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At The Movies: The Year of the Ensemble

This is the first of an occasional series on Oscars 2007. With the release of the hilarious For Your Consideration, it’s a satiric shout out to the awards craziness that has reached an all-time peak. Awards madness has caught on like a parasite and threatens to choke the season itself. The image of a snake eating its own tail comes to mind.

I say this as the editor and main content provider of Oscarwatch.com, a site I started back in ’99 when no one was doing it. The more popular it got, the more other, bigger outlets saw the potential for drawing readers and, perhaps more importantly, lucrative Oscar campaign money.

Back in the day, it was a speculative process that had rules. We firmly believed in not predicting films without someone somewhere having seen them first, and we weren’t inclined to be “film advocates,” that is – push for any certain film over another. Objectivity is difficult, particularly with nice publicists offering perks to get some coverage for their film. Long story short, it has become complete madness.

The fun has mostly gone out of it, and no one thinks twice before setting up an Oscar movie as the frontrunner without ever having seen it. Even though last year’s casualty, Munich, could not survive under the heavy weight of awards speculation, and though it was eventually nominated for Best Picture, it was never going to be the winner.

Some of the season’s bigger movies like All the King’s Men and Flags of Our Fathers had to bear the weight of being the frontrunners. Now, the weight has been lifted and the race has taken off in another direction.

The best is Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, which has turned into the accidental frontrunner. It features the best acting of an ensemble perhaps not seen since Glengarry Glen Ross, which featured career turns by Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Jack Lemmon and of course, Alec Baldwin. The Departed has Jack Nicholson at the top of his game. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio go head to head – neither has ever been better. The supporting players, like Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone, are flawless. What stands out more than anything, though, is the writing. Scorsese, who has been long held up to impossible standards as the greatest American filmmaker never to have won an Oscar, didn’t have that pressure this time around, and as a result, he turned out one of his best films ever.

Capote, Brokeback Mountain, Ray and A Beautiful Mind are a few Best Picture nominees and winners that were driven by their lead performances. But with last year’s winner, Crash, the new trend seems to be individual storylines, with many different characters in well-written parts, converging to tell the story. Now, films like Babel, The Departed and Little Miss Sunshine all get their strength from the small moments the big stars play out. Most films that make it to Best Picture are ensembles, of course, often without any stars whatsoever. But usually films are carried off by a great performance at their center.

What this is doing for film and actors is remarkable; it isn’t necessarily important to be the lead anymore, or at least right now. Having a great part matters more, whether it’s small or large. And in fact, many supporting performances are overtaking the films they star in. Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada is a good example, and Jack Nicholson in The Departed. One film that is headed for Best Picture that is definitely driven by its lead performance is Stephen Frears’ The Queen, with Helen Mirren acting the hell out of it. Another film that’s anchored by a strong lead performance is Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, due out next month.

As for Oscar bloggers, and people who write on the Oscars, really, they should find something better to do with their time.

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