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Dear Oscar voters: Ignore the media's guilt trip, and may the best actor win

| Sunday, Feb. 24, 2002

Far be it from me to defend the Hollywood community, which isn't called La La Land for nothing.

But here we go again: The liberal press is sniffing out nefarious conspiracies in that arena of treachery, the Academy Awards — the bastion of what has become the most liberal community in the world.

The media coverage of Denzel Washington's Oscar nomination for "Training Day" already is laying so heavy a guilt trip on Motion Picture Academy voters that even if he wins, he'll have to wonder whether he deserved a second Oscar or whether members were browbeaten into voting for him.

Washington, as every moviegoer knows, or should, is a remarkable actor who, beyond his considerable skill and the laurels he has collected, has become one of the highest-paid performers in the film industry. He's nobody's idea of an underdog.

Someone who can't get herself cast in local, salary-free stage productions is an underdog. Washington is a humongous success story — heroic, handsome, rich, beloved by his family, immensely popular among his peers and almost annually in awards contention for one picture or another.

He won an Oscar for his supporting role in "Glory" (1989). He was nominated for a supporting role in "Cry Freedom" (1987) and for his leading performances in "Malcolm X" (1992) and "The Hurricane" (1999). And several other times, including "Philadelphia" (1993) and "Remember the Titans" (2000), he was in the chase until the field narrowed.

An eight-page Newsweek story chronicles the supposed ongoing snubbing of Washington, who allegedly lost the Oscar for "The Hurricane" because of (a.) racism or (b.) because "The Hurricane" glossed over its depiction of his character, real-life convict Rubin Carter or (c.) both.

In building its case that the academy owes Washington a second Oscar, Newsweek notes that "director Spike Lee will be watching this year's race with keen interest, since Washington's closest contender, Russell Crowe, is embroiled in a controversy over historical accuracy (the whitewashing of schizophrenic bisexual mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. in 'A Beautiful Mind') that's almost identical to the 'Hurricane' incident of two years ago."

Forgive me for forgetting, but whose idea of an objective observer is Lee• And when did the distribution of Oscars have anything to do with entitlement• And if they're so tainted by racism, why would anyone want one•

When did you last hear of Meryl Streep or Chazz Palminteri whining because they weren't even eligible, for racial reasons, for an Image Award nomination?

Washington's portrayal of a ferociously dirty cop in "Training Day" is, quite simply, sensational. By any yardstick, it was one of the outstanding performances of 2001. And not because Julia Roberts or Newsweek says so.

The 1,315 members of the academy's acting branch voted it among the five nominees on the slate. All 5,739 academy members will vote on the Oscar for best actor in the privacy of their homes. They have a right to vote their own heads and hearts.

What all of the pro-Washington rhetoric overlooks is fairness to the other four nominees.

It's no secret that the other front-runner is Crowe, who also has won once previously — last year, for "Gladiator."

Some are implying Washington should get a second one before Crowe gets a second one, and that Washington already should have at least two because he was robbed of one for "The Hurricane."

Excuse me, but this year's nominees include not only Crowe, but also Sean Penn for "I Am Sam," Will Smith for "Ali" and veteran stage actor Tom Wilkinson for a splendidly measured turn in "In the Bedroom," the most life-sized portrayal of the five.

If awards were distributed evenly, instead of by merit, Washington wouldn't even be in the running.

And how do you turn Washington's loss (or mere nomination) for "The Hurricane" into an injustice and a racial statistic without acknowledging the achievement of the chap who won, Kevin Spacey of "American Beauty," a much more nuanced performance in a better-written role?

Besides which, I'll go to my grave saying the performance that year was by also-ran Richard Farnsworth in "The Straight Story." And at the time, we didn't know Farnsworth would be dead a few months later. He didn't survive to have another juicy limelight in "Training Day" or anything else.

Awards should honor achievement — not friends or favorite co-stars. Nor should they be designed to offset stats assembled by chronic complainers.

WINNING FOR "WASN'T THERE"

Roger Deakins has won the annual Outstanding Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers for his work on the Coen Brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There."

The group cited him for "his artful rendering of black and white images in a relatively modest, character-driven story set in the mid-1940s."

It was Deakins' sixth nomination for the prize and his second win. He also won for "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994).

Deakins is up for an Oscar for "The Man Who Wasn't There," the only nomination the picture got.

ANYONE SEEN MARTY•

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Steven Weber being signed to replace Matthew Broderick in "The Producers" on Broadway starting March 19 (which is also when Henry Goodman succeeds Nathan Lane) is what it doesn't say.

For months it was rumored that Martin Short would inherit Broderick's role as Leo Bloom. The producers of "The Producers" really are eschewing names from now on — at least as long as the advance sale is pumped to the gills.

When the musical opened a year ago, the advance sale was $17 million. It reached an apex on $37 million after last June's Tony Awards. The show is sold out through the conclusion of the Lane-Broderick contracts March 17 and has an additional $25 million beyond that.

GETTING 'MARTY' CAST RIGHT

Once upon a time, there was to be a Broadway musical based on Paddy Chayefsky's "Marty," with a score and book by Charles Strouse, Lee Adams and Rupert Holmes, and it was to star Jason Alexander.

Great casting, right•

But the show needed re-tooling, and Alexander pulled out to topline a sitcom, "Bob Patterson," which died in about 15 minutes.

Rewrites were performed at later read-throughs by John C. Reilly ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia"). At last the show looks like a go. It will try out in one or two major cities before heading for Broadway.

Reilly is a strong actor, as evidenced by his work on Broadway last season opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman in "True West," in which they swapped roles after every three performances. And Reilly can project the requisite pathos.

Still, Alexander sounded ideal.

Rod Steiger did the May 24, 1953, live TV version, and Ernest Borgnine became an above-the-title star in the 1955 movie, for which he won an Oscar.

ONLY ONE MAN CAN

I will lose what's left of my feeble mind is even one more movie trailer, like the one for "The Benjamins," uses the cliche "Only one man can … "

Every superhero action film extant has exhausted that cornball cliche.

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