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Oscar Goes International

The Oscars have a more international flavor this year.

Consider this: None of the nominees for Best Picture was made in a Hollywood studio. Chocolat was filmed in France; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in China and Taiwan; Gladiator in England, Malta and Morocco; Traffic in parts of the United States and Mexico, and Erin Brockovich mostly on location in Southern California.

The list of acting nominees contains a Spaniard (Javier Bardem), a New Zealander (Russell Crowe), an Australian (Geoffrey Rush), a Frenchwoman (Juliette Binoche), and three from England (Albert Finney, Judi Dench, and Julie Walters). The directors include two Englishmen (Ridley Scott, Steven Daldry) and a Taiwanese-American (Ang Lee).

"I think it's something to celebrate," says Fay Kanin, a veteran screenwriter and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "I'm delighted to see recognition of foreign actors, directors, and movies. It just means that we're becoming a more international body."

Here's a closer look at that worldly parade of nominees in this year's major Oscar categories:

Best Picture

  • Chocolat concerns a woman and her daughter who arrive in a French village and concoct chocolate delights that seem to mellow the inhabitants. The project was an easy sell, says co-producer David Brown. "I took it to Miramax, knowing they were Europhiles, and they gobbled it up. It was a sweet deal, if you'll pardon the pun." Casting the lead was also easy: "There was a plethora of actresses who wanted this role, everyone from Nicole Kidman to Whoopi Goldberg. But Juliette Binoche was our first choice."
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has proved a worldwide phenomenon, even though the dialogue is in Mandarin. "I had done three English-language films," director Ang Lee says, "and I wanted to return to my roots." As with many hit movies, it has inspired a follow-up. Says Lee: "We're still in the script stage. It will be a prequel. I want to do a story of the repressed lovers and how they got repressed."
  • Erin Brockovich attracted Julia Roberts even before a script had been written since she was in love with the true story. Director Steven Soderbergh was not so easy. Says co-producer Michael Shamberg: "We had done Out of Sight with him and we told him the story. He said, 'That's the worst thing I've ever heard.' A year went by and we sent him the script. The next morning, he called and said he wanted to do it."
  • Gladiator harks back to olden days when big studios lavished millions on sword-and-chariot spectacles. Will it inspire more spectacles? Co-producer Douglas Wick says: "You'll see some terrible movies that are derivative; but you'll also see that some great work will come out of the use of new digital techniques."
  • Traffic had its origins in a British TV sries, but the film version is very different, says co-producer Edward Zwick. "The film honors the shape of the original, but it was concerned with Pakistan and a different set of issues." Traffic, which focuses on the U.S. drug trade, was developed under the aegis of Fox, which later abandoned it. After rejections by all the major studios, it found a home with the relatively new company USA Films.

Best Actor

  • Javier Bardem was born into a long line of prominent Spanish actors. He was nominated for his role in Before Night Falls, in which he plays Cuban poet-novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who was persecuted as a homosexual under Fidel Castro. Asked if he had any Hollywood offers, Bardem said no, adding, "I think it is not easy to get roles for a Latin actor. I would like to work here if I could get a role like Reinaldo Arenas."
  • Russell Crowe has been nominated two years in a row as best actor, and his roles have been startlingly different. For The Insider, he put on weight and thinned his hair to play the real-life, middle-aged Jeffrey Wigand, who blew the whistle on the tobacco industry. In Gladiator, he's a stalwart fighter and noble Roman general. Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Crowe won honors in Australian films and came to Hollywood in 1995. The actor achieved stardom as an honest cop in L.A. Confidential.
  • Two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks collected his fifth nomination for his role in Cast Away as a FedEx supervisor who's stranded alone for four years on an island. Hanks originated the story six years ago and began working with scriptwriter William Broyles, Jr. Hanks offered this analysis: "It was an interesting film in a way that shouldn't have been as interesting as it was. I think it was a story that made people say, 'What if that was me?'"
  • Ed Harris managed two firsts with Pollock: He directed his first film and achieved his first nomination as lead actor. He had long sought to play Jackson Pollock, the troubled artist. The movie didn't reach theaters until 2001, but a a one-week appearance in 2000 qualified it for Academy consideration. "The film was released at the same time as the nominations, so we don't know if our nominations added to the box office," Harris says. "But the recognition certainly helps."
  • Geoffrey Rush won as Best Actor of 1996 as the afflicted pianist David Helfgott in Shine. Rush is nominated again for playing another real-life character, the Marquis de Sade, in Quills. Portraying the man who gave his name to sadism was a risk, Rush admitted, adding wryly: "I certainly don't do at home what I do in this movie."

Best Actress

  • Joan Allen was nominated twice before, as supporting actress in Nixon (1995) and in The Crucible (1996). Now she is in the running as lead actress in The Contender, in which she appers as a nominee for U.S. vice president. "I liked what the role had to say," she remarks. "I liked a woman with strong convictions and courage. And I was able to do things I had never done in movies, like jogging and shooting a basketball. I shot 30 times and did not hit one."
  • Juliette Binoche won as supporting actress in The English Patient (1996). Now the Paris native is nominated as lead actress in Chocolat. The film is a romantic fantasy about a mysterious woman whose sweet concoctions liberate the repressed citizens of a French village. The actress has suggested the reason for its success: "I think it is because of the message: that we can make the world better, that we can save the whales and stop pollution. It's a positive kind of thing."
  • Ellen Burstyn's sixth nomination came for her role in Requiem for a Dream as the mother of a heroin addict who herself becomes addicted to diet pills (she won as lead actress in 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore). She commented on her heavy role: "I couldn't wait to get out of her. It is a very dark and difficult role. But I'm trained from years on the stage to just let it go at the end of the day."
  • Laura Linney, the only first-time nominee in this category, was chosen for playing Sammy, a single mother who tries to help her younger brother in You Can Count on Me. At the recent nominees luncheon, she was asked if the movie cost less than her Oscar night gown. "That's very true," she admitted. "We made this movie for very little money. The fact that I'm standing here is surreal."
  • Julia Roberts marks her third nomination. Director Steven Soderbergh says that Roberts was enthusiastic about the role as the brash legal aide in Erin Brockovich from the beginning; her only concern was the wardrobe, which followed the low-cut, short-skirt style of the real Brockovich. "She was wary from the start," he said. "We figured we had won her over when she came in one day and said, `This skirt isn't high enough.'"

Best Supporting Actor

  • Jeff Bridges as President Jackson Evans in The Contender follows Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and other contemporary actors who have played U.S. presidents. Asked who he patterned his presidential portrayal on, he replied: "I looked at past presidents, but I really didn't want to do an impersonation. I modeled the role mostly after my father (Lloyd Bridges). He shared a quality with Jackson Evans: He loved his work."
  • Willem Dafoe won his second nomination (the first, Platoon, in 1986) for his far-out portrayal of Max Schreck in Shadow of the Vampire. The film portrays Schreck, who starred in F.W. Murnau's 1922 German classic, Nosferatu, as a real-life vampire. "It's a role where I felt I could really step out and feel different impulses than you normally get," explains Dfoe, who played the role with shiny head, fearsome makeup and clawlike fingernails. "Because of its theatricality, it's not as prosaically bound to naturalism. It's nice to find a new language physically."
  • Benicio Del Toro, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Pennsylvania, studied acting at the University of California, San Diego, and continued his studies in New York. He soon became active in TV and films, notably License to Kill with Timothy Dalton as James Bond. Del Toro's nomination came for his role as Tijuana detective Javier Rodriguez in Traffic.
  • Albert Finney has been nominated four times before: Tom Jones (1963), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Dresser (1983), Under the Volcano(1974). In his current nomination for Erin Brockovich, he's Julia Roberts' boss, lawyer Ed Masry. He read the script at one sitting, he said. "I was gripped by it."
  • Joaquin Phoenix flourished in 2000 with three acclaimed performances, in Quills, The Yards and Gladiator, the latter bringing his nomination as supporting actor. He's the brother of the late River Phoenix, who was nominated in the same category for Running on Empty in 1988. Said Joaquin: "You have so many options when you have a character (like the murderous emperor Commodus) who is evolving throughout the course of the film. Each scene was a new challenge."

Best Supporting Actress

  • Judi Dench, long one of England's most distinguished actresses, has become known to American audiences in recent years with her appearances as M in the James Bond movies, and in the BBC sitcom As Time Goes By. She has also won Oscar nominations for the lead role as Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown and supporting role as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love, the latter bringing her an Oscar. She appears less regal in Chocolat, playing a free-thinking grandmother in a straight-laced French village.
  • Marcia Gay Harden has her most important film role in Pollock, as Lee Krasner, the long-suffering wife of artist Jackson Pollock and an accomplished painter in her own right. Harden made her film debut in the Coen brothers' Miller's Crossing. She was asked how Krasner might react to how she was portrayed. "I think she would like it," said Harden. "She was a media maven, and she knew how the media could build an artist's reputation."
  • Kate Hudson has been around the movie business all her life. She was born after her mother, Goldie Hawn, won an Oscar as supporting actress in Cactus Flower in 1969, and she grew up seeing it on the living-room mantle. And yes, she admits to taking it down and fantasizing about delivering an acceptance speech. Hudson may achieve that goal Sunday if she wins for her Almost Famous role as Penny Lane, a groupie following a rock band.
  • Frances McDormand has also helthe Oscar in her hand when she won as lead actress for her 1996 role as the pregnant, small-town policewoman in Fargo. Her latest nomination came for playing the concerned mother of a teenage boy on a writing assignment with a touring rock band in Almost Famous.
  • Julie Walters earned her nomination as Mrs. Wilkinson, the persistent teacher of ballet to the seemingly talentless English boy in Billy Elliott. A favorite in British television and film, she achieved her first nomination as lead actress opposite Michael Caine in Educating Rita
Best Director

  • Steven Daldry, well known as a director in the London theater, made his film debut directing Billy Elliott, about an English boy determined to study ballet despite the scorn of his father and playmates. Daldry admitted he was surprised by the reception of the film: "When we were making it, we were just making it for ourselves. We had a script that was really fantastic and a group of actors with a chemistry that just started to happen."
  • Ang Lee was born in Taiwan and came to the United States in 1978, earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts at the University of Illinois and a master's from NYU. He returned to his childhood roots for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which has set the record for a foreign-language film in the United States. Asked about the reasons for its popularity, Lee commented: "It's a good movie-movie experience. I think audiences respond to a fantasy story in another setting, another period of time, with costumes and all that."

    Ridley Scott, whose films range from Alien and Blade Runnerto G.I. Janeand the current Hannibal, is nominated for the second time, for Gladiator. His earlier nomination was for 1991's Thelma and Louise. Gladiator star Russell Crowe has said about the film's awards and box office: "I'm really pleased for the movie and especially for Ridley, who has spent three decades at the cutting edge of films."

  • Steven Soderbergh has the rare distinction of having two of his films in the running for best direction: Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Soderbergh, who often serves as camera operator on his films, says: "I go where the material tells me to go. I don't feel that I have a style. I have a certain taste, I like a certain kind of performer, a certain kind of story. I'm listening to the material and figuring what kind of style would put this story across the best."

Written By BOB THOMAS ©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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