“The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” chain-smoking newsman Edward R. Murrow soberly warns a nation in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” On the day of the 78th annual Academy Awards, many Americans would beg to differ: Rarely have Hollywood’s elite and the ticket-buying masses seen things so differently.
To say the least, the 2006 Oscar field will not be remembered as a paragon of populism. In terms of box office, all five best picture nominees together wouldn’t add up to one “Lord of the Rings” or “Saving Private Ryan.” The Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” — a solid critical and financial success — failed to make the cut.
Commercial disadvantages or no, the nominees have generated robust storms of chatter and controversy in the media. Last week, Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly blasted director Ang Lee’s limpid cowboy romance for “humanizing” homosexuality. After seeing “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated tale of Israeli revenge killings in the wake of the massacre of Olympic athletes, author Jack Engelhard (“Indecent Proposal”) chided the Jewish filmmaker for being “no friend of Israel . . . no friend of truth.”
The rancor is by no means limited to the marquee nominees. In Los Angeles, an Arab peace activist claims to have collected 33,000 signatures on a petition protesting the sympathetic depiction of Palestinian suicide bombers in “Paradise Now,” nominated for best documentary feature. And so on.
Though the ceremony will probably be dominated by same-sex lightning rods such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Capote,” the de facto theme of this year’s Oscars is that of a divided America, expressed in such under-seen nominees as Paul Haggis’ “Crash” and George Clooney’s “G ood Night, and Good Luck.”
Lost in all the media hubbub — or, perhaps, the deafening indifference of mainstream moviegoers — is the simple recognition of great movies and intriguing matchups: Heath Ledger vs. Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Brokeback” vs. “Crash,” “Wallace & Gromit” vs. “The Corpse Bride.”
Maybe Murrow had a point after all.
ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
British actress Rachel Weisz won a Golden Globe for her sly, hearty performance as a doomed activist in “The Constant Gardener,” but the film’s antiglobalist tidings are unlikely to carry her as far with Oscar voters. Past Oscar winner Frances McDormand (“North Country”) has a similar problem: Sturdy performance in an otherwise mediocre drama. Catherine Keener was excellent but completely overshadowed by Hoffman in “Capote,” while newcomer Amy Adams (“Junebug”) is the year’s “just happy to be here” candidate.
Which leaves Michelle Williams and her gem of a performance as Ledger’s silently embittered bride in “Brokeback Mountain.” Expect Williams to set the tone for the evening, as the best supporting actress award is typically the first presented.
Predicted winner: Michelle Williams (“Brokeback Mountain”)
ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
A sizable bloc of the Oscar electorate might choose to honor Clooney for his work as the burned-out CIA agent in “Syriana,” in lieu of giving him a best director prize for “Good Night, and Good Luck.” At the same time, many will find his soapbox activism tiresome, and avoid voting for him altogether. A safer choice is Paul Giamatti for “Cinderella Man.” In the category’s one feel-good performance, Giamatti plays Russell Crowe’s cornerman with his usual drama-geek gusto. Plus, he was snubbed last year for “Sideways,” and Oscar voters tend to remember these things.
Dark horse candidates include Matt Dillon as a racist cop in “Crash” (too edgy), Jake Gyllenhaal as a smitten cowboy in “Brokeback Mountain” (too leading man) and William Hurt as a mobster in “A History of Violence” (too cameo).
Predicted winner: Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”)
ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
It will ultimately come down to the two Golden Globe winners: Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”) and Felicity Huffman (“Transamerica”). As an unwitting parent in the midst of a profound sexual and emotional transformation, Huffman is heartbreakingly good, but the collaterals — the movie’s grungy production values, its uncomfortable subject matter — could be her undoing. Witherspoon is dazzling as June Carter Cash and a virtual lock to take home the statuette.
All in all, it was a frightfully thin year for leading ladies. Judi Dench (“Mrs. Henderson”) gives the category some backbone, but Charlize Theron’s turn as a sexual harassment victim in “North Country” was awards fodder at its most capricious. Keira Knightley is a one-in-amillion shot for her sparkling work in “Pride & Prejudice.”
Predicted winner: Reese Witherspoon (“Walk the Line”)
ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
An embarrassment of top-of-the-line performances. David Strathairn spotlessly affected the cool intensity of Murrow in “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Terrence Howard was a walking, rapping revelation in “Hustle & Flow.” Joaquin Phoenix, as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line,” touchingly captured the singer’s poisoned soul.
In the end, it will be a twoway race between Ledger’s brilliantly coiled performance in “Brokeback Mountain” and Hoffman’s otherworldly portrayal of writer Truman Capote in “Capote.” With Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe wins — not to mention a superior body of work — Hoffman appears to have the upper hand, but it could go either way.
Predicted winner: Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”)
With that steely, smoky elegance, Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” was as striking a piece of filmmaking craft as we saw all of last year. Likewise, Bennett Miller’s “Capote” was more than the sum of Hoffman’s signature performance; without the filmmaker’s moody orchestration, it would have been a mere A&E biopic. “Munich” is Spielberg’s most uncertain work, and his most interesting since “Schindler’s List.”
Lee absorbed all kinds of pounding when “Hulk” tanked, but seems to have evened the debt with “Brokeback Mountain,” winning virtually every precursor award possible (Director’s Guild, Golden Globe) for his limpid, artfully bleak take of forbidden love. If anyone upsets Lee, it will be Haggis, the “Million Dollar Baby” screenwriter whose volcanic L.A. race drama “Crash” has touched a wider audience.
Predicted winner: Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”)
Oscar voters rarely break ranks with the best director and best picture awards, so everything that applies above applies here. As one of the truest, most perceptive snapshots of racial politics in Los Angeles, “Crash” will surely find admirers among Oscar voters who relate to Haggis’ depiction of a sprawling car culture where interaction happens only by fender-bender.
Still, the Oscars traditionally unfold along thematic lines, and with a field-leading seven nominations, “Brokeback Mountain” is best poised to be the life of the party. And then the wanton humanization of gay cowboys can really begin.
Predicted winner: “Brokeback Mountain”