Oscars 2003 : Fischer picks the Winners

PAUL FISCHER tries to figure out who will grab gold this Oscar season, and recalls his interviews with many of this year’s celebrated nominees. At the time they spoke, an Oscar nomination was pure conjecture. It is an old cliché but female actors constantly decry that Hollywood has abandoned them. But as the 75th Academy Awards approach, one thing is clear to those of us who cover Hollywood that 2003 is the year of the actress. It has been a long time since American cinema has been rich and evocative as the last year. Take aside the popcorn seasons and what we have is a plethora of cinematic treasures, recognised with the ultimate prize.

Whatever one says about the Oscars, however much the Oscar ceremony is ridiculed and criticised, this year, more than ever, the Academy Awards are being presented to performers, especially amongst the women, whose careers are defined by years of heard work and remarkable development as finely nuanced actors, rather than superficial movie stars.

The Oscar race for Best Actress is the one that Oscar pundits are eying. On the one hand, the likely winner seems an obvious choice on the surface, but in this day and age, who knows what lay in the hearts of Academy voters. I first met NICOLE KIDMAN [The Hours] as a fresh-faced 16-year old up-and-comer in our home town of Sydney. I almost turned down the interview. She was a kid, I thought, appearing in a film that the publicist wouldn’t even show me. Obviously he changed my mind. Even at that age, one was struck by the then adolescent’s statuesque beauty, sense of confidence and passion for acting. With a wild sense of humour even then, Kidman was going places. A year later she starred in the critically acclaimed TV miniseries Vietnam, and her ferocious performance made her an instant success at home. We caught up shortly after when she finished John Duigan’s Flirting and was cast in the film that would change her life: Dead Calm. Her performance brought her to the attention of Hollywood and Tom Cruise, and a Hollywood career had been forged. We all know the rest. The Hollywood up-and-down career, the marriage, the divorce and with the latter a sense of artistic freedom. Kidman’s growth and maturity as an actor began with Kubrick’s Eyes wide Shut and was further cemented with her dazzling portrayal of Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge and her first Oscar nomination. With The Hours, Nicole, now 35, resonates on screen, masking her beauty with a physical and emotional transformation that is testament to her consistent dedication and determination to prove to herself, as well as to others, that she is first and foremost an actress. Almost 20 years after we first met, on The Hours, Kidman tried to explain how she set about preparing to play Virginia Woolf. “that “it is so hard to describe how to do a role, because I think each film requires something different, as does each director.” On The Hours, Kidman felt that it was vital to live the character and adopt what is commonly referred to as ‘the method’ “where you would just go into this other safe beacon and that’s what I did,” Kidman explains with a slight laugh. “So I kept a journal, read a lot, and it was a place in my life that I was in and then I was able to absorb HER,” she explains. Frequently asked how she came up with Woolf’s physical characteristics, such as her very specific walk or the now infamous nose, the actress says that she can’t quite remember how it all came together. “All I know is that I would go to work every morning start to smoke roll your own cigarettes and then I would try and exist within her. “It is a hard thing to explain and people think you are crazy and then maybe you are but you do it because you believe PASSIONATELY in what you’re doing.” And it was clearly all worth the trouble. "You’re given such wonderful opportunities as an actor when you’re given a role like this that you have to be willing to go the distance."

No wonder, as she did go through the distance, Kidman found herself falling in love with Virginia Woolf on so many levels. “I thought, ‘This woman is such a magnificent person.’ I call her a creature, a magnificent creature, because she really was. The way in which she had this enormous intellect and then this extraordinary fragility and to combine the two creates almost a kind of chemistry and you put it together and it just bubbles. I’m fascinated by her – and I think everyone is.”

One can only wonder that given her detailed process, the difficulties she faced leaving Virginia Woolf behind at the end of the day. “It was difficult, especially given the shortness of my involvement. It became increasingly hard to say goodbye to Virginia and at the same time saying: I really wanted to do her justice. In setting out to try and explain certain things in her life, I went out my way to protect that, in a way, so I was able to walk away from it. However, in terms of just her impact, her literature is so powerful, as was her mind, perceptions and ideas, and they all resonate.” Kidman adds that Woolf’s ideas and themes “still remain relevant. Her work doesn’t date and therefore her impact on MY life is pretty profound,” Kidman admits. In defining Woolf as an emotional, artistic and vulnerable woman, there seems to be some parallels between the author and the actress who plays her. Kidman doesn’t disagree. “I think the lines are very blurred now,” she said. “It’s strange. I try not to analyze it too much because just now I work primarily off my instinct, my choices. In some way the work and the opportunities of the work have been my saving grace. My children first and foremost kind of gave me day by day the desire to live and then, in terms of just being able to express yourself through different women who are extraordinarily rich.”

Win or lose at Oscar time, we will be seeing a lot more of Nicole over the next year or two with upcoming films such as The Human Stain, Dogville, Cold Mountain and Birth, all due out within the next 12 months, and quite possibly another Oscar nomination.

Salma Hayek [Frida] has had to prove a lot, whether by accident or design. I first interviewed the beautiful Mexican actress at the time of the release of the somewhat forgettable Fled, in 1996. Already a star on the rise, Hayek was defined by her alluring beauty and it would take some time before Hollywood would take her seriously. Back then, she told me that she was attracted to men “with cojones” [or ‘balls’] She clearly met him in Edward Norton who ended up writing the script for Frida, the film that would instantly change our perceptions of this extraordinary young woman whose passion for the Frida Kahlo story remained consistently unwavering. When talking to her about the film back in December, it was clear why the actress felt so drawn to this character. . “There was something about the woman and the times in which she lived that I just found fascinating,” explains Hayek, who is both star and producer of the movie. “She was never conventional about anything she did, was always herself, which was not easy. She started exploring with women at a very early age and was never apologetic about who she was. Also, the fact that she took all the different tragedies or difficulties in her life and made the best out of them, and not only made the best out of them, but did it in an interesting way. From pain, she did art and poetry; from the infidelities of her husband, she found freedom.” Rather than relate to Frida on a direct and personal level, Hayek simply says that she would like to learn from her, adding, that “she’s definitely an inspiration” adding that she is working on “trying to take it in.” The film evolves into a portrait of Kahlo as a bisexual and communist struggling with an abusive husband, a life of physical pain, the amputation of a leg, and, finally, the drug and alcohol abuse that killed her at age 47. Rather than relate to Frida on a direct and personal level, Hayek simply says that she would like to learn from her, adding, that “she’s definitely an inspiration” adding that she is working on “trying to take it in.”
Hayek may be a woman in a man’s industry, but as ferocious as she is to attain her own artistry, she remains non-completive in a completive field, described by Julia Taymor as a ‘woman’s woman’. Salma doesn’t disagree, “because I feel a sisterhood with all women. I don’t see women and think of them as competition or with judgment. Women really move me. I feel connected to all kinds of women. I am angry because I think we’ve been mistreated throughout history in different countries, including America. I admire women.” Hayek has proven to be more than just a pretty face, and now with her Oscar nomination, something she was never expecting to talk about. Nor does she want to think about it. “I don’t want to get excited about it. I have to stay clear in my mind and stay in the place where I am today, which is that I’m proud of the film. If it does well, then it’s a good thing and if it doesn’t, then it’s a good thing because I like the movie.” But Hayek says that she does have a personal fantasy about the Oscars. “I think it would make Frida so happy that through her life story for the first time, a female director wins an Oscar.” And the first Mexican actress as well, perhaps? She smiles at the possibility.

Diane Lane [Unfaithful] may be the dark horse in this category but is no less deserving. One of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, the beautiful actress has had to make the transition from child star when she won our hearts with A Little Romance, to adolescence [The Outsiders, Streets of Fire]. As an adult, Lane has appeared in over 30 films and with her subtle, emotionally-driven work in Unfaithful, Diane has shown us what a major talent she is. She is a remarkable 36. It seems that the older she gets, the more alluring she becomes. “I would hope that’d be the case, otherwise, you know, you’d just jump off a bridge at 35, right?” she questions laughingly when we spoke early last year. As exemplified in the erotically-charged Unfaithful, Lane has no fear about being full-on sexy on screen, as she shares some sizzling moments with her French co-star Olivier Martinez in Adrian Lyne’s extramarital thriller. “I think you get better at things, old things,” she explains when asked why she still revels in doing sex scenes as she gets older. Lane is no stranger to extramarital affairs – on screen at least, having also cheated on her husband in the acclaimed Walk in the Moon. “It’s called being cast against type”, she responded laughingly. Unfaithful is a searing, chillingly honest look at the psychology of infidelity through the eyes of a seemingly happily married couple. Lane sees the piece as “a case study of the human frailty of human being, in that when you’re unguarded in your convictions, you become lax and I think it takes a lot of vigilance to remind yourself of why you made the choices you made and go with them or be true to them,” Lane explained. She has difficulty deciding whether or not she can relate to any of that. “It’s different when you live day-in and day-out with someone versus my history. I mean, time and preparation can create this relationship that’s in your mind and then you show up for it before you’re like: Hey, wait a minute, I spent too much time with you in my life. You’re a disappointment. You tend to disappoint yourself in a relationship because you had too much time to think about it and not enough time to actually live it, so that’s the opposite problem. I don’t really know how to relate to a long-term day-in day-out kind of comfortable relationship,” she says, having been once married to French actor Christopher Lambert. “Things do tend to get traded; comfort gets traded for passion for instance. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way and in this movie, Adrian is really good at telling these cautionary tales of, you know, keeping your knickers buttoned up,” she adds laughingly.

Throughout the course of her career, the alluring actress has done her share of nude scenes, and Unfaithful is no exception, but at least in the case of THIS film, they are relevant, she insists. “I think in this story it’s so necessary. There is no way of telling or making a sexy movie without sex in it, without it being sexy or whatever; it’s part of the context of what it’s about: Sexual infidelity and its repercussions.” Times have changed since the incredibly youthful 37-year old burst onto the screen as a child actress in the sweet romantic charmer A Little Romance. Since then, audiences have watched the star transform herself, first into adolescent, then sexy young adult and now as a still beautiful on-screen wife and mother, while off-screen, the ex-wife of Christopher Lambert has only introduced her daughter [Eleanor Jasmine Lambert] to A Little Romance. “Despite the fact that my character runs away to kiss a boy in Venice,” she laughingly adds. Clearly she won’t be in a hurry to screen Unfaithful to her any time soon “or at least till she’s forty.” Unless of course Diane takes home Oscar, for there is clearly more to this actress than obligatory nudity.

I first met Julianne Moore [Far from Heaven] at the Sundance Film Festival a number of years ago when her film, The Myth of Fingerprints was screening. She always seemed comfortable in the more independent world of Hollywood, as exemplified by her best work in that arena: Safe, Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, Cookie’s Fortune and more recently, The Hours and the exquisite Far from Heaven. Described as the most luminous actress of her generation, this is Moore’s year, and her complex work in the fifties-set Heaven, reminds us of how skilful and diverse she is. Seven years and some 24 films after first working with Todd Haynes on Safe,, Moore has come full circle, re-teaming with that director on what is arguably the pair’s most arresting work. “Nothing has changed,” muses Moore in a Beverly Hills hotel room, as she reflects on the differences between their first and latest collaboration. “That was what was kind of great about it, in that our relationship is the same and we work very much the same way, except that we probably have a little more confidence. I know I have more confidence in myself than I did when I did Safe because it was very early in my career, and he’s got, even more technical aptitudes, so I love working with him. He knows everything.” Though Far from Heaven is set in the height of post-war American idealism, Moore makes it clear that the film is hardly a traditional fifties-set film by any means. “I think it’s important that you realize we’re not making a movie about the Fifties but a movie that uses the style of films of the Fifties. So, in a sense, the Fifties could not have existed for us to make this film, only the films of the Fifties could. In a bubble you could take that because there’s almost no real reference to the Fifties themselves.”

The challenge, then, was to play a character not so much a product of a real decade, but someone borne of Hollywood’s take on that period at the time. “It was really fun, and as an actor to have that much shape to work with gives you a lot to hang your hat on in a sense because you have this kind of incredible visual style that Todd’s working with,” Moore explains. “It was fascinating to work on the specificality in terms of the actor and the way you move and the way you speak. At the same time you also have this duality that is completely filled with emotion. So for an actor to have that kind of challenge where you have style, artifice and emotion at the same time you kind of couldn’t ask for anything more. It gives you a sort of a design for everything. I really quite enjoyed it.” The artifice was apparent but her character needed to be played with a certain emotional truth, and Moore found herself identifying with Cathy. ”I admired and hope to emulate her basic decency which is one thing that I love so much about her as well as her tremendous kindness to people and her very kind of optimism. Todd has made a movie I think where the character is the traditional American optimist, the kind of person who believes that they can change the world and community and their life and everything then runs up against the wall and finds out that now the world is stronger. I think one of the things that I thought was extraordinary about this movie that he made and the character that we created is that she is very much a character of that time. Todd has made a movie that is not only about racial and sexual and cultural bias but also it’s also about gender politics in that you see the men are able to kind of go away and make different lives for themselves and the women want to stay. They are the ones who are the contrast in this house. I think one of the reasons this film speaks to people is that things have not changed so terribly much except with women, in that, we have more choices, and I think that their sexuality are not so difficult. But these issues are still hot button issues.”

Moore will continue to work in mainstream Hollywood, but if she grabs Oscar gold, she is bound to recall her Indie days which remain her training ground for the kind of performance that has garnered the 41-year old her third Oscar nomination and her second for Best Actress.

The remarkable thing about Renee Zellweger [Chicago] is that prior to the musical triumph that is Chicago, the Texan had never sung or danced professionally. It is clear, over the years, how Zellweger has transformed herself, having already received a Best Actress nomination for her mesmerising turn in Bridget Jones’ Diary. She may have had to work on that British accent and that weight, but nothing could prepare her for Chicago, a project she didn’t want to try and take on. . Genuinely surprised that the power of her voice is as strong as it is, she says “that I think the real powerful voice came from my counterpart, my Welsh friend”, she says, referring to Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, whether the shy actress wants to admit it or not, sing she does, and she admits that it was something she never expected to be doing. “My singing career started a long, long, long, time ago in the shower to Beatle records and my brother shouting at me to shut up”, she laughingly recalls. “I just had it in my head that I could sing, but I think he just wanted to beat me up over ANYTHING. After all, here I was this 6-year old kid doing these McCartney covers and blasphemising his hero in the process.” That shut her up, musically, for a time, until “the drunken Karaoke moment in Bridget Jones which was such a blast for me to do.” That hardly prepares us for the tunes she belts out in Chicago, which the actress describes as “a very different form of expression,” but she was surprised that director Rob Marshall was remotely interested in this gal from Austin, Texas, with little proven musical ability. “That Rob Marshall, for some strange reason had it in his head that this was going to work and I trusted him on every level.” That was until after she understood the script. “I got this script, read it and I didn’t understand it at all. It just didn’t translate at all,” she confesses. “I don’t know the musical, I hadn’t seen it before, so I’d never seen any of the numbers performed, so I had no idea what any of the lyrics meant on the page. So I thought it was a very bad idea that I should become involved with something whose meaning I had no idea about,” Zellweger exclaims. After much prodding from her manager, she was finally persuaded to talk to him on the phone “and his ideas were inspiring.” Asked what she though Rob might have seen in her that persuaded him to go after her in the first place, the actress becomes shyly embarrassed on some level. “I don’t hear that kind of stuff. He started to go out on that and I start to shut off because I don’t know how to take that stuff, so I shut down and go away.” Admitting to her own insecurities which seem considerable, she admits that she can’t take compliments. “I just can’t do it, never have.” Yet in Chicago she gives a ballsy, sexy performance as Roxie, whom the actress describes as “very honest even though our lives’ perspective is very different.” Not the easiest character to relate to, agrees Zellweger. “In fact the way that she looks at life and the choices that she makes are antithetical to those that I make in my own life”, she admits, laughingly. “I wouldn’t say there is anything that I could identify with except for her honesty.” She also pushes her sexuality more on screen than ever before. “I just play a girl who does that”, she says simply. “That’s a big part of who she is. It’s her currency so that was new and interesting.”

She completely envelopes Roxy and Academy voters agreed. Zellweger has a real shot at taking Oscar home with her for a film that nobody expected would emerge as successful as it has.

All of these women have been able to prove themselves as virtuoso screen performers, meticulously hiding behind a complex and fascinating character. Who is likely to add Oscar to her bookshelf? My pick is Nicole Kidman, following her recent triumphs at the Golden Globes and BAFTAS.

As for the rest of the Oscars, so many performances to speak about, so little time. For Performance by an actor in a leading role, the nominees are: Adrien Brody – The Pianist; Nicolas Cage – Adaptation; Daniel Day-Lewis – Gangs of New York; Michael Caine – Quiet American and Jack Nicholson – About Schmidt. An interesting dilemma. Nicholson may have won the Golden Globe but his Oscar chances don’t seem quite as bright for his 12th nomination. Nicholson plays Warren Schmidt, a former insurance agent in America’s Midwest who is trying to deal with his recent retirement, a personal tragedy and the coming marriage of his only daughter to a man he considers an idiot. When we met in December, the legendary actor said: “I looked at him as the man that I might have become if I wasn’t lucky enough to wind up in show business,” Nicholson commented in his familiar drawl.

The story, about a man losing hold of his life after a series of losses, raises a lot of issues, among them retirement. What happens when your job no longer drives your day? What happens when your children get older and your loved ones move away ? They’re issues Nicholson has had to face in his own life. “For instance, my daughter Jennifer has a clothing shop she is opening, so she is in her own business now and I don’t get to talk to her as much as I did a year or so ago,” the father of four said. He wouldn’t be drawn on his Oscar chances except to hope “that our entire cast is recognised.” Kathy Bates certainly was.

Michael Caine deserves to take home an Oscar, but the controversy surrounding Quiet American makes it unlikely. The remaining nominees have an equal shot. Day Lewis is methodically brilliant and powerful, a popular choice. Cage has an Oscar and the Academy rarely awards lead acting prizes for comedic work, but Adaptation’s ingenuity and audaciousness could translate in Oscar glory. Adrien Brody is remarkable in this superb Holocaust survival tale. It’s the kind of film that generates Oscars, and Brody has a real shot but he is a first-timer.

MY PICK: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS FOR GANGS OF NEW YORK.

The supporting nominees are always the toughest to pick and remain the least predictable. The men, in this category, are all seasoned veterans who have paid their dues, and any one could take home an Oscar. For Performance by an actor in a supporting role the nominees are:
Chris Cooper – Adaptation
Ed Harris – The Hours
Paul Newman – Road to Perdition
John C. Reilly – Chicago
Christopher Walken – Catch Me If You Can

An interesting collection of actors playing intense, sometimes tortured characters. Newman was wonderful but the film’s summer release diminishes his chances. Walken is the Hollywood outsider and Catch Me too mainstream to garner an Oscar. Harris has been nominated three other times and is a popular Hollywood institution, while Reilly hasn’t quite proven himself to Academy voters despite his flurry of exquisite performances last year. If Adaptation wins anything, it will be for Chris Cooper’s work.

MY PICK: CHRIS COOPER FOR ADAPTATION.

Women continue to shine in the Best Supporting Actress category. Will it be Kathy Bates for About Schmidt? Julianne Moore for The Hours? Queen Latina for Chicago? Meryl Streep for Adaptation or Catherine Zeta-Jones for Chicago? Even a seasoned Oscar observer may find it tough to predict the outcome of this race and it’s anybody’s guess. Since musicals have a tough time getting the major awards, my pick is CATHERINE ZETA-JONES FOR CHICAGO.

This year, more than any other, the Academy Awards remain unpredictable, which is not a bad thing. For Best Director Martin Scorsese is a likely recipient out of Rob Marshall, Chicago, Stephen Daldry, The Hours, Roman Polanski, The Pianist and Pedro Almodovar for Talk to Her, but for Best Picture, The Pianist is my pick out of The Hours, Chicago, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York. Whatever the results, Oscar 2003 will remain full of traditional kitsch, acerbic humour and not to mention those gowns on display, for better or worse. Hollywood’s night of nights is coming as are those tearful speeches and plastic smiles. But then, this is Hollywood after all.

-PAUL FISCHER