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‘Rings’ could snap Oscar fantasy taboo

No other film seems able to challenge trilogy finale
/ Source: The Associated Press

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and its mythical creatures are poised to go where no fantasy film has gone before: The winner’s circle at the Academy Awards.

With a leading four Golden Globe trophies, the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy appears ready to steamroll its way to the best-picture Oscar.

Nominations come out Tuesday.

A box-office juggernaut heading toward $1 billion in ticket sales worldwide, “Return of the King” took the dramatic-picture prize at Sunday’s Globes, along with the best-director award for Jackson and the song and musical score honors.

Voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences historically have been reluctant to even nominate fantasy films, and nothing as otherworldly as “Return of the King” — with its epic battles among hobbits, wizards, elves and orcs — has been named best picture.

The first two “Lord of the Rings” flicks — 2001’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” and 2002’s “The Two Towers” — were nominated for the top Oscar but lost. The sense in Hollywood has been that Oscar voters might reserve their top prize for the final chapter.

Jackson himself has said the rousing finale is the best of the three films, but he sidestepped speculation that the Oscar momentum was with “Return of the King.”

“I don’t really want to think in such competitive terms,” Jackson said backstage at the Globes. “I’m a filmmaker. I’m very happy to entertain people and very happy to receive awards. I’m really just very happy to be a participant and turn up at the shows and see what happens.”

No other film appears to have support to challenge “Return of the King” at the Oscars. The Civil War saga “Cold Mountain” led the Globes with eight nominations but came away with just one win, and the film has not drawn the sort of widespread admiration that typically spells a best-picture prize.

Meantime, “Return of the King” has been embraced by critics and fans. Even the normally snooty New York Film Critics Circle chose the populist Tolkien finale as last year’s best movie.

Anti-fantasy bias?That all bodes well for the film’s chances at the Feb. 29 Oscar ceremony, even though the academy generally prefers more down-to-earth dramas or epics rooted in history.

“It’s one of the great mysteries of Hollywood that people in the business of make-believe don’t have a great appreciation for fantasy,” said Tom O’Neil, author of the book “Movie Awards.”

But with the Globe wins for “Return of the King,” Oscar voters “have just received permission to do what they’ve never done, to crown a fantasy film as best picture,” O’Neil said.

The Globes are one of the most accurate Oscar oracles, with 44 out of 60 of the previous winners for either best drama or musical-comedy going on to win the top Academy Award.

The Globes have a seven-year streak in which one of its best-picture honorees has won the top Academy Award, including “Shakespeare in Love,” “American Beauty,” “A Beautiful Mind” and last year’s Oscar champ “Chicago.”

Likewise, the Globes are an excellent forecast for how the top acting categories will shake out at the Oscars.

This time, Globe voters stuck with obvious favorites who have had the most critical buzz through awards season:

—Sean Penn as dramatic actor for “Mystic River,” in which he plays an ex-hoodlum who falls back on his violent roots to seek revenge over his daughter’s death.

—Charlize Theron as dramatic actress for her role as real-life prostitute-turned-serial-killer Aileen Wuornos in “Monster.”

—Bill Murray as best musical or comedy actor as a has-been movie star in a quirky friendship with a young American woman in Tokyo in “Lost in Translation,” which also took the Golden Globe for best musical or comedy and the screenplay prize for writer-director Sofia Coppola.

—Diane Keaton as best actress in a musical or comedy for “Something’s Gotta Give,” a comeback role that casts her as a 50-something romantic lead.

—Tim Robbins as supporting actor for “Mystic River,” playing a man traumatized by sexual abuse as a child and suspected of murder as an adult.

—Renee Zellweger as supporting actress for “Cold Mountain,” in which she co-stars as a salt-of-the-earth handywoman in the Confederate South.

A best-actress nominee the last two years for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Chicago,” Zellweger could earn her third-straight Oscar nomination Tuesday. Backstage Sunday night, Zellweger played it coy on whether her Globe win would boost her Oscar prospects.

“I have no idea, honestly,” Zellweger said. “When did you say that was happening?”

Did Penn harpoon own chances?Dramatic winners at the Globes generally have the inside track for the Oscars over their musical-comedy counterparts. That likely gives the edge to Penn and Theron in the lead-acting categories over Murray and Keaton.

Yet the aloof and elusive Murray endeared himself to Globe audiences with a wry acceptance speech in which he poked fun at his forgotten “brothers on the other side of the aisle, the dramatic actors.”

Meantime, the petulant Penn — often dismissive of Hollywood awards — was the only no-show among Globe acting winners, which could stick in academy voters’ minds and hurt his Oscar chances.

“Mystic River” director Clint Eastwood covered for Penn, accepting the award with awkward flippancy over his actor’s absence.

“I don’t look like Sean Penn, but I am,” Eastwood said. “Sean is terribly embarrassed he wasn’t here tonight, but he had family business up north. And he promised he’d be back next year to be a presenter of a best newcomer in comedy or drama.”