Armchair Oscars – 2002

Best Picture

Chicago (Directed by Rob Marshall)
The Nominees: Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist

Far From Heaven (Directed by Todd Haynes)
My Nominees: Adaptation. (Spike Jonze), About a Boy (Chris and Paul Weitz), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Columbus), In America (Jim Sheridan), Insomnia (Christopher Nolan), Talk to Her (Pedro Almadovar), Whale Rider (Niki Caro)


At the end of the twentieth century, movie musicals were pretty much dead. The early 90s had brought back musical comedies in the form of Disney’s animated films, but even those had grown stale. Then came the phenomenal success of Moulin Rogue which opened the door for director Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Bob Fosse’s.Chicago that became a box office smash and when the Oscar came around in late March, no other film could even be considered for the top award. It won six awards (beating out juggernaughts like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Gangs of New York), it made millions and became the first musical since Oliver! 34 years earlier to win Best Picture.

I like the movie, it follows the scandal of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a married waif who murders her lover in a tyrade then goes to jail where she fights more for her place in the headlines and then for her freedom. Marshall’s genius is that he sets the bulk of the story in Roxie’s imagination so we get brilliant set pieces like a press conference imagined like a bizarre puppet show.

The performances are brilliant, topped by Supporting Actress winner Catherine Zeta-Jones as cabaret star Vilma Kelly who leads a rousing rendition of cellblock showstopper “He Had It Coming” In fact almost all of the supporting cast, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly (who knew?) and Tay Diggs and Christine Beranski is in fine form. I will admit that I had fun at Chicago, it was what a movie musical is suppose to be – it was bouncy and entertaining, a sexier vision of the old Hollywood musical.

My choice however goes to another revival of old Hollywood, Todd Haynes 50’s soap opera, Far From Heaven, a beautiful recreation of the old Douglas Sirk pictures like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind which doesn’t parody those films but simply evokes the feel, the tone, the mood and the social structures of a half century ago. It remembers the picture-perfect lifestyles of the movie of that era, but takes us inside the lives of the characters and breaks open the myth of “Those Fabulous Fifties”, reminding us in a startling way that that era was only fabulous if you weren’t a woman, or an African-American, or a homosexual. Haynes is able to address subject matter that Sirk could only suggest.

The movie takes place within the sweet gentility of The Whitakers, Frank and Cathy (Dennis Quaid and Julianne Moore) a lovely couple in 1957 who live in the happy postwar, Atomic age household of raking leaves and waving to the neighbors. They live in the kind of older brick cottage that used to don the covers of The Saturday Evening Post or the exteriors of Leave it to Beaver and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. They have a high social standing in the neighborhood, due in large part to Frank’s standing at work that has given the Whitaker’s the nickname, Mr. and Mrs. Magnatech.

Cathy is the kind of suburban housewife who works at keeping the house looking like a magazine cover. She is so skilled at it that a local writer (Celia Weston) comes by the house to do a profile on the Whitaker’s for the society page. During the visit, Cathy notices a black man wandering around in the garden and steps out to ask what he wants.. His name is Raymond Deagan, the son of the Whitaker’s usual gardener who has recently passed away. Good-hearted Cathy feels pity for him and gently touches his arm just as one of her guests looks out the window and witnesses her physical contact. This is the pinprick in the dam of Cathy’s happy life. It is about to get a lot worse. It’s isn’t long before Cathy is being ribbed by the neighborhood ladies as “Cathy Whitaker – Friend to the Negro”.

Cathy finds herself struck by Raymond’s sweet, gentle manner. She is attracted to him not by any sexual attraction but in his sweet manner, his walk, the way looks at her. We sense that this would, in another time, blossom into a lovely romance. Raymond seems to posses all of the emotional notes that Cathy’s “perfect” marriage seems to be missing. She had so little contact speaking with a black person that during an uncomfortable lull in the conversation, she says “Mr. Whitaker and I support equal rights for the Negro.”, realizing slightly how silly that sounds. “I’m happy to hear that,” he says with a smile.

What is interesting is the very fine line that Cathy and Raymond have to walk. This was the late 50s, when any contact between a black man and a white woman could mean financial and social ruin for the Whitakers and possibly jail time for Raymond. It is a dangerous time and these two intelligent beings understand the boundaries set before them.

Her attraction to a black man is the least of Cathy’s problem. Another rears its head one night when Frank is working late and Cathy goes to the office to take him some dinner. To her horror she finds him in his office sitting on the side of the desk kissing another man. It is here that we begin to understand the distance in their relationship. We understand why he leaves for work in the morning having poured booze into his coffee, he’s trying to numb the pain. We understand why The Whitaker’s have no sex life.

Believing Frank’s homosexuality to be a disease, Cathy tries to get professional help. Frank reassures her “I’m going to lick this thing”. The treatment doesn’t really help and Frank falls deeper into his depression, alcohol, and at one point physical abuse, striking Cathy in a rage. The response, as we might expect, is a simple breakdown.

The crisis at home forces Cathy to seek emotional refuge with Raymond. He is a port in the storm. In a way, she knows that this kind of relationship, even though strictly platonic, is probably no less dangerous then an affair between Frank and his office lover. In one beautiful scene she and Raymond share a moment in front of a Miró painting. Their near-poetic exchanges are interrupted by one pause that leads to a momentary glance as their eyes meet. No dialogue exists in that brief moment but it allows us to feel that, in another time, their understated passion would turn to something else.

It isn’t long before their togetherness begins to attract roving eyes and they step back with the realization that there can never be anything between them. The surprise is that the movie doesn’t lead to any phony conclusions, nor a grotesque happy ending. We feel, in the end that these three souls are trapped by the binds of their society and that their kind of emotion and frustrations would be the propagation of the seasons of change in the next two decades.

Almost immediately we understand the kind of setting that we are in. The movie is given such a mood and feel, from the sets, to the cinematography to Elmer Bernstein’s loving score. We feel so immersed in the film that the moment when Cathy touches Dennis’ arm there is a low gasp from the audience. We know what is at stake and we know the consequences.

The dialogue is straight-forward, using the kinds of tone and pitch that we would have heard coming from Rock Hudson or Dorothy Malone. Haynes uses dialogue to suggest what the characters secretly feel, as in a party when Frank has had too much to drink and one of the guys comments on what a lucky man he is, Frank responds happily, “It’s all smoke and mirrors, fellas. That’s all it is. You should see her without her face on.” Cathy quietly says “We ladies are never what we appear, and every girl has her secrets.”

The movie works because Haynes draws themes from the best of Douglas Sirk’s work, All the Heaven Allows (infidelity), Magnificent Obesession (alienation), Imitation of Life (racism) and Written on the Wind (alcoholism) and stays within the bounds of Sirk’s style. The sets, the clothes, the dialogue all evoke those works but not as imitation but as a window of how an audience in 1957 might have seen it presented. He uses themes that Sirk couldn’t touch, the interracial plot would have been presented a little less boldly and the homosexual subplot would have been cut down to a whisper.

Best Actor

Adrian Brody (The Pianist)
The Nominees: Nicholas Cage (Adaptation), Michael Caine (The Quiet American), Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt)

Robin Williams (One Hour Photo)
My Nominees: Adrian Brody (The Pianist), Nicolas Cage (Adaptation), Michael Caine (The Quiet American), Bruce Campbell (Bubba Ho-Tep), Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down), Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York), Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love)


In an Oscar season loaded with surprises, none was bigger than the Best Actor win by Adrian Brody for The Pianist over heavy-hitters Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Nicholas Cage and Daniel Day-Lewis. Many considered Brody to be a dark horse and predicted that the award would go to Daniel Day-Lewis for his scenery-chewing turn as Bill the Butcher in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

Among those who held tight to that opinion was Brody himself. The five Best Actor nominees gathered at Jack Nicholson’s house to decide how they would all deal with a show that, due to September 11th and the oncoming Iraq war, was going to be deadly serious. Brody told Michael Caine that he had not thought of anything to say because he knew he wasn’t going to win. Against all odds, he won anyway, making him the youngest Best Actor winner.

In The Pianist, Brody played Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Jewish pianist who witnesses the cruel restrictions being instituted by the Nazi regime and tries to hold on to the music in his mind as he evades the Nazis by hiding the ruins of the Ghettos. With the war brewing in Iraq and citizens under Saddam Hussein being pressed under his thumb, Szpilman’s story could not have been timelier.

Brody’s was just one of many great performances in 2002, particularly in the Best Actor category. Many felt that this was the best list this category had seen in more than a decade. For me, it was loaded with good work with only Day-Lewis being the exception. His work was as the sweaty, scenery chewing villain in the so-so Gangs of New York was memorable but a little one-dimensional. For me, the category might have been made just about perfect with the inclusion of my choice for the award, Robin Williams for his chilling performance in Mark Romenek’s little-seen One Hour Photo.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, a bland, smiling salesman at a one hour photomat that occupies the corner of one of those vast Mega-marts where you can buy everything from toothpaste to radial tires. As a human being he’s pretty forgettable. He is just another face mixed into the tapestry of your busy day. You do your business and then he is gone from your mind three seconds after you stuff your receipt in your pocket. Looking at him, one would assume that he goes home to the wife and kids, but as it turns out, his only family is his beloved photomat. There isn’t anything really distinctive about Sy and as we follow his day, as he goes through the routine of routine we see that a pattern of loneliness has bred routine and resentment and obsession.

One day during the visit by Nina Yorkin (Connie Neilson), a regular customer, Sy carefully notices that there is one picture left on the roll. Holding the camera back he takes a picture of himself. This seemingly innocent gesture is, for Sy, a gesture of recognition. What Nina doesn’t know is that over the years Sy has developed a sort of obsession with the family bliss that shows through in Nina’s photographs. He wants Nina and her family to recognize him and he tries to get their approval in small gestures like giving Nina’s son a free camera and making double prints free of charge.

The Yorkins, Will, Nina and 8 year old Jake are comfort food for Sy, they contrast sharply with his den of loneliness and routine. Their photos show a pretty family which stands out among the usuals like “The Cat Lady”, a woman who obsessively empties roll after roll of her cats and “The Amatuer Porn Artist”, the shifty guy who keeps taking nude photos of his girlfriend. Sy fantasizes about being part of the Yorkin family and breaking away from his meaningless life as he wanders through their photos of birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, vacations and family bliss.

Then, something happens. A young woman drops off photos of herself being intimate with Will. It is here that Sy’s vision of the Yorkins begins to crack. Attempting to sabotage the affair, Sy “accidentally” drops the photos of Will and his lover into Nina’s photo sleeve hoping that Will will get his comeuppance. When he doesn’t get the reaction he expects, Sy comes unglued. It would be criminal of me to reveal what happens next except to say that it isn’t what we expect. What I can say is that Romanek balances the routine everyday nature of the first half of the film with an ending that is just as balanced so that everything that happens makes complete sense.

This was the second time in 2002 that Robin Williams had played a psychotic. The first was in Chris Nolan’s Insomia. There, as here, Williams shows portrait of a man whose frustration bubbles slowly under the surface as the irritations of world begin to invade his private comfort zone. Sy wants to remain in his fantasy and as the fantasy and the reality begin to cave in around him you can see him desperately trying to patch the holes and keep the illusion alive.

Williams’ performance is, at first, understated with quiet passages that allow you to watch his eyes and see that he is always thinking. Sy is the portrait of a man who remains invisible and remains very good at his job because it allows him to keep his illusion going. Routine is a manner of remaining inside his fantasy because he knows that he can never have the life that the Yorkins enjoy.

We are all use to the Robin Williams that we see on The Tonight Show, the wacky nut who is always on. Here he buries all that and Sy emerges as a man who smiles pleasantly while he manages the routines that feed his own mania. In a way he reminds us of Travis Bickle, another meaningless soul who goes unnoticed and fixates on an obsession. Bickle wanted to be the savior for Iris, the teen prostitute.  Sy wants to live the idea of an idyllic fantasy that is different from the hundreds of meaningless photos that pass through his hands day after day.  The difference is that Sy wants to remain in his fantasy. He is a damaged man who hides in his ordinariness, and is best left inside his delusion. He is the kind of man who is dangerous if the fantasy is pulled out from under him without medical help.

Best Actress

Nicole Kidman (The Hours)
The Nominees: Salma Hayek (Frida), Diane Lane (Unfaithful), Julianne Moore (Far from Heaven), Renée Zellweger (Chicago)

Julianne Moore (Far From Heaven)
My Nominees: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Secretary), Diane Lane (Unfaithful), Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), Renee Zellweger (Chicago)


Nicole Kidman’s career soared in the first two years since her marriage to Tom Cruise ended. First came Baz Lhurmann’s dizzy musical Moulin Rogue! with the plumb part of Satine, the saucy headliner of the title French nightclub which earned her her very first Oscar nomination. Then she put on a false nose to play Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s sometimes-it’s-hard-to-be-a-woman epic The Hours which was followed by her very first Oscar.

Kidman did good work in The Hours but it seemed to me that her lack of screen time (barely 20 minutes) made it seem more like a supporting performance. She is gone for long stretches of the film and when she is onscreen there isn’t anything truly dazzling about the performance. I was more impressed with her earlier works in Gus Van Zant’s To Die For, Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady and her supporting role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

The better role in The Hours went to Julianne Moore who plays the suicidal housewife (in the 1950s) with homoerotic tendencies. That role, and her work in Todd Haynes Far From Heaven (which is my choice) made her the seventh actress to be nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same year. Both performances are essencially two sides of the same character. Laura Brown is the pristine 50s housewife who sees her world crumbling under the weight of manic depression and Far From Heaven‘s Cathy Whittaker finds her world crumbling under the weight of her husband’s homosexuality and her own attraction to her African-American gardener.

Of the two, I think the latter was the better performance. Moore has harder notes to hit in Far From Heaven (and more time to explore it) because it is a role that requires her to express a great deal of emotional weight. From the first frame, we almost feel her channeling the likes of Dorothy Malone and Jane Wyman who were the stars of some of the best of Douglas Sirk’s 50s soap operas. With her bouffant hair-do, patterned dresses, her pleasent sitcom mom smile and her mannered dictation delivered through a flawless New England accent, Cathy goes through the motions of fawning over carpet samples and table flower arrangements as if she’s a graduate of high society training.

She is so perfectly mannered that, as the movie opens, we find her about to be interviewed by a woman from the society column who is going to do a profile on the perfection of the Whittaker’s life. Ironically, it is exactly this point in her social standing that it begins to crumble. Spotting a black man in her garden she walks out and asks if she can help him. His name is Raymond and he explains that he is the son of the Whittaker’s regular gardener who has just died. Cathy’s good heart allows her to feel pity for him (actually I think she is struck by the fact that he is not the stereotype that she imagined) and she touches his arm just as the columnist is looking out the window. Soon she becomes the butt of jokes as the ladies around the neighborhood begin referring to her as “A friend to the Negro”. And her problems only get worse.

Taking dinner to her husband Frank who is working late, she finds him in his office kissing another man. Feeling homosexuality to be a curable disease, Cathy takes him to a doctor to see if he can be cured. The doctor doesn’t help much but Frank assures her “I’m going to lick this thing”. Cathy seems convinced but she seeks refuge in her own painful secret and begins seeing Raymond. Their tender, sweet relationship is the kind that you feel that in a later decade would have blossomed into a loving romance. Raymond and Cathy keep their distance, knowing the danger they face being seen talking to one another. They don’t dance around eroticism but they look deeply into one another eyes and we feel their connection.

Moore is the perfect actress to play Cathy. Her face is so delicate that you can see her heart breaking in her eyes and when she is wounded she becomes one of those rare actresses that you want to embrace. There are whole scenes where another actress would be . Look for example at the scene where she meets Raymond in front of the movie theater. She can’t express very much on her face given the situation but you can see her lip trembling and her eyes convey words that Cathy herself can’t express.

Cathy, in the hands of another actresses, could have been made into a withering dimwit or a radical but Moore finds all the right notes. The character is about as knowledgeable about race and sexual orientation as any other woman of her time but Moore conveys intelligence and a willingness to pursue her friendship with Raymond even though she knows that it can ever be. She follows instinct different from those given to her by the society of her time. She breaks out of the fierce binds of her time not necessarily to walk on the hot coals of an interracial relationship but at least to approach it and feel the heat.

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