Oscar Nominees Get Medieval | Wit Is a Hit: Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson Strike Gold | Emma Thompson Chooses Motherhood Over Acting | Arista Boots Santana's Hit Maker

Oscar Nominees Get Medieval

The 73rd annual Academy Award nominees have been announced, and they're controversial, to say the least. Chocolat, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were the choices of the Academy.

No one should be surprised. The Screen Actors Guild nominations were a pretty good indicator, after all. They picked three of those five for their best ensemble award — Chocolat, Gladiator and Traffic

The big disappointments? Michael Douglas, who is largely taken for granted in Hollywood, lost his spot to the very good Ed Harris, from Pollock. And Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's wonderful and deserving rock-and-roll memoir, got shut out of Best Picture but still got nods for two Best Supporting Actresses and for its screenplay. 

Academy voters simply did not understand the appeal of the rock-and-roll lifestyle. I predict, however, that Almost Famous will have an important afterlife anyway. 

No real other surprises among actors and actresses, although it's nice to see Jeff Bridges (The Contender) get some acknowledgment for his consistent fine work. And Marcia Gay Harden, whose portrayal of Lee Krasner is so riveting, may be the surprise winner from Pollock. Good for her. I always liked her as Ava Gardner in the Sinatra TV movie. 

Here's my own admonishment to the studios, though: the viewing public doesn't want to see a public bloodbath of an advertising campaign. It's a turn-off, and may be the reason Oscar night viewership is down. Please make the next six weeks a celebration of movies, not a discussion of who's spending what to get the award. 

Wit Is a Hit: Mike Nichols and Emma Thompson Strike Gold 

HBO premiered Mike Nichols' film version of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Wit last night. It's every bit as good as the off-Broadway production was, if not better. And Emma Thompson gives a tour de force performance. 

Thompson, who won an Oscar for her screenplay of Sense and Sensibility, co-wrote this script with Nichols based on Margaret Edson's much-admired play. The pair have "opened up," as they say, Edson's story about Professor Vivian Bearing, who has a Ph.D. in poetry and is considered a formidable and highly respected instructor at her nameless school. She is, as she says, a "scholar." 

But then ovarian cancer strikes. Nichols plows into this fact in the first breath of Wit, with Christopher Lloyd (of loutish fame in Back to the Future and TV's Taxi) as her renowned oncologist and the brilliant singer/actress Audra McDonald as Professor Bearing's nurse — in a non-musical capacity. 

Much of Wit is necessarily depressing, as Vivian repeats the poem "Death Be Not Proud" quite a lot and mainly addresses death as her opponent. It is certain from the beginning that she cannot beat the cancer, so I'm giving nothing away. But the process of Vivian's debate, which is infused with enough humor to keep the viewer from suicide, is what makes Wit tick. 

The performances are all exceptional, and Thompson — with a bald head, no less — guarantees herself all of next winter's awards. But it's what Nichols does with the camera that really sets Wit apart from the average Lifetime disease-of-the-month film. 

Since Thompson is confined to a bed for a good deal of the action, Nichols had to find a way to shoot new angles of old perspectives. He turns common shots — we've all seen them in soap operas and the like — into a remarkable series of positions, framing Thompson's decline as she seems to shrink in the hospital bed. It's remarkable. 

Stage actress and living legend Eileen Atkins makes a couple of startling appearances as Vivian's mentor, a much older professor who taught her in college and is her only visitor in the hospital. Much like Vanessa Redgrave in If These Walls Could Talk 2, Atkins is allowed to come in, do her work like a professional and leave a devastating impression. Suffice to say that once you've heard her read aloud the children's book Runaway Bunny, there will be no going back. 

How much better is Wit than most theatrically released movies? At the dinner that followed, Joy Philbin said to me: "I didn't realize it was an HBO movie until someone told me. I thought it was a regular film it was so good." 

Indeed, the HBO lineup often appears daunting. If you add their award-winning movies to their TV lineup (Sopranos, Oz, Sex and the City), it makes you wonder why they just don't release all this stuff to the theaters in the first place. Indeed, Wit played at the recent Berlin Film Festival. 

Emma Thompson Chooses Motherhood Over Acting 

The after-screening dinner for Wit was pretty swell, although many of the guests were still recovering from the movie. 

Guests included a stunningly youthful Candice Bergen, who most resembled the Candy of Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge some thirty years ago. Bergen came with new husband Marshall Rose and the pair enjoyed the company of Nichols' wife Diane Sawyer, as well as Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City — the latter brought her mom); Chris Meloni and Harold Perrineau from Oz; Aida Turturro and Dominic Chianese from The Sopranos; 60 Minutes man Mike Wallace; my own personal gossip guru Liz Smith; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon writer James Schamus; actor Liev Schreiber and Tony Award-winning director George C. Wolfe; Regis and the aforementioned Joy Philbin; writer/director Nora Ephron; the newly betrothed USA Studios chief Barry Diller; and star Emma Thompson with husband British actor Greg Wise, whom she met working on Sense and Sensibility

Audra McDonald, who will give birth to a baby girl on Wednesday, came with her husband and looked ready to pop. Children were certainly the theme of the evening. Thompson — who was previously married to Kenneth Branagh — and Wise have a 14-month-old daughter named Gaia, which is why the Oscar-winning actress (Howard's End, Remains of the Day, Sense and Sensibility and so many others) has not been seen in films lately. 

"I'm writing a lot," she told me as various onlookers scrutinized her buzz-cut hairdo that she's kept since filming Wit. "I'm rewriting a biography and a children's film. I know I should get back to acting, but I have a baby and I'm in love with her." 

Arista Boots Santana's Hit Maker 

Too many notices to ignore this, including one in the New York Post's Page Six today. Pete Ganbarg, the guy who put the two parts of the song "Smooth" together for Santana, which was a smash hit last year, was shown the door last week by Arista Records' new regime. 

I sat with Pete last year at the post-Grammy party for Santana and recall quizzing him about the whole Santana phenom. He told me that one writer had part of the song "Smooth" and that Pete then brought in Rob Thomas, who completed the song. From there Ganbarg put the rest of the album together with Clive Davis. History was made, of course. 

Arista is bragging about having a hit with OutKast, but really, since the company was imploded by the now-ousted Strauss Zelnick, chaos has reigned supreme. By now all of the people considered to be the heart of the Arista brand name are gone. And as far as I can tell, the new regime has not broken a new act, delivered a hit from an old-timer or come up with anything new and exciting. 

I say this to all record companies: Whether you play it on DVD Audio, Super Audio CD or download it from the Internet, if there are no new acts, there will be no need for new hardware. I just bought a second copy of Jeff Buckley's Grace so I could hear the song "Hallelujah." The guy is dead and the album's been out for years. So now what?