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A Pre-Pre-Oscar Malaise

An explanation of why "The Two Towers" won't win Best Picture, even though it should.

11:00 PM, Jan 9, 2003 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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I WON'T SEE "CHICAGO."

There, I said it. I'm sure it's a wonderful movie. John Podhoretz says so. Everyone says so. And besides, it stars Renée Zellweger, who will always be dear to my heart because she was a scrappy point guard in high school. But "Chicago" is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture and once again Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" is going to be overlooked. We can all see it coming.

The bitterness of last year's slight is still fixed in my gizzard: "The Fellowship of the Ring"--one of the great cinematic achievements of our time, up there with "Lawrence of Arabia"--believe it--was beaten out by the maudlin and historically dishonest "A Beautiful Mind." Like today, it was clear far in advance that "A Beautiful Mind" would win. And like today, I made a promise to boycott it.

I held firm until one summer evening when I brought it home from Blockbuster and slipped it into my DVD player. It's a fine little film with a couple of very nice moments. Had "A Beautiful Mind" aired on CBS, it would have been the best movie-of-the-week ever and richly deserved an Emmy.

Of course, "A Beautiful Mind" wasn't the first undeserving movie to win Best Picture. Just the year before, "Gladiator" won the Oscar, over a trio of movies that could each make a better claim for Best Picture ("Almost Famous," "Shadow of the Vampire," and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"). And the year before that, "American Beauty" won (over "Magnolia" and "The Insider"). And, come to think of it, the year before that, "Shakespeare in Love" won (over "Saving Private Ryan").

How does this happen? The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences votes for them, that's how.

The Academy is made up of about 6,000 members of the film industry, who each fall into one of the Academy's 14 branches (for actors, cinematographers, visual effects, public relations, film editors, etc.). But one doesn't just join the Academy--you have to be invited and, as the Academy's website puts it, have "achieved distinction in the arts and sciences of motion pictures."

The members of each branch vote on nominations for their Oscars: Directors nominate Best Director, documentarians nominate Best Documentary, and so forth (except for Best Picture, for which all members get to make nominations). Once the top five nominees in each category are determined, they are put to the entire membership for a final vote, determining the winner.

It all makes perfect sense, except that membership skews somewhat older, so the Academy has, shall we say, particular tastes. As one Hollywood screenwriter tells me, "I liken Academy voters to an audience of grandparents at an elementary school play--they like 'Oliver' and 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.'"

And not only are their tastes outmoded, there's this: Academy members have quite often not seen the movies they're voting on. But while they may not drag themselves out to the theater, they do read the trade papers, and at this time of year the pages of "Variety" and the "Hollywood Reporter" are littered with "For your consideration . . ." ads touting potential nominees.

Much like in politics, deep pockets and a commitment to paid media can go a long way in Hollywood. One studio in particular, Miramax, is especially dedicated to lobbying for its products. Miramax has gotten at least one of its movies nominated for Best Picture every year for the last 10 years through pure, unadorned Bloombergianism. In 2001, for example, Miramax spent $1.8 million on ads--targeted at the 6,000 Academy members--for the movie "Chocolat." The lackluster film, almost universally dismissed by critics and the movie-going public, received a Best Picture nomination nonetheless. But that's nothing compared with the $15 million Miramax spent lobbying for "Shakespeare in Love" in 1999.

"Chicago," as you may have guessed, is a Miramax film.

It's a shame really, because "The Two Towers" already has one large obstacle in its way: patriotism. The Academy Awards are given out by the people who make movies in Hollywood, which is why foreign films almost never win. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is backed by an American company, but for all intents and purposes, it's a foreign film. It was shot in New Zealand, by a New Zealand director using a New Zealand special-effects house. The actors are mostly Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders--as is almost the entire crew. Giving "The Two Towers" Best Picture would be, to paraphrase William Goldman, a little like workers from the Big Three in Detroit voting to give their most prestigious prize to a Toyota.

Still, I suppose that if the Academy is going to slight "The Two Towers," it might as well be for "Chicago." Better that than the hectoring, feminist "The Hours" or the latest Serious Holocaust Movie, "The Pianist."

Just in case, I won't see them either.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.