Oscar values examination of values
By Paul Vercammen
CNN Entertainment Correspondent
This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The Vercammen family, I concede, may be a few sandwiches short of a picnic.
But we look very "Brady Bunch" compared with the troubled souls of "American Beauty." With its fraying families, the movie leads the way in this year's Academy Awards buzz with eight nominations, announced this week by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Perhaps it's out in front as the feel-good movie of the year. No matter how messed up your particular genetic links may be, you can most likely walk away from "American Beauty" thinking: "Hey, we're all right, and not half as bad as those uptight, lecherous, murderous 'American Beauty' folks."
Following close behind were "The Cider House Rules" and "The Insider," with seven nominations each.
Michael Caine runs a Maine orphanage in "The Cider House Rules." The seasoned actor received a nomination for his performance, which also involves perhaps the hottest political button, abortion.
"The Insider" may make your job appear less stressful, as a tobacco industry giant, the television newsmagazine "60 Minutes" and an expert on nicotine and cigarettes get caught up in one tangled web.
The lists of nominees for the 72nd annual Academy Awards are filled with cerebral celluloid projects offering inside glimpses of some places rather frightening at times.
Just take a peek at the Best Picture nominees:
"American Beauty" -- inside suburbia
"The Cider House Rules" -- inside an orphanage
"The Insider" -- inside the tobacco industry
"The Green Mile" -- inside prison
"The Sixth Sense" -- inside a boy's mind full of scary things, including ghosts, and I will not give away the ending.
These are all films set in the U.S. of A. They are Yankee stories meant to put your mind to work, or at least get your mind off work. There are a lot of heated debates, cold stares and close-ups in these films.
So never mind the elaborate sets, platoons of extras or period costumes that dominated last year's Academy Awards, capped by "Shakespeare in Love" as Best Picture.
Scenes from "American Beauty"
This year it seemed Academy members often wanted to reflect on American values -- or in some instances, a total lack of them.
The unofficial queen of Dysfunction Junction may be Annette Bening as the tightly wound suburban frau in "American Beauty."
Bening's husband, Warren Beatty, will receive the Irving G. Thalberg award to recognize producer excellence on Oscar night, March 26. Honoring a pregnant Bening during the same
show would provide one of those mushy moments Oscar adores.
But the list of Best Actress nominees promises a healthy competition:
Annette Bening ("American Beauty")
Janet McTeer ("Tumbleweeds")
Julianne Moore ("The End of the Affair")
Meryl Streep ("Music of the Heart")
Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry")
With that, Streep ties Katharine Hepburn for 12 acting nominations, the all-time record.
Don't forget that Academy voting, not unlike high school electioneering, is filled with favoritism for people who are well-liked. (Movie industry types try not to award people who yell at the crew to bring them "many fruit-flavored Life Savers," which I once heard screamed by a star with little Oscar recognition.)
Streep has a golden reputation and can flat act, which equals a dozen nominations in Hollywood math.
Kevin Spacey plays the husband who snaps in "American Beauty," and if you thought his on-screen wife was brutal, check out the competition for Best Actor:
Russell Crowe ("The Insider")
Richard Farnsworth ("The Straight Story")
Sean Penn ("Sweet and Lowdown")
Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty")
Denzel Washington ("The Hurricane")
A debate here over which was more difficult: Washington training up to eight hours a day to get in shape to play boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter? Or Crowe gaining 48 pounds to play a tobacco industry whistler-blower?
Washington's got to take it. Crowe confessed to me he bulked up with cheeseburgers and bourbon, and pronounced it "Heaven, mate."
And then there's Jim Carrey. The Golden Globe winner for Best Actor in a comedy in 1998 and 1999 underwent Oscar bypass surgery again, despite his uncanny impersonation of late comic Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon." Last year, Carrey was skipped over for "The Truman Show."
Oscar just doesn't have much room in his gold-plated heart for comedians. Fatalistic fans might go so far as to pencil in Carrey now for next year's Academy Award snub. He'll star in the comedy "Me, Myself and Irene" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" later this year.
The Academy did use the supporting actor categories to recognize films that had many critics falling all over their laptops.
Hilary Swank of "Boys Don't Cry" has picked up many critics' awards for her performance has a young woman who disguises herself as a man. The Academy voters decided her costar, Chloe Sevigny, deserves recognition as the duped (or was she really?) girlfriend.
"Being John Malkovich" stirred up a lot of positive chatter among the art house crowd. And longtime indie film favorite Catherine Keener's performance as a worker in a surreal office throws her right into the Best Supporting Actress derby:
Toni Collette ("The Sixth Sense")
Angelina Jolie ("Girl, Interrupted")
Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich")
Samantha Morton ("Sweet and Lowdown")
Chloe Sevigny ("Boys Don't Cry")
All shapes, sizes and experience -- from the bulked up Michael Clarke Duncan in the "The Green Mile," to little Haley Joel Osment in "The Sixth Sense," to veteran Caine in "The Cider House Rules" -- turn up in the Best Supporting Actor list:
Michael Caine ("The Cider House Rules")
Tom Cruise ("Magnolia")
Michael Clarke Duncan ("The Green Mile")
Jude Law ("The Talented Mr. Ripley")
Haley Joel Osment ("The Sixth Sense")
Osment is just 11 years old, among the youngest acting nominees ever. Good for him, of course, but can broadcasters please ease up on showing Osment's overused "I-see-dead-people" clip?
Contrast child prodigy Osment with Richard Farnsworth. The 79-year-old rancher is the oldest lead acting nominee ever. He's got a lot of voting friends in the Academy, but they won't hand him a statue on sentiment alone.
This year's Academy Award nominations, then, spanned all ages and film genres. If there's a trend in all this, the picks leaned toward American tales, a little heavier on darkness and dialogue.
Pack-leader "American Beauty" won a Golden Globe, numerous other big awards and, like last year's Best Picture winner, "Shakespeare in Love," has gotten a lot of critics gushing. This was not a family film, but a film about family, one of the many Oscar nominees this year that could be seriously dissected by those advice dispensers on MTV's "Loveline."
Discuss its Oscar nominations and others over the next month at the dinner table, if you can get everyone through it without anyone throwing anything. Now pass the peas. Please.
CNN Interactive: Analysis
y: Big summer for movies, but no big unifying theme, by Paul Vercammen -- September 2, 1999
y: Oscar: a history buff with little humor? by Paul Vercammen -- February 11, 1999
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