Oscar 2000: Blending Old and New

Contrary to popular wisdom, the Oscar race this year was not wide open but quite predictable. True, there weren't many clear front-runners on the order of Schindler's List in 1993, Forrest Gump in 1994, Titanic in 1997, and American Beauty in 1999. At the same time, there was no doubt that Erin Brockovich, Gladiator, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would sweep major nominations.

In fact, the only major Oscar upset in recent years was in 1998, when Miramax grabbed Best Picture for the comedy Shakespeare in Love, defying polls that predicted a win for Spielberg's war epic Saving Private Ryan. That “scandal,” largely due to Miramax's shrewdly aggressive campaign, taught DreamWorks a useful lesson the following year, when it launched an overkill campaign for American Beauty, which won the top award.

And this year's contest Here are some thoughts:

Old-fashioned Entertainment

Artistically speaking, with the exception of Traffic, Soderbergh's ambitious and complex film about the drug war, the other nominees represent a throwback to old-fashioned fare, or rather, the application of modern technology to conventional story-telling in the manner of Classic Hollywood Cinema. This is certainly the case of the sumptuously produced Gladiator, which notwithstanding its blood and gore, was a sands-and-sandals movie in the tradition of such Oscar-winners as Braveheart, Ben-Hur, and even Quo Vadis It's also the case of Erin Brockovich, a crowd-pleasing inspirational biopicture that recalls Norma Rae, for which Sally Field won Best Actress, in 1980.

Opening the Gates

Year after year the same performers are nominated, but there's always room for young, uncertified talent. This year is no exception: Of the 20 acting nominees, 6 (30 percent) are newcomers. However, many of the other nominees have previously received multiple nominations and/or awards, including Ellen Burstyn, Tom Hanks, Geoffrey Rush, Julie Dench, and Juliette Binoche.

Cultural Diversity

There are no black-themed movies and no black performers among the nominated actors. Cultural diversity this year is manifest in the nomination of two Latino actors: Benicio Del Toro in Traffic and Xavier Bardem in Before Night Falls. That both actors speak Spanish in their films proved to be almost irrelevant.

Biographical over Fictional Roles

A large number of performances are contained in biopictures, stories inspired by real-life events and characters: Bardem as the persecuted Cuban writer in Before Night Falls, Geoffrey Rush as the flamboyant Marquiz de Sade in Quills, Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden as the late tormented artist and his wife in Pollock; Roberts as the feisty anti-Big Business fighter in Erin Brockovich.

Predictability of Dark Horses

The noticeable absence of many must-see nominated movies has made it possible for small-budget and offbeat films to get a more serious consideration than they would have in stronger years. Fitting the bill of last year's dark horse, Boys Don't Cry, are this year's British crowd-pleaser Billy Elliot, which received Best Director, writing, and supporting actress nominations, Philip Kaufman's overwrought Quills, whose distorted view of writer-philosopher de Sade has sharply divided American critics, and You Can Count on Me, which was fully embraced by them.

Reliable Indie Factor

Over the past decade, indies have amounted to a substantial proportion of the acting nominees in the 4 categories. This year, 10 of the 20 nominated performances are contained in movies made by the likes of Sony Pictures Classics, Fox searchlight, Fine Line, Paramount Classics, and Miramax. Nonetheless, the division between mainstream Hollywood and audacious indies has become increasingly blurred. With all the admiration for the sharply observed You Can Count on Me, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it's not a particularly challenging movie. It's easier to absorb a sensitive family drama about the co-dependency of a brother and sister than to observe, let alone approve, the sexual politics in a tough movie like Boys Don't Cry.

Mainstreaming of Indie Filmmakers

After a number of commercial failures (The Ice Storm, Ride With the Devil), Ang Lee was anxious to have crossover appeal with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a gloriously mounted film that can play at the malls and be enjoyed by all members of the family. That it happens to be subtitled proved to be no drawback. With strong critical support that began in Cannes, this Mandarin-speaking martial arts, gravity-defying action-drama is breaking box-office records even in the American heartland, where foreign films are seldom shown.

Similarly, with two major films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, that are utterly different in style, Soderbergh may be the most exciting director working in Hollywood today. Like Lee, he, too, has paid his dues with small and inventive indies that failed to find their audiences. Cited by every major critics group in the country, Soderbergh is now at his height, experiencing unprecedented artistic renewal that began with Out of Sight and The Limey.

Excellence With No Regard to Nationality

Time will tell whether Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon represents a new trend in which the film's origins and language are less important than its quality for its overall impact and commercial appeal. Indeed, in the entire history of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, no foreign-language film has ever won Best Picture–however, this year, the group singled out Crouching Tiger not as foreign but as Best Picture. Similarly, the National Society for Film Critics voted Edward Yang's 3-hour masterpiece, Yi Yi (A One and a Two), as Best Picture. The group's decision not to vote for a foreign-language film was as much an aesthetic as a political statement.

In a peculiar mode, the balancing act that defines the 2001 Oscar competition may be an accurate reflection of the zeitgeist, of the way Hollywood sees–and wants the world to see–itself.