a real shock. And it wasn’t an egregious choice, though I was personally four-square for Queen Latifah’s portrayal of Matron “Mama” Morton in the same film. That woman has more screen presence and charisma than the law should allow!

That Spirited Away took Best Animated Feature over Lilo and Stitch only surprised those who hadn’t been following all the awards the Japanese film had already won.

I don’t think Spirited Away is even in the same league with Lilo as a film, but as animation, it’s undeniably fascinating. And the award did make Disney honor its word to give Spirited Away a wider release — in fact, you can judge for yourself (and you should), since the film is now playing locally.

Slim-win Shady and more-pleasant upsets

I’m steering clear of saying much about Eminem’s Best Song win for “Lose Yourself,” from 8 Mile. Every time I mention Marshall Mathers, malevolent missives are mailed to me, and I’m going to leave it alone before someone sends me a rope … with instructions. Let’s just say that the win in question has caused me to join the chorus of those who say it’s time to retire this category.

Pedro Almodovar’s Best Original Screenplay award for Talk to Her was a pleasant (and very much deserved) surprise — marking, I believe, the first time a foreign-language screenplay has been so honored.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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