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Oscar race takes a more independent track

New Hampshire hasn't cornered the market on politics today. A continent away, in a state governed by an actor, the campaign for the 76th annual Academy Awards is officially under way.

In past years, the race practically would be decided by now. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were notorious for marking their nomination ballots in step with every other awards groups' elections, especially the Golden Globes, which were handed out Sunday night by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Now, because of changes in the academy's voting schedule, Oscar voters didn't have the Golden Globes to pick around anymore. This morning's announcement of Academy Award nominees marks the first time that the Golden Globes were presented after the voting for Oscar finalists was closed.

(For a complete list of Academy Awards nominees, visit www.sptimes.com after 10 a.m. or see Wednesday's Page 2B.)

Since 1980, no fewer than 19 best picture Oscar winners previously won Golden Globes. Only twice in that period did the academy select a film that the Golden Globes didn't list among its finalists: Chariots of Fire (1981) and Gandhi (1982).

Similar influence can be noted throughout the acting, directing, screenplay, music and foreign language film awards. (The Golden Globes are limited to those categories, dodging the technical races that make the Oscar telecast so boring.)

Then academy voters had to consider whose shoulders they were peeking over for answers. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association has been characterized over the years as a glad-handing pack, many with dubious journalistic credentials. Members honored Pia Zadora as new star of the year in 1982 after her wealthy husband, Meshulam Riklis, treated them to a Las Vegas vacation. A decade later, they gave three prizes to Scent of a Woman after Universal Pictures courted members with a junket to meet star Al Pacino. A recent Trio channel documentary, Hollywood's Dirty Little Secret, included producer Michael Phillips' claim that Golden Globes officials promised an award for The Sting if he could persuade Robert Redford to attend the show. Redford didn't, and the film got only one nomination, for screenwriting, and didn't win.

A feeling of guilt by that association, plus a desire to curb the studios' marketing efforts by reducing the hype time, led Academy Awards officials to shorten its voting process by nearly a month. It might have been even shorter, if Golden Globes nominations weren't announced in mid December. Traditionally, the academy has considered films that open by Dec. 31 in New York and Los Angeles to be eligible for consideration.

Of course, the influence won't be completely lost. Sunday's results can still be considered by Oscar voters before their final ballots are due Feb. 24. The awards will be presented at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood on Feb. 29.

There weren't any major surprises among the Golden Globes winners. If anything, Sunday's awards merely confirmed what many observers have guessed for weeks.

No matter how many Golden Globe nominations Miramax bought for Cold Mountain (eight, the second-most ever), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King seems unstoppable this year. Peter Jackson's epic fantasy is three movies ganging up on every other film in the field, the conclusion of a trilogy that surpassed its predecessors.

But it will be interesting to compare Cold Mountain's initial popularity with Golden Globes voters with today's Oscar nominees. If Anthony Minghella's dreary saga got the same level of support from academy voters, that would suggest they were paying attention when the Golden Globes nominations were announced in December.

The support would diminish if they paid attention Sunday when Cold Mountain collected only one Golden Globe, for best supporting actress Renee Zellweger. And that one deserves an asterisk, considering that Zellweger is a certified favorite of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after winning three Golden Globes in four consecutive nominations.

It should be noted that the Golden Globes for lead acting are divided into two categories _ drama and comedy/musical _ but the supporting awards are not. Zellweger's win (plus the fact that many academy members thought she deserved an Oscar for Chicago last year) makes her a solid favorite in the Oscar competition.

Tim Robbins' Golden Globe for best supporting actor in Mystic River may have distanced him a bit from close Oscar contenders Alec Baldwin (The Cooler) and William H. Macy (Seabiscuit).

Even before their wins Sunday, the general consensus was that Diane Keaton (who won best actress in a comedy or musical for Something's Gotta Give) and Charlize Theron (best actress, drama, for Monster) were front-runners for this year's best actress Oscar. Same goes for Jackson among the directors and for Sean Penn (best actor, drama, for Mystic River) and Bill Murray (best actor, comedy or musical, for Lost in Translation) in the best actor Oscar race.

Sunday's awards probably helped Sofia Coppola's chances in the best original screenplay Oscar competition (if she is nominated, as expected). Her script for Lost in Translation was named the best of all screenplays at the Golden Globes, where one category covers both original and adapted works.

The foreign language film winner from Afghanistan, Osama, may have received a boost in that Oscar category against France's The Barbarian Invasions, the favorite of most film critics organizations. That is, if Osama, the story of a girl disguising herself as a boy to escape the Taliban, made Oscar's list of finalists.

Howard Shore's chances of winning an Oscar for his musical score for The Return of the King should be solidified by his Golden Globe, and the best song winner, Into the West from the same film, if Oscar-nominated, nudges ahead of the other contenders in a year of mostly forgettable movie songs.

But overall, Sunday's results probably wouldn't have made much difference to Oscar nominees even if academy members knew the results before their ballots were due. It wasn't a situation like 2002, when Halle Berry shocked everyone by winning a best actress Golden Globe for Monster's Ball, forcing Oscar voters to consider that small movie, which could have slipped past them like so many independent films. Berry wound up winning the Oscar, although Sissy Spacek had long been considered the odds-on favorite for In the Bedroom.

At times like those, it was nice to know academy members got the help they needed from the Golden Globes to make good decisions. The new Oscar timetable takes away the voters' most valuable crib sheet for nominations, but that may have urged them to become more informed of eligible films and think for themselves.

Only when that happens will the academy accomplish what it's trying to do, making the public consider the Golden Globes and all other pre-Oscar awards as merely primaries for the election that really counts.

Contact Steve Persall at persallsptimes.com.

Director Peter Jackson, second from right, poses with the cast and crew of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards. Jackson won the award for best director. Also shown, from left, producer Barrie Osborne, actor Dominic Monaghan, actor John Rhys-Davies, and actor Elijah Wood.

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