How Broadbent triumphed

Somewhere in Oscar-loser purgatory, a wizard is shaking hands with a Jedi master. Just as Alec Guinness (Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi) lost the Best Supporting Actor race in 1978 to Jason Robards (Julia’s Dashiell Hammett), this year a mystic in a cloak got beaten by a man of letters all over again. Despite predictions that Ian McKellen was a sure bet for anchoring the box office giant The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf, the trophy went instead to another Brit, Jim Broadbent, who played academic John Bayley in Miramax’s little-seen Iris.

Not surprisingly, the folks at New Line who’d been flacking Rings were flummoxed. As one exec put it at a party right after Broadbent won, ”This is very disappointing.” So what on Middle-earth happened to the front-runner?

It’s not as though Iris wasn’t a target for mudslinging in this dirty campaign year. From the podium, Broadbent, 52, thanked Bayley for allowing the film to ”plunder and, I’m sure, misrepresent” the real lives of the scholar and his Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, author Iris Murdoch. But just as charges of misrepresentation didn’t hurt A Beautiful Mind, complaints that Iris sentimentalized their relationship didn’t hurt the Golden Globe winner. Broadbent also appeared in Moulin Rouge and Bridget Jones’s Diary last year — and saw all three of his films’ leading ladies score Best Actress nods — which ”gave him the edge over everybody else,” says Rouge’s John Leguizamo. Certainly, the Academy’s older voters must also have connected with Iris’ subject matter. Broadbent’s win was a virtual replay of last year’s Supporting Actress award, which went to Marcia Gay Harden for the indie biopic Pollock.

While Miramax apparently peaked too early in its campaign for Sissy Spacek and In the Bedroom, the studio deployed a more successful strategy with Iris: Broadbent did a flurry of press mainly in the last legs of the race. Meantime, McKellen may have suffered a double backlash. ”He didn’t campaign for [his Best Actor nomination for 1998’s] Gods and Monsters, and voters felt snubbed,” says Tom O’Neil, author of Movie Awards and reigning Oscar expert at ”This time Ian was [on] Saturday Night Live in drag. He was appearing on L.A. radio stations that Freddie Prinze Jr. wouldn’t do to promote Scooby-Doo.” In the end, he got curbed by Oscar’s favorite kind of canine contender: the underdog.