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Academy Awards 2004: Bowled over by fantasy

THIS YEAR'S (February 2004) Oscars surprised one. There were really no surprises. In fact, an agency report from Hollywood carried in the Sunday's edition of The Hindu had predicted, in an almost uncanny way, the winners.

The story said Peter Jackson would be the Best Director, and his film, the final episode of his trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", would be the Best Picture. And, they were.

The agency also said that Sean Penn would be the Best Actor for his role in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River", Tim Robbins the Best Supporting Actor, also in the same movie, Charlize Theron the Best Actress in "Monster" and Renee Zellweger the Best Supporting Actress in "Cold Mountain." And the Oscars went to each one them!

This seemed like a repeat of what happened in 1939, when an eveninger broke an embargo and published the list of winners, thereby robbing the night's Oscar ceremony of one of its great moments, surprise.

That day, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided never to trust the media or just about anybody else. Since then, it has been taking elaborate precautions to keep the names strictly secret till the white envelopes are opened. In fact, only one employee of an American accounting firm knows the results, and he is the man who, with another colleague tallies, them. The colleague does not know the actual count. And, on the evening of the gala, both carry two sets of envelopes and take different routes to the venue. Obviously, the chance of a leak is quite remote. Yet, this year, the media seems to have predicted the winners with shocking accuracy.

"The Lord of Rings..." won every category that it had been nominated for. It took home 11 statuettes, including the most coveted ones. "Ben-Hur" in 1959 and "Titanic" in 1997 had clinched as many Oscars, but neither had converted every nod into a trophy. "Gigi" in 1958 and "The Last Emperor" in 1987 had done that: an award for every nomination, nine out nine in both cases. So, "The Lord of the Rings..." did not create this history, as some newspapers, especially in its home country, New Zealand, have been saying.

What it, however, did for the first time was to seduce the Academy in all its 76 years into giving a work of fantasy the highest reward: Best Picture. This must have come as a soothing balm to Jackson, who was ignored for his earlier chapters of the trilogy.

The movie, set on Middle Earth (nay, New Zealand), reflects the times we live in and the struggles we have to endure in fighting evil.

J. R. R. Tolkien whose literary works Jackson had filmed began writing his tales in December 1937 and completed it in the autumn of 1949. World War II had intervened between conception and completion. Although the author denied, though somewhat half-heartedly, that his books were an allegory of the war against Nazism, analysts aver that the death of two of his close comrades in the Battle of Somme in 1916 during World War I shaped his future fiction.

Maybe, the Academy was also influenced by the events and times of modern day. One would hazard another guess. It is likely that the Academy is finally getting over some of its prejudices. No Oscar for fantasy as a concept appears to have been swept under the bright red carpet at Kodak Theatre, at least this spring.

There was another prejudice that the Academy got over this season: ego. Sean Penn has certainly done a great job in "Mystic River," but he was also nearly perfect in "Dead Man Walking." The Academy had dismissed him then, and the actor had been visibly angry, refusing to put in even an appearance at this year's Golden Globes, where he was adjudged the Best Actor. The Academy seems to have overlooked this little act of defiance and honoured him.

Remarkable, because Hollywood has an awfully fragile ego, and it is paranoid about some issues, political correctness included. It told the nominees and others this year not to mention Iraq and placed a five-second embargo between actual happenings at the ceremony and the so-called live television transmission. The official reason given for this delayed transmission was to ensure that ``no breast baring'' was captured by television cameras!

Some other decisions of the Academy, however, indicated that it was yet to get over all its weaknesses or prejudices. It is still influenced by considerations other than strictly merit. One wonders why Eastwood was ignored. His directorial ability in "Mystic River" was certainly a cut above Jackson's. Maybe, Eastwood was brushed aside, because he has in his twilight years he is 73 bagged a handful of Oscars.

In 1993, his "Unforgiven" got the prizes for Best Picture and Director. Two years ago, he was presented with the Irving G. Thalberg Award. For the Academy, these may just be more than enough for an aging cowboy-player.

Again, New Zealand's Keisha Castle-Hughes, the 13-year-old heroine in "Whale Rider," gave an astounding performance. She was the youngest ever to be nominated as the Best Actress. But, Charlize Theron, whose transformation into a harsh prostitute and serial-killer in "Monster", got her the trophy. Probably, the Academy felt that Keisha was still too young to be crowned, an unhappy case of age eclipsing art.

Perhaps, Keisha should be consoled by the fact that Satyajit Ray, who in a way introduced the Indian cinema to the world, and was hailed as one of the greatest masters of the medium, had to wait to get on to his death-bed before a Special Oscar for Lifetime Achievement was presented to him in a Kolkata hospital. A team from Hollywood flew into the city, and one is told that the Academy did not even have a decent clip of Ray's cinema!

One can merely explain these terrible misses by attributing a quirky sense of logic and reasoning on the part of the Academy voters, who today number 5,800-odd. But, well, the dawn of new thinking is clearly visible, and the first rays warmed the Kodak Theatre this February.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 5 2004)

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