NOTES ON A SEASON

Will Coens Make Oscar History?

The strike is over, the Oscars are on, but some questions remain.

Random notes on the blissfully strike-free Oscars as less than a week of voting remains and there is evidence of some races tightening:

One race that isn't is best picture, where a gallant attempt by "Michael Clayton" to overtake apparent leader "No Country for Old Men" is probably going to fall short despite a surge of support for the George Clooney film.

The only real question remaining about "No Country" is just how big -- and potentially historic -- is its win going to be?

Producers, directors, writers and editors Joel and Ethan Coen are personally nominated in those four categories and are enjoying front-runner status in just about all of them with significant recent guild wins from the WGA, DGA and PGA. The American Cinema Editors hold their own guild awards show Sunday.

For the first time since 1953 (and potentially only the second time in Academy history), the Coens could earn individual victories in four separate categories. Only Walt Disney, as producer of three live-action, animated and documentary shorts in addition to a documentary feature, was able to leave an Oscar ceremony with four statuettes in hand.

If the Coens can pull off the same feat, they would be the first to do it for a single film. Orson Welles for "Citizen Kane," and Warren Beatty for both "Heaven Can Wait" and "Reds," each had four nods but walked off with only a single Oscar (Welles shared the 1941Screenplay prize while Beatty won Best Director in 1981 for "Reds"). A few artists have won three Oscars in one night, including Billy Wilder, James L. Brooks, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Marvin Hamlisch and others. However, the Coens would join Disney as the only ones to take four.

But there is a catch.

In the best editing category, they credit themselves under their joint pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. Should the Coens win that category , the Academy confirmed this week that there will be only one statuette presented and it would later be engraved as belonging to Mr. Jaynes. This means the brothers would only get that statuette and official Academy record books would technically not list Joel and Ethan Coen as the rightful recipients of four Oscars should they win in all of their categories.

The Editors guild, however, says it will be happy to give both Coens, a.k.a. Jaynes, Eddie awards if they win there Sunday and they can have whatever name they want engraved on them. A spokesperson at the guild said they would be thrilled just to have them show up!

Meanwhile there's lots of tension in other categories not involving the Coens.

Although both actor races seem fairly locked with predicted wins for bad boys, Daniel Day-Lewis and Javier Bardem, the two actress races -- which at one time seemed sure things for Julie Christie in a leading role and either Amy Ryan or Cate Blanchett in a supporting role -- now seem like they are turning into nail-biters.

Christie, as an Alzheimer's victim in "Away From Her" is still regarded as the favorite -- a Hollywood icon in a critically praised role -- but after last weekend's back-to-back wins from BAFTA and the London Film Critics in Christie's hometown, "La Vie en Rose" star Marion Cotillard has raised some eyebrows and is seeing the seeds of her grass-roots campaign (engineered by Picturehouse honcho Bob Berney) start to pay off. And with her L.A. Film Critics and Golden Globe wins, her own awards chest is starting to challenge Christie's considerable 2007 booty, making an upset a realistic possibility.

The disadvantage for Cotillard is her Edith Piaf is a foreign-language performance and those rarely win. On the plus side, she's playing a well-known real-life figure and since the dawn of this millennium, no fewer than eight actresses have won Oscars in either leading or supporting roles for doing the exact same thing. It's a trend seriously worth noting and should make front-runner Christie just a little nervous.

The Supporting Actress race has turned into a slugfest. Blanchett, doing her best Bob Dylan impersonation, won the Globe, Ryan in "Gone Baby Gone" took the lion's share of critics awards, "American Gangster" 83-year-old veteran Ruby Dee grabbed the SAG trophy, and most recently, "Michael Clayton " nemesis, Tilda Swinton, got the BAFTA prize. Only "Atonement"'s young Saoirse Ronan has yet to register on the awards circuit.

With "Clayton" a popular best picture nominee against virtually single nods for the films featuring Blanchett, Ryan and Dee, previous dark horse Swinton could be peaking at just the right moment in a film that is widely seen and liked by the Academy at large. Plus, she's the villain in the film, and with Day-Lewis and Bardem, it could prove to be a very big night for evil at the Oscars.

In a late-inning campaign effort for early favorite Blanchett, the Weinstein Co. bought an expensive Variety front cover last week and included a 45-minute reel of her entire performance (which doesn't kick in until about an hour into the movie). It's an interesting strategy that may be too late in the game to make a real difference and get voters to see the great Cate's daring cross-gender work.

Still another category generating its share of tension is best documentary feature, in which Academy voters must prove they have seen all of the contenders in a theater. This requirement is giving marketers and publicists for the entries migraine headaches, as they not only have to make sure their own film is seen, they have to craftily try to get Academy members who may vote for it into all the other movies as well in order to make the vote count.

Michael Moore's $21-million dollar grossing "Sicko" may be the most successful and best-known of the nominees, but the "must-see-all-five" rule has several "consultants" working overtime to get as many potential "Sicko" voters as possible into screenings of the other contenders, "No End In Sight," "Taxi to the Dark Side," "War/Dance" and "Operation Homecoming."

Of course, who's to say these voters won't be swayed by what they see and vote for the competition? It's what arouses suspicions and anxiety among those shilling for the docs, a tough navigation full of landmines for any awards consultant trying to deliver the gold for their client.

Although the Academy doesn't release the numbers, the winner could be decided by a very small percentage of the group, perhaps less than 400 members.

Finally, if you've had your fill of this year's big Oscar hopefuls, it may be time to turn the clock back 40 years and revisit 1967. This week saw two major events heralding the top Oscar nominees of that year, "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" which both led the race with 10 nominations apiece (although they lost in the end to "In the Heat of the Night").

Warren Beatty was on the Warner Bros. lot talking up the March 25 special DVD anniversary edition of his landmark film, "Bonnie and Clyde", a sort of "No Country for Old Men" of its time that did go on to win two Oscars for supporting actress Estelle Parsons and cinematography. On another night on the other side of town, Sony's home entertainment was hosting a special screening of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which was released this week in a special 40th anniversary edition DVD and as part of the new box set collection of some choice Stanley Kramer films.

For some strange reason, the late prodigious producer/director Kramer was often vilified by certain critics for his socially conscious films that dealt with everything from race relations and greed to the Holocaust and nuclear proliferation. Some critics have called his films out of touch, but a look now at many of them proves they were anything but, perhaps a reason why the Academy nominated six of them for best picture, including "Dinner," which featured Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier in a movie about the consequences of a racially-mixed romance. It won Oscars for Hepburn and original screenplay, and in light of the current Barack Obama frenzy, the movie could not be more relevant, as evidenced by the audience reaction when Poitier, as a magna cum laude too-good-to-be-true doctor, puts cold water on the far-off fantasy of whether a black person could ever become secretary of state or even president.

Obama himself is the product of just the kind of inter-racial marriage this movie portrays, and it's not hard to imagine him now in a slightly altered version of the Poitier role, an almost perfect and brilliant Harvard-educated African American coming to dinner at the White House.

Oh, and did we mention the name of the woman who runs Hepburn's art gallery and strongly questions Poitier's suitability for her daughter? Hillary.

As one audience member said after the screening, "Nostradamus must have written that movie!"

From the Season of '67 to the Season of '07, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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