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Academy Awards 2004: Nominations unspool surprises

Competition must have its surprises. If the results predictable, they could turn into boring exercises.

For some years now, the race for Oscar nominations and the awards themselves have had their share of shocks and upsets. One is merely using different words -- or looking from a different perspective -- to describe surprises here.

Although, it was widely expected that "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", Peter Jackson's awesome final edition of a trilogy set in mystical Middle Earth, would garner many nominations -- and it did 11, including those for Best Picture and Director -- nobody quite though that Peter Weir's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" would clinch 10 nods. Among them were those for Best Picture and Director. Set in the Napoleonic era, this film is a gripping naval adventure.

There were many more surprises: major movies were given a cold shoulder, while smaller ones attracted attention.

The 5800-odd voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the decision body behind the Oscars, were apparently not impressed by Miramax's big offering, "Cold Mountain": no Best Picture or Director nomination for this.

Based in New York, Miramax is known to dominate the Oscars. Even this year, it has in its basket 15 nods, the highest among any company this time.

Miramax's pull appears to go farther than this:its co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein's favourite work, "City of God", from Brazil got the Best Director nod for Fernando Meirelles. Well deserved though, for this work is a great piece of direction. "The City of God" is a young artist's brilliantly-etched impression of a crime-ridden housing colony in Rio de Janeiro. It was at Cannes' competition in 2002, but the jury was not impressed.

Apart from this there were several small films that seem to have seduced the Academy. Sofia Coppola is the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and she became the third woman to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Her creation, "Lost in Translation" -- a contemplative story of a woman waiting in a Tokyo hotel -- was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Bill Murray) and Best Original Screenplay.

The two other women auteurs recognised by the Academy were Lina Wertmiller from Italy ("Seven Beauties" in 1976) and Jane Campion of New Zealand ("The Piano" in 1993). However, neither won.

The ways of the Academy can be strange, as perhaps are the decisions of juries and selection panels. Nobody quite understood why "The Brown Bunny" by Vincent Gallo -- an unabashedly pornographic work and with not even a pretence to any aesthetic value -- was chosen as part of Cannes' prestigious competition last summer, May 2003.

Similarly, nobody can quite fathom why some of the documentaries were kept out of the recent Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentaries, Shorts and Animation Films (March 2004).

One is sure that artists such as Nicole Kidman ("Cold Mountain"), Russell Crowe ("Master and Commander...") and Tom Cruise ("The Last Samurai") would have been as disappointed -- as must have been some of India's docu-makers -- for not having been taken note of by the Academy. In fact, Kidman and Crowe were hot, hot favourites, but, they are not protesting, well, not as yet.

One supposes one has to accept such decisions with grace, though, this is not to even remotely suggest that one must forfeit the right to protest. But there are ways of doing this.

Back to Los Angeles for a few more surprises: three movies nominated for Best Picture collected no acting nod. "The Return of the King," "Master and Commander..." and "Seabiscuit" all took multiple nods, but none for acting.

Instead, the academy singled out performances that had not mounted any positive guesses.Among the most unexpected nominees were Djimon Hounsou, as the Best Supporting Actor for playing Mateo, a neighbour to a young immigrant family in "In America," and the 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes as the Best Actress in the independent hit "Whale Rider" (about New Zealand's Aborigines).She is the youngest actress ever nominated in this category.

Other could-not-believe choices were two comic performances, usually not considered worthy of the Oscars: Johnny Depp as the Best Actor ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") and Diane Keaton as the Best Actress, who plays an aging writer in love with Jack Nicholson in "Something's Gotta Give."

One has to wait for February 29 for the awards, to see how these translate into something more enduring. However, the fact that the Academy is now inclined to turn its camera away from the big- buck extravaganzas towards smaller, meaningful works of celluloid calls for a celebration.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated February 13 2004)

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