A race heads in unknown direction

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Looking like an unmade bed, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" director Peter Jackson ambles barefoot into a small dining room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills for an intimate luncheon with a dozen or so local journalists. It's part of what he calls "Phase 2" of the Oscar campaign on his mega-budget trilogy's first part, which has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, including best picture and director.

Phase 1 was before the announcement of the nominations on Feb. 12. Now that the five finalists have been announced, he's on another international tour to help lock in the final vote. Jackson has flown to Los Angeles from his native New Zealand, where he is simultaneously editing the second part of the series due at Christmas and putting the finishing touches on the 3 1/2-hour expanded DVD version of the first film that will be released later this year.

He is meeting with the press and "putting a face to a name" with academy voters at special screenings of the movie for such industry-affiliated organizations as the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Women in Film.

Producer Saul Zaentz, who made the animated "Lord of the Rings" back in the 1970s, has hosted private screenings of Jackson's movie in L.A. and San Francisco, introducing the director to select movers and shakers. Like fellow nominee Ron Howard ("A Beautiful Mind") he's visited the Motion Picture and Television home in the San Fernando Valley.

Then he was off to New York (where the second-largest concentration of academy voters resides) for more interviews and to London for the British film awards presentation. (The film ended up winning best picture and director awards.)

The spate of personal appearances are not only to bolster "Rings'" chances against the other Oscar favorite, "A Beautiful Mind," for best picture, but for Jackson himself, in what is considered an even more hotly contested race for best director. It's the second year running in which the category has been up for grabs. Jackson's handicap is that he's up against a battery of veterans—Howard, Robert Altman ("Gosford Park"), Ridley Scott ("Black Hawk Down") and David Lynch ("Mulholland Drive") -- all of whom are better known in Hollywood, have significant bodies of work and have never won a directing Oscar.

Rather than lock-step the vote with best picture, Jackson suggests, academy members this year may be looking at the best director category as "another way of honoring a particular film."

Mindful of that, the studios are courting voters for the best director category with the same fervor as the usually more high-profile acting categories. Another reason, according to Michael Barker, a partner in Sony Pictures Classics, which lobbied for Ang Lee last year on "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is that "in a year that people are referring to as weak, five incredible directors have been nominated."

Along with Howard and Altman, Jackson is thought to have a good shot of copping the prize (it's virtually unprecedented for a director to win without his film also having been nominated, and neither "Black Hawk" nor "Mulholland" is in the running for best picture). Lynch will not be doing any stumping for his movie and has even requested that no trade ads be taken out on his behalf, according to a Universal Focus spokeswoman. Scott, who has been a bridesmaid before, says, "I'm crossing my fingers and hoping for the best," but also plans to keep a relatively low profile during the voting period.

The other three nominees, however, are out and about, in part because their films are still in wide release, and in the case of "Mind" and "Gosford," about to open internationally. Howard has been touring overseas with the film for the past month. So has Altman, who is being demonized by conservative commentators like Oliver North because of some politically incorrect remarks he made to English journalists about U.S. foreign policy and his admission that he smokes marijuana.

It's just one reminder of how visible the best director race is this year. Another is the omission of "Moulin Rouge's" Baz Luhrmann among the final five nominees. In the months before the announcement of the Oscar nominations, Luhrmann campaigned heavily for his lavish musical. His efforts paid off when "Moulin Rouge" won the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy and reaped eight Oscar nominations, including best picture. (Luhrmann also received a Directors Guild of America nomination.) The extent of his efforts, however, may have backfired with the directors' branch, leaving him among the missing in the category.

Campaigning for an Oscar by a director is a requirement these days, but too much campaigning may be counterproductive.

It used to be that the best director award went hand in hand with best picture honors, the auteurist logic being that the best movie is also the best directed film. That kind of thinking, however, no longer holds.

Last year "Gladiator" was considered the odds-on favorite for best picture, but the best director race came down to Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and Steven Soderbergh (nominated for "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic"). "Gladiator's" Scott was considered a longshot. The best director race was a nail biter to the very moment the envelope was opened. "In our case Steven was not only competing with Ang but with himself," says Russell Schwartz, who at the time ran USA Films, which released "Traffic" (he is now co-marketing head at New Line Cinema, which released "Lord of the Rings"). "Our biggest effort was to convince the academy that it would be a disservice if he lost because he was up for two movies."

When Lee won the DGA award, another usually accurate bellwether of the Oscars, it was assumed Soderbergh (also a double nominee for the DGA) would split his vote at the Oscars as well. But he pulled an upset and won for "Traffic."

Schwartz theorizes that Soderbergh pulled it out during the campaigning by subtly conveying his pride of ownership on "Traffic" (which he also photographed) without distancing himself from "Brockovich." (This year two DGA nominees, Luhrmann and Christopher Nolan of "Memento," aren't up for the Oscar; Altman and Lynch aren't nominated for the DGA award).

"Brockovich" producer Michael Shamberg says last year's Oscar results indicated that voters have become much more discerning in the selection process. "They are filling out their ballots more carefully and giving greater thought to each category."

In other words, the director's race has become as competitive as the acting categories in which the winner isn't necessarily in the most nominated film—for example, Hilary Swank winning best actress for the 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry."

Making the selection particularly daunting this year, notes nominee Scott, is that all the nominated directors are represented by films "that couldn't be more disparate."

"Rings" is a large-scale epic, "Gosford" a single-location ensemble piece, "Mind" an intimate romantic drama, "Black Hawk" a documentary-style battle film and "Mulholland" a dark, idiosyncratic mystery.

As is often true in the acting categories, that could call voters' personal emotions into play, Scott suggests.

For instance, sentiment often surfaces in the best supporting actor category in which veteran performers are often selected as much for the particular film as for their body of work (examples include James Coburn, who won for "Affliction," and Jack Palance, who was cited for "City Slickers").

That could influence the vote for four of this year's directing nominees, Jackson being the only relative newcomer. The 77-year-old Altman would be the most likely candidate for lifetime achievement recognition, having garnered the most nominations (five) without a win. "Gosford" is his most commercially successful movie since "MASH" in 1970, the surprise hit that brought the former TV director to prominence. Altman has already won the Golden Globe and several critics' awards for best director.

Howard, who has never been nominated before (despite winning the DGA award for "Apollo 13"), is extremely popular in Hollywood, besides being one of the industry's most reliably commercial directors. Both Scott and Lynch have three nominations, and the former lost last year even though his "Gladiator" won best picture.

As of now, no one seems to be breaking away from the pack, and Twentieth Century Fox studio co-chief Tom Rothman is ruling out none of the five directing nominees.

"There may be favorites, but there could well be an upset," he says. "It's going to be a lot of fun, with a lot of surprises on Oscar night."

The only downside, he says, is that "Oscar pools are going to be very hard to win this year."

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