When the Oscars are handed out Sunday night in Los Angeles, no one will be surprised when Brokeback Mountain, the story of a forbidden love between two cowboys, goes home with most of the big awards. In a year heavy with political - and politically correct - films, Brokeback stands out, because it is second to none in political correctness, is the most tear-jerking and sentimental of the nominees, features gorgeous photography of Western vistas, its actors turn in stellar performances and it's actually a good movie.
But there's another reason why it will win. The irony is that while in most professions in America, being openly gay is no longer a stigma (even gay priests have come out of the closet), for Hollywood actors, it's still taboo. Although a handful of well-known actors are out (Rupert Everett and Sir Ian McKellan, for example, who both happen to be British), American A-listers apparently still fear they won't be cast in heterosexual roles if they are open about their identity, although dozens of big-name actors are dogged by gay rumors. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, the leads in Brokeback, have made it very clear in interviews that they are not gay. Actors are the largest group of professionals in the approximately 5,800-member Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that chooses the Academy Awards, so it makes sense that Brokeback, a tragedy of closeted romantic love between two men, would speak to them.
Two other gay-themed movies have earned important Oscar nominations this year: Capote, the story of flamboyantly homosexual writer Truman Capote and how he managed to charm Midwestern cops and murderers in order to research his book, and Transamerica, which won a Best Actress nomination for Felicity (Desperate Housewives) Huffman as a man about to undergo the final stages of a sex change operation when he discovers he has a son.
But gayness isn't all that's 'in' this year. Conventional liberal politics are more fashionable than ever. Munich, Steven Spielberg's dreadful mishmash of overheated political correctness, is nominated for Best Picture, not so much because anyone actually liked it, but because Spielberg is Hollywood royalty. Another Best Picture nominee, Good Night, and Good Luck, is what was once called a "prestige picture" - a tasteful, black-and-white paean to the nobility of Fifties journalist Edward R. Murrow in his fight against McCarthyism. It was written and directed by actor George Clooney, who is also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a CIA agent in Syriana, a story of corruption in the oil industry.
In any other year, Good Night would have been a shoo-in for Best Picture, but the history lesson in Good Night is no match for Brokeback's mix of political correctness, romance and tragedy.
The only real competition Brokeback has is from the low-budget Crash, a sprawling story of race relations in contemporary L.A. It was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who wrote last year's Best Picture winner, the indescribably clich d Million Dollar Baby. Crash is an engaging movie, but gets bogged down in over-the-top confrontation scenes, unbelievable coincidences and stereotyped characters. The producers have flooded Academy members with DVDs of the movie, but although it appeals to Los Angeles-based Hollywood pros, it won't win Best Picture.
Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain
Although there have been years when the director of the Best Picture did not win Best Director, this won't be one of them. Ang Lee, who has picked up nearly all the critics' awards as well as the Golden Globe, is a shoo-in for Brokeback Mountain. Lee, possibly the most versatile director in Hollywood, has made family sagas in his native Taiwan (Eat Drink Man Woman), comedies (The Wedding Banquet), Jane Austen adaptations (Sense and Sensibility), martial-arts epics (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), dramas of American alienation (The Ice Storm) and big-budget action-hero films (The Hulk).
Best Director: Ang Lee
Best Actor is considered a strong category this year. Joaquin Phoenix won raves for his work as country-music legend Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. David Strathairn, an actor's actor who has been around for years, was also a critical success playing Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck. Terence Howard manages to make a pimp sympathetic in Hustle & Flow, and was also one of the stars of Crash, although he did not get a nomination for that film and is the lone African-American acting nominee.
But the two front-runners are Heath Ledger, for his portrayal of the laconic cowboy in Brokeback, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, considered by many to be the greatest character actor of his generation, in Capote. Ledger is a wonderful actor and quite the heartthrob. His performance is the heart and soul of Brokeback. But Hoffman is Capote. It's just about impossible to imagine another actor in the role. Actors playing real people usually have the edge, and he adopted a Southern accent for the role as well. He's also won just about every award.
Best Actor: Philip Seymour Hoffman
No actress over 40 has won Best Actress since Susan Sarandon in 1995 for Dead Man Walking, and this will not be the year a more mature actress breaks through. The producers of Mrs. Henderson Presents, which stars Best Actress nominee Judi Dench, 71, complained that they had trouble booking the acclaimed actress on US talk shows. Felicity Huffman, 43, got good reviews for her performance as the pre-op transsexual in Transamerica, but the movie hasn't found much of an audience. That leaves three under-40 contenders. Keira Knightley, 20, gives an engaging performance in Pride and Prejudice, but she's in the lucky-just-to-be-nominated category. Charlize Theron, who won Best Actress two years ago for her transformation from supermodel lookalike into an overweight, drug-addicted, lesbian, homeless serial killer in Monster, won't win for her earnest portrayal of a sexually harassed coal miner in North Country. That leaves Reese Witherspoon (the well-liked actress known for her comic performances in movies like Legally Blonde) for her role as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. She's spoken often about what a challenge it was to do her own singing, she plays a real person and she won a Golden Globe - she'll win again here.
Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon
The supporting actor categories are the toughest to call, as usual. William Hurt was only on-screen for 10 minutes in A History of Violence, and the rest of the cast in that movie, who were at least as good, were not nominated. Strangely, Jake Gyllenhaal, one of the two leads in Brokeback, is nominated for Supporting Actor, which leads to the conclusion the Academy is not crazy either about his performance or about him. Everyone agrees Paul Giamatti should have been nominated for Best Actor last year in Sideways, and his nod for the little-seen Cinderella Man is considered a consolation prize. Matt Dillon started out as a teen star and then his career fizzled. Hollywood loves a comeback, and his strong performance as the racist cop in Crash won him a nomination. But Dillon's comeback can't match George Clooney's Cinderella story. Clooney worked on lousy TV shows throughout the Eighties, finally hit it big on ER, and then made the difficult transition, not only to serious film actor, but also acclaimed screenwriter and director. In addition to everything else, he gained weight to play the disillusioned CIA agent - a trick Oscar often applauds.
Best Supporting Actor: George Clooney
Another competitive category, Best Supporting Actress, includes former Best Actress Frances McDormand for her performance as an ailing coal miner in North Country and Catherine Keener (who's been nominated in the past), who played Harper Lee in Capote. But the three frontrunners in this category are considered to be Michelle Williams, whose portrayal of the bewildered, neglected wife in Brokeback added to the movie's richness, Amy Adams as a discontented, pregnant woman in the indie favorite Junebug, and Rachel Weisz as the headstrong activist in The Constant Gardener. Weisz was basically the lead, and her performance was the most appealing element in the entire film - an expose of abuses by big pharmaceutical companies in Africa. Also, Weisz, who paid her dues in films like The Mummy, is pregnant, and pregnant winners are so cute.
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz
The Adapted Screenplay is another one in which Brokeback has it sewn up. The script was based on an 11-page short story by E. Annie Proulx that was fleshed out by the screenwriting duo of Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (the novelist who wrote The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment, as well as many screenplays).
Best Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain
Best Original Screenplay is a more even race. Syriana, the expose of the evils of Big Oil, was not a hit and many found it confusing. Good Night, and Good Luck, co-written by George Clooney, could have won in a less competitive year. The Squid and the Whale was a well-liked indie about a divorce, but can't compete with the pretentiousness of the other nominees. Match Point has been hailed as Woody Allen's best film in years, but he'll have to be content with his Annie Hall Oscars. Crash should have the edge here. It's one of the Best Picture nominees and it's written by Paul Haggis, who wrote the much-loved Million Dollar Baby last year.
Best Original Screenplay: Crash
The category that will generate the most interest in Israel is Best Foreign Language Film, since one of the nominees is Paradise Now, the story of two Palestinian suicide bombers, and the first film from the Palestinian Authority to win a nomination. However, this category is one of the toughest to call, since only Academy members who have attended screenings of all the nominated films are allowed to vote for it (this is also true in the Best Documentary category). Paradise Now was the surprise winner of the Golden Globe, and it could win the Oscar, but forecasters who've seen all the nominated films are giving the edge to Tsotsi, the story of a South African gangster who finds redemption after he steals a car with a baby inside. The tagline is, "Hope set him free." Cute babies and redemption usually trump the controversial and morally ambiguous with the Academy, so I'd say Tsotsi is the most likely winner here.