Commentary: Oscar heat for 'Frost/Nixon'

Ron Howard film looks like one of season's front-runners

Fabulous "Frost:" I had a pre-Thanksgiving look at Universal, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title's awards contender "Frost/Nixon" and I think it's a safe bet that as Academy members catch up with the film one of Oscar's five best picture slots is going to be taken off the market.

"Frost/Nixon" definitely looks like one of the season's front-runners for prime Oscar and Golden Globe nominations -- hopefully including best picture, director (Ron Howard, an Oscar winner for directing "A Beautiful Mind" and producing it with Brian Grazer), adapted screenplay (Peter Morgan, an Oscar nominee for his original screenplay for "The Queen"), actor (Frank Langella, who's never been Oscar nominated but should have been for "Starting Out in the Evening") and supporting actor (Michael Sheen, who's never been Oscar nominated but should have been for "The Queen").

Early enthusiasm: Like it or not, the holiday season and the awards season are Hollywood's Siamese twins.

Thanksgiving kicks off the holiday season that peaks at Christmas and ends with New Year's. The awards season begins the first week in December with a flurry of early enthusiasm based on votes by groups like the National Board of Review, L.A. Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle and Golden Globes that to one extent or another suggest what could happen in the Oscar race.

As December plays itself out there's a wintry mix of holiday gift buying, office partying, family travel and celebrating. At the same time, December is also marked by awards wins and nominations, endless screenings of endless films with and without awards potential, the sending of DVD screeners, parties promoting high profile contenders, Ten Best lists and the mailing of Oscar nominations ballots.

Although these seasonal twins co-exist peacefully for the most part, they intersect at Christmas and pose some problems because you really can't be away on vacation while you're trying to see and consider a few dozen awards contenders. What typically suffers is the moviegoing that can only be done at year-end because so many contenders are late arrivals.

Studios that were dead set against generating an early frontrunner buzz for their films because it's difficult to sustain it will now be looking to fuel the fires for their contenders by promoting their early season wins or noms.

Traditionally, the first week in December sees the National Board of Review announce the first winners. This year, however, the lower profile International Press Academy jumped the gun by naming its nominees -- six in each of 22 film categories plus 12 TV categories -- last Sunday. With so many nominees there can't help but be all sorts of Oscar nominations match-ups.

NBR's shorter list of winners will still give Hollywood handicappers their first significant indication of what could happen in this year's Oscar race. Last year NBR hit the nail right on the head with its best picture win for "No Country For Old Men," which went on to receive Oscars for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor.

On the other hand, NBR's other wins last year were less impressive in terms of how they fared with the Oscars. Tim Burton won the NBR for directing "Sweeney Todd," but wasn't Oscar nominated. George Clooney won best actor for "Michael Clayton," but lost in the Oscars to Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood." Julie Christie won best actress for "Away From Her," but lost in the Oscars to Marion Cotillard for "La Vie en Rose."

Casey Affleck won best supporting actor for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but lost in the Oscars to Javier Bardem for "No Country." Amy Ryan won best supporting actress for "Gone Baby Gone," but lost in the Oscars to Tilda Swinton for "Michael Clayton."

NBR voters mirrored Academy voters on the best screenplay front with "No Country" winning best adapted screenplay and "Juno" winning best original screenplay.

Although last year saw an NBR-Oscar best picture match-up, it was unusual in terms of what we've seen in recent years. NBR wins are more likely to translate into best picture Oscar nominations than wins. In 2006 "Letters From Iwo Jima" was the NBR winner and an Oscar nominee, but "The Departed" won the Oscar. In 2005 NBR voted for "Good Night, and Good Luck" and it was Oscar nominated, but the Oscar went to "Crash."

The NBR winner in 2004 was "Finding Neverland" and it was an Oscar nominee, but Academy members voted for "Million Dollar Baby." In 2003 NBR's winner was "Mystic River" and it was Oscar nominated, but the Oscar went to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." 2002's NBR win went to "The Hours" and it was an Oscar nominee, but the Academy Award went to "Chicago."

In 2001 NBR voters applauded "Moulin Rouge" and it was Oscar nominated, but the Academy Award went to "A Beautiful Mind." NBR voted in 2000 for "Quills," which did not get a best picture Oscar nomination, while Academy members voted for "Gladiator." You have to go back to 1999 and "American Beauty" to find another film that won both the NBR and Oscar votes.



There were six shared nominations out of seven from 2000-2006 between NBR and the Academy and no best picture match-ups. Bottom line -- the film that wins this year's NBR vote is likely to be Oscar nominated but probably won't win the best picture Oscar. But, then again, you never know.

The L.A. Film Critics Association was not a good bellwether for last year's best picture Oscar race. LAFCA's best picture was "There Will Be Blood" and its runner-up was "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" while Academy members voted for "No Country." In the directing race, LAFCA went for Paul Thomas Anderson for "Blood" with Julian Schnabel as the runner-up for "Diving Bell" while Oscar voters applauded the Coen Brothers for "No Country."

In the acting categories LAFCA and Oscar matched up for best actor (Daniel Day-Lewis for "Blood") and actress (Marion Cotillard for "La Vie") but not in the supporting races. LAFCA's best supporting actor was Vlad Ivanov for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," who did not receive an Oscar nomination. The Oscar went to Javier Bardem for "No Country." LAFCA voted for Amy Ryan for best supporting actress for her performances in both "Gone Baby Gone" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." She was Oscar nominated for "Gone," but lost to Tilda Swinton for "Michael Clayton."

LAFCA's one screenplay award went to "The Savages" with "Blood" as runner-up. Both films were Oscar nominated -- "Savages" lost in the original screenplay race to "Juno" and "Blood" lost in the adapted screenplay race to "No Country."

Looking at past LAFCA best picture winners, we find -- 2006: "Letters From Iwo Jima," 2005: "Brokeback Mountain," 2004: "Sideways," 2003: "American Splendor," 2002: "About Schmidt," 2001: "In the Bedroom" and 2000: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

On the Oscar front, the best picture winners were -- 2006: "The Departed" ("Letters" was nominated), 2005: "Crash" ("Brokeback" was nominated), 2004:
"Million Dollar Baby" ("Sideways" was nominated), 2003: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" ("Splendor" was not a nominee), 2002: "Chicago" ("Schmidt" was not a nominee), 2001: "A Beautiful Mind" ("Bedroom" was nominated) and 2000: "Gladiator" ("Crouching Tiger" was nominated).

There were five shared nominations out of seven from 2000-2006 between LAFCA and the Academy and no best picture match-ups. So here, too, winning best picture is likely to get you into Oscar's best picture race but not as the film that will win.

Another group whose best picture awards are watched closely by Oscar handicappers is the New York Film Critics Circle. Last year NYFCC named "No Country" its best picture as, of course, Academy voters did. There were match-ups for director (the Coen Brothers for "No Country"), actor (Daniel Day-Lewis for "Blood"), supporting actor (Javier Bardem for "No Country") and screenplay (the Coen Brothers).

In the best actress race the NYFCC voted for Julie Christie ("Away From Her"), who lost to Marion Cotillard ("La Vie") in the Oscars. NYFCC's best supporting actress was Amy Ryan ("Gone"), who lost to Tilda Swinton ("Clayton") in the Oscars.

Looking at past NYFCC best picture winners, we find -- 2006: "United 93," 2005: "Brokeback Mountain," 2004: "Sideways," 2003: "Return of the King," 2002: "Far From Heaven," 2001: "Mulholland Drive" and 2000: "Traffic."

On the Oscar front, the best picture winners were -- 2006: "The Departed" ("United" was not a nominee), 2005: "Crash" ("Brokeback" was nominated), 2004: "Million Dollar Baby" ("Sideways" was nominated), 2003: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (a match-up year), 2002: "Chicago" ("Heaven" was not a nominee), 2001: "A Beautiful Mind" ("Mulholland" was not a nominee) and 2000: "Gladiator" ("Traffic" was nominated).

There were four shared nominations out of seven from 2000-2006 between NYFCC and the Academy, one of which was a best picture match-up. All told, a NYFCC win seems less likely to translate into a best picture Oscar nomination than an NBR or LAFCA win.

The most highly anticipated early awards activity will be Dec. 11's Golden Globe noms. Unlike the NBR, LAFCA and NYFCC awards, the Globe noms are a high profile nationally telecast event that immediately becomes the focus of the holiday season marketing campaigns for films with multiple nods, especially in the best picture comedy or musical and drama categories.

It's the Globe noms rather than wins that impact most on the Oscars. When the wins are announced Jan. 11, there's only one day left before the Academy's nominations polls close so that all but rules out any Globe influence at that point. But when the Globe noms are announced Dec. 11 it's well before the Dec. 26 mailing of Academy ballots and there's plenty of time for Oscar voters to use the Globe noms as a "cheat sheet" so they know which films to bother spending time to see.

Last year there were seven best picture-drama Globe nominees and five best picture-musical or comedy nominees. With so many nominees comparisons to the Oscar noms are strained, but looking at the best picture categories we see that four of the seven Globe drama nominees went on to land Oscar nods -- "Atonement," "Clayton," "Blood" and "No Country." "Atonement" won the best picture-drama Globe while "No Country" won the best picture Oscar.

In the best picture-musical or comedy category only one of the five Globe nominees, "Juno," wound up being Oscar nominated. The Globe in this category went to "Sweeney Todd," which was not an Oscar nominee.

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com
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