He may actually have a gold statuette on his mantelpiece, and therefore less to complain about than wholly unawarded contemporaries like Todd Haynes and Mike Leigh, but Ang Lee’s Oscar history is a curiously spotty and compromised one — repeatedly following a pattern of apparent goodwill on the industry’s part, followed by the Academy unceremoniously pulling the rug from under his feet.
Following two consecutive losses in the Best Foreign Language Film race in the mid-1990s — one of which, for the popular family-and-food drama “Eat Drink Man Woman,” qualified as a semi-surprise — the Taiwanese native returned the very next year with his English-language debut, “Sense and Sensibility.” It was a sufficient critical hit to emerge as a considerable Oscar favorite, landing Lee Best Director wins from the New York Critics’ Circle and the National Board of Review, plus his first DGA nod, only for its hopes to be swiftly and surprisingly dashed when the Academy nominated the Jane Austen adaptation for seven Oscars — none of them for Lee.
Undaunted, he returned to the Academy fold five years later with a far less obviously Oscar-friendly proposition, the Taiwanese martial arts epic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — the critical plaudits and unexpected commercial success of which carried it to 10 nominations, a record number for a foreign-language film, and Lee to his first DGA Award. With Golden Globe and BAFTA wins aiding his cause, the stage was perfectly set for Lee to make history by becoming the first person to win a Best Director Oscar for a foreign-language film — only for Steven Soderbergh to swoop in and take the prize in one of the Academy’s once-in-a-blue-moon disagreements with the Guild.
I hardly need to remind you what happened five years later, when Lee was once more nominated for the gay cowboy romance “Brokeback Mountain”: this time, the Academy did follow the DGA’s (and pretty much everyone else’s) lead by handing the director the Oscar, but dismayingly denied his film in the top category — again suggesting that, as much as they liked Lee’s work, they couldn’t quite go all the way with him.
However, between “Sense and Sensibility” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (and before the quiet failure of his ostensibly baity Civil War drama “Ride With the Devil”), came a less high-profile indignity that nonetheless ranks as the most egregious.
“The Ice Storm,” a 1997 adaptation of Rick Moody’s novel about upper-class familial erosion in the Nixon era, remains, for me, the best work of Lee’s career by some distance, and one of the great American films of its decade: sharp, sexy and porcelain-brittle, it cut through the genial humanism Lee had exercised in his previous, more popular films to reveal the coolly, even cruelly, meticulous stylist within.
Delineating the seemingly separate but unwittingly paralleled moral transgressions of two well-to-do Connecticut families over an ultimately tragic Thanksgiving holiday, it’s an atmospherically immaculate 1970s period piece that somehow seemed as keenly tuned into the social flux of Clinton’s America as Nixon’s, articulating modern family structures in which children have grown up too fast and parents haven’t grown up at all. Exquisitely filmed in minty, wind-slapped November grays and precisely performed by an ensemble of treasured not-quite-star actors, from old hands like Kevin Kline and Joan Allen to off-center young talents Christina Ricci and Tobey Maguire, who would, in many cases, never have quite so much to chew on again, it was a genuinely probing and unsettling film that nonetheless felt it had enough burnished weightiness and worthy relevance to be an Oscar player.
Things started promisingly: the film premiered (alongside future Oscar players “L.A. Confidential” and “The Sweet Hereafter”) at Cannes in the spring, where it was admiringly received by critics and landed the Best Screenplay award for producer-writer James Schamus. The film, backed by the then-fledgling Fox Searchlight Pictures, opened timeously at the end of October to further good reviews — but as the season’s gears began grinding, an early chill set in.
The film picked up a couple of encouraging precursor citations — notably a Golden Globe nod (and, later, a BAFTA win) for Sigourney Weaver, a WGA nod for Schamus and five top nominations from the astute London Critics’ Circle — but it became quickly apparent that the film was too reserved, too low-temperature for major Academy love, particularly with flashier critics’ darlings like “L.A. Confidential” and “Boogie Nights” hogging the alternative-vote conversation. Searchlight, meanwhile, was too young, and too distracted with sleeper-hit Britcom and eventual Best Picture nominee “The Full Monty,” to campaign as hard as they should have for their less likeable pet.
Still, if it was clear that this wasn’t Lee’s moment, the film still had reason to expect a stray mention or two on Oscar nomination morning: the overdue Weaver, at least, seem primed to collect a fourth career nod for her delicious, whip-wielding suburban vixen, while the film seemed exactly the kind of austerely witty screenwriting feat that the writers’ branch routinely stand up for when no one else will. And there was always the faint hope of a nod for Mark Friedberg’s extraordinary period-patchwork production design, or Frederick Elmes’s serenely autumnal lensing.
Alas, it was not to be, as the film scored a grand total of zero Academy Award nominations — yes, even Sigourney Weaver had to make way for surprise nominee Minnie Driver in the Best Supporting Actress race. A cold shoulder for a pretty frosty film, then, and not one that many industry observers particularly mourned at the time — particularly with cheerleaders of smaller contenders already intimidated by the Academy colossus that was “Titanic.” But as “The Ice Storm” has held on to its select but keen critical following, its ignoble Oscar donut looks like a curious blip, especially in light of its director’s later successes. I’d have handed the film a dozen Oscar nominations; I’d have settled for one.
Two years later, the Academy shook off their period prestige habit with another darkly comic study of warped suburban manners and mores as viewed through the prism of a dysfunctionally loveless family: “American Beauty” is a fine film, and still a pretty fresh choice of Best Picture winner, but it can’t equal Ang Lee’s 1997 masterpiece for psychological complexity or poetic formal assurance. I wonder if any members thought of the less beloved film when they cast their votes for Sam Mendes’s Oscar beast — probably not, but it reads like an apology anyway.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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