This year, small is big

This year, the Oscar race is filled with independent films, overseas offerings, and, oh yes, hobbits.

Move over, gigantic studios and glamour-filled acting. This year's Academy Award nominations suggest that smaller, more human-scaled movies are on the upswing - at the expense of Hollywood's traditional stress on the big, splashy, and spectacular.

True, the old ways still reign in the Best Picture category, where the epics "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" loom large.

Many pundits predict a win for "Return of the King," which has 11 nominations, more than any other film (with "Master and Commander right behind with 10). That would be a first time a fantasy was honored with Hollywood's biggest prize. "Mystic River" and "Seabiscuit" are smaller in sweep but feature big stars. Only the modestly budgeted "Lost in Translation" has the feel of a movie conceived outside the major studios.

Look beyond the Best Picture race, though, and things are different. "Aside from Best Picture, about 70 percent of the nominations are for independent films," says Harlan Jacobson, who runs Talk Cinema, a national network of movie clubs.

The reason? It could be the effort made by major studios in 2003 to block preview videos, called "screeners," from being sent to critics and Oscar voters. Although the ban was eventually overturned in court, it inadvertently helped the little guys - since independent and overseas studios didn't have to honor the ban - and made it harder for Academy members to see the major studio films they've often viewed on DVDs in recent years.

"There's only one studio film in the Best Actress race," notes Kevin Lally, editor of Film Journal International, referring to Diane Keaton's nomination for "Something's Gotta Give." "The screener ban interfered with studio campaigns to push their movies for awards, getting them off to a late start. And some voters may have overcompensated by making a bigger effort to see other movies - small ones, international ones."

David 1; Goliath 0

Oscar voters clearly liked those indies and overseas productions. This could give Hollywood's poor relations a boost for years to come, despite the larger resources commanded by the larger companies. A prime example of big-studio slippage is "Cold Mountain," released by Miramax, a formerly independent firm now owned by Disney. It was shut out of the Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay races. Nor did star Nicole Kidman receive a nod, although supporting actress Renée Zellweger did.

"Years ago, studios liked to produce a certain number of 'A' pictures," says Mr. Jacobson, "made more for prestige than big money. Today they make almost everything on a gargantuan scale, which usually means 'not for adults.' So nearly all the 'A' pictures, which adults can actually respect, are coming from the indies."

Mr. Lally agrees. "The number of nominees from specialty films is really surprising," he says. "One of the biggest losers is ABC, because they'll have a show with no Nicole Kidman, no Tom Cruise, no Jack Nicholson."

Also noteworthy is the number of women nominated for starkly unglamorous roles. Charlize Theron leads the group with "Monster," which she prepared for by adding 30 pounds, mottled skin, and snaggly false teeth. Naomi Watts and Samantha Morton make less exaggerated transformations in "21 Grams" and "In America," respectively. The nominations also show a fondness for scruffy men. Best Actor nominees include the bedraggled Jude Law of "Cold Mountain," the working-guy Sean Penn of "Mystic River," and the unkempt Johnny Depp of "Pirates of the Caribbean."

This could signal a renewed Hollywood appreciation for seriously creative acting. The homeliness of Zellweger in "Cold Mountain" and Holly Hunter in "Thirteen" shows a willingness to tackle relatively risky roles. So does the authenticity projected by 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes of "Whale Rider," the youngest nominee ever for Best Actress.

Some observers see Theron's harsh portrayal of a serial killer in "Monster" as a turning point in current movies.

"Theron has thrived on the standard beauty myth for years," says Pamela Grace, a film professor at the City University of New York. "Here she casts it all aside, and that's truly courageous for a gorgeous young woman to do. Maybe it's not just prettiness that people want to think about these days, and maybe that's connected with the somber moment of history we're living through."

Dr. Grace feels the international flavor of the nominations may also be linked to global instability. "Americans are realizing they can't just look inward all the time," she says. They're fascinated by grim movies like 'Monster,' about people who live in poverty and danger, and 'Dirty Pretty Things,' about the terrifying life of London immigrants. People are becoming less insular, at least for now."

The art of looking dowdy

If gritty acting in gritty films does become a lasting trend, it will mean the revival of old moviemaking habits. Robert De Niro won an Oscar for "Raging Bull" in 1980 by outdoing Theron, gaining a full 40 pounds for some parts of the story. Just last year, Kidman won by playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours" with a prosthetic nose. Other examples range from Jessica Lange in "Frances" to Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot."

"Stars like roles that challenge them and provide a real showcase," says Lally. "Today it's more about strutting your acting skills than looking great under all circumstances - as long as you look great on the red carpet!"

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