With the Academy Awards days away, film industry experts are betting that Clint Eastwood’s gut-wrenching boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby” will knock out its main rival, Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” an epic tale of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes.
Even though “The Aviator” leads the field of contenders with 11 nominations and is the sort of lavish presentation that Oscar voters love — think “Titanic” or “Gladiator” — Eastwood’s considerably smaller “Million Dollar Baby” could win on a points decision.
Time magazine critic Richard Schickel said Eastwood’s movie boasts “the most lovable, take-to-your-heart characters that you can imagine,” whereas “The Aviator” revolves around a “crazy person.”
Also nominated for best film are the road comedy “Sideways,” the Ray Charles biopic “Ray” and the Peter Pan drama “Finding Neverland.”
And then there’s the duel between the directors. Eastwood already has two Oscars, for directing and producing the 1992 Western “Unforgiven,” but he had the misfortune of competing in the same races for “Mystic River” last year against the popular hobbit fantasy “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which crushed everything in its path.
Scorsese has his own tale of woe. He has never won an Oscar, despite six other nominations — and would not share in the best picture prize for “Aviator” anyway since he was not a producer of the film. At each turn, Oscar voters passed over such dynamic Scorsese works as “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas.” Indeed, his own boxing movie, “Raging Bull,” was a surprise loser in the 1980 directing race to Robert Redford and “Ordinary People.”
Fairness is not necessarily an Oscar trait, and some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers have failed to win a director’s gold statuette, including Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles.
“Marty has made a marvelous film. I am very impressed by its epic scale and the way it depicts American madness, and Academy members respect that,” said Schickel, a friend of both Scorsese and Eastwood. “But they really love Clint’s movie, and in Oscar balloting, love trumps respect.”
This was the year the 62-year-old Scorsese was supposed to have his best shot in decades because he brought to the screen the kind of film that traditionally wins Oscars.
Hollywood loves epics, and it loves nostalgia, and “The Aviator” has plenty of both. Its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, picked up a nomination, as did supporting players Cate Blanchett and Alan Alda.
While “Aviator” is filmmaking on a grand scale, including two air crashes and the re-creation of the infamously collosal “Spruce Goose” aircraft, “Million Dollar Baby” is its near polar opposite — small in scale and as dramatic, touching and troublesome a story as one could find.
In fact, one of the debates raging about the film is whether critics should give away a key plot twist. Critics have kept mum, but some conservative groups have spilled the beans.
It also landed three acting nominations. Hilary Swank is considered the favorite for her lead role as a plucky female pugilist, as is Morgan Freeman for his supporting role as a gym manager and the story’s voice of reason.
Eastwood’s performance as crusty fight manager Frankie Dunn also won the Academy’s attention. The 74-year-old former Spaghetti western star has never won an actor’s award and is not likely to do so this year. The smart money is on Jamie Foxx for his magnetic portrayal in the title role of “Ray.”