Tuesday, February 22, 2005

OSCAR Week Highlights Continued/AWARDS Report #4


Oscar's hottest contest
By Susan Wloszczyna and Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

"Winners are simply willing to do what losers won't."

Those words of wisdom hang on a sign in the gym in the boxing drama Million Dollar Baby.

But we dare anyone to tell that to Martin Scorsese if he's KO'd for the fifth time in the title bout for best director when the annual glut of glitz and glory known as the Academy Awards takes place this Sunday on ABC.

The poor film-crazed kid from Queens has been willing to do whatever it takes to win an Oscar for more than three decades, even putting aside his fear of flying to shoot a film titled The Aviator.

But if anyone can spoil his day this time around, it's Clint Eastwood, the understated force behind Million Dollar Baby. The former TV cowpoke already owns a fistful of directing gold for his 1992 Western, Unforgiven, and just might grab another.

When Eastwood is asked about his main rival in the race, he replies in typically terse fashion: "He should have won for Raging Bull. I love that film. But, unfortunately, this year he's up against tough competition."

Yup, Oscar has a brawl on its hands, a battle royale between two popular screen legends: The last great Western hero against the guy who boldly electrified '70s cinema. It's probably the only category this year in which average moviegoers and industry insiders alike have an emotional stake in the outcome. EDITOR'S NOTE: YEAH....NO HYPERBOLE THERE, HUH? (HOW IS IT WE ALL HAVE A STAKE? OTHER THAN A FUN THING TO BANTER ABOUT LEADING UP TO THE PARTY, WHAT, PRAY TELL, IS IN IT FOR US?)

For once, it's not about money. The film that takes best director rarely gets a huge box office bonus based on that award alone. Instead, it's a desire to reward two unique artists — one past due for previous efforts, the other hitting his late-in-life stride — who might not get a better chance to claim the trophy again.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation if Million Dollar Baby had not come along," says Jack Mathews, a movie critic for the New York Daily News. "The conventional wisdom about a month and a half ago was that Martin would get his Oscar. But all bets are off. At the moment, Clint seems the favorite."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When The Aviator, a sprawling $100-million-plus bio of aviation pioneer and Tinseltown tycoon Howard Hughes, was shown at preview screenings last fall, it looked like a turbulence-free flight to victory for the long-denied Scorsese, who is as passionate about his craft as ever at age 62.

True, his large-canvas portrait of the rise and fall of a germ-phobic billionaire is not nearly as daring and innovative as 1980's more intimate Raging Bull. Most agree that the hard-hitting saga about self-imploding boxer Jake La Motta should have been the one to earn Scorsese an Oscar. (He lost to Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People.) But at least The Aviator, with its dazzling aerial photography and insider references to Hollywood of yore, is much more likable than the last film for which he was nominated, 2002's blood-drenched Gangs of New York. (Roman Polanski won for The Pianist.)

Many behind-the-camera geniuses go to that big screening room in the sky without leaving behind a directing Oscar, including Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini and Alfred Hitchcock. Yet the fact that Scorsese is without somehow rankles his peers even more. It may be partly because he is such an ace at helping actors earn nominations themselves — 19 so far.

"Of course I would like to see him win," says Cate Blanchett, who is in the running for best supporting actress for her gutsy spin on Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. "Everyone who works in a Martin Scorsese film is doing it because they get to work for him."

But just when it seemed the stage was set for the much-delayed coronation of King Marty, out of nowhere like a sneaky left hook came 74-year-old Eastwood's little-publicized $30 million Baby. The eloquently spare exercise in emotion-packed storytelling inspired critics to declare it the onetime Dirty Harry's career-peak directorial effort, landing atop more than 200 top-10 lists.

"Clint stunned me with this," says Richard Zanuck, veteran producer (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy) and a close pal of Eastwood's. "He has gotten better with age. He is unquestionably thought of as the best director around, and he's been able to stay contemporary."EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL, HE DATES YOUNGER AND YOUNGER WOMEN, SO HE STAYS....UMM...ATOP THE LATEST TRENDS. (SORRY).

As for which way the 5,808 members of the academy will be swayed when the ballots due today are tallied, Zanuck won't even venture a guess: "It's hard to say how it will go. Very hard to say."

Even those in the films are torn. "I've got high hopes for both, because if anyone is due, they are," says Morgan Freeman, who has a fourth go at an acting Oscar as the one-eyed gym manager in Baby. "Clint did such great work in this movie, and Martin did, too. I saw The Aviator the other night and was blown away by it. I don't even vote — who you going to vote for? It's like throwing darts."

What may prove to be a bumpier night than expected for Scorsese could turn into one heck of a nail biter for film fans rooting at home. EDITOR'S NOTE: WOOHOO! (THIS IS BECAUSE, BY THE TIME THIS AWARD IS ANNOUNCED, FANS WILL BE ROOTING FOR THE SHOW TO BE OVER SO THEY CAN GET TO GO TO HOME).

It certainly has the Hollywood in-crowd, many of whom will help decide the outcome, speculating like crazy since the nominations were announced in late January.

The Aviator collected 11, the lion's share. But the seven that went to fellow best-picture contender Baby, including one for Eastwood's performance as Hilary Swank's hard-boiled-but-soft-inside trainer, are enough to keep him strongly in the game.

"We've been talking about this a lot on the set," says Kathleen Kennedy, a producer on Steven Spielberg's summer blockbuster War of the Worlds. "It's very split whether Clint will get it or Marty. It's a real dilemma. The body of work for both is just extraordinary."

Whatever happens in the directing category could cause a domino effect of unexpected outcomes, critic Roger Ebert says.

"This time, the voters have an opportunity to pick Eastwood as best actor, a category where he has never been nominated. They may pick Scorsese for director and Eastwood as actor as a way of splitting the honors." That would leave Ray best-actor front-runner Jamie Foxx, who also is up for supporting actor for Collateral, out in the cold — especially if the votes are split between his two nominations.

The usually reliable early indicators of Oscar front-runners serve only to further muddy the situation. The Golden Globes bestowed its directing award on Eastwood but honored The Aviator as best picture. The Directors Guild went with Eastwood. The Producers Guild picked The Aviator. The Screen Actors Guild rewarded performers from both movies.

Strong cases can be made for and against either choice.

•In Eastwood's corner. Amazing strength. As Mathews observes, "He's just hitting his stride." Says Freeman, "You do get better over time — if you are paying attention like Clint."

Against: He already has a directing Oscar. Plus, protests over a touchy ethical question that drives the final third of Baby's plot could dampen its chances. But don't count on it: Voters rarely are scared off by controversy. They honored Polanski despite his dicey sexual history and gave a tribute to McCarthy-era squealer Elia Kazan.

•In Scorsese's corner. Deep sentiment. Oscars often are makeup prizes in disguise, a kind of career achievement medal. "I had that happen with Don Ameche in Cocoon," Zanuck says. "Sometimes the academy votes with its heart." EDITOR'S NOTE: MORE OFTEN, I THINK, THAN WITH THEIR HEADS, ACTUALLY.

Against: Says Entertainment Weekly's Dave Karger, "They will give one to him someday, but that movie will have to come closer to Raging Bull or GoodFellas. And I don't think this one is up to par." EDITOR'S NOTE: THOSE WHO CAN, DO. THOSE WHO CAN'T, WORK FOR ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY.

As for the other directing candidates — Taylor Hackford (Ray), Mike Leigh (Vera Drake) and Alexander Payne (Sideways) — they should probably resign themselves to being mere spectators in this two-man showdown. Asked what is the year's best film, Leigh replies, "I'm a great Scorsese fan."

Scorsese sounds as if he is steeled against possible disappointment. If he wins, he says, "it would be very nice. What can I say? It's been 1973 that I've been in movies or longer.

"When I didn't win for Raging Bull, I said, 'It's OK. Look at the film you got to make.' Certain types of films don't sit well within the system itself. As long as the film gets recognized, and I've got a lot of recognition over the years."

Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor, who won an Oscar for Raging Bull, confirms that he holds little hope of ever winning.

"I think it used to hurt him early on," she says. "Now he's kind of resolved it may never happen."

But Eastwood is not a lock to win, and he has endured his own Oscar trouncing. Last year, when he was nominated for Mystic River, "Clint went to every awards ceremony. And Lord of the Rings won everything," says Joel Cox, Eastwood's equally devoted editor, who won the Oscar for Unforgiven. "He understands what it is about."

Not even a casting director could have picked two more polar opposites in this tense awards thriller. Tall and tight-lipped Eastwood finished Baby in 39 days with no script rewrites and few second takes. Diminutive and dynamic Scorsese, who spent two years toiling on The Aviator and finished the shoot in 91 days, films multiple takes if he senses something the least bit wrong.

Yet they have much in common as well:

• Both are devoted music lovers — Eastwood did the jazz bio Bird, Scorsese shot the concert documentary The Last Waltz— and each contributed a segment to The Blues, the PBS miniseries from 2003.

• Both have taken the depiction of big-screen violence to new graphic heights. Eastwood's brand is point-blank and mockingly cruel in his spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry outings. Scorsese's style is operatic and shockingly savage in Taxi Driver and Gangs of New York.

• Both have a way with the ladies, with seven marriages between them (two for Eastwood, five for Scorsese). And despite their usual macho leanings, both paid their respects to the fairer sex by directing top-notch "chick flicks" (Eastwood with 1995's Bridges of Madison Country, EDITOR'S NOTE: SHUDDER. Scorsese with 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore).

And both have directed boxing movies.

Scorsese pulls no punches when asked who would win in the ring, Robert De Niro's raging bull or Hilary Swank's million-dollar baby.

"Hilary is pretty tough," he says.

Less easy to call is Eastwood vs. Scorsese. The ultimate decision in this slugfest lies in the hands of academy voters.

And it's a pretty tough one, indeed.


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