Photo by Yoshio Sato

All the fancy filmmaking in the world won’t make me love a hobbit, so I wasn’t cheering when The Lord of the Rings cleaned up Sunday night at the Academy Awards. Still, I could see why Peter Jackson and company swept the field. 2003 was a dreary year at the movies: nothing dreadful (okay, Gigli), nothing I’d call remotely great. I shed no tears for Mystic River, a capable film but not a patch on Clint Eastwood’s brilliant Unforgiven. Nor for Master and Commander, which bored me to tears, nor for the plodding Seabiscuit. City of God, which many people thought deserved to take something home to Rio, was so exploitive of its material it made me nervous. And though I was rooting for Lost in Translation and was happy to see Sofia Coppola win for her fresh (and, it must be said, heavily improvised) screenplay, I’d have been happier still if the deliciously witty Finding Nemo had carried off that award as well as Best Animated Feature.

Other than the few lonely winners picking up the crumbs left by the Hobbit people and Billy Crystal’s laugh-out-loud montage, there ought to have been a higher fun quotient to the evening, even if only by way of outrageous threads and exposed flesh. True, we had Liv Tyler’s hairdo to look at, listing madly starboard as she tried to make up her mind whether thick black Elvis Costello glasses went with the concept. The $2 million that Alison Krauss’ Cinderella slippers reportedly cost went unsung — they were fully obscured by her dress. Uma Thurman looked as if she’d gathered the sheets off last night’s bed and thrown them on as an afterthought. Renée Zellweger, endearingly plumped out for Bridget Jones’ forthcoming further adventures in love and weight management, resembled a box of chocolates all tied up in a nice white bow. Shohreh Aghdashloo, who should have won Best Supporting Actress — and did, gratifyingly, at the IFP Spirit Awards on Saturday — looked discreetly sexy. Naomi Watts, who by rights ought to have won Best Actress in the otherwise dopey 21 Grams, came on all Grace Kelly in a virginal chignon. Even Nicole Kidman’s breasts, displayed to such alluring advantage last year, nestled demurely behind a shelf of what looked like bubble wrap. Overall, the mammary display fell disappointingly short of justifying the five-second delay slapped, post-Janet, on the ceremony.

As did the politics. It fell to Errol Morris, adorably excited and free of social graces, to express his gratitude for winning Best Documentary by warning the U.S. government not to take us “down the same rabbit hole” as it did in Vietnam. Meanwhile Susan Sarandon, carrying her years beautifully, as always, in a slinky black number, kept uncharacteristically mum, while Her Boyfriend the Best Supporting Actor was a model of circumspect domesticity, urging victims of sexual abuse to seek help. After a pro forma swipe at Bush’s missing WMDs, even Sean Penn, normally so full of hot air you can hardly breathe around him, opted for grace and brevity.

I wish I could say the same for Bill Murray. For my money, Murray should have walked away with Best Actor for his funny, tender turn in Lost in Translation. But after his graceless, mean-spirited and twice-repeated broadsides at Sofia Coppola’s competence as a director (in return, she had nothing but praise for him), it wasn’t hard to see why Murray is so widely disliked around this town — not because he makes fun of Hollywood, but because he can be a royal jerk when he puts his mind to it.


Murray came on a sight more gracious the previous day at the IFP Spirit Awards, where Coppola took her first screenwriting award of the weekend and where he did win Best Actor. But the sweetest moment by far at that lively event came right at the beginning, in which, after a very funny monologue by MC John Waters about screener bans, Jack Valenti bounded onstage, handcuffed Waters and dragged him away. Considering the year he’s had, Valenti showed himself a very good sport. Which made it all the more unseemly later when IFP West executive director Dawn Hudson launched into a rant about how brave it was of little old IFP to take the big bad MPAA to court over the screener ban “with no resources.” No resources? You only had to look around the stretch limos in the parking lot and the tent, heavy with Armani, to see that the Spirit Awards, chaired by Tom Cruise and handsomely sponsored by Bravo and others, are attended by more or less the same crowd that goes to the Oscars. And given that the IFP nominees routinely overlap with those for the Oscars, it’s enough already with the David-and-Goliath fighting talk. For better and worse, the IFP arrived years ago. They even bleep the dirty words.

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