Eyes on the prizes

Academy Award nominations pit deserving newcomers against disgruntled veterans

Tom Horgen

If the most conservative members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had their way, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg would probably win Oscars every year.

Those guys, luckily, take breaks. So, the academy is forced to spread the wealth to other boring white guys like the Russell Crowes and Ron Howards of the world.

But with this year’s list of nominees, which was announced last week, it appears times are changing.

Sort of.

The Oscars used to be a night when all the white people in Hollywood got together to stroke each other into fits of ecstasy.

This year though, Chris Rock is hosting. A film about Tupac Shakur is nominated for best documentary. And more black people than ever are competing in the acting categories (Jamie Foxx for both “Ray” and “Collateral,” Morgan Freeman for “Million Dollar Baby,” and Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo for “Hotel Rwanda”).

Five nominations might not seem like a lot, but the ceremony has often stayed lily-white unless Spielberg was directing the film, Denzel Washington was playing a gangster cop or Freeman was driving Miss Daisy.

In fact, until Halle Berry and Washington’s wins in 2002,

the academy had never recognized a black woman with a best-actress award and had only once recognized a black man. And that was 40 years ago with Sidney Poitier.

Unfortunately, any progress we saw with Berry and Washington’s wins quickly became an afterthought. In the two years since their victories, black people have been virtually shut out of the Oscars yet again, with only two total nominations. That’s two out of 40 possible slots.

So why the sudden interest in black people? The most obvious answer is that “Ray” and “Hotel Rwanda” were safe black films the white Oscar- voters felt comfortable nominating. Both, incidentally, were helmed by white directors.

Why not nominate a film like “Baadasssss!” which drew universal acclaim and represented its subject matter – 1970s blaxploitation films – much better than, say, “Hotel Rwanda,” which basically pacified the Rwandan genocide with its slick Hollywood production?

We might also want to think about the academy’s fear of staying relevant. Like the Grammys, which used to hate rap music until its TV ratings started plummeting (this year, Kanye West, Usher and Alicia Keys got the most nods), the Oscars are in need of a jump-start.

But for every step the Oscars take forward, they seem to always take two steps back.

While Rock’s wicked tongue will surely make some old-timers uncomfortable at this year’s show, tradition still rules the Academy Awards.

This year, more than ever, the Oscars are clearly struggling to get hip without turning their back on their traditional values.

While the academy is making big strides with black representation this year, its push to make “The Aviator” the show’s front-runner with 11 nominations is embarrassing.

With no clear heavyweight, the academy had to choose Martin Scorsese’s dull Howard Hughes biopic to give the show some faux prestige. The big-budget, three-hour epic about a rich white guy fits the academy’s modus operandi, but it’s still a bit of a surprise, given that nobody saw the movie and for those who did, nobody seemed to like it.

Film buffs were hoping the Oscars would’ve followed the lead of almost every critics’ circle in the world and pushed the indie hit “Sideways” to the head of the pack. Alas, the satire about wine worship settled for a best-picture slot and a few other pats on the back, while “The Aviator” snagged nods in almost every category possible.

What’s worse, the front-runner status of “The Aviator” might put Leonardo DiCaprio into position to take the best actor statue from the much-more-deserving Foxx.

That would be hypocrisy. Because unlike the 2002 Oscars, when Washington and Berry were awarded for playing stereotypes, Foxx and the other black actors are appearing in strong, positive roles. While Foxx is still the perceived front-runner, DiCaprio isn’t the only spoiler he has to worry about. The academy has a history of rewarding old, white veterans like Clint Eastwood, even when someone like Foxx is getting unprecedented acclaim. This happened most memorably when Al Pacino won for “Scent of a Woman” over Washington’s triumph in “Malcolm X.”

Ludicrous? Indeed.

But that’s how it goes at the Academy Awards.

The outspoken Rock has already threatened to take an Oscar from one of the sound-effects guys and give it to Foxx, should he lose. In an interview with The New York Times, Rock said, “Jamie Foxx is not going to walk out of that place without an Oscar.”