It's not the greatest year for the Oscars. Good movies, but not great ones, fill the landscape. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" has such a "Titanic"-like lock on the outcome that maybe it all seems a little boring this time around.
Another problem: the hyped-up schedule which has shoved the Golden Globes, Grammys, and Academy Awards into a five-week period.
But it's also better than you think. This year there's drama in more than a couple of categories. As Academy voters make the rounds this week — ballots are due back on Tuesday the 24th — here are a couple of things to keep in mind.
For all the reasons that "Cold Mountain" didn't get a Best Picture nomination, Renée Zellweger should win Best Supporting Actress. She turned in tremendous performances in "Jerry Maguire," "Bridget Jones' Diary," "Nurse Betty" and, most unforgettably, "Chicago." For those movies alone she deserved recognition. But in "Cold Mountain," she nails it, once and for all.
I was listening to a radio ad for "Cold Mountain" the other day, one that featured some of Renée's lines. Just hearing her voice as Ruby made me smile. Zellweger is really a breath of fresh air that sweeps into the stagnant, sorrowful atmosphere created by Anthony Minghella, and gives life to a movie haunted by ghosts. I can't think of anyone else in any other film this year for whom you immediately want to cheer upon seeing her or him enter the picture.
Now, there's a lot to be said for Zellweger's peers in this category, including the always-perfect Marcia Gay Harden ("Mystic River") and newcomer Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog"). It's not hard to sing Harden's praises, but she's already won for "Pollock" and she's guaranteed several more trips to the big show.
Aghdashloo is a striking newcomer who may have only this opportunity for an award. She has been a welcome and ingratiating figure on the Oscar campaign circuit, full of grace and warmth. She's also quite beautiful.
But this is the year of the Zellweger. What fun it will be to see her win in the supporting category this year, and the lead category in years to come.
In Best Supporting Actor, how can anyone but Tim Robbins win? His performance in "Mystic River" is extraordinary. Considering Robbins is massive in real life (he's a big guy), it's really amazing to see him seem to shrink as the movie progresses. And his vulnerability becomes remarkable.
Alec Baldwin has made a stunning comeback with "The Cooler," and the other nominees in this category are all good. But it's Robbins' turn at bat and I do think the Academy knows it.
There's no question, finally, that "The Return of the King" will win Best Picture, and that Peter Jackson will take home the statue for Best Director. You will hear people try to minimize this by saying it's the third movie, or "They have to give it to him."
Well, they do, and we should be pleased that someone is being rewarded properly for once. This is no "Titanic" situation where the juggernaut is out of control. Jackson will not be declaring himself "Lord of the Rings!" when he wins. And unlike Titantic director James Cameron, he will make more movies. Soon.
The entire "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is a work of art on par with "The Godfather" movies or the first three "Star Wars" films. Ten years from now, when everyone's watching films on chips in their fingernails, the trilogy will still be shown on big screens and debated and discussed as a highly important cinematic work.
Jackson's love of character is even more essential than his incredible attention to detail. Just when you thought directors didn't care about the human element in films, Jackson has taken J.R.R. Tolkien's menagerie and made it real. For that he'll get two Oscars for himself and several more for his crew.
Of course, none of this takes away from the other nominees, especially "Mystic River," which might very well have been the winner this year if there had been no "Lord of the Rings." But you can't help timing — it's everything — and so all of them, even the not-nominated "Cold Mountain," "Big Fish," and "In America," will be remembered fondly, if not with little gold men.
Tomorrow, a look at the balance of the nominees.
I am sad to report the death of Doris Troy, the phenomenal R&B singer whose biggest hit, "Just One Look," established her forever in rock 'n' roll history.
Troy died on Feb. 16 at age 67. I had run into her playwright/composer sister, Vy Higginsen, last fall and learned Doris was ill. Like many singers from the classic R&B world, her health failed and she didn't have a safety net.
Doris was the inspiration for Higginsen's hit musical, "Mama, I Want to Sing." She started her career as an usherette at the Apollo Theatre and eventually recorded for Atlantic Records. Before cutting "Just One Look," Doris sang back-up on a number of Atlantic sides with sisters Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. You can hear her on records by The Drifters and Solomon Burke, among others.
Like a lot of soul stars who saw the end of their era coming, Doris moved to Europe in the late '60s and had a big career there.
The shame of the American record business — especially radio — has been in not honoring these great stars. In Britain, France and Germany, they are considered superstars and R&B is revered.
Doris Troy is another name to be added to a long list of people who passed too soon and never got their proper recognition, from Mary Wells and Jackie Wilson to Betty Everett and James Carr.
Ironically, "Just One Look" will survive Britney Spears and everything else from 2004. They'll be hearing Doris Troy's voice well into the next century.