Here's the year's first Oscar controversy | EW.com

Movies

Here's the year's first Oscar controversy

Lisa Schwarzbaum argues that the Academy shouldn't bend the rules -- even for a notable indie film

Clive Owen, Croupier

(Owen: Simon Mien)

Here’s the year’s first Oscar controversy

When you’re sick of arguing whether confused citizens of Florida who voted for Pat Buchanan when they meant to vote for Al Gore ought to be given ballot do overs or smacks on their tushies, argue this: Should the excellent little British film ”Croupier” be disqualified from Oscar eligibility because it played for two weeks in Singapore in the summer of 1998?

The facts are, it did, and it is. The nifty noir about a blocked writer turned casino pro was an undervalued oddity when The Shooting Gallery picked it up for inclusion last year in their savvy series of orphaned independent flicks. The film made a relative star of Clive Owen, and revived the career of director Mike Hodges (whose ”Get Carter,” the good 1970 original, was mucked up by the dorky Stallone remake).

”Croupier” is bound to show up on a lot of critical top 10 lists this year, and it would be a good bet for a handful of Oscar nominations, not least for Owen. But a statute on the Academy books stipulates that to be eligible this year, a movie must have a Los Angeles qualifying run in 2000 – and cannot have been exhibited or broadcast outside the U.S. before January 1, 1999. But according to an article by Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times, ”Croupier” not only played in Singapore at the wrong time, but was also broadcast once on Dutch television in November of 1998.

Goldstein goes on to defend the bobbling fortunes of an ”abandoned” property like ”Croupier” to blast publicists from competing Oscar contenders who dug up the Singapore and Dutch dirt, and to plead that the Academy stop being so snippy. The board of governors should, he says, waive the rules, and give a deserving underdog a fighting chance. I admire his ardor – ”Croupier” is swell, no argument there – but with Florida Ballot Fatigue setting in, I’m losing my taste for do overs and waivers.

The reality is, Oscar rules are arbitrary, Oscar tastes are unpredictable, and, as the big staredown between ”Saving Private Ryan” and ”Shakespeare in Love” proved two years ago, Oscar campaigns aren’t clean or ”fair.” They’re fallible. They’re show biz. They’re waged with expensive ad campaigns and boxes of videocassettes shipped to Academy voters so the poor old things don’t have to trouble themselves shlepping to actual theaters to watch movies like non- voting folks do. The Oscars are subject to whim, stupidity, and scheming, but they’re what we’ve got. Besides, compared to the Wild West justice of the Golden Globes, the Oscars represent Solomonic rectitude.

It’s a pity ”Croupier” doesn’t qualify for Academy nomination, but really, nobody’s getting shafted. The pic has made $6 million here, which is phenomenal in its class. Some critics’ group or other is likely to consider it for best picture. Owen has a bright Hollywood career ahead. Hodges is a new man. The team at The Shooting Gallery gets big props. Good enough.

Anyhow, if you want to talk about real Oscar agita, consider the pressures weighing on ”The House of Mirth.” Terence Davies’ luminous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s fiction masterpiece starring Gillian Anderson was financed by Showtime and destined for cable TV (and Emmy/ Cable Ace nominations) until this past fall, when industry players (egged on by swooning critics who had seen it in film festivals) fell under its spell and negotiated for theatrical distribution rights. Now first honors go to Sony Pictures Classics, which will release ”Mirth” on December 22 and pray to mighty Academy voters for the statuettes this extraordinary production (and Anderson’s stunning performance) so rightly deserve.

Of course, with Oscar, as with Miami-Dade County, results are still too close to call.