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The Academy had a few surprises in its envelopes after all

Lisa Schwarzbaum offers her ”morning after” analysis of the Oscars

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The Academy had a few surprises in its envelopes after all

I underestimated Oscar on Sunday night. Somewhere between the day the Academy Award nominations were announced and the afternoon I filled out my ballot for our own office pool, I had convinced myself that although Hilary Swank clearly deserved the Best Actress award for her magnificent performance in ”Boys Don’t Cry,” the Oscar would go to Annette Bening instead. Members of the Academy are old and traditional, the conventional wisdom went; ”Boys Don’t Cry” is too sordid a story; Bening is a classy ambassador from the modern, middle-aged Hollywood Establishment, plus her husband is receiving a softball award; plus she may give birth on stage. Can’t miss.

Of course, the award did go to Swank, and I’m happy to lose the betting kitty in her honor. In the weeks and months to come, trenchant analysis will be devoted to the stars’ costume choices and to Billy Crystal’s jokes. But on the day after the event, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation of the usually cautious but occasionally surprising way in which members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are able to embrace change.

In their recipients, Oscar voters affirmed that the Establishment still controls the game. (”You’ll Be In My Heart” winning over ”Blame Canada”? Rip-off!) But in their nominations, they recognized that the distinctions between ”independence” (in subject matter, style, casting, and budget) and ”studio” are more gossamer than ever. And that the unwieldy, creative loners making ”Being John Malkovich,” ”Election,” ”Topsy-Turvy,” and ”The Matrix” are important members of the clubhouse, too.

Consider the Best Actress category as a lab specimen: In addition to Bening and Swank, nominees included an unknown British actress (Janet McTeer) playing American in a terrific indie movie nobody saw (”Tumbleweeds”); a mediagenic American actress known for choosing indie-type roles (Julianne Moore), playing British in a downer story about spiritual salvation; and a perennial grande dame of Hollywood drama (Meryl Streep) in a mediocre, middle-brow-uplift movie nobody paid attention to (”Music of the Heart”). And this year, the longest odds were on the grandest dame and the safe money was on Mrs. Warren Beatty, while the winning bet turned out to be the one placed on 25-year-old actress playing a girl who wanted to be a boy and who was murdered for her desire.

Which brings me to one more morning-after pensée. I happily lost a few bucks for a fine evening’s entertainment. But had I gone with the crack professional reporting done by the Wall Street Journal last Friday, I might have won. The paper that sometimes calls itself ”the daily diary of the American dream” was proud to predict winners based on voting information given to them by over 300 members. And a Journal editor defended the decision to publish by saying that the results are legitimate news, and her newspaper is in the business of digging for news.

To which I say, ”I see silly people.” Applying valuable investigative talent to ”scooping” the Oscars, and thereby depriving viewers of a couple of hours of pleasurable anticipation is foolish, sour work; I can’t imagine that even hardcore Journal readers, with their eyes on the bottom line, are so cutthroat as to gloat over such insider trading information. The Oscars are about whim and trend, gaffes and gushes, as dependent on surprise as ”The Sixth Sense.” And sometimes, it’s the surprise of the right choice — Hilary Swank — that’s the sweetest.