Here's my column about the Oscars, for Our Sunday Visitor.

No, your watch isn't slow, they really did move the Oscars up this year. Fed up with the high-pressure lobbying for votes that filled the first three months of every year, the Academy opted this time around to shorten it to two: instead of a late-March ceremony, this year's event will be February 29. This means that the high-pressure lobbying had to be compressed into a shorter time frame, so the folks who trudge the red carpet on Sadie Hawkins' Day may look more frazzled than usual.


Sadie Hawkins was a character in the long-running comic strip "Li'l Abner" (1934-1977, children), the "homeliest gal in the hills," and on her Day (variously appearing in November and on February 29) gals are allowed to turn tables and propose to the man of their choice. Sadie's kin were ably represented by Renee Zellwegger as Ruby in "Cold Mountain," a performance that got a Best Supporting Actress nomination. (Just for the sake of variety, let's start at the bottom of the major awards list.) Ruby stomps about, brays and scratches, purses up her mouth and stares, and is generally the cutest thing on screen in a very long, very cold movie. Is it great acting? I don't know, but it's undeniably watchable. 


Zellwegger will be up against some harrowing roles: Holly Hunter gives a wrenching performance as a mother of an adolescent girl spinning out of control in "Thirteen;" Marcia Gay Harden worries about her husband's alibis in "Mystic River;" Patricia Clarkson is dying of cancer in "Pieces of April;" and Shohreh  Aghdashloo in "House of Sand and Fog" had to cope not only with the danger that threatens her husband, Ben Kingsley, but also with the likelihood that even the most extraordinary acting will not enable reviewers to spell her name correctly.


"House of Sand and Fog" won a nomination for Ben Kingsley as Best Actor, too, where he's joined by Sean Penn, pulling out the stops as a grieving dad in "Mystic River," and Jude Law, being wholly circumspect in "Cold Mountain." Law gives a performance every bit as restrained as Zellwegger's is broad. He *looks* cold. Only Nicole Kidman, as the female lead in that film, missed the memo about developing something interesting for her role; she looks tense and artificial in ways that you don't think she intends. The Academy passed her over this year, but she has last year's Oscar (for "The Hours") to keep her warm.


The fourth Best Actor nomination went to Bill Murray for his surprisingly strong performance-many are saying his best--as an American in Tokyo, which apparently is not as fun as being an American in Paris. The final Best Actor nom was bestowed on Johnny Depp, who took the memo about being interesting thoroughly to heart. "Pirates of the Caribbean" would have been a pretty-good summer movie with anyone else in the role, but Depp put so much creative thinking into Captain Jack Sparrow, drawing inspiration from Keith Richards and Pepe LePew, that the film catapulted to the level of delightful. Thoroughly in overdrive, Depp had all his teeth gold-capped and then wanted to cap his nose; he thought the pirate should have lost his in a sword fight and be terribly afraid of sneezing away the replacement. (It takes a daddy to come up with that.) Director Gore Verbinski wisely rejected that elaboration, since already any time Captain Jack appears on screen all the colors start running his direction. Is this great acting? As with Zellwegger, I don't know, but it certainly is *creative* acting, and deserves the applause of a highly-entertained public.


"Mystic River" took a total of six nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Tim Robbins, as one of a trio of men who had been childhood buddies and find their lives re-entwining in tragedy decades later. Alec Baldwin turns in a menacing performance as owner of a casino in "The Cooler" and Benicio Del Toro is an explosive ex-con trying to do good in "21 Grams." Ken Watanabe in "The Last Samurai" delivers a cryptic line and then spins on his heel so repeatedly, so identically each time, that you expect an off-screen wrangler is holding out a cookie.


Djimon Hounsou portrays a brooding, spiritually rich African who enlightens the white male lead in "The Four Feathers." Wait, that was last year. This year he did the same thing in "In America" (and, in other years, in "Amistad" and "Gladiator"), though this time he wears clothes and not just paint. Even though he is a painter. Never mind. It's pretty much what Watanabe does for Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai." I'm trying to picture, just for fun, a movie that showed Western Christians bringing spiritual treasure to Africa or Asia. Think it could happen?


In the Best Actress category Naomi Watts appears as a suburban mom with a secret past in "21 Grams," Samantha Morton is the mom of an Irish immigrant family in "In America," and Keisha Castle-Hughes is a Maori youngster battling sexist tradition in "Whale Rider." Charlize Theron has generated the most interest, however, as Aileen Wuornos, a female serial killer executed by the state of Florida. Sometimes content with pretty-girl roles, sweet-faced Theron put on the pounds and rubbery makeup to turn herself into a convincing "Monster."


Diane Keaton seems to be nominated, like Depp and Zellwegger, because she is so adorable on screen. In "Something's Gotta Give" she also flashes full-frontal nudity. Middle-aged and older skin has become a recent curiosity, with Kathy Bates' hot tub scene in "About Schmidt," Jamie Lee Curtis' generous publication of an un-airbrushed photo, and Jack Nicholson's netherparts shining forth wherever he gets a chance. I vote that this curiosity is now fully sated, how 'bout you?


This brings us to "Best Picture," and you know who's got the lead. The Academy has certainly seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a single colossal work, and has been saving the Best Picture statuette for this last chapter, "The Return of the King," to come in. "The Fellowship of the Ring" (2001) and "The Two Towers" (2002) won a few awards, but none for acting or directing honors. "Return of the King" is nominated in eleven categories, more than any other film this year, and I expect it is the series' turn to shine. "Master and Commander" follows closely with ten nominations, and "Seabiscuit" with seven, but both of these films are big but not complex. The other two in the Best Picture category, "Mystic River" and "Lost in Translation," are complex, dark films that don't attempt an epic sweep, and might have done well without the glory of Tolkein's epic shimmering around them. Expect "Return of the King" to take both Best Picture and Best Director awards this year; for that film alone it might be too much, but in consideration of the entire series, such a delayed victory could not be more fitting or more sweet.


Frederica Mathewes-Green
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