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I See Gold People

From Sixth Sense to American Beauty, Oscar contenders are running their tightest race in years. Just ask Hollywood.

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It was the movie of the year. Maybe the movie of the decade. Critics called it a masterpiece. Audiences left theaters weeping. In the months since the film opened, it had earned more than $200 million. No one in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion—or watching around the world on TV—had the slightest doubt what movie would win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

But when the envelope was opened, it lost.

That’s the nightmare DreamWorks lived through last year, when Shakespeare in Love walked away with the gold trophy that was destined to go to Saving Private Ryan. It’s also the nightmare DreamWorks is praying it won’t relive with American Beauty, the film most Oscar watchers believe — this week anyway — has the biggest shot at winning Best Picture in March.

Frankly, DreamWorks has reason to be concerned. This year’s Oscar race is shaping up as one of the most unpredictable and volatile in ages. Also potentially one of the fiercest. Already Beauty has seen its Oscar chances rise and fall and rise again. Three months ago, the buzz was deafening: The film was a shoo-in for Best Picture. Two months ago, it was abruptly downgraded to a long shot, dismissed as a movie that had peaked too soon. This month it’s back on top, with Hollywood insiders once again anointing it Best Picture-in-waiting.

The point is this: When it comes to this year’s Oscar race, nobody has a clue. According to a slew of industry insiders interviewed by EW — all of whom were granted anonymity in exchange for their candor — nobody can forecast how the Oscar race will be shaking out next week, let alone next spring. For the first time in years, there is no clear front-runner. There isn’t even a foggy front-runner.

”Usually, by this time, anybody working in the Oscar pool has a sense of the five [Best Picture nominees], but this year it’s too close,” confesses a marketing executive who’s worked for several studios. ”There are no clear winners,” echoes another well-connected exec. ”It’s totally open. It’s bizarre.”

Well, not totally open. Most insiders agree, for instance, that Hilary Swank’s gender-bending turn in Boys Don’t Cry is a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination—perhaps even a lock to win. And Russell Crowe seems poised to pick up a Best Actor nomination for his smoking performance as an enraged former tobacco industry executive in The Insider (although nobody’s laying odds on him taking home a trophy just yet).

Still, for the most part, the suits are right: The field is wide open. Which means there’s plenty of room for everyone to start scrambling.

In one sense, it’s not at all surprising that Beauty has attracted so much Oscar attention. A lot of other contenders this year deal with dysfunctional families — or at least with pieces of them. In The Straight Story, Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton play brothers who haven’t talked in a decade, while in Tumbleweeds Janet McTeer and Kimberly J. Brown play a childish mother and her mothering child. There’s also Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, with Tom Cruise starring as Jason Robards’ seething son, and Lasse Hallstrom’s adaptation of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, with Tobey Maguire as an aging orphan having trouble leaving behind his ether-addicted mentor (played by Michael Caine, having trouble leaving behind his English accent).

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