Twenty years ago, Ron Howard’s “A Beautiful Mind” won four Academy Awards including best picture, beating out “Gosford Park,” “In the Bedroom,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and “Moulin Rouge!”
But the biggest moments of the night belonged to Halle Berry (“Monster’s Ball”) and Denzel Washington (“Training Day”), marking the first and only time that both lead acting Oscars have gone to Black performers — a triumph that coincided with Washington presenting an honorary Oscar to Sidney Poitier, the first Black performer to win the lead actor trophy.
Times columnist Glenn Whipp and film critic Justin Chang sat down to reminisce about the impact of that memorable night and how the motion picture academy has — and mostly hasn’t — followed through on its promise.
JUSTIN CHANG: In a few key respects, Glenn, the 74th Oscars ceremony — held nearly 20 years ago on March 24, 2002 — holds up something of a cracked mirror to the 94th Oscars ceremony that’s nearly upon us. Back in 2002, Will Smith and Denzel Washington went head-to-head in the lead actor race; Washington won that round (for “Training Day”), and this time, Smith looks poised to win their rematch (for “King Richard”). Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench were both nominated in 2002, for “Moulin Rouge!” and “Iris,” respectively; they’re up again this year, this time for “Being the Ricardos” and “Belfast.” In 2002, the best picture Oscar went to “A Beautiful Mind,” a movie that’s generally less fondly remembered than some of its fellow nominees like “Moulin Rouge!,” a musical, and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first chapter of an ambitious long-form fantasy epic — maybe not quite that year’s equivalents of “West Side Story” and “Dune,” but close enough.
Beyond the winners and nominees, 2002 also marked the first Oscars ceremony to be held at Hollywood’s newly built Kodak Theatre (now redubbed the Dolby Theatre) after several years at the Shrine Auditorium and other venues. Now, after last year’s pandemic-downscaled ceremony at Union Station, the Oscars are heading back to the Dolby, with an expected return to the glitz and fanfare (there will be hosts!) of shows past.
There will be some differences, of course, chiefly related to length. Much angry ink has been spilled over the controversial decision to pre-tape the awards presentations in eight categories, removing them from the live broadcast, so as to bring the show in at a tight three hours. The 2002 ceremony, by contrast, stretched on to a downright tumescent four hours 23 minutes; I still remember the morning-after proclamations that it was the longest Oscars show in history, a record that holds to this day.
Needless to say, no categories were truncated or excised that year. And that was back before the Governors Awards had been shunted aside into their own ceremony, which meant that audiences at home and inside the Kodak got to see Arthur Hiller receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and Robert Redford and Poitier receive their honorary Oscars. Twenty years later, in the year of Poitier’s death, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a time when the academy knew how to show its artists, its artisans and its legends a modicum of respect.
WHIPP: I interviewed Washington not long ago. Prepping for it, I came across the speech he gave when he won the Oscar in 2002 for “Training Day.” Poitier had received his honorary award earlier in the evening, and he was on Washington’s mind. “Forty years I’ve been chasing Sidney; they finally give it to me and what do they do? They give it to him the same night.” The telecast cuts to Poitier and his family in the balcony, doubling over in laughter. “I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There is nothing I’d rather do, sir. Nothing I would rather do.”
This profoundly moving exchange defines what the Oscars should be about — honoring, remembering, linking. I asked Washington if he had planned to say that and he said, no, he was just feeling the moment. Today that moment wouldn’t happen because, as you noted, Justin, the honorary awards are no longer presented during the Oscars, but at an earlier, untelevised event. Yes, we see clips. But it is not live television. Great things happen in the moment. Dull things too. But when you remove the live aspect, you lose the electricity. And when you remove the awards, you lose the show’s purpose.
Washington holding his Oscar aloft toward Poitier, reciprocating the gesture Poitier had just made to him, is one of my all-time favorite Oscar moments. And it came just a few minutes after Berry won the lead actress Oscar for “Monster’s Ball.” There was no prior winner for Berry to chase; she was the first Black woman to win that Oscar. And you can see from her stunned, sobbing response — for a moment, you’re not sure if she’s going to be able to catch her breath to speak — that the moment isn’t lost on her. “This door tonight has been opened,” she said. Twenty years later, Berry remains the only Black woman to win the lead actress Oscar.
CHANG: Watching that extraordinarily moving speech again, it’s hard not to feel depressed — no, enraged — that, having opened just long enough for Berry to walk through it, that door seems to have slammed promptly shut again. In the 20 years since Berry’s historic win, only six Black performers have been nominated for lead actress: Gabourey Sidibe, Viola Davis, Quvenzhané Wallis, Ruth Negga, Cynthia Erivo and Andra Day. Davis, it’s worth noting, actually received two lead actress nominations, for “The Help” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” She won a supporting actress Oscar for her staggering performance as Rose Maxson in the 2016 movie “Fences,” which is 100% a lead role (and in fact won her the 2010 Tony for lead actress in a play). I like to think that had Davis campaigned for lead actress that year, she would have won; her work is that good, that undeniable.
Then again, maybe not. I’m hardly the first to point out that the academy seems perfectly happy to award supporting actor prizes to Black actors (and, on occasion, other actors of color), but still has a curiously tough time recognizing them as leads. If Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman had won last year for their lead performances in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” they would have been the first Black actors to win both top acting trophies on the same night since the Berry-Washington triumph of 2002. But they both lost — to two very worthy performances, admittedly, from Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand, but the symbolism of the academy’s double slight did not go unnoticed.
This year, Smith seems likely to become just the fifth Black man to win a lead actor Oscar, after Poitier, Washington, Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker. That’s still a lousy track record, even if Black men have obviously fared better than Black women in the lead category. There is no Black nominee in the lead actress category this year, which is a shame, considering the academy members could have nominated Tessa Thompson’s sublime performance in “Passing,” a grievously underloved movie about, incidentally, the indignities that Black women endure to be taken seriously — or simply treated as human — in a white man’s world.
And let’s not get started on all the Black women who failed to get the lead actress nominations they deserved in recent years, among them Lupita Nyong’o (“Us”), Alfre Woodard (“Clemency”), Véro Tshanda Beya (“Felicité”), Helena Howard (“Madeline’s Madeline”) and none other than one of this year’s three Oscar hosts: Regina Hall, so marvelous in 2018’s “Support the Girls.”
But I digress. Needless to say, the Oscars have not lived up to the promise of the Berry-Washington 2002 ticket. And as we shouldn’t forget, that ticket very nearly didn’t happen. Russell Crowe had all the lead-actor momentum for “A Beautiful Mind” that year, having won the Golden Globe, Critics’ Choice, SAG and BAFTA prizes, and looked set to become the first guy since Tom Hanks to win back-to-back lead acting Oscars. But then came his angry, widely publicized BAFTA-night tirade against BBC producer Malcolm Gerrie, and while we’ll never know for certain, it’s now widely believed that Crowe destroyed his own winning campaign, allowing the tide to turn against him and in Washington’s favor at the worst possible moment.
WHIPP: That self-inflicted wound — “it wasn’t a moment of violence; it was a moment of clarification,” Crowe said afterward — stood in contrast with the kind of damage that “A Beautiful Mind’s” competitors were trying to inflict on the film. This Oscar campaign season was just the absolute worst — its vicious backbiting has not been equaled. I remember talking to Ron Howard shortly before the ceremony, and he was just drained and exhausted from defending his movie. Then he won Oscars both as a director and a producer. Yay! But the party afterward felt more like … well … it wasn’t quite a wake. It was just relief, both that they won and that the whole damn thing was over.
I don’t know how much any of that ugliness is remembered. I don’t even know how much the film itself is remembered. “A Beautiful Mind” belongs to the class of best picture winners that few revisit — a list that would include a good half of the movies that have prevailed over the years.
The accusations leveled against “A Beautiful Mind” pertained to what Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman chose to include in their depiction of Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash’s battle with schizophrenia — and what they chose to leave out. Was Nash an anti-Semite? That was the charge leveled in the Drudge Report, just as final voting began, the latest and nastiest accusation in a smear campaign that started around the holidays. Was Harvey Weinstein behind it? I hear it originated elsewhere, from a Miramax alum now working for a competitor, the studio with the hobbit movie. But opinions vary. People saw enemies behind every corner.
While the controversy and the movie itself have faded, time has been kinder to other nominees. Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” remains an exhilarating spectacle of sound and vision. Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” stands as another expert ensemble piece from the master. And if someone needs an introduction to Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies, I’ll make some popcorn and watch “The Fellowship of the Ring” again … though, for me, it now takes a back seat to Jackson’s latest trilogy. Get back, Frodo.
CHANG: Well, now I’m envisioning crossover possibilities (“The Fellowship of the Ringo,” anyone?). As you note, Glenn, this was an awards season of near-unprecedented ugliness. (I still remember host Whoopi Goldberg quipping in her opening monologue: “I got an email today saying Frodo Baggins was an anti-Semite.”) “A Beautiful Mind” certainly didn’t deserve the ugliness thrown its way, though given its timid kid-gloves treatment of its real-life subject, neither did it deserve to avoid scrutiny. A better, bolder picture would have dared to explore Nash’s complicated sexuality, among other things, without fear of audience discomfort. It’s not a movie that I think ultimately has much respect or concern for its subject — or, in the end, for the audience’s intelligence. But if voters were ever going to reject it, they should have done so on the basis of its reductive storytelling and unremarkable filmmaking, not because of specious bad-faith accusations from the competition.
Still, what competition! It’s a shame that “A Beautiful Mind” beat out so many superior rivals, and under slightly different circumstances it might not have. While Howard’s Directors Guild Award gave both him and the film a major boost going into Oscar night, the other major precursor prizes were quite evenly split. The Producers Guild of America chose “Moulin Rouge!,” Luhrmann’s punch-drunk glitter explosion of a jukebox musical, a then-polarizing tour de force that now feels like more of a classic than ever. The Screen Actors Guild rightly awarded its ensemble prize to “Gosford Park,” which is probably the 2002 best picture nominee I return to most often, so elegant and nimble and endlessly pleasurable is Altman’s star-studded mashup of Agatha Christie and Jean Renoir.
The British Academy of Film and Television, meanwhile, gave best picture to “The Fellowship of the Ring” — the right choice, I think, and one I wish the academy had echoed. They would, of course, give the trilogy its due two years later with “The Return of the King’s” 11-award sweep, but the first installment of Jackson’s trilogy nonetheless had a fresh, vital, utterly transporting power that deserved to be acknowledged at the time; it was the most exhilarating piece of fantasy storytelling to hit the movies in years. And 2001 didn’t lack for fantasy efforts, including Chris Columbus’ comparatively lackluster “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (which scored just three Oscar nominations to “Fellowship’s” 13) and the charmless but popular “Shrek,” an inauspicious choice for the academy’s first-ever animated feature prize.
The one best picture nominee that didn’t stand a chance is the one we haven’t mentioned yet: “In the Bedroom,” Todd Field’s tense, harrowing New England drama of love and marriage, crime and punishment. Tom Wilkinson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei were duly recognized with acting nominations, though the movie itself, for all its emotional ferocity, hasn’t had much cultural staying power. Unlike, say, Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (completely ignored by the academy) and David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” (recognized with a lone directing nomination), whose reputations have only grown and grown with time; the prestigious 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll ranked them both among the top 30 greatest films of all time. 2001 was a damn good year, in other words — not that the Oscars would have necessarily told you why.
WHIPP: Which is a reason we love the Oscars, right? Every year, the academy gives us so much to talk — and complain — about. In that respect, it unites film lovers, the kind of people who don’t mind spending nearly 4 1/2 hours meandering through an awards show as long as it provides a handful of moments that remind us why we cherish cinema.
While there’s a whiff of self-congratulation there, this show did consistently remind viewers why movies matter and how film can pierce our hearts and make us smile.
It’s worth noting that this ceremony took place several months after 9/11 and opened with Tom Cruise taking the stage, asking if we should be celebrating the joy and magic that movies bring. He answered his own question: “Dare I say it, more than ever.” And while there’s a whiff of self-congratulation there, this show did consistently remind viewers why movies matter and how film can pierce our hearts and make us smile.
The high point came with a four-minute montage tribute to New York in the movies, assembled by beloved filmmaker (and quintessential New Yorker) Nora Ephron. It had everything — “On the Waterfront,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Ghostbusters,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Fame,” “Shaft,” “King Kong” and a couple dozen more movies that, taken together, captured the city and made you tear up, even if you had never been to New York. It could have run twice as long and no one would have complained — a lesson that the academy’s leadership should take to heart as it considers the future of the Oscars.
Read Justin Chang and Glenn Whipp’s picks for what films and which actors deserved to win Oscars back in 2002.