By Leonard Klady
A little more than a decade ago the folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decreed that it was no longer politically correct for presenters to say “and the winner is…” Instead, the appropriate phrase became “and the Oscar goes to…”
That insistence for doing the right thing has had a trickle-down effect and the members of its various branches have largely erred toward nominating predictable fare for the 76th Academy Awards at the expense of the bold and innovative. It’s a respectable rather than an inspired roster.
And its big winners are…The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and Seabiscuit—all best-picture nominees and none with nominations in acting categories. The three films dominate the technical categories with all three sharing space in art direction, costume design, film editing and sound, and two of the three making the cut in makeup and visual effects.
The few remaining spots on the ballot are largely filled by obvious candidates from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Last Samurai and Cold Mountain. Still there’s a tiny element of surprise and deserved recognition for a pair of international productions: City of God from Brazil and the British-financed Girl With a Pearl Earring, respectively competing in two and three below-the-line sections.
Of all the tech categories, the most intriguing shapes up as cinematography with Pearl Earring, Cold Mountain, City of God, Seabiscuit and Master and Commander, but not The Return of the King on the ballot. Eduardo Serra, ASC, AFC who shot Girl With a Pearl Earring, was honored by several critics’ groups, and his exemplary evocation of 17th Century Holland and the work of its subject Vermeer makes it the dark horse to the more muscular American productions. John Seale, ASC an Oscar winner for The English Patient, is back on the ballot for Cold Mountain, but the frontrunners remain the outstanding work of John Schwartzman, ASC on Seabiscuit and the beautiful craft of Aussie veteran Russell Boyd, ACS, on Master and Commander.
Overall, The Return of the King has a slight edge on the competition as New Line has cleverly reminded Oscar voters of the totality of the achievement that spans three movies and close to 10 hours of screen time. In costume design, Ngila Dickson is competing with herself with nominations in the Tolkien opus as well as her period work on The Last Samurai. In another situation she might well split votes and leave the field open for Wendy Stites’s stiff-lipped and ragged seamen of Master and Commander or the equally variegated qualities Judianna Makovsky brought to Seabiscuit. However, this year it’s more likely Academy members will opt to single Dickson out for her Ring-ing contribution.
It’s also hard to imagine The Return of the King not reigning supreme in visual effects and in makeup. In both instances the other nominees are for the fine work of the craftspeople of Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean. Subtlety, never really a trump card in Oscar races, is left in the dust by a single word: Gollum.
Return of the King didn’t make the cut in sound editing and all three nominees—Pirates, Master and Commander, Finding Nemo—hope to be swept in on the tide. It’s in this category that Master and Commander could receive its due via the work of Richard King. In Sound, it squares off against the Hobbits, Pirates and Samurai. However, the nominee that most deserves to usurp the throne is Seabiscuit for its ingenious audio track that’s so good you can smell the turf.
In film editing, it’s appropriate that City of God be included but the highly charged kinetic work will almost certainly be dwarfed by the dominant trio and the inclusion of two-time Oscar winner Walter Murch, A.C.E. for Cold Mountain. While the first two episodes of The Lord of the Rings have brought home gold in the majority of tech categories, film editing has yet to be won and Jamie Selkirk’s montage has the best odds to be honored on Feb. 29.
Finally, there is art direction with this category’s David—Ben Van Os of Girl With a Pearl Earring—unlikely to fell a quartet of Goliaths and particularly production designer Grant Major’s team on the Return of the King. The very Oscar worthy Jeannine Oppewall, Lilly Kilvert and William Sandell of Seabiscuit, Last Samurai and Master and Commander can always look forward to the 77th Academy Awards and beyond, when the Rings will be a memory and not a competitor.
By Leonard Klady