But the martial arts epic's triumph was one of the few surprises of this year's nominations, says Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated February 14, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Chan Kam Chuen

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  • Movie

”Crouching Tiger” leaps into Oscar history

The audience went nuts at the first screening of ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” at the Cannes Film Festival last May, with applause, whoops, and buzz you could hear up and down the Croisette. But the excitement was tempered by cine- chatter — mostly from American critics — who were concerned that Ang Lee’s period piece martial arts saga, while rip roaring, was going to be a tough sell to audiences because (gasp) they’d have to READ SUBTITLES!

I’m delighted to be able to report that not only have mere mortal moviegoers proven willing to read, but that immortal Academy nominators were also unfazed by the ”foreignness” of ”Crouching Tiger,” with a cast of Southeast Asian superstars, Mandarin dialogue, and Taiwanese American production pedigree. In fact, I’m delighted beyond measure by the radiant success of ”Tiger,” both at the box office as well as in its haul of 10 Oscar noms, a record breaker for a non- English language film.

The triumph of ”Crouching Tiger” — which I’m figuring is a shoo in for the Best Foreign Language Film prize Oscar if it doesn’t surprise us all and beat out the competition for Best Picture — is one of the big success stories of the past year in movies. It’s also an antidote to the appearance of ”Chocolat” in the slot that should have gone to ”Almost Famous,” ”You Can Count On Me,” ”The House of Mirth,” ”Thirteen Days” — anything but that cinematic slab of sugar, butter, and eggs. I’ll leave the analysis of why a fable about the magical power of candy bars got as far as it did in the Oscar race to colleagues calmer than I am about the phony message of ”tolerance” promoted by its backers. Instead, I’ll consider it a triumph that ”Billy Elliott” was passed over as Best Picture material. (At that same Cannes festival, that wee, twee film was touted as Oscar bait even before the first screening was over.)

Maybe we’ve all gotten too practiced at anticipating each year’s Oscar nominees, armed as we are with the results of the many ”reliable indicator” lists and awards that have already been announced. Or maybe the Academy has gotten too predictable in their tastes, too old, too unwilling to haul themselves out of their homes and into their cars and over to the theaters frequented by ticket buying nonvoters without access to screener videocassettes. Either way, what I find myself missing for more and more are surprises on Oscar Nomination Tuesday.

Wouldn’t it have been fabulous if Gillian Anderson, so radiant in ”The House of Mirth,” had gotten the Best Actress spot gobbled by Juliette Binoche? Wouldn’t it have been stunning if savvy, open minded Academy members, in a burst of independent thinking, honored the extraordinary work of Bjork in ”Dancer in the Dark” rather than rubberstamping what everyone knew from the moment ”The Contender” came out, that the role was handcrafted for Joan Allen to get her gold statuette?

I didn’t count on it by any means, but I was hoping for a glimmer of creative madness from the Academy this year, especially in the up for grabs Supporting categories: Fred Willard of ”Best in Show” and Bruce Greenwood (”Thirteen Days”) instead of Joaquin Phoenix and Albert Finney! Zhang Ziyi of ”Crouching Tiger” slicing her way past Judi Dench! I didn’t expect it, and so I was particularly excited about the inclusion of ”Pollock” stars Ed Harris for Best Actor and Marcia Gay Harden for Best Supporting Actress.

Are Oscar nominations about quality or politicking? Do they reward good work or settle debts within the industry? Are they affected by whether Academy voters see movies on a big screen or a small TV? Yes, yes, yes, and yes — they’re about all these things. They’re also about our right every year to talk passionately about the state of the movies, secure in knowing that OUR movie taste, at least, is impeccable.

Read All About Oscar 2001 for EW.com’s comprehensive Academy Awards coverage.

Or see photos from the nominated movies at People.com.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 120 minutes