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Oscars 2001: No Oscar for talent

THIS year's Oscars (March 2001) may have run along a familiar terrain, but the choices of the 5700-odd Academy voters, with half of them actors past their middle age and working in Hollywood, were largely disappointing.

When the gala evening's first award went to Ang Lee's Mandarin work, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", for Art Direction, one wished that it would garner many or most of the other prizes for which it had been nominated. But, of its 10 nominations - the largest ever in the 73-year-old history of the Academy for a movie in a tongue other than English (Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful" got seven in 1999) - it could actually win only four statuettes, including those for the Best Foreign Language Film and Cinematography.

Set in China's 19th Century Qing Dynasty - essentially the last decades before Western influences shattered the Dragon kingdom's ancient sense of rhythm - "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is a wonderfully-paced exercise in martial arts, captured with Peter Pau's camera which does not just see, but thinks and imagines as well. What we have, then, on the screen are mystical romance, artistic fights and magical intrigues all ganging up to create an alluring image. Aesthetic and delectable are two more adjectives that I would like to add as feathers to the Tiger and the Dragon.

Unfortunately, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" just did not get what it deserved, the Oscar for the Best Picture. It was, in fact, the first time that an Asian work was nominated in this category. However, the fact that it walked away with the Foreign Lingo Oscar gave the continent the first ever such honour.

The day ought to have belonged to Lee, but in some way, it did - rather unfairly - to Ridley Scott and his "Gladiator", whose dozen nominations may have translated themselves into just five prizes, but two top ones: Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role.

"Gladiator" is an epic but wooden drama of a Roman general demoted to a slave and forced to fight men and beasts in the coliseum, but who eventually avenges the death of his own family and that of his beloved emperor.

It is certainly no patch on the 1959 somewhat similar "Ben-Hur" (which got 11 Oscars), but the ways of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are peculiar. The film with the most nominations have won the top award 16 times in the past 17 years, and "Gladiator" sailed along smug on its 12 props. Also, its distributor, DreamWorks, is proficient in the tricks of the trade. It knows how to make most of the 5,700 members watch its stuff; DreamWorks did that last year as well with "American Beauty".

But more than the marketing ploy, what usually works is the Academy's penchant for frequenting the beaten track, and it might have well done it with the Best Actor trophy as well, had it not been for the feeling among the members that they were overdoing the obvious.

The clash here was clearly between Tom Hanks' in "Cast Away" and Russell Crowe in "Gladiator". Hanks as a courier guy marooned on an uninhabited island literally carries the movie on his brown and brazen shoulders, talking to a volleyball (his only companion) or devouring a live, creepy crab. It was a great performance, miles ahead of what Crowe managed to convey or emote from the magnificent opulence of an empire.

Hanks would have won, but for his winning streak. He has under his belt two Oscars (back to back in 1994 and 1995 for "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump") and five nominations spread over just 12 years. The Academy could not possibly give him a third statuette.

True, Jack Nicholson has had three, although one was for a supporting role. And his 11 nominations came over three decades. Hanks' penalisation - despite a small, but determined campaign against it - helped Crowe's inexpressive and rather unimpressive Roman warrior to ride home triumphant.

On the other hand, the Academy did not have to face such a dilemma while looking at the female leads. Julia Roberts, in any case, was a favourite, as the legal assistant in "Erin Brockovich" sporting cleavage-revealing blouses and shockingly short skirts to take on the goliath of a company, suspected of poisoning drinking water with cancer causing pollutants. A single mom with two kids and two marriages behind her, Roberts here was no Pretty Woman using her eyelashes to catch the male gaze. Instead, what this David of a woman sought to net was the offending giant with her provocative garb and biting legalese tongue.

Roberts' director Steven Soderbergh defied something greater: history. He became the first to grab two nominations each in the Best Director and the Best Picture slots in a single year. The judges found his "Traffic", dealing with the drug problem between the U.S. and Mexico, better helmed than "Erin Brockovich".

Trampled under such serious, modern entertainment was at least one work, "Chocolat". Directed by a Swede, Lasse Hallstrom, and enacted by a French lady, Juliet Binoche, "Chocolat", is a crazy story of a sleepy town, whose inhabitants are sweetened into a state of wakefulness by a charming outsider.

Well, the Academy chose to skip this dessert, and instead filled its belly with drugs, danger and devastation.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated April 1 2001)

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