Armchair Oscars – 2001

Best Picture

A Beautiful Mind (Directed by Ron Howard)

The Nominees: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rogue!

The Center of the World (Directed by Wayne Wang)
My Nominees: Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott), Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff), Godford Park (Robert Altman), Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster), Mulholland Falls (David Lynch), Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicki Jensen), Waking Life (Richard Linklater)


The big news at the end of two thousand-one (at the movies anyway) was the enormous success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,  the first leg of his trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels. After  shopping his idea to every studio in Hollywood, he finally got a deal  from New Line Cinema (yes … the house that Freddy built) who  gave Jackson $300 million to make the trilogy (Fellowship alone cost $93 million) and it paid off to the tune of a domestic gross $314 million for this film alone.

When  it became a box office sensation, it surprised no one when it earned  thirteen nominations (winning four), yet the possibility of a win for  Best Picture was another matter.  No fantasy film had ever won the top  award and, in fact, no fantasy film had even been nominated since Babe back in 1996. Also, this being the first chapter of a trilogy there was  an air of “the best is yet to come” hanging over it.  It did lose the  Best Picture race because, as many suspected, the academy voters where  holding out for the final leg of the trilogy so they could reward the  series as a whole.

Fellowship wasn’t the frontrunner and it was no surprise when the favorite, Ron Howard’s mystifying, multi-tiered biopic A Beautiful Mind, was declared the winner.  I would agree.  This is a truly original piece of work telling the story of John Forbes Nash  Jr., a schizophrenic who uses his unusual intelligence to work out his  own mental disorder. A Beautiful Mind is a great film  and it features the best performances by Russell Crowe (who should have  won an Oscar) and Jennifer Connelly (who did).  I have added it to my  list of nominees but for my pick for Best Picture I am moving outside  the mainstream to  a film that, while critically acclaimed, was woefully misunderstood, Wayne Wang’s little-seen The Center of the World.

The Center of the World is a cinematic time-stamp, a film that presents the attitudes and  the environment of the people of a particular time in history.  Years  from now it may stand as a perfect example of early 21st century  American ideals and attitudes particularly in regards to sex and  money.  See if you agree.

Directed by Wayne Wang and shot on digital video, The Center of the World is  about a man and a woman who make a lot of money in their  individual professions but stand just outside of selling themselves.   The man is Richard (Peter Saarsgard) who owns a computer company that  is about to go public in a deal that will make him millions.  He goes  to Las Vegas to skip a meeting with investors that will seal the deal. To him, the investors can have his skills but they can’t have him. The woman  in Florence (Molly Parker) a lap dancer who arouses men and offers the  illusions of sex. She will work you into a sexual frenzy but there is no actual sex or mutual contact. For her, the client can have the illusion of sex but they can’t have her – this is of course just a sideline, she’s really a drummer in a band.

These  two people are skilled at what they do but they both dance around a  flame without fully giving themselves.  They meet one day while having  coffee and strike up a conversation.  They like each other and when he  finds out where she works, he turns up and buys a private dance.  Then  he invites her to go to Las Vegas, which she initially refuses.  He  offers her a “compensation” of $10,000 which she accepts, but only under the  condition that he follow the same guidelines as her customers in the  club: no touching, no kissing, no penetration.  Plus, they will have  adjoining rooms and she will only perform for him between the hours of  10pm and 2am.

The deal sounds like a good arrangement for both  parties; he gets a private show and she gets the money without  prostituting herself, money will be exchanged and no emotional  contact is made – at least, in theory. The deal sounds irresistible  (she actually gets the better end of the deal because she gets to keep the  assets). What they establish is the private deal in which simulated sex  and real money change hands but there is no commitment. The problem is  that Richard and Flo are both driven but neither is cold-blooded, and perhaps  both know that such a deal isn’t very realistic. For an arrangement like this  to work, anonymity would have to have been observed but since they’ve gotten to  know each other they are treading on dangerous emotional ground.

We know that, as human beings, the lines that are drawn in their  partnership will begin to dim. The question is what will happen to them when  that line breaks. The deal becomes a game as Richard begins  to cross over the boundaries of the agreement because we know that  the human heart is stronger than their arrangement. I think the prime  mistake between Richard and Flo is that they got to know one another  before making their deal. The boundary of anonymity is gone, he knows her and  she knows him and when things get messy, real emotions start to hinder the  plan. There is a moment of spontaneity deep into the film when the two  meet in the hotel in the middle of the day and the heat catches them.  They being the erotic fumbling that usually  leads to sex but she stops just short of disrobing and reminds him that they  have to stick to the agreement.  It is  she who has the stronger resilience and ultimately when he falls in love with  her, it is she who reminds him that this isn’t a real relationship.

What is interesting is that while Richard is the more legitimate  businessman, it is Florence who is a better  negotiator. She is better at keeping her end of  the bargain especially when Richard clearly falls in love with  her. Florence is better suited for this arrangement by the very nature of  what she does for a living. She knows how to entice men with illusions of  sex while keeping an emotional distance. She is, by profession, an actor  who is suited to play a role for an eager customer and as the film progresses  we begin to wonder if it is all an act she’s performing for Richard to scam him  for more money (she knows about the company). Can he really trust her? Is  she really after more money? That question comes to our minds  when Jerri, Florence’s friend, enters the picture crying and claiming that her  boyfriend beat her up and took her money. Richard eagerly offers  to help. Is he being scammed? What the film comes down to is both  devastating and inevitable.

I guess what I expected from The Center of the World was a film along the lines  of The Last Tango in Paris, a film about a passionate love affair. Here  sex is a playing field that neither player steps onto, they walk up to the line  and eventually step over it but one isn’t ready for what happens when he gets  there.

What is so interesting to me about this film is the attitude toward sex.  Most American movies shy away from sex or use  it as a punchline.  Very few films deal  with the subject in a real way.  Sex is,  for most American audiences, uncomfortable when it presented as real.  That’s why pornography is popular, it elicits the illusion of carnal sex without dealing with the people involved.  If the participants in any of those films  stopped between the sex scenes to really discuss the emotional impact of what  they were doing and how they felt about it, you would have a film that was disturbing uncomfortable and real, just like The  Center of the World.

Best Actor

Denzel Washington (Training Day)
The Nominees: Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind), Sean Penn (I Am Sam), Will Smith (Ali), Tom Wilkenson (In the Bedroom)

Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind)
Jack Black (Shallow Hal), Gene Hackman (The Royal Tennanbaums), William H. Macy (Panic), John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Billy Bob Thornton (The Man Who Wasn’t There), Billy Bob Thornton (Monster’s Ball), Denzel Washington (Training Day)


Even before the 2001 fall movie season began, a buzz swirled around A Beautiful Mind that it’s chances to be a heavy Oscar contender were in the bag, even though the movie didn’t open until Christmas. So naturally there was talk of a third consecutive Oscar nomination for Russell Crowe. Even to the end of the year, his chances weren’t just as a nominee but that he was the favorite to win. Slowly however, the buzz began for Denzel Washington.

Washington had spent his career playing heroes, good hearted souls battling the odds. He had won for his supporting work in Glory and had been robbed of the Oscar for his brilliant performance in Malcolm X, because of Al Pacino’s apology Oscar for Scent of a Woman. But his work as Alonzo Harris, (his first villain) was a performance that the Academy couldn’t ignore. Plus, it couldn’t have been more timely, with the award going to Halle Berry, it was a great year to make up for past wrongs. No African-American actor had won the Oscar as Best Actor in 38 years, though the Academy had more than enough chances.

Not that Washington didn’t deserve the award, in fact I thought he did good work as Alonzo Harris, a bad cop gone worse who drags his reluctant partner (supporting nominee Ethan Hawke) down with him. My problem is with the movie. It begins as a fascinating police procedural then falls apart in the third act. I almost chose both Washington and Russell Crowe but revisiting both films, I find that I give the edge to Crowe because I feel that he faces a bigger challenge, taking a character from his twenties to this seventies and convincing us that is not only a mathematical genius but that he is a victim of mental illness.

Crowe plays John Forbes Nash Jr., a mathmatics genius who won the Nobel Prize and is now in his 70s, and is a real-life schizophrenic. When we first meet him at Princeton in 1948, he’s an odd loner, an eccentric obsessed with finding an original idea (it would eventually become a revolution in the field of game theory for which he won the Nobel Prize). Nash is a legend in the world of game theory but he also suffered under the delusion that the Soviets were sending him messages encoded on the front page of The New York Times.

As we meet him, we see that he is a man who uses mathematical equations in ways that will become a benefit to mankind but also uses his skill to solve the most mundane activities like playing a game of Go and the odds of success of picking up a woman in a bar. He isn’t much for socialization, probably because he can’t find a mathematical equation that helps him connect with his fellow man. He’s cocky, cold and is usually seen muttering to himself. He realizes his cold demeanor and casually concludes, “People don’t much like me and I don’t much like them”. What is interesting about Crowe’s performance is that he doesn’t reach out for our sympathies. This is not one of those pious stories about a conflicted genius brought out of his illness by the love of a good woman. Instead, it is the story of a man with a natural gift for solving complex problems who tries to work out the illness himself.

He isn’t exactly lovable, when we first meet him he is cocky and offish, a man for whom human contact is a foreign concept. Picking up a woman in a bar, this genius, who is use to cutting away all refuse and getting right to the heart of the problem and simply tell her “I find you very attractive. Your assertiveness tells me that you feel the same way about me. But ritual remains that we must do a series of platonic actions before we can have intercourse. But all I really want to do is have sex with you as soon as possible.” She isn’t impressed.

It is only after he meets Alicia that he begins to realize that he has a problem. She is attracted to his mind and feels for him in his solitude. The movie allows them to have a romance but within the limits of Nash’s ability to get close to her. She realizes that she loves a man who is trapped inside the convolutions of his own mind and helps him find his way out.

The two of them grow over the course of the film, some 50 years and we see them change. Nash, at the end of the film, isn’t just the same man with saw at the beginning in heavy make-up, he hasn’t completely worked the illness out but the movie shows him trying to take control of it. He is helped along by a doctor whose treatment is shock therapy and drugs but Nash believes that there is a more logical way to treat it. He is visited frequently by a trio of people whose connection with his illness is fascinating. I liked the way that the movie doesn’t force Nash into a phony “cure” or some kind of revelation,. Movies seem to have a way of pushing mentally ill characters into a cute mold, so it’s a little ironic that Crowe’s competition included Sean Penn for I Am Sam, also about mentally challenged man. That performance ran by the numbers but Crowe allows us to see different sides of Nash while staying true to the character.

Best Actress

Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball)
The Nominees: Judi Dench (Iris), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’ Diary)

Emma Thompson (Wit)
y Nominees: Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Thora Birch (Ghost World), Sissy Spacek (In the Bedroom), Renee Zellweger (Bridget Jones’ Diary)


It was a very moving moment the night that Halle Berry won the Oscar for Monster’s Ball.  Berry is, of course, the first (and only) African-American woman to  receive the Best Actress award but if you really study her performance  you realize that it transcends colour. The role of Leticia Musgrove a  woman who views herself as a perpetual loser, who sees her husband  executed by the state then suffers the loss of her son, didn’t require  an actress of color. It only required an actress willing to put herself  on screen with the heart and the honesty and the bravery to put her  entire soul on display. Not many actors, male or female, are willing to  do that.

When she won the award, her speech came through  hysterical tears for the great actresses of color who had come before  and those who would follow. It was proof that it wasn’t impossible for  a black woman to be recognized and honored in a Hollywood that had so  often been accused of shoehorning them into supporting roles.

Yet, something troubles me about Halle Berry. While I think she did brilliant work in Monster’s Ball,  I am concerned that she hasn’t seemed willing to follow it up. The  decade that would follow would see her falling into a series of commercial  hits and misses while she seems unwilling or unable to take chances  again.  At present she seems on her way back with a good performance in  Suzanne Bier’s Things We Lost in the Fire, but she hasn’t yet reached  her full potential again.

My choice for Best Actress has always  been willing to take chances. Emma Thompson’s body of work contains a  list of credits that would make any actor proud. She won the Oscar  twice, one for Best Actress for Howard’s End and the other for adapting the screenplay of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. Unfortunately, her best performance in Mike Nichols’ Wit was disqualified because the movie had been made for HBO. I know that  it goes against the academy rules but since I also have  previously chosen Linda Fiorentino for The Last Seduction, who was also disqualified for being in a movie that had been shown on cable, I feel it more than justified.

Thompson plays  Vivian Bearing, a respected professor of 17th Century English  literature who, as the film opens, is informed that she has Metastatic  Ovarian Cancer that has advanced to stage four – there is no stage  five.  The first shot is a close-up of the face Dr. Kelekian  (Christopher Lloyd) as he informs her “You have cancer”.  The second  shot is of Vivian, her mouth agape and with a mixture of fear and  disbelief present in her eyes.  He goes on, positively, to explain the  aggressive treatments she will endure and the medical knowledge that  can be culled from her case.  He barrels quickly through her treatment  options and the effects of those treatments while Vivian sits stunned,  trying to grasp this.  “Better not teach next semester” he tells her  directly, perhaps knowing that this cancer will very shortly kill her.

She  enters the hospital and undergoes a battery of tests, aggressive  treatments, hospital routine, humiliation, uncaring staff, repetitive  questionnaires and worst of all, having her pelvic exam performed by a  former student.  These treatments seem determined to rob her of her  dignity but she is a fierce, independent woman who tries to retain some  somnolence of her humanity even as her life slips away.

The  contrast of her treatment in the hospital come in glimpses of her past  when she worked at the university. She was respected but stood away from  her students and colleagues.  We understand a little of her background. She was an only child, both parents are dead, she has few personal  connections and therefore goes through her process alone.  We see no close  friends or family members and the only person who visits is a college  mentor who comes to see her near the very end.  She spends a great deal  of time going through hospital routine and when she’s alone  she speaks directly to the camera, working out her dilemma through us  the viewer, rationalizing the approach of death in her own mind.

She  gets no comfort from her doctors who are bound to see her as a test  case no matter her education or intelligence.  At one point she is  taken to an exam room and left to wait while the doctor coldly tells  her that he is leaving to take his break.  Worse is a clumsy former  student who is young, smart, impetuous and freely admits that he took  Dr. Bearing’s class but not by choice.   Her sole comfort comes from a caring nurse named Susie (beautifully  played by Audra McDonald) who’s face wears a great deal of caring and  comfort.  She talks to Vivian not at her.  There is a wonderful moment late in the film when Susie and  Vivian share a popsicle (Vivian needs them because the chemo makes her  dehydrated) and discuss her options and the possibility of being a  DNR.  The conversation happens in a tender but very matter-of-fact way  with Susie offering the option as a friend, not as a nurse.

What  Emma Thompson does with this performance is give Vivian a sense of  dignity even as it is slowly being chipped away.  She never falters  into the standard cliches of the disease-of-the-week melodramas but  plays Vivian as a woman who tries to understand her   Once, Vivian stood apart from her students as she imparted her wisdom  about John Donne to a class loaded with kids who just needed the  credit.  Now she is the test subject, under the care of physicians who  are only interested in her condition but couldn’t care less about her.   Most pass through her room with a standard “How are you feeling today?”  but never wait for an answer.  The message comes clear but doesn’t  hammer us over the head.  She has fallen under the same treatment she  was guilty of parlaying on her students.  Now she is near death  and alone.  She deals with that, understands her predicament and the  movie skips over the oh-pitiful-me melodrama and shoots straight for a  different approach.  As Vivian moves through her treatments on her way  to the inevitable, she uses her beloved poetry as comfort.  Her  favorite is “Death Be Not Proud”, the singular work that she recites at  the very end.

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