Oscar war: kung fu vs. the Colosseum

It's a motley bunch that will be flashing smiles on the red carpet come the 73rd Academy Awards ceremony on March 25.

Among them: a drug trafficker, a Roman gladiator, a French chocolate maker, a working-class crusader in stiletto heels, and demure Chinese women who double as kung fu warriors by night.

But colorful characters aside, this year's Oscar nominees haven't bucked the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' penchant for placing more importance on the commercial success of a picture than whether it made a critic's top 10 list. This is exemplified by the 12 nominations for box-office bonanza "Gladiator," which leads the pack with 12 nominations, including Best Picture. The Hong Kong adventure "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" follows close behind with an unexpected 10 nods. "Chocolat," "Erin Brockovich," and "Traffic," round out the Best Picture list, with five nominations apiece.

It's the surprise nomination for "Chocolat" that will likely have all of Hollywood talking. Or seething. "It's a Hershey masquerading as a Godiva," carped one critic.

With the pressure on to come up with a ninth consecutive Best Picture nom, Miramax ordered a marketing blitz in national newspapers and industry trade papers like "Variety," touting the film's worthiness for a golden statuette in the hopes that it would influence the Academy. It's a tactic that worked before, most notably last year with "The Cider House Rules," another film that had failed to warm movie house seats or critics' hearts.

But Miramax's marketing blitzes of recent years may have helped "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." It was Miramax that successfully lobbied for the inclusion of Italy's "Life is Beautiful" in the Best Picture list in 1998, breaking the traditional divide between Best Foreign Picture and Best Picture. Of course, it helps that "Crouching Tiger" is also a commercial success - with $60.3 million and counting, the most ever for a foreign film.

Julia Roberts will likely be composing her 'Thank you' speech - her portrayal of "Erin Brockovich" has already won her a Golden Globe, and she's considered certain to be carrying home a new fixture for the mantelpiece.

For Best Actor, the field is wide open, with Tom Hanks gunning for a third win, while the Academy may also reward "Gladiator's" Russell Crowe, who was passed over last year for "The Insider."

Among the actors likely to be on the phone with friends, family, and press all day is Spain's Javier Bardem, nominated for his role in "Before Night Falls." Veteran Ellen Burstyn is up for Best Actress in the edgy "Requiem for a Dream." And both Kate Hudson and Laura Linney will be shopping for their first Oscar gowns, the former for the rock tale "Almost Famous" and Linney for her role as a single mom in "You Count on Me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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