Relitigating the Oscars: 15 Years Ago

2002 was one of the all time great years in cinema. 8 Mile, About a Boy, About Schmidt, Adaptation, Auto Focus, Bowling For Columbine, Catch Me If You Can, Changing Lanes, Chicago, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Far From Heaven, Frailty, Lilo and Stitch, Minority Report, Narc, Punch Drunk Love, Signs, Solaris, the US release of Spirited Away and finally The Two Towers. What a killer year for film. And the Oscars reflecting this year are among the bleakest ever.

Seriously, in a year that stands out still as classic, the Oscars found a way to celebrate mediocrity. Looking at the best picture nominees in particular will floor you. It’s not a year I’m highly impressed with.

Before I can get to why, I’m taking one topic off the table: Roman Polanski is a convicted rapist who should not have been allowed to continue to work under any circumstances. He committed a repulsive crime that just on moral grounds should’ve ended any shot he had at future work. However, I’m not going into that here. What I will go into is why I think The Pianist is very good but not great. But Polanski? Off the table mostly to keep this from being a rant. But seriously, the Academy shot itself in the foot.

Best Supporting Actor

The nominees were:

  • Chris Cooper – Adaptation. as John Laroche
  • Ed Harris – The Hours as Richard “Richie” Brown
  • Paul Newman – Road to Perdition as John Rooney
  • John C. Reilly – Chicago as Amos Hart
  • Christopher Walken – Catch Me If You Can as Frank Abagnale, Sr.

Who won: Chris Cooper
Who should’ve won: Chris Cooper
Analysis: Let’s get the best win out of the way. Christopher Walken was worthy of a win and any other year would’ve walked away with this. But he was up against Chris Cooper, one of cinema’s great hardasses in a rare comic turn, and there was no competition. Cooper’s turn here is a thing of art, hysterically funny yet completely grounded. It’s completely unlike anything he’s done in the best way.

Best Supporting Actress

The nominees were:

  • Kathy Bates – About Schmidt as Roberta Hertzel
  • Queen Latifah – Chicago as Matron “Mama” Morton
  • Julianne Moore – The Hours as Laura McGrath Brown
  • Meryl Streep – Adaptation. as Susan Orlean
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones – Chicago as Velma Kelly

Who won: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Who should’ve won: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Analysis: The supporting category is the one category where more often than not the Oscars get it right. And I’ve got to be honest, this was the hardest category in the entire project. Bates is incredible in Schmidt, so great I almost chose her. But Zeta-Jones is iconic in Chicago. She belts, dances, and delivers some of the nastiest dialogue with reckless abandon. This isn’t just a great performance but a great character.

Best Original Screenplay

The nominees were:

  • Talk to Her – Pedro Almodóvar
  • Far from Heaven – Todd Haynes
  • Gangs of New York – Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding – Nia Vardalos
  • Talk to Her – Pedro Almodóvar
  • Y Tu Mamá También – Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón

What won: Talk to Her
What should’ve won: Far From Heaven (with a giant asterisk for Punch Drunk Love)
Analysis: I noted above the brilliant films on display in 2002. So can we take note of two of the nominees? My Big Fat Greek Wedding was nominated. It’s not even an outstanding romcom. Gangs of New York was nominated and it’s a wreck of boringness. I seriously dislike that film. Admittedly the best films in 2002 did tend to be adaptations but still, this is a pathetic category. Of the nominees, I concede I haven’t seen the winning film and might be wrong to brush it off and I’ll concede to not seeing Y Tu Mama Tambien either, so my vote is on Todd Haynes’ poignant Far From Heaven. But really this should’ve been Paul Thomas Anderson’s win for Punch Drunk Love, a film that shattered me.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The nominees were:

  • About a Boy – Peter Hedges, Chris Weitz, and Paul Weitz based on the book by Nick Hornby
  • Adaptation. – Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
  • Chicago – Bill Condon based on the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins
  • The Hours – David Hare based on the novel by Michael Cunningham
  • The Pianist – Ronald Harwood based on the book by Władysław Szpilman

What won: The Pianist
What should’ve won: Chicago
Analysis: Now’s a good moment to study The Pianist as a movie. It’s really solid. However, it’s not notably solid. It’s of the kind of quality that doesn’t stay with you. That’s the big issue with Oscar winning films. They don’t endure. Nothing about Ronald Harwood or Roman Polanski’s work on the film has stayed with me in 15 years, not so much as a shot. Same for David Hare’s work on The Hours, a real loss as Cunningham’s book has lasted for me. So we look at the remaining three. Adaptation, while arguably the best of the 10 nominees in screenwriting, really belonged in neither adapted or original. About a Boy is a brilliant piece of writing that made massive improvements to Nick Hornby’s atonal book but I think it was mistaken as light. So once more I look back at Chicago. Bill Condon doesn’t get enough credit for how well he hammered a loosely structured revue into a fully formed film. It’s a great adaptation.

Best Actress

The nominees were:

  • Salma Hayek – Frida as Frida Kahlo
  • Nicole Kidman – The Hours as Virginia Woolf
  • Diane Lane – Unfaithful as Constance “Connie” Sumner
  • Julianne Moore – Far from Heaven as Cathy Whitaker
  • Renée Zellweger – Chicago as Roxie Hart

Who won: Nicole Kidman
Who should’ve won: Nicole Kidman
Analysis: Lead acting categories have nil to to with who deserves it. I can’t stress this enough. They’re about either fixing failure to win for deserving work or more often than not popularity. An Oscar win is seen as confirmation. And what better confirmation can there be than ending a turbulent period riddled with divorce from the biggest star in the world only to move on to an independent career of your own as an a-lister? Kidman cemented her place as one of the greats. I’m in no mood to argue. But I still don’t remember The Hours and I know I saw it.

Best Actor

The nominees were:

  • Adrien Brody – The Pianist as Władysław Szpilman
  • Nicolas Cage – Adaptation. as Charlie Kaufman / Donald Kaufman
  • Michael Caine – The Quiet American as Thomas Fowler
  • Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting
  • Jack Nicholson – About Schmidt as Warren R. Schmidt

Who won: Adrien Brody
Who should’ve won: Nicolas Cage
Analysis: Adrien Brody set a new standard for blowing it post-Oscar with his output following his win. Only Cuba Gooding Jr. seems to have released more garbage. Brody chose role upon role upon role which, King Kong and The Brothers Bloom aside, made me wonder how he was ever in a place to win. Brody’s work is pretty damn good though and I’m not bugged he won. The thing is, Cage is that much better. I normally hate dual roles because they’re an excuse for makeup and boasting about the trickery used. Cage doesn’t do that here. He delivers two wildly different turns while looking exactly alike in both roles. You never doubt who is who. I know there’s the eternal question of is Cage good or bad. Bah. He’s truly great. This is why. Note: Nicholson would’ve been a worthy winner too.

Best Director

The nominees were:

  • Rob Marshall – Chicago
  • Martin Scorsese – Gangs of New York
  • Stephen Daldry – The Hours
  • Roman Polanski – The Pianist
  • Pedro Almodóvar – Talk to Her

Who won: Roman Polanski
Who should’ve won: Rob Marshall
Analysis: There is no way on Earth this is a reflection of the best direction of the year. Absent are Alexander Payne, Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Spike Jonze. There are four directors who belonged there. What you have is the mehest set of nominees possible. And yes, that includes Scorsese who might’ve had a lot of passion for Gangs but none of it made it into the film. There’s nothing of note here except for Marshall, who did solidly stage Chicago, mostly by playing up the artifice which was a vital theme of the work. So fine, he wins. But come on.

Best Picture

The nominees were:

  • Chicago – Martin Richards, producer
  • Gangs of New York – Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein, producers
  • The Hours – Robert Fox and Scott Rudin, producers
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers – Peter Jackson, Barrie M. Osborne, and Fran Walsh, producers
  • The Pianist – Roman Polanski, Alain Sarde, and Robert Benmussa, producers

What won: Chicago
What should’ve won: Chicago
Analysis: Lord of the Rings, while amazing, feels like it was nominated as a placeholder to be sure the full trilogy was nominated. (It was and we’ll be back here next year.) Gangs was essentially pre-nominated because it was the passion project of Scorsese. The Hours was a prestige adaptation of a prestige book, a museum piece rather than a film. The Pianist was “serious” and was but again, no staying power. So I’m left with the nominee I love the most as an independent film. Chicago swept me up. It made me laugh. It’s held on to me. I’ll take it as best picture.

Final analysis: Everything to hate about the Oscars is here. Actresses rewarded for “uglying it up.” Method acting. Supposedly serious films without a brain in their heads rewarded over art. Some decent wins but honestly, the supporting wins aside, this was a pathetic representation of the year. 2002 deserved better.


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