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Inside the Oscars: how the Academy selects its nominees

Togas & Tigers & Julia, Oh My!

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What makes films Oscar-worthy? First, there’s got to be an intriguing subject, like illegal drugs (Traffic) or perfectly legal ones (Chocolat). It doesn’t hurt to have amazing combat (Gladiator, Crouching Tiger) or a character — nah, cleavage — everyone will remember (Erin Brockovich).

Judging from the weather, Mother Nature was waging war on Hollywood. As a sleepy media mob marched into Beverly Hills for Tuesday morning’s Oscar nominations, buckets of rain doused the black glass monolith of the Academy building. Cars shook in the high winds. Power outages plagued the Los Angeles basin. A perfect setting, you might say, for a film seething with tempestuous drama and whiplash combat.

The only question: Which one? Now that the nominations are out, it’s clear that the little Oscar statuette is about to find himself at the epicenter of a flushed, sword-rattling duel. In one corner, weighing in with 12 nominations and a $187 million domestic gross, stands the champion: Gladiator. In the opposite corner, boasting 10 nominations and the $60 million crown of the biggest foreign-language film of all time, lurks a wily challenger: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Consider it a battle of battles, a hand-to-hand showdown between brute Roman force and airborne Taiwanese grace. After the deluge of nominations, folks from the Tiger camp were ready to levitate on the spot; exec producer James Schamus rounded up all 40 employees of Good Machine for a spontaneous sushi feast. ”Even though it has subtitles, this movie has all the elements of a Best Picture. This film has a real shot,” raves Michael Barker, copresident of Sony Pictures Classics, Tiger‘s distributor. ”The Academy is acknowledging the great craftsmanship of the film, and that there’s something fresh and winning here, which they have a history of celebrating.” Its closest competition? ”Gladiator versus the Tiger!” laughs Barker. ”Everybody says it.”

Speaking of combat between well-matched adversaries, Steven Soderbergh will, as predicted, go mano a mano with Steven Soderbergh. His dual Best Director nominations for Traffic and Erin Brockovich — the first such scenario since Michael Curtiz turned the trick in 1939 — have landed him in a Dead Ringers-style tussle with himself. ”I can’t even put into words what I’m feeling right now,” Soderbergh said in a statement from the set of Ocean’s Eleven. ”I think that if I didn’t have the distraction of shooting a film I would have to be sedated … ”

We sympathize. Southern California’s early-morning squall left some curious wreckage in its wake. For one thing, Tom Hanks found himself stranded. Although Hanks, Oscar’s Old Reliable, managed a Best Actor nomination for Cast Away, the film itself barely washed up on shore. (It was shut out of Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, even Editing.)

Instead, one movie about stomach pangs was replaced by another: After weeks of practically coating the pages of Variety with for-your-consideration cocoa, Miramax got its eagerly sought Best Picture and Best Actress nominations for Chocolat and star Juliette Binoche. (Sadly MIA in the top slots: Almost Famous and Wonder Boys.) Not surprisingly, Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein dismisses the now-annual snipe that his studio somehow wooed Academy voters with promotional corn syrup. ”Academy campaigns are never about influencing the Academy members in what they’re going to vote for. You cannot convince them,” says Weinstein. ”You’ve just got to get them to see the movie.” Still, Miramax did temporarily enlist civil rights crusaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson and Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who endorsed the sugarplum romance as a brave parable of tolerance. ”We didn’t do that as the Academy campaign, we did it as a consumer campaign,” Weinstein counters. ”It worked for us, because a lot of people tell me that there were Sunday sermons and Saturday talks about the movie in synagogues.”