STAGE TO SCREEN: Oscar, Oscar, Oscar

News   STAGE TO SCREEN: Oscar, Oscar, Oscar It's Oscar time!!

It's Oscar time!!

Actually, it isn't Oscar time just yet. Looking back, I realized that I sort of jumped the gun with last year's Oscar column; I filed it immediately after the new year, and proper handicapping takes a few weeks to let people's opinions settle. As it stands, the nominations won't be announced until Feb. 13. (The ceremony itself will be on March 25.) But since nothing too exciting is opening, and every possible source is currently at Sundance, now is as good a time as any to see what chances the 2000 crop of theater-themed movies and/or performances have. I'll follow the same format as last year and break down the films more or less in order of their likelihood.

"Quills": For a while there, this seemed like the "dark" pick of the year. The first major critics' group (the National Board of Review) named it the top film of 2000, and the pro-freedom-of-speech subject matter drew numerous critics to rally around it.

Then came "Traffic." Steven Soderbergh's top-to-bottom dissection of the drug business dazzled on every level and has gained a sufficiently high level of critical praise that it can't be ignored. Both it and "Quills" ask a lot of the audience, but "Traffic" refuses easy answers and hits much closer to home. The Best Picture field might be rather un-weighty four of the five films could include Julia Roberts in tight shirts, Michelle Yeoh climbing up buildings, Russell Crowe in a loincloth and Tom Hanks in a loincloth - so the Academy will want to have at least one rather uncompromising film up there. I just have a hunch it's Steven Soderbergh's year (he directed "Erin Brockovich" as well as "Traffic"), so I think "Quills" will be left out. Geoffrey Rush and Doug Wright, however, will most likely snag Actor and Screenplay nominations, and it might grab nods for Costume and/or Production Design.

The most interesting question mark here is whether Joaquin Phoenix will split the nominating vote. Being nominated in two different categories is okay according to Academy rules, but being picked twice in the same category is not. For example, Holly Hunter, Emma Thompson, Sigourney Weaver and Jessica Lange have all been nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same year. So if you have two Oscar-worthy roles in the same year, your odds are far better if one is considerably larger than the other. With two similarly sized parts, partisans for each could cancel each other out, which is why many feel Philip Seymour Hoffman wasn't nominated for "Magnolia" or "The Talented Mr. Ripley" last year. Phoenix had three notable roles last year; however, they were all about the same size. He was very good in "The Yards," but nobody saw it, so it comes down to either "Gladiator" or "Quills." Either of these has a chance to grab a bunch of nominations, but I suspect "Gladiator" will edge it out by getting a slew of technical nods. So I say Phoenix will be nominated but not for "Quills." And I have a hunch Michael Caine's equally strong "Quills" turn will also be overlooked.

(Note: For whatever reason, directors can be nominated more than once even though actors cannot. Expect Soderbergh to snag two richly deserved directing nominations.)

"You Can Count on Me": Unfortunately, the Hollywood community hasn't really gotten behind this movie enough. Everyone loves the script and the performances, but the film itself has been slighted as too "slight." This infuriates me to no end. These same people who bemoan the lack of storytelling in today's movies are too anesthetized to actually appreciate a subtle, nuanced drama when they actually see one. I think Ken Lonergan has a real chance at winning Best Original Screenplay, and I'd be very surprised if Laura Linney didn't grab her first acting nomination. Curiously, the Academy seems to be noticing the less showy acting role for a change; Mark Ruffalo's character cries out to be noticed (and nominated), but he might be in a slight no-man's land between lead and supporting actor. It's clearly a starring role in my opinion, but the Academy appears to feel differently. Ah, well. Linney has earned her day in the spotlight (have any of you ever seen "Congo"?), and Ruffalo's day will undoubtedly come.

"Billy Elliot": Like "Quills," this film peaked in terms of credibility a month or two ago. It seemed like this year's "little British movie that could," much like "The Full Monty" or "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Lately, however, that talk has died down. Jamie Bell would be a charming (and not undeserved) pick for Best Actor, but his age is a real drawback here. Think of all the other talented kids who picked up acting nominations: Tatum O'Neal, Linda Blair, Anna Paquin, Haley Joel Osment. They were all in the supporting category. There are just too many Hollywood fixtures circling around those top nominations - Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas and maybe Sean Connery could be among the familiar faces this time. So I have a hunch Bell and director Stephen Daldry will both be snubbed, unless the nominators decide to sneak Bell into the Supporting Actor category. Believe it or not, the film's best hope appears to be Julie Walters, whose supporting role as Billy's dance teacher has gained steam.

"State and Main": There's not a whole lot to say here, except that David Mamet unbilled script doctoring has earned him a lot of friends in Hollywood. And Hollywood likes to show that it has a sense of humor by gently feeding the hand that bites it sometimes. Look for a screenplay nomination but not much else. (If it were up to me, David Paymer would have a Best Supporting Actor nomination sewn up.)

"Dancer in the Dark" Bjork is almost definitely out of luck in the acting category, but she'll land nominations for Best Score and Best Song. God only knows how they'll stage any of those songs without the backup factory noises.

"Hamlet": This popped back onto the radar after Elvis Mitchell, one of the troika of New York Times critics, hailed it as the best film of 2000. But Mitchell is no Frank Rich in terms of clout, and it takes a lot more than a Times rave to sell a movie. I suspect "Hamlet" will get blanked.

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Cutting-Room Floor: Mike Nichols' film of "Wit" may be headed to cable, but it's hitting the Berlin Film Festival first. The film, starring Emma Thompson, won't debut on HBO until the spring, but it will reach Berlin next month. ... Ang Lee, riding high on the wake of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," had hoped to follow it up with a New York City-based musical inspired by the 1997 Alain Resnais film "Same Old Song." Given the strike uncertainty, though, he won't have time to put it together just yet... Playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren, Loose Ends the current Buying Time) has forged a longstanding relationship with director Milos Forman. They have collaborated on "Hair," "Ragtime" and now a new Francisco Goya biopic. This one is scheduled to start filming in spring 2002. With "Pollock" out now and a pair of Frida Kahlo pictures (including one directed by Julie Taymor) on the way, artists appear to be the hot new topic. ... Philip Bosco fans can binge this weekend only. He's currently on stage (Copenhagen through Jan. 21), in the movies (he has a small part in "Wonder Boys") and on TV (his is one of the several familiar voices in the exquisite Ken Burns "Jazz" documentary). Can anyone else think of a case where an actor was on all three media at once? I'm sure it has happened at some point, but I'm stumped. ... Wim Wenders' long-shelved "The Million Dollar Hotel" is noteworthy for several reasons. It's cowritten by U2 lead singer Bono, costar Mel Gibson described it as "as boring as a dog's ass" - and it's packed with theater regulars, including Charlayne Woodard, Harris Yulin and Amanda Plummer. It opens in limited release on Feb. 2. ... And last-minute Sundance entry "The Invisible Circus" (Jan. 26) features Follies costar Blythe Danner as Cameron Diaz's mom.

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My Favorite Thought/Your Thoughts: The mailbag was pretty bare this week, which must means DVDs don't excite you folks that much. Duly noted. But everyone seems to like the Oscars, so: Whom do you like this year? Do you see big things for Wright, Lonergan and/or Mamet? What about "Quills" or Bjork or "Hamlet"? Am I missing any big potential nominees?

Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theater critic for Back Stage.