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Oscars ?06: First-timers have a field day

Blockbusters were absent this year, observes Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Mar 07, 2006 18:06 IST

This was an Oscar night with a difference. The razzle-dazzle, the red-carpet parade of stars in their designer outfits and the swarming television crews were all there. Missing were the blockbusters. King Kong was overshadowed by two gay cowboys and a bunch of penguins.

But who’s complaining? For a welcome change, debutant directors, breakthrough cinematic ventures and first-time Oscar nominees overwhelmingly dominated the 78th annual Academy Awards show in Los Angeles’ Kodak Theatre on Sunday night.

For Asia, in particular, it was a night of a major breakthrough. Taiwan-born Ang Lee became the first Asian ever to bag a Best Director Oscar, His path-breaking cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain also turned out to be the first gay-themed Hollywood film to get so close to the top prize – best motion picture of the year.

It was the culmination of a journey that had begun in 2000, when the Chinese martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, won the Oscar for best foreign language film.

In the all-important best motion picture race, however, Brokeback Mountain lost out to an equally unique film, Paul Haggis’ Crash, a study of racial tensions in Los Angeles. The film marked the directorial debut for screenwriter Haggis. Significantly, Crash also won the Oscar for best original screenplay, while Ang Lee’s film took the honour in the adapted screenplay category.

Hollywood’s biggest night celebrated the spirit of American independent cinema, cinema that, in actor Samuel L Jackson’s words, “was confrontational, passionate and more than entertainment”. No matter who won or lost at the Oscar hustings this year, it was clear that it was cinema that emerged victorious.

For a welcome change, debutant directors, breakthrough cinematic ventures and first-time Oscar nominees overwhelmingly dominated the 78th annual Academy Awards show.

In his acceptance speech, Haggis alluded to the need to craft “cinema as a hammer, not to beat society with, but to reshape it”. Quizzed on the red carpet in the run-up to the awards ceremony, actor Matt Damon explained why small films were all the rage: “They are about the truth though they are fictional.”

Sid Ganis, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences put it the best: “State-of-the-art technology will change. State-of-the-heart storytelling will always remain the same.”

No wonder big names and box office monsters took a backseat for once, allowing small, heartfelt films that probed the human condition to hog the Academy Awards limelight.

It was no coincidence that even the Honorary Oscar went to octogenarian filmmaker Robert Altman, as independent-spirited a soul as any. Accepting the golden statuette from veteran actresses Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, the maker of such classics as M.A.S.H. and Nashville said: “I am not interested in telling stories. I am interested in turning the spotlight on human behaviour.”

And that is perhaps no different from how Ang Lee and Paul Haggis feel, going by their approach in Brokeback Mountain and Crash respectively. Gavin Hood, winner of the best foreign language film award for the South African entry Tsotsi, did, however, speak of the universal appeal of good old storytelling.

Hood said: “These are foreign language films all right, but they tell the same stories as your films, about the human heart.” Clearly, the world of good, meaningful cinema is one seamless entity. Tsotsi is the first South African film to win the best foreign-language Oscar.

The only foreign entry that might have pushed Tsotsi was the Palestinian film about suicide bombers, Paradise Now. Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, Tsotsi follows the spiritual journey of a violent boy from the mean streets of Johannesburg. He undergoes a transformation when he is inadvertently saddled with a baby following a botched car theft.

Interestingly, all the winners in the acting categories this year were first-time Oscar nominees. Never before in the history of the Oscars has this happened.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, 37, got the nod for his wonderfully nuanced interpretation of the controversial American journalist and author in Bennett Miller’s Capote. This was gifted character actor Hoffman’s first starring role in a Hollywood film.

Reese Witherspoon, the 29-year-old actress who recently outstripped Julia Roberts to become the highest paid Hollywood actress ever, bagged the statuette for the musical biopic, Walk the Line, in which she plays famed country singer June Carter. It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk. She beat performers of the calibre of Felicity Huffman (Transamerica), Keira Knightley (Pride & Prejudice), Charlize Theron (North Country) and Dame Judi Dench (Mrs Henderson Presents).

First-time nominee George Clooney shook off competition from two others of his ilk, Matt Dillon and Jake Gyllenhaal, to win the Oscar for best supporting actor for playing a washed-out CIA agent in Syriana. Clooney, once voted “the sexiest man alive”, was nominated for writing and directing as well. The fact that he did not win certainly isn’t the end of the road for him. It is, instead, the start of a filmmaking voyage that promises much.

The seven-month pregnant Rachel Weisz won the best supporting actress award for her layered performance in The Constant Gardener.

The penguins, too, marched to Oscar glory with effortless ease. Luc Jacquet’s visually stunning, emotionally stirring, French documentary, March of the Penguins, faced no competition in the documentary feature category. It is a documentary that tells a fascinating story scripted by nature.

With low-budget experimental films like Brokeback Mountain and Crash dominating the awards, the likes of Steven Spielberg (who had Munich in the Best Motion Picture and Best Direction fray), Peter Jackson (whose King Kong picked up few technical awards) and Rob Marshall (whose Memoirs of a Geisha won the best costume and art direction awards) had to play second fiddle. Is this, then, a new Hollywood that is in the making, where real cinema is poised to put special effects extravaganzas out of business?

Well, that might not happen overnight, but thanks to Oscars 2006 the dreams of a better cinema have received a big boost from a slew of small, defiantly independent films.