Oscar 2004: Nominations – Spreading the Wealth

For reviews of each of the films honored with Best Picture and Acting nominations as well as two of the Foreing Langage nominees, go to Emanuel Levyt's Current Reviews Archive

My first reaction to the nominations is that the Academy, just like the Hollywood Foreign Press and its Golden Globes, has spread the wealth among the seven or eight most significant and critically acclaimed pictures of the year.

BEST PICTURE

Three of the five nominees were highly anticipated: “The Aviator,” which received the largest (11) number of nominations, “Million Dollar Baby,” with seven nods, and “Sideways,” with five.

As most Oscar observers know, the film that gets the largest number of nomination tends to win Best Picture. This has been the dominant trend in the past two decades, but you may recall the fierce battle in 2001, when the most nominated film “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings” – lost Best Picture to “A Beautiful Mind,” which was nominated for eight awards.

“Ray” had to overcome a number of obstacles, but emerged this morning as a strong contender, with six major nominations, including Director for Taylor Hackford.

“Finding Neverland”, the fifth nominee, received seven nominations, but its estimable director, Marc Forster (a DGA nominee) failed to make the final cut.

No need to comment on the absence of Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” or Michael Moore's incendiary doc “Fahrenheit 9/11,” since neither picture was ever considered to be a serious contender.

BEST DIRECTOR

Once again, there's lack of harmony between Best Picture and Best Director. The biggest surprise here is Mike Leigh's nomination for “Vera Drake,” a film that was also singled out for writing and Actress awards. Leigh is a known quantity, having been nominated before, for “Secrets & Lies,” in 1996.

I would speculate that Leigh took the spot that would have gone to Marc Forster, the director of “Finding Neverland.”

Every once in a while, the small and elitist Directors branch opens its gate to foreign directors cited for a foreign-language film. Most recently, Pedro Almodovar received a directing nomination for “Talk to Her.” Some of us critics were hoping that Chinese director, Zhang Yimou, who scored high this year with two films (Miramax's “Hero” and Sony Classics' “House of Flying Daggers”) would be nominated. The only non-American in this category, albeit for an English-speaking film, is Brit Mike Leigh.

ACTING AWARDS

Democratization

Taken together, the most striking thing about this year's twenty nominees (in the four acting categories) is the large number of new faces, or first-timers. Of all the branches, the Acting branch may be the most democratic in terms of embracing unknown actors.

Actors of Color

It's a wonderful year for actors of ethnic minorities, particularly African American. This year, there are five black performers: two in the Actor category: Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”), two in the Supporting Actor: Jamie Foxx (“Collateral”) and Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”), and one in the Supporting Actress: Sophie Okonedo (“Hotel Rwanda”). It would have been very nice to see Sharon Warren (who plays Ray Charles' mother in “Ray”) among the nominees, which would have brought the number of black performers to an all-time record in a given year: 6 out of 20. Even so, five black actors out of 20 is 25% of the nominees!

Various association and critics (not me) often point to the statistical underepresentation and marginalization of black actors in Hollywood (both film and TV). However, with five nominees this year, black actors are overrepresented in relation to their proportion in the American society at large, about 13 or so percent.

Dual Nominations

With two nominations to his credit, Jamie Foxx joins a small group of thespians that have received dual nominations in the same year, such as Jessica Lange (in 1982), Sigourney Weaver (in 1988), and, most recently, Julianne Moore (in 2002, for “Far from Heaven” and “The Hours”).
No actor or actress in the Academy's annals has ever won two Oscars in the same year. More often than not, they tend to win in the supporting actor, like Theresa Wright in 1942, and Jessica Lange in 1982 (nominated for “Frances” but winning supporting for “Tootsie”). As predicted here over the past two months, Jamie Foxx is a shoo-in for winning Best Actor. At this point, it's the only bet you should put all of your money-should you feel a need.

Though expected to receive dual nomination – lead for “Eternal Sunshin”e and supporting for “Finding Neverland” – Kate Winslet got one nod, a well-deserved lead nomination in a genre, comedy, never taken too seriously by the Academy.

BEST ACTOR

It's only the second time in the Academy's long history that two black men are nominated for lead performances in the same year; the first time was in 2001, when Denzel Washington (who won for “Training Day”) and Will Smith (“Ali”) were nominated.

Having been snubbed by the Acting Branch in 1997 for “Titanic,” Leonardo DiCaprio (who was nominated for a supporting role in 1993) has finally made it as a contender in the major league.

I would speculate that the nominations of Don Cheadle for “Hotel Rwanda” and of Clint Eastwood for “Million Dollar Baby” were won by small margins, kicking Javier Bardem (“The Sea Inside”), previously nominated for “Before Night Falls,” and Liam Neeson (“Kinsey”), also a former nominee for the 1993 “Schindler's List,” out of the race

It's been a banner year for men, so I know what the Academy's official response would be to our annual list of glaring omissions: There can only be five nominees in each category. Even so, Neeson gave a strong, dominant performance in Kinsey, a movie that was earlier touted as Best Picture contender.

BEST ACTRESS

As pointed out in an earlier Film Comment, 2004 was a weak year for American actresses in lead roles. The two beneficiaries from this dearth of Oscar caliber roles are Brit Imelda Staunton (“Vera Drake”) and, even more so, Catalina Sandino (“Maria Full of Grace”), the Colombian actress who carries an entire film on her beautiful shoulders.

Also as discussed in a previous comment, the Best Actress race is now reduced to a fierce competition between Annette Bening (“Being Julia”) and Hilary Swank (“Million Dollar Baby”). It's round two of their 1999 match, which Swank won. There's a slight chance that dark horse Staunton would win; Kate Winslet (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) seems to be a less likely to win contender.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

For some reason, Alan Alda – who gives a brilliant performance in “The Aviator” – didn't received any major critics awards, so it's nice to see him nominated. It's interesting to note that Mr. Nice Guy was nominated for playing a bad guy in “The Aviator.”

The two frontrunners in this category as of today are first-timer Thomas Haden Church, for “Sideways,” and Morgan Freeman, a multiple nominee, for “Million Dollar Baby.” Freeman has an edge over Church, having been nominated three times before, and being in a bigger Hollywood movie than Church, a newcomer, still best known for his TV work.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Arguably one of the toughest and most competitive categories this year, it is populated by familiar faces (Cate Blanchett of “Elizabeth” fame) as well as new ones, such as Natalie Portman for “Closer” or Virginia Madsen for “Sideways.”
I think it's safe to speculate that Sophie Okonedo grabbed the spot that, under different conditions, would have been occupied by perennial, all-time record nominee Meryl Streep, for “The Manchurian Candidate.”

FOREIGN LANGUAGE OSCAR

This year I am in a privileged position. I happen to have seen all five nominees, a result of serving on the jury of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which focuses on foreign cinema and whose latest edition admirably displayed 42 out of the 50 submissions.

All five films are decent (and more) and worth-seeing, though two of my favorites, the German submission “Downfall,” about Hitler's last days and the Spanish entry, “The Sea Inside,” strike me as the frontrunners.

One can never be sure about the specific number of votes that each foreign film has received, but since the category is determined by a relatively small number of members, I'd speculate that Yimou's “House of Flying Daggers,” which is nominated for cinematography, lost by a small margin.

Constraints of time and space prevent me from commenting on the other categories, which I promise to do in a future column. In the meantime, make sure to see as many Oscar nominated films as possible. It's much more fun to watch the Oscar telecast when you know something about the players.