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The envelope, please 

Despite all the breathless reporting of the nominations, and all the learned speculation about who and what will win one of those gleaming art deco statuettes known as Oscars, students of the cinema should understand that like most such contests --- from Miss Artichoke all the way up to the Nobel Prize --- the Academy Awards hardly constitutes a fair and judicious competition. After the various nominations, the numerous minor preliminaries --- Golden Globes, Silver Palms, Tin Cups, Aluminum Plates, etc. --- the Oscars tend to follow a certain, almost entirely predictable course. Whatever breathless suspense and doubt the ceremony seeks to create, the results mostly amount to a fait accompli, French for "the fix is in."

            To begin with, most of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences don't even see the films they judge. Rather, they depend, like the rest of us, on gossip, rumor, and, of course, the perennial monumental hype (bribery, incidentally, is not entirely unknown). Nobody, therefore, should feel embarrassed at having missed any, some, or even all of the nominated films and performances.

            The members also tend to follow ancient Hollywood tradition, choosing nominees and winners according to some odd sentimental ideal, some misguided notion of high intellectual art, and what some critics inform them is a "serious motion picture." The numerous nominations accorded to a few movies should suggest the sort of locomotive effect that usually takes over on Oscar night.

            If history provides any guide to this year's Oscars, then either Chicago or Gangs of New York will win for best picture. On the one hand, the Academy loves a big, exuberant flick of the sort that made Hollywood great; especially that currently rare bird, a musical. But on the other, Scorsese's static epic runs for three hours, so it must be important (amazingly, it was also nominated in the editing category, which should indicate all one needs to know about the judgment of the voters). In a year of small pictures devoted to the drab underside of American life --- The Good Girl, Personal Velocity, One Hour Photo --- the best-made movie is probably that minor masterpiece, About Schmidt.

            Jack Nicholson deserves the Oscar for his remarkable performance in Schmidt, but will probably lose out to Daniel Day-Lewis, whose sneering, snarling, low-rent Legree in Gangs entirely suited the stolid melodrama of that movie. Because she disguised her pretty face with a fake nose and frowned fiercely throughout the precious length of The Hours, Nicole Kidman will probably qualify as best actress, though she never even approached the power and incandescence of Meryl Streep in the same flick. Typically, Streep wasn't even nominated for that movie, though, ironically, she earned a supporting nomination for her generally disappointing job in the truly terrible Adaptation. It would be entirely in keeping with the best Hollywood traditions of idiocy if Streep were honored for a mediocre performance in one film, while not even winning a mention for attaining a rare level of excellence in another.

            Paul Newman certainly should win as best supporting actor for Road to Perdition, a dull, sorry affair that he now and then illuminated with a precise, controlled, and dryly intelligent performance. John C. Reilly, on the other hand, appeared in almost every movie released last year, including Chicago, so he may win the award for sheer frequency. With Chicago likely to overwhelm the evening, Catherine Zeta-Jones may also be a good bet for best supporting actress; though, like Streep, she completely overpowered the purported female lead, Renèe Zellweger.

            Another typical Academy touch involves the choices for best adapted screenplay. The nomination of the Kaufman brothers for Adaptation makes no sense whatsoever, since their script effectively negates the actual book they allegedly adapted, choosing instead a sophomoric, self-regarding exercise in tired film phoniness: a movie about making a movie. The accomplishment of the adapters of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, somehow didn't even merit a mention from the nominators. At least that magnificent spectacle caught the attention of voters in the categories of art direction, sound editing, and visual effects.

            As for the award for best director, possibly the most prestigious in this era of the auteur, surely Martin Scorsese looks like the best bet. He's been nominated for some outstanding films in the past, like Raging Bull and GoodFellas, and has won just about every other major directing prize. So, if the voters behave in accordance with their shabby history, he should win to compensate for the injustices of the past, and it seems absolutely perfect that the Academy honor an inferior work in that process.

            As they did in 2001, the film flacks once again exult in a year of unprecedented box office receipts. In addition, 2002, like the previous year, can also boast some reasonably good and reasonably engaging movies, even if many never made the final cut. At least About Schmidt and Frida received a mention in one category or another, and a few deserving people appear on the usual lists.

            Some things, however, never change --- any wan veteran of a thousand matinees can predict that the ceremony will run even longer than Gangs of New York; that it will feature manifold examples of gross disparity between the award and the accomplishment; and that some of the enduring images of the evening will show a gleeful and entirely undeserving recipient clutching a shiny figurine, thanking everyone in sight, and generally behaving as if he or she had actually earned it.

            Once again, "Hooray for Hollywood!" And remember the appropriate translation of fait accompli.

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