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And the lobbying begins ...

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: October 5, 2004 | Publication: The Age | Author: Lawrie Zion

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IF six weeks feels like a long stretch for an election campaign, then pity the poor members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

The Oscars aren't held until the end of February, but already voters are being subjected to all the lobbying hoopla for a pageant recently described by The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott as "perhaps the most lavishly and aggressively trivial event on the pop culture calendar".

Most of the films being touted have yet to make their appearance in front of the public, even in the US. Indeed, the only movies already released this year that are being seriously discussed as best picture possibilities are The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 and even these maverick hits are seen as too contentious to be considered certain for inclusion.

There is a logic to this reticence. The studios behind the serious contenders like to keep their powder dry to win maximum exposure during the voting period, which includes the last few days of December and the first two weeks of January. Oscar voters, it is assumed, don't have great memories and, given the advanced age of such a high proportion of them, perhaps there is something to this.

As a strategy, however, the policy of holdback is no sure-fire recipe for success. Just as the North American summer is the harbinger of a surfeit of glossy blockbusters aimed at teen audiences, December usually brings a quality glut into US cinemas. This means that smaller films that is, films with smaller marketing budgets often struggle to make the requisite noise.

Many of these December debutants won't appear on Australian screens until after the nominations have been announced at the end of January, when Oscar hype can be guaranteed to provide an automatic publicity boost.

But one thing is clear: you can bet all the real estate in Middle-earth that next year's contest is going to be much more interesting than 2004's intensely uninteresting Lord of the Rings walkover.

Oscar jockeying began in earnest at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last month. While Venice is usually by far the glitzier of the two events, it is not usually taken as seriously as a pointer to Oscar glory. But under the new stewardship of Marco Muller, this year's Venice festival included an unusually strong roster of English-language films.

They included the high-concept drama Birth, in which Nicole Kidman befriends a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her husband; and Vanity Fair, which, on paper at least, seemed to have the best credentials of this year's classic-lit adaptations. Both received such mixed responses at Venice, however, that their Oscar hopes have all but evaporated.

Conversely, Mike Leigh's latest film, Vera Drake, has catapulted into the ranks of serious Oscar hopefuls after winning the festival's highest honour. Its star, Imelda Staunton, is widely tipped to be a best actress nominee for her role as a woman who helps young girls obtain abortions in 1950s Britain.

One of the other Venice winners was the Spanish drama The Sea Within (Mar Adentro), starring Javier Bardem as a quadriplegic man fighting for the right to end his life. Foreign-language films don't often win best picture nominations but this could be an exception, given the academy's predilection for stories involving serious physical afflictions. Bardem has already had one nomination, for his mesmerising performance in Before Night Falls in 2000.

The Sea Within isn't the only Spanish-language film being positioned for a best picture nomination. The Motorcycle Diaries, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the young Che Guevara, is also given some chance. As well as receiving positive reviews, the film has the advantage of fitting inside one of the Oscars' favourite subgenres: the biopic. As Emanuel Levy points out in his book Oscar Fever, films inspired by actual events or real-life personalities have won almost one of every three best picture awards think Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, The Last Emperor, Schindler's List and Mel Gibson's previous attempt at a biopic, Braveheart.

Although obvious frontrunners have yet to emerge, in the wake of the Toronto festival there is a growing consensus that 2005 might very well turn out to be the year of the biopic. Along with The Motorcycle Diaries there is strong buzz surrounding Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey; Ray, with Jamie Foxx playing singer Ray Charles; and Finding Neverland, tipped to provide Johnny Depp with his second consecutive best actor nomination for his performance as the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie.

Then there is Oliver Stone's Alexander, with Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, starring Leonardo Di Caprio as Howard Hughes. Although neither has been publicly screened, within the industry both are widely considered to fulfil all the criteria for Oscar pictures.

For The Hollywood Reporter's Gregg Kilday, the presence of so many biopics adds a layer of unpredictability to the competition: "Biopics must answer to a number of judgments that fictional narratives aren't asked to meet," he says. "All bear the added burden of living up to the historical record as well as moviegoers' subjective reactions to the personalities being [portrayed]."

The race for February's Oscars, Kilday says, "is likely to turn into an ongoing seminar on the uses and abuses of real-life figures in popular films. And, as all the arguments over the veracity of movies such as 2001's A Beautiful Mind proved, that can make for a contentious Oscar season."

There is also speculation about two other unseen films both based on stage productions on the strength of their impeccable Oscar pedigrees. Closer, adapted from Patrick Marber's play, stars the heavy-duty trans-Atlantic quartet of Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen, and is directed by Mike Nichols, who won the best director Oscar in 1967 for The Graduate.

Then there is this year's big musical contender, The Phantom of the Opera, directed by Joel Schumacher. "There is very strong word of mouth about this film in the industry," says Levy. "Not many musicals are getting made and . . . it has the right ingredients, including Broadway cachet and British talent, all of which help in terms of getting visibility."

Australia's best hope appears to rest with Cate Blanchett, who plays Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator and alongside Bill Murray and Owen Wilson in the awkwardly titled The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Directed by Wes Anderson, whose previous works include the well-received quirky comedies Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, Aquatic is about a team of oceanographers on a mission to track down a mysterious shark. All the action takes place on a boat.

Well, it worked for Titanic.


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