Dignity, Always Dignity
The 74th Academy Awards (2002)
feature by Eddie Cockrell, 29 March 2002

Four hours and twenty-three minutes; four points higher in the primetime overnight Nielsen ratings than last year’s telecast; back in Hollywood proper after 42 years. Of all the numbers thrown about before, during and after the 74th annual Academy Awards ceremony, these seem to have the most resonance. For in a year when the Oscar nominees themselves and the expensive, acrimonious financial race to secure the winners by public opinion were as deeply schizophrenic as the subject of the eventual Best Picture winner, the true surprise of the evening was the dignity with which everyone involved in the ceremony seemed to comport themselves—and, in turn, the way this new gravity was received by the viewing public.

For the record, the Universal/DreamWorks production A Beautiful Mind won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Ron Howard), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Connelly) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Akiva Goldsman). It was the second Oscar in a row for the studio alliance, after last year’s Gladiator. And DreamWorks extended their winning streak to three, having copped Best Picture the year before that for American Beauty. And DreamWorks can boast three consecutive script wins, as A Beautiful Mind follows Almost Famous and American Beauty.

New Line Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring also won four awards, less than a third of its 13 nominations. As expected, they were for technical achievement: Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography, Howard Shore’s original score, the makeup of Peter Owen and Richard Taylor, and the visual effects of Randall William Cook, Jim Rygiel, Mark Stetson and Taylor.

In a neat bit of historical synergy, the Twentieth Century Fox production Moulin Rouge’s two Oscars, for costume design (Catherine Martin, Angus Strathie) and art direction/set decoration (Martin/Brigitte Broch), matched exactly the two awards won by John Huston’s 1952 production of -- Moulin Rouge.

And the USA Films production Gosford Park picked up the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (Julian Fellowes -- his first produced script). That’s the second win in a row for USA Films, following Traffic; the studio is only three years old.

Though not nominated for Best Picture, the Sony/Revolution Studios co-production Black Hawk Down won technical awards for editing and sound.

While it was arch-rival DreamWorks that took the inaugural Best Animated Film Oscar for Shrek, Disney won the Best Original Song prize (Randy Newman’s “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. -- his first win after 16 nominations).

In all, it was a refreshingly diverse roster of winners, as of all five of the Best Picture nominees, only Miramax’s In the Bedroom went home empty-handed.

But the real story was that wholly unexpected gravity and dignity of an event usually marked by throwback production numbers and questionable taste. Event producer Laura Ziskin commissioned filmmakers Errol Morris, Penelope Spheeris, Nora Ephron and others to make filmcentric appreciation pieces on various subjects, and each of them were standalone gems. Woody Allen’s very first Oscar appearance ever (to introduce Ephron’s ode to New York City) had critics speculating that he should be Oscar’s new host, and in light of the recent events there it seemed almost prescient to give special Oscars to socially conscious personalities Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford (the former was notably more subdued than usual as he thanked a who’s-who of prominent Hollywood liberals of the 1950s and 1960s, while the latter came the closest of anyone throughout the evening to rambling, although he was remarkably candid in assessing both Hollywood’s mood at the moment and his own currently faltering acting career).

But it was the acting categories that drew the most attention. Most serious Oscar handicappers have the “heart” list and the “head” list, films and stars they think/hope will win and predictions of what academy voters will probably do. This year those voters, who usually reflect a pack mentality, seemed to decide as one to give the acting Oscars to performances they liked, rather than stars they felt prompted to reward. Thus, Connelly’s much-praised turn as mathematician John Nash’s long-suffering wife in A Beautiful Mind took the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, while British vet Jim Broadbent was the surprise Best Supporting Actor winner for his turn as Iris Murdoch’s long-suffering husband in Iris (voters were also perhaps applauding him for his other-end-of-the-spectrum vamp in Moulin Rouge).

What really put the 74th Oscars into the history books, however, were the winners for Best Actress and Best Actor. Halle Berry became the first black woman to win an Academy Award for a leading performance, her fearless turn in the little-seen Monster’s Ball. Her raw emotions during the acceptance speech were both historical and memorable, as she proclaimed “every woman of color … now has a chance because this door tonight has now been opened.” Sissy Spacek had campaigned hard for In the Bedroom, and had been generally considered a lock for the Oscar.

And while few would promote it as a career highlight to date, the stylish police thriller Training Day earned Denzel Washington his first Best Actor Oscar and second award overall (he becomes only the 11th actor to win in both the lead and supporting categories, having won in 1989 for Glory). Perhaps voters responded to the bravura nature of Washington’s turn as a brazenly corrupt cop (history dictates this predilection); more likely, those capable of thinking ahead couldn’t resist the idea of having Washington and Sidney Poitier brandishing their Academy Awards at each other from across the Kodak Theater (Poitier won in 1963 for Lilies of the Field). Reflecting that he’d been following in Poitier’s footsteps, Washington proclaimed “there’s nothing I’d rather do, sir.” It was perhaps the most dignified moment in a ceremony sprinkled with class and respect.

This new maturity even seeped into the Best Foreign Film category, as Danis Tanovic’s gritty war film No Man’s Land from Bosnia & Herzegovina bested the overwhelming favorite, France’s Amelie, thus not only refuting the latter’s perceived superficiality (and slapping domestic distributor Miramax) but reminding future Oscar scholars that after all the societal traumas of 2001, voters responded to a more serious theme.

Lest these Oscars go down in history as precise in their kudos, shortly after the awards critic Joe Leydon (Variety, The San Francisco Examiner) sent an email pointing out that by winning a single Oscar, for sound editing, Pearl Harbor won one more Academy Award than Memento, Mulholland Drive, The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Royal Tenenbaums, Sexy Beast, Ghost World, Amelie and In the Bedroom -- put together.

The ceremony itself was held in the brand new Kodak Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, just next to the landmark Chinese Theater and cattycorner to the Hotel Roosevelt, where the very first Oscars were presented in 1929. Even the apparently cavernous new space seemed dignified, as it injected much-needed life into a venerated strip of road that could certainly use the attention.



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