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May 15, 2021

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‘Gladiator’ was about to win the Oscar 20 years ago. What those awards foretold

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A month ahead of a 93rd Oscars ceremony that promises to be different from any Oscars ceremony in memory, we look back at the one that took place 20 years earlier. On March 25, 2001, three muscular dramas split most of the top prizes: Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” won four Oscars (including foreign language film), double nominee Steven Soderbergh was a surprise winner in the directing category for “Traffic,” and in the best picture race Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” was the last movie standing.

Los Angeles Times columnist Glenn Whipp and critic Justin Chang sat down to discuss how well those choices have aged and what they tell us about a motion picture academy that was just starting to mirror the growing internationalism of the movie industry.

CHANG: If I recall correctly, Glenn, no one was terribly surprised by “Gladiator’s” Oscar-night triumph 20 years ago, even though it was hardly a preordained outcome, statistically speaking. Going into the night, Scott’s stirring epic of ancient Rome had already won the top prize from the Producers Guild of America, which often bodes well for a best picture Oscar win. But it faced robust competition in the form of two very different critics’ darlings. “Traffic,” Steven Soderbergh’s jagged, Altman-esque deconstruction of the illegal drug trade, had won the Screen Actors Guild prize for best ensemble. And the Directors Guild of America gave its top honors to Ang Lee for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the Mandarin-language martial arts drama that had become an international sensation.

There were two other nominees (this was years before the academy expanded its top category to as many as 10 nominees). I remain fond of “Erin Brockovich,” that year’s other Soderbergh-directed drama (and the better of the two in my heretical opinion), and not at all fond of “Chocolat,” a fudge-stained relic of an era when Harvey Weinstein could muscle any film into the Oscar race (and, as we now know, was using his industry clout as cover for his serial crimes against women). Of course, there were many other worthier alternatives: beautifully handcrafted films like “Almost Famous” (which earned director Cameron Crowe an Oscar for writing) and Kenneth Lonergan’s debut feature, “You Can Count on Me”; thoughtful, literate dramas like “The House of Mirth,” Terence Davies’ adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, and “Wonder Boys,” based on Michael Chabon’s novel; and remarkable films from overseas as different as Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi,” Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail,” Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us” and, of course, Lars von Trier’s furiously divisive “Dancer in the Dark.”

But looking back at those three front-runners all these years later, it’s hard not to see them as a kind of Hollywood-at-a-crossroads snapshot, a collective vision of what the industry was already doing well and where it might be headed. “Gladiator” was a throwback to sword-and-sandal epics, made with newfangled digital technology but satisfyingly old-school in spirit. “Traffic” was a political thriller infused with the narrative ambition and social-realist vitality of 1970s moviemaking; it also prefigured any number of jittery we-are-the-world panoramas to come, like “Babel” and (gulp) “Crash” – a future best picture winner that makes “Gladiator” look like, well, “Ben-Hur.”

And then, of course, there was “Crouching Tiger,” for me the most exhilarating of that year’s five nominees and the one that has best stood the test of time. The runaway critical and commercial success of Lee’s movie presented the academy with a rare history-making opportunity: to look beyond its borders and give its top prize to a picture made in another country. It missed that opportunity, of course, as it had done a number of times already, and would do so again until last year, when “Parasite” finally shattered that particular ceiling. What a glorious milestone! And to watch “Crouching Tiger” again is to be reminded that it should have happened at least two decades sooner.

WHIPP: It should have happened. And any time some curmudgeon laments the academy’s efforts to diversify its ranks, complaining that the Oscars are no longer about quality but representation, I simply say, “‘Chocolat’ was nominated for best picture – in a field of five nominees.” What these cranks are mourning is that their point of view, their taste, though still dominant, is no longer so overwhelmingly dominant. Sound familiar, Justin?

What I remember most about the 73rd Oscars is the oppressive campaigning that tried to browbeat voters into thinking these movies – specifically “Gladiator” and “Chocolat” – were something more than silly trifles. It was the third straight year that DreamWorks and Miramax were locked in an epic war of egos, and like most sequels, this studio battle was a case study in diminishing returns. If you were to draw a graph line from “Shakespeare in Love” and “Saving Private Ryan” to “Chocolat” and “Gladiator,” the drop would be as precipitous as reaching the bottom of one of the roiling waves we endured that summer in “A Perfect Storm.”

Self-importance is baked into every awards season, but it may have reached its nadir here. “Chocolat” couldn’t simply be a nice little movie about the restorative powers of candy. Miramax marketers had to enlist Jesse Jackson to enlarge the film’s wisp of allegory into a sweeping statement about tolerance, finding parallels in “Chocolat” to the civil rights movement. It was about as subtle as the many, many decapitations in “Gladiator.”

After I wrote a story (or three) suggesting that “Chocolat” had no business in the Oscar conversation, Harvey Weinstein invited me to join him at a Westwood theater showing the film so I could see how much audiences loved it. The stunt went off as planned because “Chocolat” was a likable enough movie. Who doesn’t enjoy chocolate??? But that doesn’t mean it should have been nominated for best picture.

Two decades later, DreamWorks SKG is a shell of its former glory. Weinstein resides in prison, convicted of felony sexual assault and rape. And the motion picture academy is in a better place, having doubled the number of women and people from underrepresented ethnic and racial communities. Rerun the 2001 Oscars today, and they’d look a lot different on numerous levels, each and every one of them an improvement.

CHANG: What would they look like, I wonder, with the same films but a vastly more representative (and more discerning) academy membership? Something to ponder, and it may be instructive to look at this year’s unprecedentedly diverse Oscar nominations and see what lessons can be absorbed.

If and when Chloe Zhao wins best director for “Nomadland,” she’ll be the first woman to do so since Kathryn Bigelow 11 years ago – and the first woman of Asian descent to do so, period. Ridiculously, there were no women filmmakers up for best director 20 years ago, an oversight I’d address by suggesting any number of the following class-of-2000 standouts: Sofia Coppola for “The Virgin Suicides.” Claire Denis for “Beau Travail.” Mary Harron for “American Psycho.” Alison Maclean for “Jesus’ Son.” Gina Prince-Bythewood for “Love & Basketball.” Lynne Ramsay for “Ratcatcher” (named that year’s best film by no less perspicacious an authority than our former LA Times colleague Kenneth Turan). Naturally, such decisions would require voting members to look beyond the narrow parameters set by fall and winter release dates and the end-of-year, for-your-consideration blitzkrieg, but like I said: discernment.

What else? In a more equitable awards season, perhaps “Crouching Tiger” might have managed acting nominations for Michelle Yeoh and especially the phenomenal Zhang Ziyi. The fact that it didn’t says a lot about how Asians are typically perceived in the film industry: as skilled technicians and artisans (“Crouching Tiger” notably won Oscars for cinematographer Peter Pau, art director Tim Yip and composer Tan Dun) but not as distinct, emotive screen presences. Are we that hard to tell apart? As more than a few of us noted last year, as heartening as it was to see the academy fall for “Parasite,” it shopped short of nominating Song Kang Ho, Cho Yeo Jeong, Park So Dam or any of the film’s other brilliant performers.

Actors of Asian descent fared better than usual this year, as the well-deserved acting nominations for Yuh-Jung Youn and Steven Yeun (“Minari”) and Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) bear out. So maybe – to quote Bob Dylan, writer of the 2001 Oscar-winning original song for “Wonder Boys” – things have changed. But it sure took a long time. It all serves to reinforce your earlier point, Glenn, which is that the very white, very male academy of old sure made a lot of boneheaded decisions and had the nerve to pass them off as the decisions of a fully functioning meritocracy. What rubbish. And since I’ve probably lost a few readers already, I may as well ask: What true meritocracy would have overlooked Brian De Palma, who turned in one of the year’s most astounding pieces of direction with the criminally maligned “Mission to Mars”?

WHIPP: If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you’re trolling with your love for “Mission to Mars,” which I promise to watch again someday – perhaps with the sound muted – but I will give it a second chance. Until then, I was right there with you, wishing one of those women – particularly Coppola or Denis – would have been swapped in for … hmm … Stephen Daldry (“Billy Elliot”) or Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”), though the latter at least deserves points for creativity. Who knew there were so many different ways to shoot a beheading?

To note one other way things have changed: If Soderbergh made “Traffic” today, it would have been, like its source material, a limited series, and probably better for it. I don’t think you’re being a contrarian for preferring “Erin Brockovich,” Justin (though, again, that “Mission to Mars” endorsement gives me pause on that count). “Erin Brokovich” was a terrifically entertaining investigative drama that took its subject matter seriously but turned the genre inside out by putting Julia Roberts’ comic exuberance front and center.

“There is absolutely nothing in this movie for a film student to enjoy,” Soderbergh said at the time. “I love to think of the Columbia film students looking at it, going, ‘What happened to you?'”

Now that’s contrarian. And I love it. And I loved Soderbergh’s brief, humble acceptance speech, thanking “anyone who spends part of their day creating.” And I love that he directed Roberts’ greatest movie, a film that utilizes all of her range and talents – warmth, wit, energy and an empathetic understanding of the underdog. Viewing it again and then delighting in her giddy Oscar acceptance speech (“I love the world! I’m so happy!”) made me yearn for a reunion between the actress and director in a Julia Roberts Movie, the kind of star vehicle we took for granted during her heyday.

CHANG: It is funny to hear the once-recondite auteur behind “Kafka” and “Schizopolis” mock his own perceived sellout with “Erin Brockovich,” though if more filmmakers sold out with such generous audience dividends, Hollywood would be a happier place. It’s fascinating to look back at that amazing doubleheader year for Soderbergh, showing such casual-cool mastery of two entirely different genres, and to trace the exceedingly unpredictable arc of his career since then. He retired from the biz; he returned. He made low-budget curiosities like “Bubble” and dazzling entertainments like the “Ocean’s” films and “Magic Mike” – plus, let’s not forget “Contagion,” the great American pandemic thriller of the last decade.

Through it all, he’s remained one of the film industry’s most adaptive, inquisitive minds, always aware of the medium’s limitations but still fascinated by its untapped aesthetic and technological possibilities. His director win has held up well: A staggering career peak at the time, it suggested only the beginnings of what he could do. His closest competitors that year, Ridley Scott and Ang Lee, have both done extraordinary work since then, and Lee would go on to win two directing Oscars of his own (for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi”). But Soderbergh feels like the nimblest, most forward-looking artist of the three, and the one whose spirit seems most in sync with a movie industry that is always on the brink of disastrous, revivifying change.

There was a nice symmetry to the fact that Soderbergh directed two of that year’s four Oscar-winning performances: He introduced the world to a stunning talent in Benicio Del Toro (“Traffic”), and with Roberts, he showed us what one of our most beloved stars could do with the right role at the right moment. Roberts’ speech remains the night’s emotional high point; I still have her utterly exultant crow of laughter ringing in my ears. She was up against other great performances that year, especially from Ellen Burstyn (“Requiem for a Dream”) and Laura Linney (“You Can Count on Me”), but her victory felt like the best kind of industry coronation: inevitable but wholly deserved.

Which is not to say that Hollywood operates on sentiment alone. After all, most people were predicting Kate Hudson to win supporting actress for “Almost Famous” that night, 31 years after her mom, Goldie Hawn, won the same prize for “Cactus Flower.” But it wasn’t meant to be: Hudson lost, in a first-category-of-the-night upset, to Marcia Gay Harden’s tough, searing work in “Pollock” – a well deserved victory that took nearly everyone by surprise, but now feels like the only possible outcome.

WHIPP: There’s also a nice symmetry, at least as it relates to this conversation, to the fact that Soderbergh is producing the Oscars this year, two decades after his moment at the podium. And because he has continued to cultivate his curious mind – Soderbergh’s annual “seen, read” list, posted on his website, is impressive and a little infuriating (how does he find the time?!? ) – I’m hopeful that he won’t just put on an entertaining virtual ceremony, but also lead the way to re-imagining what an awards show, the awards show, can look like three decades into the 21st century.

But maybe that’s too big an ask, like demanding Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” to somehow save movie theaters and cinema and then complaining that this cerebral, time-bending film left us confused and exhausted. Nolan would show up at the Oscars the following year, netting an original screenplay nomination for his breakthrough, the arty and affecting noir “Memento.” He didn’t win. He has never won. And he won’t be attending this year since “Tenet” scored just two Oscar nominations, perhaps because (a) Nolan held it off the academy’s streaming platform and voters didn’t see it or (b) blockbuster spectacle doesn’t translate to the small screen. Or maybe he’s just confused and exhausted too, like the rest of us.

That’s this year’s history, though – one that we can revisit 20 years from now. (I just created a reminder on my phone.) Right now, we have a new set of Oscar nominees, and I’m hopeful the winners will hold up as well as the set from the 2000 ceremony. Their quality belies the notion, prevalent then, that 2000 was a mediocre year for movies. James Schamus, the “Crouching Tiger” co-writer and co-producer who’d go on to run Focus Features, had it right: “This was a bad year for crappy movies. The crappy movies really were so crappy that they kind of made a bigger splash in the sewage system of the world.”

But maybe things are always a little bit better when remembered. Or maybe I’m just feeling a little bit optimistic right now with the vaccines rolling out and life opening up again. To quote another wise soul: “I love the world! I’m so happy!”

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