This Sunday night, the eyes of all television viewers that
aren’t focused on news from Iraq or a new episode of HBO’s “Six
Feet Under” will most likely be watching “Hollywood’s biggest
night,” where Academy voters more often tend to honor lifetime
achievement and the power of advertising than the actual quality of
the nominees.

Jason Pesick
<p>Courtesy of Miramax</p>

Despite the claims of your parents, the climax of the Steve
Martin-hosted event will not be the honorary lifetime achievement
award being given to Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia,” “King
Ralph”); the main event is the Best Picture category. Fighting for
the award this year is a suicidal author, a prominent Polish piano
player, a tap-dancing lawyer, a knife throwing American patriot and
a … well, he’s kinda gray … and schizophrenic … a creature
named Smeagol. Or is it Gollum?

Either way, 2002 boasted one of the greatest catalogues of films
released within a calendar year and the challenge to the Academy
was narrowing the best down to five representatives of that feat.
All in all, their task was an impossible one and some deserving
films missed the cut (“About Schmidt,” “Far From Heaven”) and other
worthy nominees never had a chance (“Punch-Drunk Love,”
“Adaptation”).

These snubs were all hurt by their own studio’s disadvantages in
the marketing department; “Chicago,” “Gangs of New York” and “The
Hours” were all produced or co-produced by Miramax Films. Harvey
Weinstein’s studio has made a name for itself the last few years,
earning unlikely nominations (“Chocolat”), near-wins (“The Cider
House Rules”) and even the occasional win (“Shakespeare in Love”).
With its historical bottomless wallet approach to award promotion,
it should come as no surprise that the favorites this year for the
award are the nomination leader “Chicago” and nine-fold nominee
“The Hours.”

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the five nominees and
the chances, if any, that they hold of grabbing the biggest golden
boy of the evening.

With “The Pianist,” Roman Polanski triumphantly showcased that
he still has the talent that made him such a legendary figure
before he fled to Europe to avoid rape charges. Through its stark,
honest portrayal of Polish pianist’s Wladyslaw Szpilman survival
during Nazi occupation, Polanski told a Holocaust story never quite
realized before – a story less about faith than luck.

What’s sad, however, is how Oscar buzz for “The Pianist” has too
often focused on Polanski’s past and the possibility of his United
States appearance instead of the quality of his film and its seven
nominations. “The Pianist” finally earned itself a little more of a
name for itself with its unexpected victory in the Best Film
category at England’s February BAFTA Awards ceremony. Yet, come
Sunday “The Pianist” have the worst odds of any nominee, a
combination of Polanski backlash and the smallest ad campaign,
which unfortunately can be more important than the worth of a movie
itself.

“Gangs of New York” may have been a disappointment at the box
office thus far for CEO Weinstein and director Martin Scorsese, but
with 10 overall nominations including the biggie for Best Picture,
“Gangs” proved possible all their hopes for Oscar glory. The 19th
century tale of New York’s Manhattan roots of gang warfare simply
took Scorsese’s common themes of violence, ethnic hostility and
revenge and painted them on a larger, more expensive canvas. Twice
delayed due to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and problems in the
editing room, it was going to take a hell of a spectacle for
Scorsese to quiet all the pre-release skepticism; in the end,
viewers failed to respond but critics and voters voiced their
support.

While practically assured of taking home at least one trophy for
Scorsese in the career accomplishment/Best Director category,
“Gangs” faces a tough road from its Miramax competition. While the
studio envisioned “Gangs” as its guaranteed nominee, “Chicago” and
“The Hours” received the better reviews and the early awards.

Before finally getting to the two films that actually have any
chance of winning this year’s prize, the nominee most deserving the
Oscar must be discussed. “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,”
while not quite living up to the emotion and adventure of the first
installment, still overshadows the other films as the greatest
technical triumph of 2002. Technical worth does not guarantee a
film the right to be called Best Picture, but an accomplishment of
the scale of “Two Towers” has the power to overcome its shallow
character development and mistaken changes from the literary source
to still be the greatest escape for moviegoers of the year.

In addition to its failure in matching “Fellowship” in critical
and financial success, “Two Towers” also earned only six noms
compared to the original’s 13. Six is nothing to complain about but
it echoes the dismal chance “Towers” has for a Sunday night
victory. The plain fact is if the Academy could not honor Peter
Jackson’s masterpiece “Fellowship” with the trophy over last year’s
mediocre “A Beautiful Mind,” then what chance does New Line have of
pushing the newest of the trilogy against films that actually have
merit.

And then there were two. If “Chicago” and “The Hours” were not
the favorites already, then the January Golden Globes awards gave
them such status. “Chicago” and all its Rob Marshall choreographed
Jazz seediness stole the Best Picture Comedy/Music prize while “The
Hours” and its Stephen Daldry choreographed boredom took home the
drama side. Okay, I’m being a little hard on “The Hours” but for
all of its nine nominations, Daldry’s film can only claim the
pieces of a great film: spectacular acting from its female leads
and an intelligent, socially conscious plot taken from Michael
Cunningham’s book. However, Daldry, along with cinematographer
Seamus McGarvey and composer Phillip Glass, infused too much style,
strings and gimmicks into the story of three women facing the
restricting gender roles of different eras, in the process too
often distracting the viewer from the talents of Kidman, Moore,
Streep and the rest of the cast.

Now, “The Hours” does have a chance come Sunday, but if it’s
time to place a bet, put your money on “Chicago.” Often, most
nominations (13) equal the win in the biggest category of them all
and unpredictability is not one of the Academy’s strengths. Few
expect this year to be any different so come three in the morning,
or whatever time it is that the Oscars end, look for Weinstein,
Marshall and possibly a couple jazz singers dancing in the rows of
the Kodak Theater.

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