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Oscars 2000: Not so glitzy this time

IT was a turbulent year for the Oscars this March 2000. First, a few thousand ballots went missing. Then, the statuettes were stolen, 52, in fact out of the 55, and had it not been for a scrap metal dealer, who found it in the nick of time, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could have been in a suffocatingly tight corner.

But what came as a harder blow was an apparent "leak" of the results. A newspaper sent its men to the 5,600 Academy voters and got at least six per cent of them to talk. And what they said proved accurate, or almost. They said Sam Mendes' "American Beauty" would be the Best Picture. They said Hilary Swank would walk away with the Best Actress award for her role as a woman caught in a man's body in "Boys Don't Cry". They said Michael Caine would be the Best Supporting Actor in "The Cider House Rules", where he gets into the character of an orphanage headmaster and doubles up as an abortionist-doctor. Indeed, these voting members got it bang on.

Where they did not was in Denzel Washington's (for his part in "The Hurricane" ) case; Kevin Spacey beat him and took away the Best Actor Oscar, playing an out-of-job man eying his daughter's friend.

The Academy was upset that the secret of the white envelopes - opened during the gala event - was out; it was livid that the newspaper should have done this, thereby robbing the evening of its fun.

In fact, till 1939, the Press knew in advance who the winners were, but it adhered to a strict embargo and never published the names till they were announced on the stage. But that year, an eveninger played spoil sport, printed the precious list and invited the Academy's wrath, which vowed never to take the Fourth Estate into confidence.

With the announcements this year(2000) lacking the usual degree of surprise, the ceremony itself seemed a trifle too boring, although it was the shortest in recent times. When Mendes came on to receive the trophy, it appeared such a foregone conclusion that "American Beauty" - a tragic-comic tale of a couple in a dysfunctional family coming apart - would sail past works such as "The Cider House Rules" (novelist John Irving's story of an orphan growing up), "The Insider" (a film that blows the whistle on a tobacco company), "The Green Mile" (a death-row drama) and "The Sixth Sense" (where a young boy sees dead people).

Manoj Night Shyamalan may have been nominated for his "The Sixth Sense" in six categories that included Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, but one supposes he never really was in the race. Despite all the hype that surrounded it - largely in terms of the box-office - "The Sixth Sense" is, according to me, an average movie. The plot is hardly original, and the kind of suspense Shyamalan resorts to is downright cheating. A viewer is absolutely confused at the way the narrative is handled, and a work of celluloid is meaningless if it fails to communicate convincingly.

This, incidentally, is the second consecutive year that India has been disappointed at Los Angeles. Last year, Shekhar Kapur's "Elizabeth" garnered an impressive number of nominations, but could clinch just a minor prize. This year, Shyamalan could not even get a single kudos.

If Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" was poor, the others did not sparkle the way Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and the Miramax comedy, "Shakespeare in Love" gave audiences something to root for last year. There was genuine thrill, and when "Shakespeare..." won the Best Picture Oscar, it was wonderfully surprising.

It was also a truly international year, with some of the top nominees coming from outside the U.S., like Roberto Benigni ("Life is Beautiful") and Fernanda Montenegro ("Central Station").

This March, the emphasis shifted to America; most of the hopefuls were Americans, who undoubtedly spoke English, though with an Yankee accent. Hollywood's message sounded clear, and somewhat disturbing. Be one of us, and we shall reward you.

Unfortunately, the fight against such monopoly has not been a great success, whatever France and a few other European nations may say. Hollywood movies tend to elbow out the others from the cinemas all over the world, largely on the strength of their money power. A company like Miramax can - and is willing to - spend a fortune on promotion: its "The Cider House Rules" is said to have got as many nominations as it did mainly due to its "muscle" and courtship with Academy members.

How else does one explain Petro Almodovar's excellent "All About My Mother" (from Spain) - a moving picture of a woman's struggle to come to terms with the death of her teenage son - being nominated only in the foreign language category. It won this award all right, but it was also brilliantly directed and superbly acted out.

Even in this section, Iran's "Colour of Paradise" and Mexico's "No One Writes to the Colonel" failed to make it to the final five, and had to give away to insignificant efforts like, for instance, "Caravan" (Nepal) and "East West" (France).

Another terrible miss was Wim Wenders' critically acclaimed and widely popular "Buena Vista Social Club" (a documentary that fuelled worldwide interest in Cuban jazz). What walked away with the honours here was an Israeli entry, "One Day in September" (which deals with the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics).

Somewhere, the Academy gets caught in a frighteningly narrow genre which seldom allows it to welcome refreshing or remarkable works of art. This attitude gives it an insular image, far removed from the global show it is meant to be.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 2 2000)

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