And the Winner Is ...

Except in New Orleans, Americans don't celebrate Carnival properly. So we fill the dreary season between New Year's Day and Easter with Oscar madness: lists, speculation and arguments and, when the big day comes, big parties in Hollywood and New York City, elsewhere a beer in front of the TV, and in London a middle-of-the-night mug of hot chocolate.

Oscar is of course the nickname of the little gold statuette given to winners of the annual prizes of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, a.k.a. the Academy Awards. No one knows for sure where the name Oscar comes from. Legend has it that an Academy librarian in the old days said the statue looked like her Uncle Oscar. The name stuck.

To be eligible for the spring's Academy Awards, a film must open to the public in Los Angeles for seven days running anytime before the end of December. The deadline is neatly timed to pick up the so-called Christmas movies, i.e. blockbusters that actually open on Christmas Day or thereabouts, when large audiences head for the cinema.

Year-end also means issuing Top 10 lists and other rankings of the best movies of the past year. Critics and regular folks make up lists of their favorites. You can also see which films made the most money (in 2000 they were How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Mission: Impossible-2).

The Academy Awards have been given out since 1927. The Oscar nominations for 2000 will be announced on February 13th. There will be five nominees for each award, but only one nominee will win. When you ask them what they think about their chances of winning, the reply will always be, "It's just such an honor to be nominated!" Sure.


It's a much bigger honor to win! This year, that will happen on Sunday evening, March 25th, at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium. The 73rd Academy Awards ceremony starts at 5pm LA time. (That's 2 o'clock Monday morning in Paris or Warsaw.) The host, for the first time, will be comedian Steve Martin. He has starred in lots of movies but never been nominated for an Oscar himself. ("If you can't win 'em, join 'em," said Martin.) And a variety of stars will open the sealed envelopes to announce the winners. In the old days, they used to sneak the names of the winners to the press in advance so they could be published in the next morning's newspapers. Then, in 1940, The Los Angeles Times managed to print the results in the evening edition, which stars were able to buy on their way into the ceremony! No surprise that the sealed envelope system was introduced in 1941.

The Academy has 5,607 voting members, all supposedly skilled at film crafts. Winners from some categories are voted on by all Academy members, such as Best Picture, of course; for other categories only members active in specific crafts (such as film editing) get to vote.

Nominations for the best foreign-language film work a little differently. First there is a pre-nomination stage, which occurred in November 2000. A jury of filmmakers in each country is allowed to put up one film each year, and a record 46 countries did so this year. The current choice for Poland is the cerebral fable about death, Life as a Fatal Sexually Transmitted Disease, directed by Krzysztof Zanussi.

The Oscars have a different feel from year to year. Sometimes there's a dominant film that sweeps the major prizes. Think of the waterlogged Titanic (1997) if you must, or (better) Gone With the Wind (1939 - in Polish Przeminęło z wiatrem). Other times there are no obvious favorites, and it seems likely the Oscars for 2000 will be of the patchwork type.

What stirs the soul of the real film fanatic is to see an award for a superlative performance or other exciting feature of an otherwise lackluster movie. So it was with the Best Actress award that Jessica Lange won for the obscure movie Blue Sky (1994). A really bad movie could certainly win the prize for Costume Design (like Restoration in 1995) or Visual Effects (Terminator 2, 1991).


While on the subject of the Oscars, it's hard to avoid a little speculation of one's own. So here are my own modest predictions in a few categories. For best foreign film, I predict that Zanussi's film will be one of the final nominees, but the award will go to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the parody of Hong Kong action movies, made by Taiwan director Ang Lee.

For Best Actress, maybe it's time for Julia Roberts (nominated in 1989 and 1990) to win. Julia wowed audiences with her serious leading role this year in Erin Brockovich and has already walked away with the Golden Globe Best Actress award. For Best Actor, look for Ethan Hawke (as a modern Hamlet) or Russell Crowe (Gladiator). Of course, it's never wise to overlook any performance by Tom Hanks, such as his Golden Globe winning lead in the modern-day Robinson Crusoe style adventure Cast Away.

As for the big enchilada, the Oscar for Best Picture? Last year the winner was American Beauty, directed by top British theatre director Sam Mendes, who also won Best Director for his first-ever film. This year there are two more contenders for Best Film (and Best Director, perhaps) from British directors making their first films. Theatre man Stephen Daldry's Billy Elliot made a big splash in the UK and the States. And maybe Hollywood will go out on a limb and choose Ratcatcher, the moving story of a boy in Glasgow, Scotland, made by Lynne Ramsay. A slightly safer choice, though, might be O Brother, Where Art Thou? from the Coen brothers (remember Fargo and Blood Simple?). This is the odyssey of escaped convicts in the American South of the 1930s. Then again, Gladiator has just won the Golden Globe for Best Film...

We'll find out for sure on March 25th, 2001, in front of the television with a billion other people. I for sure won't be in Los Angeles. All 2,500 tickets to the Oscars ceremony are by invitation only.

The author's favorite movies include Casablanca (Best Picture, 1943) and The Graduate (Best Director, 1967).

by Christopher Smith