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Roth’s column three days ago, recognizing the Academy’s genius in awarding Kevin Kline’s performance in “A Fish Called Wanda” made me reflect on many of the great Oscar surprises since then.
Unfortunately, this process also made me realize that I’m usually not pleased when the Academy throws us a curveball. Indeed, since Kline’s extraordinary victory in 1988, there have been surprisingly few Oscar upsets I’ve found satisfying.
This is not to say there are not exceptions to this. Tilda Swinton becoming an Oscar winner for her utter intensity in “Michael Clayton,” for instance, will always remain a highlight of the 2007 show for me. The Academy’s recognizing the future classic status of “The Usual Suspects” by rewarding Kevin Spacey and Christopher McQuarrie is another finer moment. Three 6 Mafia’s joyous reaction to deservedly winning for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” will be something I’ll never forget.
Let's see, Rick Baker and David LeRoy Anderson’s meritorious makeup win for “Men in Black” put a smile on my face, especially as it prevented “Titanic” from a dozen statuettes. And who didn’t love the wonderful shock of Roman Polanski’s victory, or Adrien Brody’s pure joy, upon winning for “The Pianist” (even if I found Nicolas Cage and Daniel Day-Lewis equally deserving)?
To me, however, Steven Soderbergh’s triumph for “Traffic” in March of 2000 rises to the top. Eleven years ago, Soderbergh and Ridley Scott (who directed best Picture winner "Gladiator") were expected to come up short against Ang Lee’s directing of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Even though Soderbergh had virtually swept the critics’ awards, and was nominated for both “Traffic” and “Erin Brockovich,” after Lee’s Golden Globe and DGA wins, it seemed as though Soderbergh was destined to come up short.
At this point, let me state that I love Ang Lee. His “Brokeback Mountain” losing Best Picture is the epitome of an unpleasant Oscar surprise in my opinion, and I also cannot believe he was overlooked for “Sense & Sensibility.” But to me, “Traffic” was so well crafted, with appropriately different moods, and it never felt clichéd despite a premise (large ensembles demonstrating everyone’s interconnectedness) that was starting to be done to death. Most of that was due to Soderbergh.
While “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was beautifully directed, I had the minority opinion that it did not add up to the sum of its parts (I found it a bit boring) and Soderbergh was certainly my favorite of the nominated five. Ridley Scott’s work on “Gladiator” was good if slightly bloated, while I found nothing particularly accomplished about Soderbergh’s take on “Erin Brockovich” or Stephen Daldry’s handling of “Billy Elliot.” The desire not to see Soderbergh lose twice did give one an added desire to root for him.
On top of that, Soderbergh always seemed to me the sort of filmmaker who would never win an Oscar. Sure, he might end up like Gus Van Sant, Robert Altman or David Lynch, and get a few nods upon entering the semi-mainstream, and perhaps even become a lone director otherwise. But never did I think he’d actually win. I was so happy to see the Academy prove me wrong.
Then there was his speech. By announcing, “There are a lot of people to thank [so] rather than thank some of them publicly, I think I'll thank all of them privately,” he appeased the many Oscar viewers concerned by speeches that are tremendously important to the people mentioned in them, but hardly relevant to almost everyone watching the show. (I am not suggesting his approach should be adopted by everyone, but it was nice to see it adopted by someone.)
More importantly, however, he tipped his hat to the Academy and his fellow nominees by thanking anyone who spends part of their day creating, from media to books to painting. His statement “this world would be unliveable without art” seemed to be the reason we have the Oscars, and it was wonderful to see that recognized at the core of his acceptance speech.
Finally, there was that deep thrill that “Traffic” was going to pull off the Best Picture upset, having won all of its four nominations so far that night. Alas, it was not to be, as Michael Douglas, who had probably expected to present to “Gladiator” prior to Oscar night, was unable to read his film’s name. (The opposite situation occurred two years later where he presumably thought he could present to his wife’s film “Chicago” until “The Pianist” won Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, only to have “Chicago” win after all.)
In any event, from the perspective of deservedness, the thrill of seeing him with an Oscar in his hand, the opportunity to hear a great speech, and for creating suspense the night of the show, Steven Soderbergh is my favourite Oscar upset, indeed, my favorite Oscar win.
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