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COMFORT AND JOY SAFETY RULED IN MANY WAYS AT THIS YEAR'S ACADEMY AWARDS.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

IF IT WALKS like a duck, the academy will quack.

Was there ever really any doubt that ``A Beautiful Mind'' was going to win the 74th annual Academy Awards' best-picture trophy? Super-serious, dramatic yet uplifting, well and slickly acted, and as bogus as the day is long, the troubled-genius formula was destined to appeal to academy voters' tastes more than the movie with the elves could ever have hoped to.

Also as inevitable as Halle Berry losing it when she won her historic best-actress Oscar was the academy making some effort to redress 73 years of American stupidity in this new, still potentially hopeful century. Contrary to popular prejudices, these voters do have consciences, which sometimes even coincide with sound aesthetic judgments. And if best actor Denzel Washington, that self-proclaimed second bird of the night, represents anything, it may be that quality work can finally fly over the color barrier for, let us pray, all time to come.

Maybe that wasn't so foreseeable. But it's been way, way too long in coming.

``Mind's'' other awards were to be expected. Everybody's always loved director Ron Howard, so that was an about-time no-brainer. And they loved Akiva Goldsman's very - oh let's be kind - inventive adapted screenplay, if only for cutting out all the really vexing parts of John Nash's story. And high fives to the academy for not letting ``Mind's'' one arguably upset loser, star Russell Crowe, bully them into giving him a second statuette in as many years.

It would have been sporting if they'd drawn the line at cruelty to Australians with the deserving ones like Crowe and self-promoting (but non-nominated) ``Moulin Rouge'' director Baz Luhrmann, though. If you saw any need to subject sure-to-lose nominee Nicole Kidman to her ex, Tom Cruise, who opened the show and ws featured romancing Penelope Cruz in the ``Vanilla Sky'' song clip, please let me know what it was.

Aside from that, it was not going to be a night of any major shocks. Even if Jennifer Connelly's ``Mind'' supporting-actress statuette was the most predictable of the big-contest outcomes, starting the game with a sure thing in that traditionally volatile category signaled that the trend this year was not going to be daring.

Even Jim Broadbent's well-earned, below-the-radar win for his moving, all-warts-and-heart work in ``Iris'' had a certain inevitability. With front-runners Ian McKellen and Ben Kingsley no doubt splitting many votes between them, the best supporting actor indeed took the day.

Hollywood loves wit, at least the kind that is easy to understand. That's why, if not exactly the most stellar writing nominated, Julian Fellowes' arch and epigram-laden ``Gosford Park'' script landed the original screenplay prize instead of the behaviorally gnarlier ``Royal Tenenbaums'' or harder to process ``Memento.''

Similarly, ``Shrek'' was generally deemed wittier than ``Monsters, Inc.,'' so the green ogre winning the first animated-feature Oscar seemed a done deal from the start. And even the most clueless voting members could tell that the organization would never regain its credibility had the words ``Academy Award winner 'Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius' '' been heard.

Of course, the words ``Academy Award winner 'Pearl Harbor,' '' even if only on a 50-50 in the measly sound-editing category, will be hard to justify as the years go by.

As most objective observers expected, ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'' claimed the big visual prizes. Nice for the Down Under special effects team. And nice for Andrew Lesnie, who won the cinematography award, that it isn't too hard to make New Zealand look good (need we mention that his four competitors did much more with less raw material?). And any makeup person who had to put that much hair on that many chins, scalps and feet has earned some kind of distinguished-service medal, but since Oscars are all the academy has ...

In the greatly deserved column: Pietro Scalia for his massive and immersive ``Black Hawk Down'' editing job, which was so powerfully intertwined with the winning sound team's shattering mix; the double nods to Catherine Martin for art direction and her multitudinous ``Moulin Rouge'' costumes (for all of its thundering sensory overload, the only truly clever aspects of that musical mishmash); and Danis Tanovic's absurd take on his native Bosnia's insane civil war, ``No Man's Land,'' coming closer than anything to making a relevant statement in this traumatic year by taking the foreign-language film designation.

As for the music categories, well, the academy does love to give people's lesser work the Big O after years of neglecting much better stuff they've done. So, congratulations, Howard Shore and Randy Newman; I've been wanting to say that to both of you for many, many years.

As noted above, conventional academy thinking can sometimes be a plus, and it was never more so than in some of the 74th's special presentations.

Despite his typical self-deprecations, the organization's favorite Gothamite, Woody Allen, was a sublime choice to introduce the film tribute to New York, as evidenced by his receiving the night's first standing ovation.

Honorary Oscar recipient Robert Redford's strong advocacy for freedom of expression in an evermore corporate, blandly generic moviemaking climate, was a necessary cry for the kind of bold choicemaking that most of last year's movies, and many of the night's choices for competitive awards, ignored.

And the Sidney Poitier honorary Oscar proved not to be a token gesture, thank God. And has anyone ever explained, with more authority, what can be right with the Hollywood establishment on the rare occasions when it heeds its better angels? If only the bold nature that helped Poitier break entertainment racial barriers many years ago can be revived by appreciating the artistic risks that Redford stumped for, maybe future Academy Awards will be as exciting as this year's model was so righteously comforting.

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Best-picture winner ``A Beautiful Mind,'' with Russell Crowe, hit all the right numbers with academy voters.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 25, 2002
Words:989
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