Oscar: Class of 2001
73nd Academy Awards (2001)
feature by Eddie Cockrell

Ignore that morning-after sniping: with its 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, generally short speeches and distinct lack of cheesy musical numbers, this is one Oscar ceremony that was first-class all the way. More than three-quarters of an hour shy of last year’s record-setting length of four hours and eight minutes, Michael Douglas broke the three-way tie among Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gladiator and Traffic to announce that Ridley Scott’s Roman epic was the Best Picture of the Year (had Traffic won, Douglas’ presence would have seemed tacky). Final tally: Five Academy Awards for Gladiator and four each for the Chinese-language martial arts epic (the most successful foreign film ever released in the United States) and Steven Soderbergh’s multifaceted look at the tangled war on drugs.

Acting graceful and even a little sheepish at the sporadic raciness of his one-liners, Steve Martin proved to be a smooth and affable host. Supplemented by rightfully dazzling satellite feeds from the International Space Station (the introduction), Sydney (Bob Dylan’s jarringly sinister performance of "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys) and Sri Lanka (2001 author Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s reading of the adapted and original screenplay awards), Martin kept the show moving without dwelling too long on the self-deprecating humor that has become de rigeur for recent Oscar hosts. In fact, things were progressing so well that by the time he followed the special Oscar to the elderly but influential screenwriter Ernest Lehman with the quip "it’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the evening Mr. Lehman was twenty-four," the show scarcely needed that kind of needling (producer Dino De Laurentiis and legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff also picked up special Academy Awards). Certainly Martin’s no Billy Crystal, but to be fair he’s not David Letterman, either -- and his running gag of giving a television to whoever had the shortest acceptance speech, combined with his impromptu sprint to Erin Brockovich producer Danny De Vito with a cup of dip for the vegetables he was caught munching on, gave the evening just the hint of improv it needed.

Much is being made of Marcia Gay Harden’s Best Supporting Actress "upset" for her role in Pollock. Truth to tell, her category was a wide open field to begin with, and the previously unheralded vet deserved the statue. Far more unexpected was Steven Soderbergh, nominated for helming both Erin Brockovich and Traffic, besting Ang Lee for the Best Director Oscar -- only the fifth time the award has differed from Best Picture (and he mustered true class by thanking "anybody who spends part of their day creating"). Not to mention Cameron Crowe’s win for the screenplay of Almost Famous, which most people expected to go to either Kenneth Lonergan for You Can Count on Me or Susannah Grant for Erin Brockovich (Crowe did have the grace to thank the God of screenwriters, "master" Billy Wilder).

The emotional temperature of the Best Actress and Actor winners were poles apart, with Julia Roberts’ part-gushy, part-bossy acceptance monolo -- ur, speech for her Erin Brockovich nod offset by chief Gladiator Russell Crowe’s eloquent but needlessly stern admonition to struggling young actors that "for anybody who’s on the downside of advantage, and relying purely on courage, it’s possible."

Only a few misjudgments marred the event: putting the technology recap, De Laurentiis prize and the annual "in memoriam" parade of departed icons together brought the show as close as it ever came to a dead halt, while the cheese factor reared its ugly head during the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon interpretive dance. Less than twelve hours after the event at least one critic has already weighed in lamenting the lack of bloated production numbers, proving that over the years many viewers have become so accustomed to such legendary excesses as Rob Lowe and Cinderella doing a rock’n’roll medley (it really happened, folks) that the backlash has already begun. The correct reading of this trend is: good riddance to profoundly bad rubbish, and kudos to returning producer Gilbert Cates for having the courage to break out of the rut in which the event had embedded itself.

For the evening’s big loser was Miramax’s Chocolat, which never seemed to be taken seriously in any of the five disciplines (including Best Picture) for which it was nominated. Viewers who stuck around for the closing credits were treated to a downright swingin’ vamp on Deodato’s funked-up interpretation of that 2001 theme music, "Also Sprach Zarathustra." It was a fitting outro to one classy show.




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