Cate Blanchett | Martin Scorsese | Daniel Day-Lewis

Blanchett, Owen Get 'Closer' With Mike Nichols

One of the world's best actresses, Oscar-nominee Cate Blanchett -- who rocked the world in Elizabeth and should have been rewarded for Bandits -- is joining the cast of Mike Nichols' film version of Closer.

Dashing Clive Owen -- star of the BMW mini films and a constantly rumored successor as James Bond -- will be in the movie, too. Owen starred in the London West End version of the play Closer, by Patrick Marber. (Owen is also in the Angelina Jolie film Beyond Borders, which should be released later this year.)

Blanchett and Owen join Natalie Portman and Jude Law, who have already agreed to be in Nichols' movie.

Closer sounds like a perfect project for Nichols. It's almost an updated version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with elements of The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge thrown in. Scott Rudin, who produced The Hours, which is about Virginia Woolf, is producing this one too, although Who's Afraid ... had nothing to do per se with the author. Still, it's a weird tie-in and I thought I'd mention it anyway.

Nichols was one of the presenters Saturday night at the endless Writers Guild of America East Awards, a presentation that I can only relate to fans of the Mary Tyler Moore Show as being a real-life example of MTM's "Teddy Awards." It went on so long I expected Georgette to come in and start tap dancing!

But the erudite Nichols, who came on late in the evening to sing the praises of the witty Nora Ephron, managed to make a hit anyway. He did a riff on famously self-absorbed legendary writer Lillian Hellman that was so funny it was painful. And it was doubly funny since Ephron has a play on Broadway about Hellman's feud with writer Mary McCarthy.

Nichols told me later that his HBO version of the play Angels in America is done but he hasn't shown it to anyone. "It's hard to ask friends to come screen a seven-hour movie," he joked. Well, Mike, I'm sure they'll come if you ask them. The ambitious project features Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson -- not too shabby.

As for the WGA Awards: Well, it would have met the expectations of any right winger who thinks New York writers are just a bunch of old lefties. There was plenty of anti-war talk, which was fine, and much discussion of the Bush administration. Emcee Al Franken, in excellent form, called Ari Fleischer "a chimp" during his opening remarks, and that got thunderous applause. Franken called the impending war "Operation Finish Desert Storm or We Wouldn't Have to Do This If Poppy Hadn't [Expletive] Up."

Some of the other guests and presenters included Griffin Dunne, Harvey Keitel, Martha Byrne of As the World Turns, Andy Rooney, Focus Features honcho and screenwriter James Schamus and actress Bebe Neuwirth, who spoke eloquently about the current strike on Broadway by musicians. "Live music is the very breath of Broadway," she said, and looked so good in a kind of Chinese silk dress that even the most avaricious producer couldn't say no to her. They should send Bebe into the negotiations!

Scorsese's Night: Enjoying Gang Mentality

Gangs of New York director Martin Scorsese was also at the WGA Awards. He got a special citation for his work with writers such as Paul Schrader, Jay Cocks and Nicholas Pileggi (who's also the husband of Nora Ephron -- small world).

Scorsese is like Phil Rizzuto, running the bases and waving his cap to the fans. He's gotten lifetime awards from two guilds in one week. He's just waiting now to see if the Academy is smart enough finally to give him the Oscar on March 23.

Pileggi, who wrote the book on which Scorsese's GoodFellas was based, told me: "It's ridiculous that Marty doesn't have an Oscar. And he should get it this year for Gangs, not just for the body of work." What's Pileggi done about it? "I've voted 11 times!" he laughed. The Pileggi-Ephron household is two votes, but I suspect Nick has been breaking into fellow voters' mailboxes!

The Oscar feeling for Scorsese is high, which is especially interesting since his competition is strong. Roman Polanski's The Pianist is an incredible movie, very affecting and certainly on the right subject (the Holocaust).

As studio head Schamus told me last night, "We're just happy to be there." Rob Marshall's Chicago will likely be the Best Picture winner, with fans singing along in every showing. Stephen Daldry's The Hours should get Nicole Kidman the Best Actress award. Pedro Almodóvar is Spanish, and he's probably shocked to have crossed over from Foreign Picture.

I think Gangs is one of those movies so caught up in the conversation of the moment that sometimes its sheer strength is forgotten. It is not a perfect movie. The last third has a muddled plotline and the secondary characters are not fleshed out enough to make us care for them. That's the downside of Gangs.

The upside, which I wrote in from Cannes last year when they showed 20 minutes of the film, is tremendous. Gangs is not just the last epic, etc. It has an epic depth. In years to come, film students will study it scene by scene for the complex nature of the activity in each shot. It's a film about big ideas, told on a huge, gorgeous canvas. Just the fact that it was Scorsese's vision for 20 years and was made at all and executed in a startling, exhilarating and ebullient manner, is reason enough to give him the Academy Award for Best Director.

By the way, Scorsese has said that the fight scenes in the third act are influenced by a hard-to-find 1965 Orson Welles film, Chimes at Midnight. This movie is so obscure that if you can find it, it's in Spanish with English subtitles. Jeanne Moreau, John Gielgud and Margaret Rutherford are the stars. I mentioned to Scorsese that a friend of mine, Bill Grantham, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood who was once with Variety in Paris, found a VHS dub of it recently. Bill raved about it, and saw what Scorsese had done.

Scorsese was thrilled to hear it. "There's a book we did of the Gangs script for the Academy, and we listed all the films we screened while we were making it. Chimes was a tremendous influence. I love crediting the films that inspired me."

I just hope the Academy, given a second chance, treats Scorsese better than it did Welles. Citizen Kane, made in 1941, was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture, and won neither. Welles won his only Oscar for co-writing the screenplay with Herman J. Mankiewicz . Citizen Kane now consistently wins polls among critics as the best movie ever made, and many of Welles' other movies -- The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil -- are considered classics.

Daniel Day-Lewis Set for Oscar

I told you last May after the Cannes Film Festival that  Daniel Day-Lewis would win the Academy Award. After last night's win with the Screen Actor's Guild, I would say his chances have improved to 100 percent.

What's so interesting is that the actors who voted, apparently responded to all the stories about Day-Lewis taking his roles so seriously. They respected that and voted accordingly. In the press, we thought it was just weird. Day-Lewis himself grew more and more reticent about giving interviews and talking about his acting method. But the voters saw something that even we who respected the performance did not. On March 23, Daniel Day-Lewis will receive his second Oscar, I predict.

I wrote in this space on May 21, 2002: "Day-Lewis is utterly remarkable as the villainous Bill Cutting. Somehow during this short showing, Day-Lewis seemed to leap off the screen. I think the audience was startled by how he instantly connected with them."

I told you Nov. 15 in the first review of Gangs: "Daniel Day-Lewis, a slam-dunk nomination for Best Actor.Day-Lewis' performance as Bill the Butcher is more than just mesmerizing. It's the one to beat, even with formidable opponents such as Jack Nicholson, Tom Hanks, Campbell Scott, Michael Caine and Leonardo DiCaprio waiting in the wings."

It doesn't matter which studio makes the film, or who paid for what. In the end, it's the work. And Day-Lewis, with all his eccentricities, is the premiere actor of his generation.

One last thing: Even though Chicago and all its actors look unbeatable, I am not totally convinced that Nicole Kidman will lose the Oscar to Renee Zellweger. I think the SAG voters respected Zellweger's incredible transition to musical comedy. But in the long run, Kidman's portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours is a remarkable achievement. I say: Nicole, Daniel, Catherine Zeta-Jones and, of course, Christopher Walken are the winners on March 23.