Oscar Insanity

We are now within days of the Oscar ceremony, which is too bad, because this is the point every year at which the Oscars get really boring.

Well, they get boring if, like me, you don't give a rat's hindquarters about dresses. The broadcast itself will be boring--although the presence of host Steve Martin will at least keep me on my toes. The awards will be boring, too. "Chicago's" gonna win everything, folks. And even the "upsets" will be boring.

After all, is it really an upset if Daniel Day-Lewis beats Jack Nicholson when everyone knows he's the only person who has a shot at the upset? Oh, I suppose Michael Caine could sneak in and win--a prospect that is so exciting I can barely type it. A polite Englishman winning his third Oscar. Wow. Crazy. Upsets are only exciting if someone truly comes out of left field to win, which hardly ever happens. The last one I can remember is Marcia Gay Harden winning Best Supporting Actress for "Pollack" in 2000, an upset that would've been infinitely more exciting if anyone had actually seen "Pollack."

The most entertaining part of the whole Oscar season, clearly, is the nominations. This list of honors is so curious, so inconsistent, so gob-smackingly irrational that you can spend a month or two picking over it. As the clock winds down on this year's season and we repair to the boring ritual of announcing the winners, let's take one last look at the nominees. These are my favorite head-scratchers.

BEST MAKEUP

I could stick to the big categories, but that's not where the fun lies. The most hilarious aspect of the nominations is those categories you just know the Academy spent maybe three minutes of their 75-day meeting on. Just look at this year's nominees for Best Makeup. Better yet, don't look at them--count them. There's only two! Now, I'm no filmmaker, I'm just a guy with a pulpit, but I'm pretty sure every single movie that came out last year had makeup in it. Yet strangely, the makeup was only outstanding enough in two of them to merit nominations. And one of the two was apparently "The Time Machine." Really? I guess they did make people look like apes in that movie and, historically, the surest way to a Best Makeup nomination is to make people look like some kind of primate....

Here's what I think happened. The nominating body got through all of the awards and the last one was Best Makeup. They threw out a couple names. The geek they never listen to said "The Time Machine," but they were all so sick of shooting the guy down that they didn't make a fuss. Then the leader said, "Look, we've been at this for over 74 days. I'm tired. You're tired. How many options do we have for Makeup? Two? Fine, at least we've got a race. Let's go home."

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Last year, the Academy had the right idea when they nominated only three movies for the debut of this award. I quibbled with their choices--even critics of Richard Linklater's mesmerizing "Waking Life" would surely admit it deserved a nomination more than "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius." But having just three nominees was a wise move, considering how few animated movies are made each year.

So naturally, the Academy blew that wisdom to hell this year by putting up five movies for Best Animated Feature. Here are the nominees: "Lilo & Stitch," "Ice Age," the horse movie "Spirit," "Treasure Planet" and the Japanese import "Spirited Away," which is by far the best film in the category and, go figure, a decent bet to win. What I want to know is, what the heck did "The Wild Thornberrys Movie" do wrong? It's the only animated movie I can think of from 2002 that didn't get nominated.

BEST MUSIC (SCORE)

Or, as it should be called, "The John Williams award." For the 42nd time since 1968, composer John Williams has been nominated in this category. This time around, he's up for his work in "Catch Me if You Can." It has long annoyed me how reflexively the Academy rewards even the most mediocre work by this once-great composer. In fact, here's what I wrote about him in this very space two years ago, just before the 2001 Oscars:

"John Williams (nominated for 'The Patriot') is the Tom Hanks of the Best Music category. It's as if the nominating process begins with someone saying, 'Hey, did J-Dub do anything this year? Good, just four more to go.' Does the Academy really like the 'Patriot' score? Do you think they've ever heard it? (The answer must be no, because if they did, they'd know it's a swooning, bombastic pile of floppity-flop.) Let's be honest: John Williams got nominated this year for the same thing he always gets nominated for: writing the music to 'Star Wars.' Get him outta here."

The funny thing about Williams's nomination this year is that his score for "Catch Me if You Can" is actually pretty good. Maybe the best thing he's done in years. The point is, it doesn't matter. Williams could record himself banging his own head with a spoon, and he'd still get nominated.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

On the surface, nothing looks nutty about this group of nominees: "Chicago," "Frida," "Gangs of New York," "The Pianist, "The Hours." All fine. A bit humdrum, but fine. Here's what's weird, though. Anybody remember which movie won this award last year? "The Lord of the Rings." Um, aren't the costumes in the second movie pretty much the same as in the first? Did the Middle-Earth look suddenly go out of style?

Basically, "The Two Towers" is being punished for living up to lofty expectations, and that's seems ridiculous to me. Maybe the film shouldn't win the category again--I understand the desire not to give the top honor to similar work--but a nomination, at the very least, seems logical. The costumes were great then and they're great now.

Incidentally, Best Costume Design isn't the only instance of this peculiar "Lord of the Rings" penalty. After winning Oscars last year for Best Score and Best Makeup, the film was shut out of both categories this year--even though, in each case, the work was essentially the same. The Best Makeup snub is particularly puzzling. Considering that there are only two nominees for the award (see above), it can't be argued that "The Two Towers" was left out simply to give someone else a chance. They didn't give someone else a chance. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I think there was a palpable "Lord of the Rings" backlash in 2003, a level of iciness that suggests the other explanation for the snubs--that the Academy is waiting until after next winter's part three to reward the trilogy--is wishful thinking.

Not convinced? Why, you ask, if there's this big conspiracy (your word, not mine), did "The Two Towers" get nominated for Best Picture? My take: it was dutiful. It was a way of acknowledging the best-reviewed and second-most commercially successful movie of the year while still dissing everyone--the cast, the crew, everyone--who worked on it. And if you ask me, the biggest insult is ...

BEST DIRECTOR

How on earth could the Academy ignore Peter Jackson? Anybody who knows anything about the J. R. R. Tolkein trilogy knows that "The Two Towers" presented far greater a narrative challenge than the more conventionally cinematic "Fellowship of the Ring." Jackson created a stirring, seamless film out of a story in which none of the main characters are ever in the same place at the same time. On top of that, well, just look at the thing! For the second straight year, the Academy snubbed the director of the most directed movie of the year. Last year, they flaked on Baz Luhrmann, prompting host Whoopi Goldberg's only funny line of the night: "I guess 'Moulin Rouge' directed itself." Of course, the Academy has given out directing Oscars in the past to such esteemed auteurs as Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson. There's a simple explanation for this. The vast majority of Academy voters are actors. In other words, people who really have no idea what directors do all day.

Editor's Pick