Questions, questions, questions. That’s a common response to 2004’s relatively surprising list of Oscar nominees: Can Bill Murray beat Sean Penn? Is Charlize a lock for Best Actress? Will “Lord of the Rings” hoard all the statues? And who the heck are Shohreh Aghdashloo and Fernando Meirelles?
So now it’s time for some answers. Though many details won’t be resolved until after the Feb. 29 ceremony, we’ve gathered background information that could help you clarify some details and formulate your Oscar picks. Read on for interviews, insider info, and speculation about 30 nominees in the six top categories.
They don’t make movies like Clint Eastwood’s ”Mystic River” anymore. ”One studio head said they were no longer interested in making dramas,” says screenwriter Brian Helgeland. ”That was echoed down the line.” Then again, can you blame them? A brooding drama about three hollowed-out men darkly marked and dangerously warped by rape and murder? No wonder Warner Bros. told Eastwood that ”Mystic River” was too risky — especially at the budget he wanted. They offered the ”Unforgiven” Oscar winner a paltry $20 million, hooked him up with Village Roadshow for some additional cash, and wished him well. Privately, they expected little. Then they saw the movie.
”Mystic River,” skillfully adapted by Helgeland from Dennis Lehane’s novel, is an instant classic, both timeless in its themes of tragedy begetting tragedy, and urgent in its cautionary tale about people whose aching need for justice and closure can cloud wisdom and curdle compassion. Eastwood’s direction has never been more elegant and precise — but it’s the acting that carries the film. Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden are sparingly used, but in their few scenes paint complete and textured emotional portraits. Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins have never been better, and even if you don’t agree with The New York Times that Sean Penn delivers the greatest performance by an actor in 25 years, it’s still worthy of the word ”brilliant,” if not an Oscar.
Warner Bros. execs will (privately) admit they were wrong to underestimate Eastwood, and given the film’s profitable $58.5 million gross, defenders of the endangered Hollywood drama might be tempted to say, ”See! They can work.” Sure they can — so long as they’re as great as this one is.
If ”Tick-Tock” McGlaughlin (William H. Macy) were calling the Best Picture race, he might say, ”Talk about your dark horses, here’s a real pip, folks, a quote thinking man’s movie unquote about a thoroughbred that ran nearly 70 years ago. And it’s going up against some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Kinda like dropping road apples in the cement outside Grauman’s. You want some of that action, be my guest.”
Truth be told, it’s hard to regard as a long shot an $86 million movie that had Universal, DreamWorks, and Spyglass as backers; Steven Spielberg collaborators Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy as producers; and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Gary Ross (”Big” and ”Dave”) as director. But ”Seabiscuit” the movie faces even greater odds than Seabiscuit the horse because of (1) the track record of sports movies, (2) the strong competition from more critically acclaimed movies, and (3) the haze left from its summer release.
What the film does have going for it is the prestige derived from Laura Hillenbrand’s runaway best-seller and its compelling Three Men and a Horse story. If anything, Ross was a little too faithful to the source — the horse doesn’t appear until 44 minutes into the movie. Still, ”Seabiscuit” is remarkably true to the period and the sport. With the help of two Hall of Fame jockeys, Chris McCarron (horse-and-race consultant) and Gary Stevens (who plays George Woolf in the film) — and a first-rate cast featuring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, and Macy — Ross was able to capture the beauty, pageantry, power, and danger of thoroughbred racing.
And the timing couldn’t have been better. Just before the movie’s release, the unheralded Funny Cide won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness for his working-class owners. Alas, the gelding came up short in the Belmont in his quest for the Triple Crown. But he did succeed in reminding people that the long shot sometimes wins.
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’
Back in 2002, in response to a special hobbit plea, director Peter Jackson set up his video recorder in his New Zealand home, lined up halflings Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan, and screened the raw footage of ”The Return of the King” without a single special-effects shot. ”Halfway through they all started to cry, and they kept crying to the very end,” he says. ”The screening was better for me than for them because I had some sense of the film actually working on its basic emotional level.”
Oh, does it ever. The capper to the ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy has earned $337.8 million domestically so far, placing it firmly among the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time, thanks to its graceful blend of sweep and sentiment. ”King” has audiences soaring above mountain castleholds, creeping into the cave-keep of the dead, gliding through the arrow-pricked legs of enemy-driven mammoths — and shedding enough tears to stamp out the fires of Mordor. Still, Jackson, who counts the film as his favorite of the entire J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired trilogy, isn’t overconfident that ”King” will win that most precious of Oscars. ”The fantasy label these films have is always going to be a bit of a handicap for us,” he admits. ”With the Oscars, I always regard myself as a spectator, not a participant: You sit back and let other people decide.”
True, in the last two years, ”A Beautiful Mind” and ”Chicago” have beaten out the ”Rings” films for the top trophy — but many believe the Academy has simply been waiting to reward the resplendent Middle-earth romp in one fell Best Picture swoop. Whether or not ”King” conquers, one cast member is looking way past this year’s Oscar race. ”They’re incredible movies and I can’t wait down the road to be able to show them to my grandkids,” says Wood. ”I mean, there is something really special about them, you know?” We’ll soon see if the Academy agrees.
‘Lost in Translation’
In this Oscar season of burly epics — male actors waging battle and buckling swash with much machismo, writers imagining grand mythic arcs, directors endeavoring to forge a vision at any length necessary — ”Lost in Translation” seems a delicate little thing. Made in a mere four weeks for a scant $4 million, Sofia Coppola’s second movie explores a few days in the intersecting lives of a pair of Americans in Tokyo: Bill Murray’s movie star in midlife free fall and Scarlett Johansson’s mess of a neglected young wife, a couple of not-so-innocents abroad and adrift and alone. In the company of its fellow nominees, it looks like a book of interlinked poems among a bunch of bulging tomes.
But ”Lost in Translation” ends up on this shelf by dint of a depth that belies its slimness. It’s as much of a quest tale as any of its competitors; it’s just that the two protagonists — as jet-lagged as they are spiritually fatigued — are helping each other on a subtler sort of journey. As Murray told Coppola in Interview last year: ”You want to put people in a situation where a romance can occur and they can experience each other without letting the plot dictate what happens — where it’s enough to see how they go through it…. These characters are sort of heroic in the way that they’re able to encounter romance and experience it without compromising their lives.”
Francis Ford Coppola won a 1972 Best Picture Oscar for ”The Godfather” and another for its sequel — a pair of films that together rank as one of the key American stories. More than three decades later, his daughter has created a work that is less sweeping but just as indelible — a movie so intimate and elegant that it hardly seems to have been made at all, but simply exists to relate the endlessly complex saga within each of our hearts.
‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’
He knew enough about 19th-century navigational tactics to fill 20 popular novels (one titled ”Master and Commander,” another ”The Far Side of the World”), but there was one place Patrick O’Brian could never find his way around. ”I’m going to a city that always escapes me…. It’s in the south, near Mexico,” the British author told a radio interviewer during a 1995 publicity tour across America. ”It’s where they make films.”
That would be a little town called Hollywood. And one of the films they finally got around to making there last year — three years after the writer’s death at age 85 — was ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” The story of how the film made it onto the screen is something of an epic voyage all its own, spanning more than a decade and involving no fewer than five different studios. And nobody would have been more surprised than O’Brian himself at how that journey is at long last coming to an end, with a port of call at the Oscars.
Indeed, O’Brian’s novels sometimes seem to have been deliberately written to be adaptation-proof. All the things that make his books so beguiling to fans — pages upon pages of antique nautical jargon, leisurely plotlines stretching across oceans of ink, heroes with larger-than-life waistlines — also made them uniquely challenging to put on the screen. It was Australian director Peter Weir (”The Truman Show,” ”Witness”) who finally figured out how to do it; he combined elements of two of O’Brian’s novels (the first and tenth), stitched together a film-friendly story line (about a cat-and-mouse chase between a British frigate and a French vessel during the Napoleonic Wars) that also remained remarkably faithful to the spirit of the books, and then wisely chose Russell Crowe to play tubby swashbuckler Capt. Jack Aubrey (the actor gained 15 pounds for the part).
What would O’Brian have thought of the film? He might not have bothered to see it: He frequently boasted to interviewers that he never went to the movies.
‘Lost in Translation’
How do you say ”payback” in Japanese? Bill Murray will want to look that one up before he heads to the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 29. After all, since the cutup-turned-capital-A actor was robbed of an Oscar nod for 1998’s ”Rushmore” (after being pretty vocal about wanting one), he’s been tight-lipped regarding his chances for ”Lost in Translation.” Which is, honestly, just as well. Not only does his performance do all the talking for him, but this nomination was never in doubt.
With sleepy eyes, hair disheveled like wisps of cotton candy, and a bemused, world-weary grin on his internationally famous mug, Murray’s Bob Harris seems to have no clue how he wound up in Tokyo. Yes, he knows he’s there to make obscene amounts of money to shill Japanese whiskey in a ridiculous TV commercial. But deep down, he seems lost about how his life got so off track. Stuck in a stagnant marriage back home and fighting a losing battle with his own integrity abroad, Murray finds salvation in two of the most unlikely places: a hotel piano bar and the nonjudgmental eyes of Scarlett Johansson. Together, the two jet-lagged lonelyhearts give themselves to the random neon pulse of a strange city, sparking a connection deeper than sex. In fact, we seem to root for them not to fall into bed together because it would only ruin their unique chemistry.
Through it all, Murray shows a kind of restraint he’s never had before. He refuses to go for easy slapstick laughs and, instead, offers up vulnerability and warmth. ”He was really emotionally connected to the script,” explains director Sofia Coppola. ”In some scenes, he just breaks your heart.” That’s no exaggeration. Because while Murray never does end up getting a full night’s sleep in ”Lost in Translation,” he finds something more precious: his character’s soul.
‘House of Sand and Fog’
Watching Sir Ben Kingsley march sternly and inexorably toward tragedy as proud Massoud Amir Behrani in ”House of Sand and Fog,” one recalls the words of Shakespeare’s Richard II: ”We were not born to sue, but to command.”
Like the doomed English king, Kingsley’s exiled Iranian colonel vastly overestimates the solidity of his footing on the moral high ground; and despite the fact that the kingdom in question is nothing more than a run-down ocean-view bungalow in the Bay Area, his fall is no less earth-shattering. But Kingsley himself, a 60-year-old veteran with one Oscar win (for 1982’s ”Gandhi”) and two additional nominations in his crown, has so studiously balanced his approach to Colonel Behrani’s character — the vulnerable naïveté twitching beneath the patriarchal armor — that there can be no mistaking his sure-footedness as an actor.
Credit partly goes to Kingsley’s trademark immersion in his role, which also aided his eerie transformation into Oscar-recognized characters as diverse as the quietly indomitable Mahatma Gandhi, the chilly Meyer Lansky in 1991’s ”Bugsy,” and the seething, screaming sociopath Don Logan of 2001’s ”Sexy Beast.” ”To see how Sir Ben turned into Colonel Behrani — it was so real for me that there was no way for me to think, ‘I’m working with Sir Ben Kingsley,”’ explains fellow nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays his wife in the film. ”He used to tell me that on set, he felt at home.”
Perhaps that’s why one of the film’s most poignant scenes depicts the moment Behrani begins to admit that his hard-won domicile is a house of cards. ”When he says things may not appear as they are, I cannot stop myself from crying at that moment,” says Aghdashloo. ”He is not a beggar at all.” Likewise, Kingsley won’t beg for the Oscar — but he might just command it.
”Acting is, as much as anything else, not getting in the way of the story,” says Sean Penn, and if that’s true, the 43-year-old actor certainly let two stories last year take over — and transport him to new heights. Penn’s performances in ”Mystic River” and ”21 Grams” demonstrated what happens when performer and material seem destined for each other. The gruff, working-class Boston dad Penn portrays in ”Mystic” is not the culmination of tough guys he’s played before — he’s something new in the actor’s repertoire: a middle-aged man grieving over the death of his daughter, and sensing that her death will lead to further tragedy. People like Penn’s Jimmy Markum, says the actor, ”fall into traps that have to be either confronted or avoided. Does that make you brave or a coward — or ordinary? I like to work with narratives that explore those ideas.”
Penn’s achievement in ”Mystic River” is all the more impressive for the fact that director Clint Eastwood’s film is very much an ensemble piece. So the actor was able to have stunning solo scenes — as when he first learns of his daughter’s demise and lets out a primal howl of pain — and also engage in some classic, closely observed exchanges with costars like Tim Robbins as his boyhood friend and Laura Linney as his wife. In these moments, Penn often kept his eyes averted, letting his muzzy, working-class voice and subtle body language (the way he cupped a cigarette or shrugged his shoulders in resignation) do the work. For film buffs, Eastwood and Penn summoned up the sort of collaboration Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando had in ”On the Waterfront”; for the mass audience that turned out for a complex, meaty thriller, it was Penn’s master class in acting, and ”Mystic River” embodied one of his fundamentals: ”Drama should end with a big question mark every time. When everything gets answered, it’s fake. The mystery is the truth.”
‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’
Somehow it seems unjust that Johnny Depp hasn’t won an Oscar yet. But the fact that he’s never even been nominated seems downright criminal. Still, considering his wiggy career, it makes a certain kind of sense that our strangest actor should get his first nod from the Academy for a freakin’ pirate movie. A Jerry Bruckheimer pirate movie whose plot points were cribbed from a kiddie ride, no less. ”All I can say,” says Depp, ”is that for a guy like me, who’s been dangling in this business for the last 20 years, to suddenly have something hit, it’s unexpected and very touching. I’m unbelievably grateful.”
Us too. Because when the final bow was tied on the utterly serious year of 2003, we couldn’t stop thinking back to how Depp’s deep-sea delirium made a bleak summer a little brighter. Preening and swishing away on unsteady sea legs, Depp’s Capt. Jack Sparrow was a delicious bit of cured cinematic ham — part swashbuckling Errol Flynn, part in-his-cups Foster Brooks. But most appealing of all was the rare sight of an actor just having fun.
Up until now, Depp has been a Hollywood oxymoron: the egoless star. He tends to cede the spotlight in bigger movies, guiding his fellow actors to their best work. In 1993’s ”What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” Depp’s hauntingly hushed performance allows Leonardo DiCaprio’s to be heartbreaking; in 1994’s ”Ed Wood,” his daffy dreamer brings out the humanity in Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi; and in 2000’s ”Chocolat,” well, Juliette Binoche has never looked more radiant than she does reflected in Depp’s eyes. All three costars got Oscar nominations. And all three times Depp got shut out. With ”Pirates,” Depp finally seemed confident enough to unleash his bizarro id, consequences be damned. How ironic that the consequences now include more than $300 million at the box office and a long-overdue acknowledgment from Oscar.
Don’t ever accuse Jude Law of being as high-maintenance as his pretty-boy looks may suggest. ”We’ve buried him, we’ve drowned him, we asked him to fall into that swamp,” says ”Cold Mountain” director Anthony Minghella. ”There’s almost no attrition we haven’t visited on him — and he never complained.” But there’s not enough mud in the world to obscure the pain and longing reflected in the eyes of Law’s Inman, the disillusioned Civil War soldier trekking home to his beloved Ada (Nicole Kidman). ”You are playing a character, but you are also having to go through it yourself,” says Law of his well-documented grueling experience on the Romanian set. ”A lot of what you see is honesty. Just truthful, physical reaction.”
And it is in this spare, unshowy performance that the 31-year-old actor’s gifts — rewarded once before with a supporting-actor nod for playing smug Dickie Greenleaf in Minghella’s 1999 film ”The Talented Mr. Ripley” — truly shine. Law manages to convey Inman’s internal struggle to reconcile the passion of true love with the shocking despair he feels after witnessing the brutality of war. ”There’s a simple formula that seems to have become pervasive…that American actors behave wonderfully and British actors are great with dialogue,” says Minghella. ”The reality is that this is a role with almost no dialogue, yet there’s an absolutely clear sense at all times of what [Inman] is thinking or feeling or wanting.” Adds costar Kathy Baker: ”It’s all in the eyes. His little looks.”
Law, for one, is just thankful to be out of the woods — literally and figuratively. ”I underestimated to a degree the absolute physical nature of the job,” he says. ”But I also knew it was going to be a long journey and a tough one.” And one that may lead to yet another beloved figure: Oscar.
The first thing you notice is her mouth. As part of her remarkable transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos in ”Monster,” Charlize Theron wears heavy dentures that weigh down the entire bottom half of her face. ”[Aileen] carried all her tension and anger in her mouth,” Theron explains. ”For me it’s my forehead. A lot of DPs say I act with my forehead. I don’t know if that’s a compliment!”
We’re not sure either, but Theron, 28, has certainly received her share of praise — six critics’ prizes and a Golden Globe — for her fierce yet pitiable embodiment of Wuornos. It’s a startling career detour for the former model from South Africa, who is quick to deflect much of the attention she’s getting to Toni G, the makeup artist who helped her become Wuornos. ”She lived in Daytona, so she had that typical, I’ve-been-in-the-sun-forever leathery skin,” Theron says of her on-screen alter ego. ”They’d put this liquid latex on my skin, and then they’d blow-dry it and stretch it out so it gets that real leathery look.”
Although the film’s brutal rape and murder scenes took their toll on the actress, Theron says the toughest part of the film was the research she did. ”I walked into it really stupidly, thinking that all these questions I had were going to get answered,” says Theron, who never met Wuornos but read many letters she wrote while on Florida’s death row. ”And what ended up happening was that the answers that I was getting were not necessarily where I thought it was going to go. I had a couple of bad days there. I ended up producing the film, so I didn’t have any time to sit in a corner and sulk. But there’s always those two days where you just hang a sign around your neck saying ‘Stay away!”’ The next sign she wears just might say ”Oscar winner.”
The first time Oscar noticed Samantha Morton, in 2000, she had nothing to say. She played Sean Penn’s mute girlfriend, Hattie, in Woody Allen’s jazz-era film ”Sweet and Lowdown” — a speechless role, and yet, says the actress: ”I thought Hattie spoke quite a lot. In her mind she was a babble box.” We didn’t hear much from Morton after that, either. She took time off and gave birth to her daughter, Esmé, who turns 4 on Feb. 5, passing up work to revel in motherhood.
That sacrifice is everywhere evident in her performance as Sarah, the young Irish immigrant mother in Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical ”In America.” Morton manages to capture all the elements in one wrenching role: She’s at once fiery and earthy, with an airy translucence that moves the strongest to tears. Not that she does it alone. She gives full credit to the film’s director: ”Jim gave me freedom to create Sarah without letting me run around like a loony pot.”
A good thing, too. Because Morton took a potentially messy part — at one point, she seduces her grief-stricken husband in a game of hide-and-seek — and imbued it with a wise empathy well beyond her 26 years. The actress shrugs off questions about how she does it: ”Maybe I need more therapy to figure out what I possess.”
Admittedly, her detour into full-time motherhood may have curtailed her choice of roles — despite her turn as the kidnapped ”precog” in Steven Spielberg’s ”Minority Report,” she says, ”studios won’t put me in a movie because I’m not well-known enough.” But the experience of raising Esmé provides a necessary balance, even when the Academy comes knocking. ”Today I’m going to pick up my daughter and do normal things,” said the actress hours after learning of her second nomination. ”Tomorrow I have to find a dress.”
Playing a recovering addict who slips back into her abusive habits, Naomi Watts may not look her best in ”21 Grams,” but it’s not because of any makeup-chair magic. Told that some viewers thought the usually stunning Watts had some prosthetics installed around her mouth for the film, she says, ”Oh, really? No, it’s just horrible lighting!”
Which isn’t to say she’s complaining. Watts’ devastating performance as Cristina, a young mother whose entire existence is shattered by a fatal car accident, is precisely what the 35-year-old actress has been working toward after a decade of struggling through constant rejection from filmmakers and casting directors. ”For 10 years, I read great things,” she says, ”but I wasn’t able to get in the room, much less on the set.”
Her brilliant, psychotic turn in David Lynch’s dark ”Mulholland Drive” in 2001 changed all that. But with her newfound success (including the lead role in the hit horror flick ”The Ring”), Watts, who was born in England and raised in Australia, is still drawn to grittier projects like ”21 Grams,” whose tough plot points — including heart transplants and gunfights — are sure to frighten away some audiences. ”I don’t think it’s depressing,” she says of the film. ”I think it’s confronting. The subject matter is intense and sometimes hard on the emotional system, but it’s engaging.”
After winning several critics’ prizes for ”Mulholland Drive,” she was overlooked by Academy voters — which makes this, her first Oscar nomination, even sweeter. But true to her unfailingly determined work ethic, Watts seems more focused on her future; she has five films set for release this year. ”Whatever is said about roles drying up, I intend to keep working,” she says. ”Certainly now, the roles couldn’t be more interesting — playing mothers, divorcées. I think it’s going to be exciting to play a mother of teenagers. The longer your life, the deeper it gets.”
‘Something’s Gotta Give’
Diane Keaton, who won the 1977 Best Actress Oscar for her title role as the nutty muffin Annie Hall, has long since waved goodbye to the apple-cheeked image of herself as a romantic lead. ”When I was 30, it was exactly what I wanted to do,” says Keaton, 58, whose age-embracing star turn in ”Something’s Gotta Give” earns the actress her fourth Oscar nomination. ”I wanted to be in romantic comedies and be charming and be Katharine Hepburn or Jean Arthur or any of those great ones. But I don’t really feel fetching anymore.”
Thank God, then, for Nancy Meyers, who snapped Keaton out of her string of sexless roles. Fed up with stories of AARP eligibles walking off into the sunset with 25-year-old hipless cuties, the director wrote the romantic comedy ”Something’s Gotta Give” expressly for Keaton, who squares off on screen with Jack Nicholson. ”She’s just naturally funny, which is something you can’t figure out and can’t make happen,” says Meyers. ”And she’s spectacular-looking.” Amanda Peet, who plays Keaton’s daughter and Nicholson’s initial object of affection, is equally smitten: ”She’s one of those women who mysteriously is as equally goofy as she is sexy. And I just want you to know that Diane Keaton has a better body than I do. Hands down.”
And now the Academy has recognized what audiences already have: how when her loopy, sharp charms wrap themselves around Nicholson’s heart, Keaton makes you fall right along with him. And when love kicks her around, when that wide-open face sags in disbelief and regret, you’re reminded that she’s so much more than a cute master of physical comedy. Plus, she totally smokes the screen in that black cocktail dress. We’re glad she’s come full circle. And back into the Oscar fold.
Just a few weeks before landing her big-screen debut, Keisha Castle-Hughes received some unsettling news. During a career fair at her school in Auckland, New Zealand, the 11-year-old had been told to put her acting dreams aside for a more ”realistic” profession. ”I always said I wanted to be an actor and people were like, ‘It’s not going to happen. It’s a great dream, but let’s get real here.”’
It’s a good thing that Diana Rowan felt differently. A veteran casting director who discovered Academy Award winner Anna Paquin (another Kiwi, who claimed the 1993 prize at age 11 for her performance in ”The Piano”), Rowan plucked the raven-haired Castle-Hughes for the starring role in director Niki Caro’s empowering drama ”Whale Rider.”
As Pai, a Maori preteen who struggles to gain her grandfather’s attention while courageously challenging her indigenous community’s male-dominated traditions, Castle-Hughes delivers a heart-wrenching performance for the record books: She’s the youngest Best Actress nominee ever, besting a 20-year-old Isabelle Adjani for 1975’s ”The Story of Adele H.” ”I identified with the fact that people weren’t accepting [Pai] for who she was,” explains Castle-Hughes, now 13. ”I’ve seen and felt that before.”
Actor Rawiri Paratene, who plays her grandfather in the indie hit, attributes his young costar’s success to something beyond mere character recognition. ”She’s got a lot of natural attributes that are very good for an actor,” he says. ”It was no different working with Keisha than it would have been working with one of our experienced ladies of New Zealand.”
Now an actress of some experience herself, Castle-Hughes hopes to pursue roles that might take her even farther from home. ”I’d like to be able to tell our stories from New Zealand,” she says, ”but it would be pretty amazing to work overseas.” A trip down the red carpet seems like a good first step.
It’s been a long time since anyone talked about Tim Robbins as an actor. For the past decade, Susan Sarandon’s longtime companion has been better known as a director, and a very fine one at that; his only previous Oscar nomination was for helming the death penalty meditation ”Dead Man Walking” (1995). Of course, he has also cut a notable political profile — protesting the war in Iraq, championing labor rights, stumping for Ralph Nader. This is not to say that he hasn’t kept busy as an actor, though his recent films have been forgettable (”The Truth About Charlie”), memorable for the wrong reasons (”Mission to Mars”), or just…whatever (”Antitrust”). The term ”money jobs” comes to mind, and here’s hoping his family, causes, and theater troupe, the Actors’ Gang, have reaped the benefits.
What they have obscured, however, is that Robbins is an actor of no small talent, and despite his distinctive good looks (tall, tony, and boyish, he looks like a British royal born again as an Eagle Scout), the man has range: hilariously guileless in ”Bull Durham,” cunningly desperate in ”The Player,” and woefully unrecognized in the emerging classic ”The Shawshank Redemption.”
His nomination for Clint Eastwood’s ”Mystic River” is a deserving make-good. Putting down his airs, dimming the erudition, Robbins’ Dave is a movingly tragic creation, a damaged blue-collar man saddled with squashed dreams and useless anger, slumping through life like a wounded animal waiting to be put down. It’s been some time since we’ve seen Robbins play humbled and hurt, and it looks good on him. So would an Oscar in his hand. But as you’re preparing that acceptance speech, Tim, keep it light. We offer two words of caution: Michael Moore.
Benicio Del Toro
Benicio Del Toro is a big man, a man who can accurately be said to loom, both physically and metaphysically. That he plays what society might consider a small man in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu’s brutal melodrama ”21 Grams” — haplessly ”saved” ex-con Jack Jordan, imploding with self-indulgent guilt and dying to annihilate himself on God’s altar — only lengthens the long shadow Del Toro casts as an actor.
”Yes, he is a very intimidating man, though I don’t think he means to be,” muses costar Melissa Leo, who plays Jordan’s plucky, practical wife, Marianne, in the film, the first English-language production from the acclaimed Mexican director of 2000’s ”Amores Perros.” ”The massiveness…massive outside and inside. For me, as an actress, all of that becomes just delicious and wonderful. It’s that much more to work with. [I thought:] ‘I’d better rise to that. I better be the woman who could marry that man.”’
In the hands of anyone other than the capable 36-year-old thesp (who already sports a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing the deeply conflicted Mexican cop in 2000’s ”Traffic”), Jordan’s character arc, with its Raskolnikovian crises and operatic invocations of heaven, might have sagged in the middle. But Del Toro makes Jordan’s battered humanity so natural, so lived-in, that the part just becomes more fascinating, especially in the film’s domestic moments. ”It’s scary. It’s dangerous to watch,” says Leo of a dinner scene in ”21 Grams” in which Jordan forces his daughter to ”turn the other cheek” after her brother swats her.
There can be no question of the love this man has for his family — or of his dogmatic perversion of that love. Containing both extremes requires a sturdy vessel. ”Here, there was no work,” Leo enthuses of Del Toro’s performance. ”It was like falling off a log. A great big, massive log.” Perhaps the Academy will find it just as easy to award him the Oscar again.
‘The Last Samurai’
Although he’d be quick to admit that an Academy Award nomination was never in his sights, there’s no denying Ken Watanabe holds many keys to Oscar glory: Star in a period epic or play a character enamored of literature, or, heck, upstage Tom Cruise, and a ticket to the show often follows.
While he does all that as ”The Last Samurai”’s blade-wielding feudal hero, Katsumoto, the 44-year-old Japanese actor also has a certain wild-card factor in his favor: eyebrows. Like past winners Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Connelly, he’s blessed with that rare cluster of mesmerizing super-ocular follicles. And in his English-language debut, he steals attention by unsheathing a pointed stare that beckons while it threatens.
It’s a dichotomy that roots the movie’s vivid study of the violent clash between tradition and modernity in 19th-century Japan. ”He is the moral center of the piece,” says director Edward Zwick, who cast Watanabe over more than 20 of the performer’s countrymen. Adds Cruise: ”He imbued that spirit into Katsumoto. He’s a brilliant actor.”
Watanabe, who sprang from contemporary Japanese theater to gain celebrity at home portraying historical swordsmen on TV, is making history as an Oscar-nominated Asian actor. He is the first since 1985, when ”The Karate Kid”’s Noriyuki ”Pat” Morita and ”The Killing Fields”’ Haing S. Ngor both garnered supporting-actor nods. In fact, fewer than 10 Asian performers have ever been nominated, and only three have won — Ngor, half-Indian thesp Ben Kingsley (1982’s ”Gandhi”), and supporting-actress winner Miyoshi Umeki (1957’s ”Sayonara”).
Just don’t expect the accolades from an Oscar nomination to go to Watanabe’s head. Is the spiritual, soft-spoken star at all interested in American fame? ”No,” he says, with typical succinctness.
But those perpetually arched eyebrows leave you wondering whether he really means it.
On first impression, you’d think that by playing a tortured, dying artist who befriends an Irish immigrant family in Jim Sheridan’s semi-autobiographical drama, ”In America,” Djimon Hounsou travels in familiar Oscar territory. Like ”Philadelphia”’s Tom Hanks, he portrays a character afflicted with AIDS. Like ”The Green Mile”’s Michael Clarke Duncan, he makes the magical oh-so-believable as an oversize Christ figure who suffers while he saves. But as a mysteriously titanic presence who’s felt long before he’s seen — releasing a series of guttural howls that simultaneously frighten and attract the precocious Sullivan sisters — the first-time nominee blazes his own trail and proves that first impressions aren’t everything.
After all, Hounsou’s soft, nurturing Mateo winds up the anti-bogeyman, the singular grounding force in Sheridan’s immigrant fairy tale. ”Think dignity,” says the cowriter-director, who cast the 39-year-old Benin-born actor after being bowled over by his unexpected gentleness. ”I wanted to get that spiritual aspect. He’s very powerful.”
That power has emerged after an unusual journey to the Oscar spotlight. Like fellow nominee Charlize Theron, Hounsou is a former fashion model who came to Hollywood by way of Africa. (Short is the list of black Oscar nominees; shorter still is the roster of those from Africa.) After strutting on the Paris catwalks and paying his dues in music videos, he broke out as the slave leader Cinque in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 epic, ”Amistad,” and played Russell Crowe’s brother-in-sandals in ”Gladiator.”
”In America,” though, struck a deeply personal chord. ”You know, the odds are oftentimes against you,” says Hounsou, referring as much to the experience of the Sullivans as to his own. ”You sound slightly different and you come from a different culture, and that culture is misunderstood in so many ways. But I’ve been so beautifully embraced by Americans — that’s what America is about.”
Let’s face it: In Hollywood, good guys generally rule, and white-hat types have always been the surest Oscar bait. Villains, on the other hand, remain a dicier proposition. Do movie mavens really want to endorse an actor who plays a sleazy, sociopathic, murderously venal cutthroat as smoothly and convincingly as Alec Baldwin, 45, does in ”The Cooler”? In a word, yes. Baldwin’s smoldering turn as hard-boiled Las Vegas casino boss Shelly Kaplow has netted him his first Oscar nod. The iconoclastic Baldwin — who recently admitted, ”Things for me career-wise have been less than wonderful for several years” — has earned a somewhat unjustified rep as an actor willing to take on almost any role, the more off-the-wall, the better.
In fact, he nearly turned down the Kaplow role after reading the scene in which his character violently beats a woman, smashing her head into a mirror. ”I got to that page where he’s doing what he does to her, and I closed the script, called my agent, and said, ‘I’m not doing this,”’ Baldwin has said.
Thankfully, he was persuaded to read further, and to discover a subsequent scene that revealed there was a redemptive sliver of humanity in Kaplow after all. Having found that, he jumped into the part, imbuing Kaplow with a beefy brute force and cold-eyed imperiousness that’s downright chilling. ”The character is really just a guy who hates change,” Baldwin has mused. ”He’s trying to just hold on to his world. As I get older, I find the movies that are more appealing to me are where I’m playing people who can’t handle change.” Here’s hoping the prospect of adding an Oscar to his mantel won’t be too much for the change-phobic actor to handle.
From the moment she stomps on screen — frizzy hair a-flying, tattered frock swishing, ruddy face stamped with an expression between a smirk and a grimace — Renée Zellweger’s scrappy farm girl Ruby imbues the somber war drama ”Cold Mountain” with a burst of comedy as invigorating as a North Carolina breeze. ”She’s very practical, and she’s a survivor,” Zellweger told EW. ”She doesn’t see the value of having an emotional life — she only uses her imagination to solve problems.” Hired to help delicate Ada (Nicole Kidman) work her rambling farm, the straight-talking Ruby blithely decapitates a rooster, plows fields, and manhandles wood.
Ruby is a far cry from the characters who earned Zellweger Oscar nods the last two years: teeny, glossy — not to mention singing and dancing — Roxie Hart in ”Chicago,” and the pre-Atkins singleton heroine of ”Bridget Jones’s Diary.” In fact, it may be easier to appreciate the 34-year-old actress’ transformations than to understand them. ”She’s complex and veiled and extraordinary and just a…creature in some ways — it’s hard to talk sensibly about [Renée],” says ”Cold Mountain” director Anthony Minghella, who offered Ruby to Zellweger even though the actress had envisioned herself as Ada.
Zellweger’s efforts in ”Cold Mountain” result in that rare concoction: a character who initially provides comic relief but ends up conveying layer upon delicious layer of emotion. Whose heart doesn’t break when Ruby bursts in on Inman (Jude Law) and Ada’s reunion, hotly downplays their lovey-dovey endearments, and then scuttles off to bed alone? ”Her genius is you can always see her crying inside,” says costar Kathy Baker. ”She’s this great little tough girl…[who] cares so deeply.” Enough to turn in a scruffy performance with a heart of (Oscar) gold.
When people talk about an actress making a gutsy choice, they usually mean she made herself look ugly. In Holly Hunter’s case, the gutsy choice was doing ”Thirteen” at all. It was director Catherine Hardwicke’s first film, there was no distributor, and, oh yes, Hunter, 45, would be a supporting player to two teenage girls.
Still, when Hardwicke was daydreaming about her ideal person to play Melanie — a recovering addict who watches, impotently, as her 13-year-old daughter, Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), spirals deep down into drug use, promiscuity, and rage — Hunter kept popping into her head. ”I’ve just been a sucker for her,” Hardwicke says. ”She can [be] hilarious and touching and heartbreaking. I just thought Holly would go all the way with this character and be brave and not worry that sometimes Mel is not the perfect mother.”
Indeed, the four-time Oscar nominee (who won for 1993’s ”The Piano”) plays Melanie as a potent mix of caring mom, sexual woman, and self-absorbed recoverer — in varying stages of denial, fear, bewilderment, and outrage at what’s happening to her daughter. All done in a quickie 24-day shoot. In preparation, Hunter speed-bonded with Wood and her teen costar Nikki Reed (who cowrote the script based on her own life) during a girls’ sleepover at the actual Los Angeles home in which they shot the film.
The actress also kept watch for moments that felt genuine. It was Hunter’s idea to film a nude scene (with on-screen beau Jeremy Sisto) that’s so subtle you almost don’t register that she’s naked. ”Nudity in movies is almost always sexualized, and this was nudity from a completely skewed place, which is one of reality — and it’s banal,” says Hunter. ”It’s nudity in a way that normally isn’t used in movies. I thought, ‘What a great opportunity.”’ And yet another gutsy choice.
Marcia Gay Harden
Weak is tough. This principle sounds paradoxical, but it happens to be true. It’s easy to slink, shout, bluster, and berserk your way around a movie set. But portraying someone who’s quietly broken? It takes the very best to do that.
And Oscar voters know it. If you happen to doubt it, just look for Marcia Gay Harden on Feb. 29. She’ll be the lovely 44-year-old in the classy dress, taking a place in one of the front rows of the Kodak Theatre for her work in Clint Eastwood’s ”Mystic River.” Her Celeste Boyle was a black hole of want, a woman chewed to pieces by isolation. Trapped with a scraped-hollow husband whom she suspects of murder and condescended to by Sean Penn and his clan of noble brutes, she was the polar star to Laura Linney’s Annabeth. Shattered. And now Oscar-nominated for the second time (she won in 2001 for embodying the matter-of-fact Brooklyn-born painter Lee Krasner in Ed Harris’ ”Pollock”).
”This all is amazing,” says Harden, taking a break from tending to her daughter, home sick from school with strep throat. ”Of course, everyone says that. But it is.”
Deserved, too. Celeste’s arguably accidental betrayal of her spouse. The murder that follows. The rent it rips in her blue-collar Boston world. It all comes to a head in the final scene of Eastwood’s movie, the haunting, grim parade that splits the characters along moral fault lines. ”One of the best silent scenes in film history,” she calls it. ”Sean and Laura on the light side of the street. Kevin [Bacon] and I on the dark, with the parade dividing us. Amazing.” But it was the grotesque on the sidelines — Harden scampering up and down the sidewalk, the realization that her husband is dead at her hands blubbering up inside her — that was the enduring image. That moment, that very second when it all sinks in, well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? That’s the stuff of Academy Awards.
‘House of Sand and Fog’
In ”House of Sand and Fog,” a lower-middle-class revenger tragedy pitting an Iranian immigrant family against a down-and-out young American woman, Tehran-born Shohreh Aghdashloo plays a woman without country, without agency, without voice. To get inside the subordinate yet willful wife of a headstrong former colonel (Ben Kingsley), the 51-year-old stage actress dug in: ”Two and a half months I stayed [in character] with Nadi. Because I have witnessed these voiceless women, and as an actress I felt it was my duty to portray them.”
For a voiceless woman, Aghdashloo’s Nadi speaks rather loudly, sometimes in broken English, sometimes with only her eyes. But the message is clear: She just wants security for her family, and she will persevere in the headwinds of circumstances not of her choosing.
It’s a struggle familiar to Aghdashloo, who made her screen debut in celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami’s 1977 film ”The Report” — a movie that remains banned in Iran. ”I wanted to be an actress since I was 8 years old,” she recalls. ”But the first time I told [my mother] I wanted to be an actress, she was having a faint. ‘No, no, no! Don’t even tell me that! We don’t want our family name involved in that industry!’ I had to change my family name in order to work on the stage.”
Though she fled Iran during the 1978-79 revolution, first for London and then for Los Angeles (where she still resides), Aghdashloo can barely contain her enthusiasm when she talks about reaching audiences in her native land. ”I’m so glad they’re showing ‘House of Sand and Fog’ there now!” she exults. And who knows? Perhaps the ayatollahs will allow a broadcast of the Oscars since the Academy has recognized their countrywoman’s understated grace.
‘Pieces of April’
For a long time, it seemed that everybody loved Patricia Clarkson except the Academy. She was certainly worthy of Oscar’s embrace portraying a drug-addicted German actress in 1998’s ”High Art,” for example, and many thought she was robbed last year after failing to get a nod for playing Julianne Moore’s tart best friend in ”Far From Heaven.”
But now, with her brittle, wisecracking role as a mother dying of cancer in ”Pieces of April,” Clarkson, 44, is finally getting the Academy’s approval. ”It makes me so happy to see somebody who’s so pure at what they do and still so unpretentious,” says Oliver Platt, who plays her ”Pieces” husband. ”It’s a great American actress getting her day.”
Writer-director Peter Hedges had Clarkson firmly in mind for Joy, the acerbic matriarch of a dysfunctional family who’s being driven (literally) to a confrontational Thanksgiving dinner with her estranged daughter (Katie Holmes). ”One of the great things about being a writer is if you believe in an actor, you may be able to create a role that will help the world realize what you already know,” he says. ”A big part of me just wants the world, in a year or two from now, to go, ‘Oh, Patricia Clarkson’s in that movie, I’ve got to see it.”’
While she’s loath to get too actor-y about her performance, the feline-voiced Southerner will say that she took the role of a woman fighting cancer quite seriously. ”Not having been through that, actually, was the difficult part,” she says. ”You feel an extra burden, a responsibility — as you should.” Though the Oscar nod may shoot Clarkson into the mainstream, don’t look for her to play it safe and shy away from the pricklier side of life: ”I’m always seeking something that will challenge me, something that will get me going. And frighten me — it’s good to be frightened.”
20. Peter Jackson
‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’
What a delightfully unlikely guy to create one of the biggest films of all time: Peter Jackson, 42, a mellow New Zealander, a scruffy, giggly fellow whose pre-Tolkien films grossed less than $21 million. ”The Return of the King,” Jackson’s soaring, swooping capper to his ”Lord of the Rings” trilogy, has nailed his status as a filmmaker of wild talent and grace.
Not to mention stamina: ”King” was filmed four years ago, in the midst of ”Rings”’ storied 15-month shoot. And despite the pressure of the immense production, the director tried to keep the tone on the set light. ”He’s got a real childlike nature,” says ”Rings” star Elijah Wood. ”A lot of why he was able to last so long is that he’s just very relaxed — he never got irritable.”
Still, by the time key scenes for ”King” came up, he felt like he was teetering on the brink of burnout: ”My brain was shrinking. My imagination was drying up, and that was freaking me out. So I used to go home and watch stuff like ‘JFK,’ ‘GoodFellas,’ ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Those movies are just wonderful examples of verve and imagination. They gave me a slap around the face: ‘You know what your job is now — go back and do it.”’
Jackson will soon see if he’ll be rewarded with his first trip to the Oscar podium. Last year, the director wasn’t even nominated for ”The Two Towers,” but insiders think the Academy may have been biding its time until the final film. With a hand in everything from the script (which he cowrote) to the film’s special effects, Jackson left no stone of Middle-earth personally untouched. ”He doesn’t have a huge worry about what other people are going to say or think,” says hobbit Billy Boyd. ”The films have one person’s vision. So it’s ‘Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings,’ really.”
‘Lost in Translation’
When you congratulate Sofia Coppola on her exquisite mood piece ”Lost in Translation” and marvel at its passionate reception, the shy director is politely appreciative. But the 32-year-old — only the third, and the youngest, woman to earn a Best Director nomination, after Lina Wertmüller (”Seven Beauties”) and Jane Campion (”The Piano”) — isn’t one to rely on reviews or awards for validation. Shredded for her amateur acting in 1990’s ”The Godfather Part III,” long dismissed as ”the daughter of…,” Coppola could have taken the well-trod route of many celebrity offspring: drugs, excess, and reality TV. Instead, she directed 1999’s well-received ”The Virgin Suicides,” based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel. And with her sophomore effort, based on her Oscar-nominated script about two lonely hotel guests who bloom in one another’s company, she’s finally risen above the tiresome comparisons to her dad. ”I felt a little bit this time, a little bit, like people were able to see my movie without seeing my family,” Coppola says.
Armed with a measly $4 million budget, she shot the movie in Japan in just 27 days. Not enough time or money for wild special effects or flashy twists or elaborate costumes. Coppola simply honors the magnificent Bill Murray with a suitably wise and tender role. She understands that real romance is often accompanied by terrific restraint. She captures the neon beauty of Tokyo at night and pairs it with the perfect soundtrack. ”I feel like when I watch the movie that it’s the movie I set out to make,” says Coppola. ”The feeling of it, which I had in my head, when I watch it I get the same feeling. Like what a song gives you or something.” What will she wrap her head around next? An Oscar would be sublime, but bigger things await.
To hear people talk about the way Clint Eastwood makes movies, it’s a wonder something as instantly classic as ”Mystic River” can come out. Routinely under budget and ahead of schedule, his productions hum with the efficiency of a well-greased widget factory. ”Clint makes you realize how much bulls— there really is on most movie sets,” Kevin Bacon told EW. But isn’t high art supposed to be hard? Where’s the time-intensive obsessiveness of Kubrick? The extravagance of Cameron? For an auteur, Eastwood seems more Henry Ford than Francis Ford Coppola.
Are we ridiculously off-base here? Seems so. Apparently, this Eastwood guy has been making movies for a while. He knows that when you get a great cast — Bacon, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laurence Fishburne, Laura Linney, and Marcia Gay Harden surely qualify — you trust them to do their jobs. Moreover, his facility with film storytelling is so mature, the challenge of coaching a writer through an adaptation of a psychologically dense novel like Dennis Lehane’s ”Mystic River” really isn’t so challenging; he understood intuitively what subplots could be jettisoned, what characters could not (the women; Eastwood always knew the film needed the women), and how to turn a tricky tangle of backstory — childhood abduction and abuse — into a simple recurring visual motif.
He also knew he was freakin’ Clint Eastwood. He knows what that inspires in people. ”As actors,” says Bacon, ”we came ready to play.”
Ironically, Eastwood’s stature almost wasn’t enough to get ”Mystic” made. Few studios saw this as a complement to ”Unforgiven” — a contemporary riff on men, violence, and America. They saw a bleak drama with bleak prospects. Turns out Eastwood’s high art was harder than it looked. ”Maybe the difficulties made him give it that something extra,” says ”Mystic” scribe Brian Helgeland. ”When no one else loves it, you have to love it a little harder.” You know what? Eastwood probably knew that, too.
‘City of God’
Fernando Meirelles didn’t expect this. In fact, he thought so little of his Oscar chances that he made other plans for the day of this year’s announcements. It was a lunch date with espionage writer John le Carré, whose novel ”The Constant Gardener” is the basis for Meirelles’ next film. But when the 48-year-old director of ”City of God” found out that his name would be immortalized in Oscar’s Class of 2003, Meirelles and his lunch companion cracked open a couple of beers to celebrate. ”I didn’t think this was the kind of film the Academy Awards would go for,” says the Brazilian director, just back from lunch and still quite shocked. ”A film in Portuguese, nominated in four categories — it’s really unusual.”
True. But then again, almost everything about ”City of God” feels unusual: its slow-building, word-of-mouth success; the unrelenting assault of its documentary-style depiction of the violent slums of Rio de Janeiro; and, most of all, its seemingly out-of-nowhere creator — the TV and commercials director who more than a few critics have compared to the Martin Scorsese of ”Mean Streets.”
Named after one of Rio’s bleakest and most notorious housing projects, ”City of God” is about the other Brazil — the squalid shantytowns populated by dead-end kids who run drugs and wave guns before they’ve hit puberty. Even more unsettling is the fact that many of these kids are nonprofessional performers who aren’t really acting. ”All those boys we worked with, they all came from slums,” says Meirelles, crediting the efforts of ”codirector” Katia Lund in training the young cast. ”Some of them worked for drug dealers. They knew much more than me about the film I was doing.” Armed with only his camera, Meirelles is less the director of ”City of God” than the film’s Virgil, leading us all through hell.
‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World’
Usually when a studio executive whips out a long knife it’s to stab someone in the back. But when Fox cochairman Tom Rothman invited Peter Weir into his office three years ago to pitch him ”Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” the blade he unsheathed was a 19th-century British navy saber, which he promptly laid at the director’s feet.
Weir’s reaction? ”I told him, ‘I’m going to say no to the movie, but can I keep the sword anyway?”’ Weir had, in fact, said no to directing the film before, when it was first being developed at Samuel Goldwyn in the early 1990s. ”I thought it would lend itself too easily to farce, with a big fat captain and a little skinny doctor,” he explains. ”But then after that meeting with Rothman, I reread some of the [Patrick O’Brian] books and started to think about how it could be done.” In some ways, the 59-year-old Australian was a curious choice to helm the project. He’d never directed a $135 million movie before, let alone one involving period costumes and epic naval battles. But he did have a lot of experience turning unlikely material into Oscar-contending hits that also earned him Best Director nods, like that poignant cultural satire starring Jim Carrey (1998’s ”The Truman Show”), that prep-school tearjerker starring Robin Williams (1989’s ”Dead Poets Society”), and that Amish love story starring Harrison Ford (1985’s ”Witness”). And now, with ”Master and Commander,” he’s done it again, adapting O’Brian’s historically esoteric and utterly uncinematic nautical novels into a stunning picture audiences can adore even if they’ve never so much as stepped aboard the Staten Island Ferry.
Weir, by the way, did get to keep Rothman’s antique saber. It’s on display in his home in Australia, where it may soon be joined by an even more precious chunk of metal — a little gold statue.