Oscar needs a spanking

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Last week's announcement of Academy Award nominations got me thinking: Now that it's a brand new century, what if we just did away with all those award ceremonies? This, I know, is not popular opinion. Audiences love award shows as much as all those million-dollar TV quizzes, and the Hollywood machine greedily covets the millions a major Oscar win can siphon.

Okay, so my suggestion will never fly, but please bear with me here. Yes, notable artistic achievements deserve recognition, though many awards given in film, TV, and music often don't go to the most deserving. Underlying the entire awards scam is the notion that great art is somehow quantitative and can be enumerated by rank. My favorite might be your yawn, and your best might be trash to me; the title "Best Picture" is more a basis for argument than an honor only one film should earn. But that's not the way it works.

There's something elementally human about naming The Best, even if we don't agree on what and/or who. But even when awards ostensibly start out rewarding art over commerce, they usually become part of the system. When it comes to awards for popular art, the Oscars remain the biggest, and probably for a lot of folks, also the best. In recent years, the Academy Awards have done a reasonable job of balancing commercial clout with genuine artistry, at least at the nomination phase. I'm not going to offer the usual analysis of "what it all means," which gets done to death within 24 hours after the announcement of the nominees. Besides, what I find far more significant than the artistic complexion of the awards or the undeserved inclusions and shameful oversights is the flawed nature of the notion and the process.

Perhaps to reflect more than one Best Picture, The Oscars should take a cue from The Emmys and delineate: Best Comedy, Best Drama. Then again, The Emmys dissed the best show on TV last year, The Sopranos, feeding my anti-award show sentiments. And I doubt Oscar would stand for being diffused, nor would the networks welcome an Academy Awards show that goes on any longer than it already does. On the Monday before the nomination announcements, I surfed into the oft-overhyped www.aint-it-cool-news.com, which boasted having the Academy's pre-nomination list of eight contenders in each category, to then be whittled down to five nominees (for the major awards). Even though ain't-it-cool's credibility on this scoop was shot by missing one of the Best Picture nominations -- The Cider House Rules -- seeing eight nominees seemed to make the process appear fairer and more open.

I'm also not going to handicap the final Oscars. But their best defense could be the following list of potential winners, if only because it proves just how creative and wonderful modern commercial American cinema can be. For Best Picture, the offbeat American Beauty. Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown) wins Best Actor for his weasly jazz guitarist, while Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) nabs Best Actress for playing a girl passing herself off as a man. Michael Clarke Duncan (The Green Mile), a hulking African American, takes Best Supporting Actor, while Samantha Morton (Sweet and Lowdown) is Best Supporting Actress without uttering a word. Former Beastie Boys video director Spike Jonze wins Best Director for his first film, the conceptually brilliant Being John Malkovich. Diversity, creativity, artistry, street credibility -- it's all there in this particular set of winners. Will it happen? Not a chance, I bet, though I'd love to be proven wrong. Yet the very fact that it could happen is significant. And maybe The Oscars are entering this new millennium with something still valid to say about the art of movies.

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