Oscar 2006: Indies-Art Films to Watch Part II

Part I of this series of Oscar articles discussed the promises and prospects of “Babel,” “Fur,” “Little Children,” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” Part II examines “The Hoax,” “Hollywoodland,” “Notes on a Scandal,” and “The Painted Veil.”

Last year, the Oscar race was dominated by small-budget, independent films, proving that the best work done in American cinema was out of the mainstream. With the exception of Spielberg's “Munich,” all the other Best Picture nominees were risky, more politically overt, and artistically audacious fare, such as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Will the same pattern prevail this year It may be premature to predict the final contenders, but it's never too early to engage in Oscar talk. Here is a preliminary list of indie, semi-indie, and art films that might grab the critics' attention in the fall season, when they play at festivals like Venice, Telluride, Toronto, Deauville, and the New York Film Festival.

The Hoax

Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom is not a new face to Oscar voters, having been nominated for his Swedish comedy “My Life as a Dog,” and American pictures, “Cider House Rules” and “Choclolat.”

Assisted again by a high-profile cast: longtime star Richard Gere, Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, British Alfred Molina and American Hope Davis, Hallstrom has made a portrait of a con man named Clifford Irving (Gere), who three decades ago claimed he was working on the definitive autobiography of American icon Howard Hughes (recently celebrated in Scorsese's Oscar-winning biopic “The Aviator”).

Working with art forger Elmyr de Hory, while writing his book, Irving schemed a plan with his friend Richard Suskind (the always reliable Molina) to fake interviews and forge documents about Hughes. Billionaire and entrepreneur Hughes, who was still alive, did not publicly discount Irving's story. Nonetheless, the book and its suspect author stirred a debate about authenticity, forcing Hughes to come out of retirement and expose Irving as a fraud.

Oscar Record and Prospects

Prestige is written all over the project, due to subject of recluse celeb Hughes, who has remained in the public eye, even though has been dead for 30 years.

Touching on timely issues of celebrityhood, intellectual property, double identity, authenticity, fame-seeking, and ultimately American talent for reinvention and ingenuity, the story may make some Oscar waves when the movie comes out from Miramax, November 3.

Oscar voters love showbiz saga, whether based on fact or fiction (See below “Hollywoodland”). Gere, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, may impress Academy voters, not just with his rich role, but also with his changing physical identity. Spending hours with make-up specialist to change his look (particularly nose) may do marvels for him in a similar way that it did for Nicole Kidman and her fake nose in “The Hours.”


Allen Coulter's “Hollywoodland” is a darkly humorous film noir exploring issues of fame and identity, success and failure, as inspired by the life of actor George Reeves, whose 1959 death remains one of Hollywoods most infamous real-life mysteries five decades later.

Set in Los Angeles, for the most part in the 1950s, it's a period film noir that echoes such recent L.A.-based noirs as Curtin Hanson's “L.A Confidential” (1997), and tackles such quintessentially noir themes as love, trust and betrayal, this time around within the movie industry, America's dream factory at a crucial phase, the last decade in which it maintained its preeminent position.

Always intriguing in its speculative investigation of the circumstances in which Reeves (best known as TV's “Superman”) dies, the movie features superlative performances from Adrien Brody, as the down-on-his luck private eye and Diane Lane's as the adulterous wife of MGM's Eddie Mannix, and decent turn from Ben Affleck, in a role that enables him to stretch and demonstrate his skills after a long dry season.

“Hollywoodland” is an impressive first feature, representing the directorial debut for Allen Coulter (Emmy and DGA Award nominee for The Sopranos and Sex and the City).

Oscar Record and Prospects

An inside story about Hollywood is always intriguing, even if the text is speculative. All three stars boast Oscar tracks. In “Hollywoodland,” Adrien Brody does his best work ever since he won the 2002 Oscar Actor for “The Pianist.” Affleck has co-won (with Matt Damon) the 1997 Screenwriting Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,” but has mostly under-whelmed with his acting in big, often silly blockbusters. Playing real-life George Reeves in a noirish biopic should help to elevate his status as an actor.

Getting better and better, Diane Lane, in the role of the “Other” woman, has been Oscar-nominated for the sexual thriller, “Unfaithful.” Bob Hoskins, Oscar-nominated for “Mona Lisa,” may receive a Supporting nomination for playing Eddie Mannix.

Notes on a Scandal

It's hard to think of more accomplished actresses than British Judi Dench and Aussie Cate Blanchett, arguably the most versatile actresses of their respective generations. And now they are paired together for the first time in “Notes on a Scandal,” based on Zoe Heller's well-received 2003 novel, “What Was She Thinking” adapted to the screen by playwright Patrick Marber (“Closer”).

Blanchett plays Sheba Hart, an art teacher who's involved in a sexual affair with one of her teenage students. Dench plays her nose colleague, an older teacher who knows Sheba's secret and, for reasons that cannot be disclosed her, gets obsessive with the issue.

Oscar Record and Prospects

I had strong reservations about Richard Eyre's direction of the biopic “Iris,” though at the very least, he coaxed strong, Oscar-caliber performances from his two leads, Judi Dench and Kate Winslet, playing the author Iris Murdock at different phases on her career.

Having been Oscar-nominated numerous times and having won the Supporting Oscar for “Shakespeare in Love,” in which she was paired with Gwynette Paltrow, Dench is a favorite with Academy voters. Last year's Supporting Oscar winner for “The Aviator,” Blanchett's face and name should be fresh with the voters, as well.

The Painted Veil

Is the public ready for a remake of Garbo's 1934 melodrama, “The Painted Veil,” based on Somerset Maugham's 1920 novel We'll find out comes December 15, when Warner Independent releases the new version, adapted to the screen by Ron Nyswaner (scripter of the controversial AIDS drama, “Philadelphia”) and helmed by John Curran, who made “We Don's Live Here Anymore,” starring Naomi Watts.

In the new film, brain child of actor Edward Norton, the gifted Naomi Watts reprises Garbo's role, the alluring, somehow mysterious and enigmatic wife of a British doctor (played by Norton). Living in Shanghai, the doctor goes deep into China to treat the spreading epidemic of cholera, allowing his wife time to fall for another man (Live Schreiber).

For the record, in the 1934 melodrama, the romantic triangle consisted of Garbo, Herbert Marshall (as her husband-doctor) and George Brent (as the lover). The MGM production was “exotic” in the way that all shot on the studio lot Hollywood movies were (remember “The Good Earth”). Curran shot the whole movie on location in China, including the spectacular region of Guangdong.

On paper, this “Painted Veil,” promises to be the type of film that David Lean was known for (“Doctor Zhivago,” “Ryan's Daughter”), with a touch of Minghella's Oscar-winning “The English Patient,” also revolving around a romantic triangle.

Oscar Record and Prospects

Watts has been Oscar-nominated once, for David Lynch's “Mullholland Drive,” and she won a number of critical kudos for Innaritu's “21 Grams,” opposite Sean Penn.

Having been nominated twice (Best Actor for “American History X” and Supporting for “Primal Fear”) Norton is due for a major comeback. Choosey, he has not made a film in years and his last appearance was in a flop that no one saw, “Down in the Valley” as a modern cowboy.