Variety 11/2705

Box office isn't everything
'Cinderella Man' may live up to its title -- By STEPHEN SCHAEFER, ROBERT HOFLER

The anonymous writer of Variety's famous headline "Sticks Nix Hick Pix" may have been thinking ahead to the positive critical reaction and disappointing box office returns on the Russell Crowe starrer "Cinderella Man."

When asked about the film's biz, director Ron Howard takes the high road. "I'm so proud of the way it's played and the reviews were fantastic," he says. "What's exciting for me is the result of our preview screenings. It's the audiences who have responded to it in the most positive way. I feel rewarded and thrilled being people feel so positively." While the Academy voters have routinely ignored panned movies that clean up at the box office, they also tend to overlook critical favorites that don't dazzle at the box office.

Then again, "Cinderella Man" may ultimately live up to its title.

AFI likes 'Look'
Drama takes top prizes at Crowe-hosted ceremony - By MICHAELA BOLAND

"Look Both Ways," an intimate drama about a terminally ill man facing his mortality, collected the top prizes Saturday at the Australian Film Institute Awards here.

Sony's Nick Cave-penned Western "The Proposition" swept the AFI's major technical prizes, handed out separately Friday.

The 47th AFI Awards were significantly revamped from last year. Instead of a low-key show in a theater, Russell Crowe hosted a glam dinner for 800 that was taped at Central City Studios for delayed broadcast on Kerry Packer's Nine web.

Crowe, who returned to Oz to front the kudos from the Gaul shoot for Ridley Scott's "A Good Year," did so because, he said, without him producer Paul Dainty would have been unable to secure a national TV slot.

With the Australian film industry in what Crowe described as a "perilous" state, the awards needed all the publicity they could get.

A relaxed Crowe joked about his recent run-in with a Gotham hotel clerk. He walked onstage carrying a chunky, old-fashioned telephone and warned winners to keep it short or "say 'hello' to my little friend."

"Look Both Ways" took awards for film and for tyro director Sarah Watt, who also collected a trophy for her original script. Pic's Anthony Hayes took supporting actor prize.

However, most thesp prizes went to the cast of Rowan Woods' heroin drama "Little Fish." Cate Blanchett collected actress kudos for her lead perf, Hugo Weaving won his third AFI for playing her step-dad and Noni Hazlehurst, who portrayed her mom, won supporting actress.

The producers sought to capitalize on the many high-profile Oz thesps whose careers have blossomed abroad by enlisting their help to present awards. But, except for Simon Baker, all the presentations rolled on videotape because the thesps -- including Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and Naomi Watts -- were elsewhere.

Crowe also hosted the tech awards, which proved a contentious prelude to the major awards. Some tech guilds voiced concern that their awards got second billing to Saturday's higher-profile prizes. Even Crowe went on the record against the split.

Nevertheless, a cheery crowd of 500 applauded A$20 million ($14.7 million) Aussie Western "The Proposition," starring Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce and Emily Watson. It took nods for production design, costume design, cinematography (Benoit Delhomme) and original score (Cave and Warren Ellis). John Hillcoat's pic has registered modest receipts of A$2 million in Oz compared to "Look Both Ways" and "Little Fish," latter of which collected kudos for editing and sound.

However, none of those high-profile pics was the winner at the Australian Writers' Guild Awards, or AWGIES, announced across town at the Regent Theater.

Instead, Michael Frank's yet-to-be screened indie feature "Ra Choi," made for just $60,000 with a cast of unknowns, took the feature film award.

Melissa Reeves' play "The Spook" collected the Major Awgie Award and the stage script award.

Television script awards went to Louise Crane-Bowes for sudser "Home and Away," Louise Fox for lauded feevee skein "Love My Way" and John Alsop for the 2006 miniseries "RAN."


Peddle to the medal
Marketing strategies matter in tight actor, actress races - By PETE HAMMOND
It's easy to tell when awards time rolls around. Actors are everywhere pushing their projects, and not just on the talkshow circuit but in personal appearances at the guilds, the Variety screening series and numerous other screenings around town, talking the talk voting thesps love to hear.

"It's almost like they are setting up camp at the ArcLight," joked one awards consultant who has several actors working the circuit this season. Most marketing execs believe the personal touch is a key ingredient for success. "We love having talent you can parade to Q&A's, guild screenings and whatnot. You want to be top of mind. You want to be fresh, whether it's talent in the room shaking people's hands or getting Golden Globe nominations," says Gary Faber, the Weinstein Co.'s newly minted exec VP of marketing. "The whole thing is about building momentum and I think having an actor who can go out there and do that is great. Ultimately, though, it's all going to be about the performance." Actors and actresses in biopics again dominate this year's contenders.

Eight of the 20 acting Oscars since 2000 have gone the nonfiction route, including last year's Academy Awards to Jamie Foxx in lead and Cate Blanchett in supporting for portraying entertainers Ray Charles and Katharine Hepburn. The previous five years saw only two of 20 kudos going for the real thing, but now the trend seems to be exploding.

No fewer than nine lead actor possibilities in this year's race are based on actual people. The list includes Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in "Walk The Line," David Strathairn as newsman Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck," Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote," Jake Gyllenhaal as U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford in "Jarhead," Russell Crowe as prizefighter Jim Braddock in "Cinderella Man," Colin Farrell as Capt. John Smith in "The New World," Eric Bana as the leader of the Israeli squad at the 1972 Olympics in "Munich," Johnny Depp going for his third nom in a row as the Earl of Rochester in "The Libertine" and past winner Anthony Hopkins, in one of the richest roles of his career as land speed world record-holder Burt Munro in the sleeper entry "The World's Fastest Indian."

Lead actresses are jumping in as well, with Reese Witherspoon as June Carter in "Walk the Line," Judi Dench as the woman who ran a theater featuring naked girls in "Mrs. Henderson Presents," 15-year-old Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in "The New World," Keira Knightley in Jane Austen's "Pride & Prejudice," Renee Zellweger as Mae Braddock in "Cinderella Man" and Charlize Theron playing sexual harassment crusader Lois Jensen (with the fictionalized name Josie Aimes) in "North Country." "Entertainment Tonight" film critic and historian Leonard Maltin says there's a reason so many bioperfs are in play this season.

"It is impressive to voters when someone portrays a celebrated person the public is aware of -- like Truman Capote, Johnny Cash or Edward R. Murrow -- because then the actor has achieved two things: a persuasive illusion of that figure while giving a good performance as well," he says. "It does raise the bar in terms of people's appreciation and awareness of the performance."

Others are cautious about going overboard with the trend.

"I don't want to see the Academy Awards turn into best performance of a celebrity," says Academy voter Ziggy Kozlowski.

This is not to say that if you don't channel someone else, you're out of the running. Maltin points to plenty of other actors he would like to see nominated for creating wholly original characters.

"I love Terrence Howard's work in 'Hustle & Flow.' It opens with this absolutely riveting monologue that might be worthy of an award even if there weren't a movie attached to it. It's a character who reveals himself in layers," he contends.

Maltin also points out the perf of never-nominated Jeff Daniels in the indie "The Squid and the Whale" as deserving of a nod. Other non-bioperf actor contenders include Heath Ledger's heartbroken gay cowboy in "Brokeback Mountain," Cannes winner Tommy Lee Jones as a man searching for honor in "The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada," Cillian Murphy's transvestite in Neil Jordan's "Breakfast on Pluto," Viggo Mortensen in "A History of Violence," Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Woody Allen's "Match Point," and Ralph Fiennes, who worked on six films this year but made his greatest impression in "The Constant Gardener."

Similarly, there also seem to be an unusually large bevy of possibilities for leading actress in addition to the previously mentioned bioperfs. They include Ziyi Zhang's graceful work in "Memoirs of a Geisha," Oscar winner Gwyneth Paltrow's stage-to-screen transition in "Proof," Claire Danes as a Saks salesperson in "Shopgirl," Keira Knightley in "Pride & Prejudice," Emmy winner Felicity Huffman's transsexual in "Transamerica" and, if she's not completely forgotten, three-time nominee Joan Allen for her work in "The Upside of Anger." Fox plans on campaigning Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette, who both got career-best notices for "In Her Shoes," but the disappointing box office may have zapped some of their momentum.

Diaz and Collette could turn up in the musical or comedy Golden Globe category, however, along with "Prime's" Meryl Streep, "The Family Stone's" Sarah Jessica Parker and even Globe favorite Jane Fonda for her hit comebacker, "Monster-in-Law." All of whom would appear to be much longer shots for the five Academy slots.

But in a wide-open year like this, one expect surprises.

"I've given up second-guessing what the voters look for. I don't think anyone really knows," laments Maltin. "There certainly is no formula and I don't think there are any rules if there ever were."


Do biopics, like Phoenix's take on music legend, offer head start?

Ever since George Arliss received the 1929 Academy Award for the lead in biopic "Disraeli," Oscar has had a fondness for actors playing real-life people.

In the 2004 derby, four of the five actor nominees portrayed nonfictional personalities, including winner Jamie Foxx for his turn as Ray Charles.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the year before that, Charlize Theron took home the actress prize for playing serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster." The previous year, Nicole Kidman transformed herself -- nose and all -- into Virginia Woolf ("The Hours"), and was honored with the actress laurel.

In 2002, Adrien Brody was a late-stretch runner who eventually won for "The Pianist," in which he played Warsaw ghetto survivor and musician Wladyslaw Szpilman. In 2000, Julia Roberts was the real-life "Erin Brockovich" and in 1999 Hilary Swank's portrayal of murder victim Brandon Teena won her an Oscar for "Boys Don't Cry."

This year, the list of potential actor nominees includes David Strathairn's Edward R. Murrow ("Good Night, and Good Luck"), Philip Seymour Hoffman's Truman Capote ("Capote"), Russell Crowe's Jim Braddock ("Cinderella Man"), Jake Gyllenhaal's Anthony Swofford ("Jarhead"), Colin Farrell's Captain John Smith ("The New World"), Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon's June Carter ("Walk the Line"), among others. Theron, another possible contender for "North Country," plays a character based on a real-life woman pursuing a sexual harassment lawsuit.

So does playing a role taken out of the newspapers or history books ensure a leg up come Oscar time?

In 2003, no lead actor nominated was playing a real person. In 2000, Crowe, who twice in his career has been nominated for bio perfs ("The Insider" and "A Beautiful Mind") won for the fictional "Gladiator." Back in 1992, Denzel Washington's Malcolm X lost to Al Pacino's "Hoo-hah!" colonel in "Scent of a Woman," and Washington lost in 1999 to Kevin Spacey ("American Beauty") the year he was nominated for playing a real-life boxer in "The Hurricane."

It's an issue that's thorny and slippery, and points up the occasional chasm between Oscar voters and the world at large. "Do real people really care about actors playing other real people?" asks Joe Morgenstern, the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Wall Street Journal. "Not when the realities are unknown to them. I doubt that most moviegoers are turned on by the prospect of watching bigscreen evocations of Edward R. Murrow or Truman Capote, fine as the performances may be.

"But other actors, and critics, get a kick out of such mimicry, thus enhancing the actors' chances at Oscar time. Still, mimicry alone doesn't do it. If it did, an Oscar could go to a parrot. The remarkable accomplishment of Philip Seymour Hoffman, or of Jamie Foxx last year, was to internalize what seemed to be the whole person as well as externalize the twitches and tics."

But Hoffman's Capote and Foxx's Charles are well-known figures with well-know mannerisms. Similarly, Cate Blanchett, who did a dead-on impersonation of Katharine Hepburn in "The Aviator," walked way with the 2004 supporting award.

More curious are the Oscars that went to Kidman and Roberts, both of whom played little-known real-life women. "Back in the old days," says veteran Time magazine critic Richard Schickel, "Paul Muni was always getting nominated for playing people like Emile Zola. I guess the difference now is that actors are playing more contemporaneous people, not 19th-century French authors. The interesting issue is where does pure imitation leave off and creative acting begin."

Schickel raises two issues that have become constants in the world of Oscar-watching: Voters will predictably go for roles in which the performer is playing someone handicapped, and playing it to the hilt. In this context, Foxx's award for "Ray," he says, might not have been so much about Charles, but the fact the musician was blind. "The sure road to an Oscar," he continues, "seems to be playing a real-life person with a mental or physical disability."

Which would seem to leave out this year's crop of Oscar hopefuls, who might have to rely on the quality of their performances, rather than the accuracy of their imitations.