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OSCARS MYSTERY: Does 'Australia' = 'Out of Africa' or 'African Queen'?

November 20, 2008 |  7:04 pm

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Now that we Oscars gurus have actually seen "Australia," it's harder to size up its kudos prospects. Yes, it's good. It's another one of those big-hearted Baz Luhrmann pics that sends moviegoers like Oprah Winfrey into swoons of euphoria. Me too. I admit that I'm a sucker for great weepies — and this one's very, very good. But will Oscar voters consider it high art and nominate it for best picture? Or dismiss it as a pile of Cheez Whiz?

Just a few years ago voters gave the cold shoulder to another big, melodramatic, historical epic starring Nicole Kidman: "Cold Mountain." But I think that occurred because the old Miramax studio hadn't yet figured out how to campaign late releases after the Oscars ceremony moved up from March to February. Remember, the New Yorker magazine said "Cold Mountain" was even better than "Gone with the Wind"! Alas, it's remembered today as a flop because it wasn't nominated for best picture or director after being seen too late in 2003 by guild and academy members.

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"Australia's" best Oscar parallels are probably "Out of Africa" and "The African Queen." All three flicks are about uppity dames who arrive in primitive places where they get humbled by tough local chaps with whom they fall in love.

"Out of Africa" won seven Oscars, including best picture. "African Queen" was, surprisingly, snubbed in the top race! But at least Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart got nominated — and Bogie, of course, won.

"Out of Africa" and "The African Queen" have an edge on "Australia." Their scripts were adapted from esteemed books, which gave them snob appeal. "Australia" is an original creation meant to be a big, fluffy homage to the epic weepies of the past. That means that there's a deliberate cheesiness to "Australia" when scenes surrender utterly to unhinged melodrama. That's a big creative gamble to take in the cynical 21st century, but Baz Luhrmann pulls it off. But will Oscar voters punish the pic for that?

Of course, those kinds of flicks used to be nominated automatically in the past ("Giant," "A Passage to India") and many won ("The English Patient"), but things may be different nowadays. It's hard to say. Lots of big epics got snubbed recently ("Apocalypto," "Flags of Our Fathers," "3:10 to Yuma") despite getting good reviews. "Atonement" got in last year, but only halfway: director Joe Wright wasn't nommed.

Baz Luhrmann knows what that feels like. His "Moulin Rouge!" scored eight noms in 2001 and was considered a serious candidate for best picture (Roger Ebert predicted it would win), but Luhrmann wasn't nominated for helming! So that means that the academy owes this guy big time. However, the academy is ruled by macho old dudes who aren't the types of moviegoers who get giddy with the hope that Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman might drop their huffy reserves, hurl themselves against each other in the rain and drink in a big, passionate kiss that can make the woes of the world go away. "Australia" isn't just sappy. It's swimming, blissfully, in molasses.

How will film critics respond? Lots — those too-cool-for-the-room, cynical types — will crucify "Australia," of course. That may not matter, though. If it's successful at the box office, all will be forgiven by Oscar voters. However, its commercial success is a big question mark. It's an unabashed chick flick. Will guys go to see it if their girlfriends try to drag them? Maybe. It does have all those cowboys, horses and stuff. Does it even need guys to go? Another chick flick, "Sex and the City," defied prophesies of doom earlier this year and made $152 million in the U.S., $413 million worldwide.

If nothing else, "Australia" does have two strong things going for it. Big, effective weepies like this do great repeat business. Also, it's being released to theaters over Thanksgiving weekend. It has time to prove itself as a hit with moviegoers before Oscar voters ink their ballots.

Assuming "Australia" is a box-office hit and manages to whip up sufficient respect from key film critics, it then has an excellent chance to nab a best-pic nom. One thing that "Australia" has going for it in spades is The Rooting Factor. Remember, it doesn't matter if the vast majority of Oscar voters don't list "Australia" in their top five when ranking their choices for best picture. It just needs a lot of No. 1-ranked votes from a sizable minority and it's in. In olden days, there used to be enough sentimental slobs lurking quietly within the academy to prevail over the macho majority. Still?

Photos: 20th Century Fox, Universal Pictures, United Artists


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